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NEVER MIND that Ventura ran a shoestring operation and that "slick" captures neither his personality (his most popular campaign slogan was "You Can't Legislate Stupidity") nor his presentation. When an interviewer for USA Weekend, a Sunday newspaper supplement, characterized professional wrestling as "fake," Ventura replied, "What if I kicked the s–- out of you? Then I'm not a fake, am I?"
To Nader, Ventura's message of a more-limited government cannot adequately explain his success. Instead, the election drove home the point that "the real is already mixing with the unreal in Washington and Hollywood and on Madison Avenue." A situation that doubtless can be sorted out only by those select few not taken in by "slick images" of "rough-hewn, no-nonsense candidates." Like, say, Ralph Nader.
FOR HISTORIAN Michael Kazin of American University, Ventura's electoral success raises related concerns. In a widely reprinted December op-ed originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Kazin bemoaned the "thoughtless" application of the term "populist" to Ventura and other politicians who simply "challenge the conventional wisdom in the name of 'the people.'"
Kazin wrote of the late 1890s: "The original Populists made clear where they stood: The enemy was an ungodly 'money power,' composed of banks, big corporations and stock exchanges, which conspired to cheat hard-working, productive Americans out of what they had earned."
The Populists, he wrote, "demanded easier credit, state ownership of railroads, an end to injunctions against labor unions and a progressive income tax."
ONE CAN perhaps forgive Kazin, author of "The Populist Persuasion: An American History," for having an overly proprietary interest in the term populist.
Kazin disapprovingly quotes the new governor as saying his dream is that one day Minnesotans will say, "When Jesse Ventura was around, 'I didn't even notice the government.'"
He concludes that all Ventura "has in common with the original Populists is his talent for ridiculing the powers that be. Their...rebellion led to reforms that made America a more humane and egalitarian society. Unless Ventura finds a populist program to match his style, he might only provide his constituents with a few laughs during a long and brutal winter."
KAZIN IS of course right to note that Ventura's policy proposals hardly track along old-time Populist lines. Yet he misses the far more important point that at the end of the 20th century, "money power"–indeed, power in general–is far more concentrated in governmental hands than in corporate ones.
If populism is at all about articulating the fears of "hard-working, productive Americans," then Ventura is a fitting spokesman.
The people of Minnesota have far fewer reasons to resent, say, Maplewood-based 3M or the owners of Bloomington's Mall of America than they do the local, state and federal governments that combine to take between one-third and 40 percent of their income in the form of taxes.
Whether Jesse Ventura will have any sort of lasting impact on Minnesota or national politics remains to be seen. But his very election is a marker of the long road politics have traveled during the American Century–and an indicator that "the people" have once again gotten ahead of their supposed guides.