OXFORD, Ohio–Jesse Ventura was sworn in as governor of Minnesota this month in the most refreshingly declasse inauguration since 1829, when Andrew Jackson's supporters wheeled a giant cheese into Washington as part of the celebration.
What one account called "Ventura's two-week long Power Bar-and-blues-fueled inaugural marathon" included the former professional wrestler releasing a bald eagle in his hometown of Brooklyn Park. (Ventura shaves his head.)
There was also a concert for 14,000 featuring teen-age guitar phenom Jonny Lang and honky-tonk hero Delbert McClinton. Ventura loudly exclaimed "Hooya!" after delivering his first official address.
"We wanted to include as much of Minnesota as we could," explained the Gopher State's new first lady, Terry Ventura, before the festivities. "We want everyone to come the way they're most comfortable at a party–tux, tennis shoes or biker leather."
NOW THE PARTY'S over and it remains to be seen if Ventura can deliver on the promises of his campaign.
But whether he actually accomplishes anything legislatively during his tenure, he has already achieved this much: He has discombobulated members of elites who actually mistrust the "common people" for whom they claim to speak.
Voters apparently responded to Ventura's combination of centrist substance and blunt style. Ventura has pledged to return budget surpluses to taxpayers and improve public schools, and his most memorable TV ad featured a Ventura action figure beating the bejeezus out of an "Evil Special Interest Man" doll. Yet the elites are more likely to see Ventura as simply one more lamentable manipulation of Boobus americanus.
CONSIDER Ralph Nader, founder of the consumer group Public Citizen and an advocate of regulating virtually all economic activity in the name of social justice (save for that of the trial lawyers who so generously support his various operations).
Although Nader has long employed classic populist rhetoric that advocates giving power back to the "people," Ventura's triumph using similar language inspired fear and trembling in the self-styled consumer advocate.
Not without reason: Ventura taps into the feeling that Americans suffer not from too little state presence in their lives, but from too much.
"Government cannot be your parent," the governor told voters who complain they can't afford housing and insurance.
"There's too many laws altogether," he told Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal, a weekly political magazine.
In a January column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a weekly newspaper, Nader mused over the implications of Ventura's victory, one of which was wrestler Hulk Hogan's subsequent (and splendidly dadaist) announcement that he was considering running for president.
"Was farce replacing tragedy?" wondered Nader.
While one might assume that a purported outsider such as Nader would cheer a significant success by a third-party candidate, Nader instead warned darkly, "There are potential voters in this country who might respond to a rough-hewn, no-nonsense candidate….Campaign consultants have used Madison Avenue techniques to create the slick images that sell their candidates."
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.