In January, Jesse Ventura was sworn in as governor of Minnesota in the most refreshingly déclassé inauguration since 1829, when Andrew Jackson's supporters wheeled a giant cheese into Washington, D.C., 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, who shaves his head, releasing a bald eagle in his hometown of Brooklyn Park; a concert for 14,000 people featuring teenage guitar phenom Jonny Lang and honky-tonk hero Delbert McClinton; and Ventura loudly exclaiming "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. "We want[ed] everyone to come the way they're most comfortable at a party--tux, tennis shoes, or biker leather."
Now, of course, 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 elitists who mistrust and misunderstand the "common people" for whom they often claim to speak.
While voters apparently responded to a combination of rather centrist substance (Ventura has pledged to return budget surpluses to taxpayers and improve public schools) and blunt style (his most memorable TV ad featured a Ventura action figure beating the bejeezus out of an "Evil Special Interest Man" doll), such analysts see simply one more lamentable manipulation of Boobus americanus.
Consider Ralph Nader, founder of Public Citizen and an advocate of regulating virtually all economic activity (save for that of the trial lawyers who so generously support his various operations) in the name of social justice. Although Nader has long employed classic populist rhetoric by claiming to give power back to the "people," Ventura's triumph using similar language inspired mostly fear and trembling in the self-styled consumer advocate.
In a January column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, 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 self-styled outsider such as Nader would at least cheer a significant success by any 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 shoe-string operation and that "slick" does not quite capture his personality (his most popular campaign slogan was "You Can't Legislate Stupidity") or his presentation (when a USA Weekend interviewer characterized professional wrestling as "fake," Ventura replied, "What if I kicked the shit out of you? Then I'm not a fake, am I?").
Nader's negative reaction is 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 has told voters who complain they can't afford housing and insurance. "There's too many laws altogether,'' he told Jonathan Rauch of National Journal.
But for Nader, Ventura's message of a more limited government cannot adequately explain his success. Instead, the election drives home the point that "the real is already mixing with the unreal in Washington and Hollywood and on Madison Avenue"--a situation which, doubtless, can be sorted out only by those few people not likely to be taken in by the "slick images" of "rough-hewn, no-nonsense candidate[s]."
For American University historian Michael Kazin, Ventura's electoral success raises related but slightly different concerns. In a widely reprinted December op-ed that was 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.'"
In the late 1890s, Kazin wrote, "the original Populists made clear where they stood: The enemy was an ungodly `money power,' composed of banks, big corporations and stock exchanges, that conspired to cheat hard-working, productive Americans out of what they had earned….[The Populists] 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 proprietary interest in the term populist.)
Kazin disapprovingly quotes the governor as saying his dream is that Minnesotans will say, "When Jesse Ventura was around, `I didn't even notice the government.'" All Ventura "has in common with the original Populists," concludes Kazin, "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. And 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 government hands than in corporate ones. If populism is at all about articulating fears of "hard-working, productive Americans," then Ventura is a fitting spokesman.
The people of Minnesota--and the rest of the United States--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 levy all sorts of regulations on them and combine to take between one-third and two-fifths of their income in the form of taxes. (It's worth pointing out that one reason governments hold so much power is the success of Populist ideas in previous times.)
To be sure, it's too early to tell whether Jesse Ventura will have any sort of lasting impact on Minnesota or national politics. But his very election is a marker of the long road politics has traveled during the American Century--and an indicator that "the people" have once again gotten ahead of their supposed guides.