We Are All Populists Now

Or so the pundits would have you believe


To hear the media tell it, the presidential field has been possessed by the ghosts of William Jennings Bryan, Huey P. Long, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Andrew Sullivan's quick summary of Hillary Clinton's first campaign commercial was "populist and anti-Bush." The Boston Globe says her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, has "a populist message." Another Democrat, John Edwards, is called a populist so often he might as well add the word to his name. The New York Times reports that the Dems as a party are embracing "a full-throated populist critique." And it isn't just the Democrats. On the Republican side, The Politico declares, Mike Huckabee is "fusing social conservatism with economic populism." Ron Paul's views tend to be opposed to Huckabee's on social, economic, and foreign policy—i.e., on almost everything—but The New Centrist says Paul is a "paranoid populist" in both his prescriptions and his style. And Tom Tancredo is regularly dubbed a populist for his attacks on illegal immigrants and the elites he accuses of assisting them.

It's enough to make you wonder whether populism means anything at all anymore, beyond a vague willingness to align yourself with the common man. Real populism is angry, dangerous, and déclassé. When its tribunes take the stage, mainstream pundits titter and shake their heads, dropping words like "paranoid," "demagogue," and "not serious." Hillary Clinton can recite a few lines about the "invisible" masses, but that isn't enough to make her a populist, no more than an all-strings Muzak cover of "White Riot" is punk rock. Populism is Andrew Jackson's rowdy inaugural ball, with muddy-shoed drunks tromping through the White House, climbing out the windows, and downing wine and ice cream on the lawn. Jackson himself was alarmed at the ruckus and wound up sneaking away. But he managed to set it off, and that counts in his favor.

This wasn't just a matter of style. Jackson promised an extension of the Jeffersonian program: He called for expanding the franchise and taking on the institutions of concentrated power, from the federal bureaucracy to the central bank. The darker sides of his presidency bore traces of populism as well: His ability to appeal directly to the masses abetted his dictatorial style, and his hard line toward outsiders enabled his cruel Indian policies as well as his fights with the old elite. Later populists would cite him as a model. William Jennings Bryan invoked him in his famous Cross of Gold speech in 1896: "What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth."

Populism as a formal movement emerged at the end of the 19th century, as the rural advocates of the old Jefferson-Jackson ideal—a decentralized republic of independent producers, with widespread ownership of private property—confronted a new set of hostile corporate interests. The old Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, more so than Jefferson and Jackson themselves, had favored a limited government. The new Populists, angry not just at a government that awarded privileges to banks and railroads but at those banks and railroads themselves, were more willing to use the state to restrain private power. The People's Party platform of 1892 called for an income tax, nationalization of the railroads, and restrictions on immigration, among other interventions. Not everyone in the movement concurred, though. The prominent Populist Hamlin Garland took a more anti-statist stand, writing: "Laws pile upon laws, when the real reform is to abolish laws. Wipe out grants and special privileges." He favored a few new interventions in the economy, notably a land tax, but on balance wanted a radical reduction in government power. In America First!, his history of American isolationism, Bill Kauffman goes so far as to call him a libertarian.

From those mixed origins come the many populisms of today. The word has at least three broad meanings in a North American political context. I'll summarize them quickly, and then we can see if any of the candidates really match them. (I will ignore a fourth definition, created by a couple of political scientists in the late '70s, in which a populist is supposed to be someone who wants government restrictions on both economic and social liberties. Any definition of "populist" that includes Joe Lieberman and excludes Hamlin Garland is a definition that's sorely wanting.)

1. The people shall rule. In Democratic Promise and The Populist Moment, the leftist historian Lawrence Goodwyn tried to distinguish the "authentic" populist movement of the 1890s from the "shadow" populists. The former, in his telling, organized cooperatives and mobilized itself politically to create the conditions that would let those co-ops flower; it represented a grassroots "democratic culture." The latter favored traditional "hierarchical politics" and an alliance with the Democratic Party, and were easily seduced by Bryan's gimmicky free-silver crusade; they had "no institutional base, no collective identity, and no movement culture."

You don't have to buy Goodwyn's entire analysis—or his ideological stance—to recognize a meaningful distinction here. Raw, radical populism isn't about ordinary politics. It's a participatory movement rooted in local institutions, and it wants to shift power to those institutions. The nature of those institutions, and the means of that shift, would vary from one populist vision to another.

2. The people's tribune. Goodwyn's "shadow" populism belongs to another tradition. It's the province of a certain sort of leader—Jackson, Bryan, Long—who presents himself as a man of the people, able to enter the foreign wilderness of the government, battle the elites, and bring some goodies back to his constituents. Randy Newman summed up the pitch in "Kingfish," a ditty about Huey Long: "Who took on the Standard Oil men and whipped their ass/Just like he promised he'd do?/Ain't no Standard Oil men gonna run this state/Gonna be run by little folks like me and you." The rhetoric is anti-elitist, but power resides with the paternalistic leader, not the people who put him in office: "Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?/Who put up the hospital and built you schools?/Who looks after shit-kickers like you?/The Kingfish do."

Such figures are increasingly rare in U.S. politics, though they thrive in other fields. The media, for example, offer platforms for figures as different as Michael Moore, with his calculatedly schlubby style, and Bill O'Reilly, with his constant invocations of "the folks," to wage symbolic battles against the targets of populist resentment. It's rare for such figures to change anything, though, which limits their appeal. A few media populists do enter electoral politics, but they tend either to lose (see Kinky Friedman and Pat Buchanan) or to keep their focus on the media even after they have the reins of state in their hands (see Jesse Ventura and Pappy O'Daniel).

The other nesting ground for the modern people's tribune is the courtroom. If Huey Long were alive today, he might still be a trial lawyer, filling the late-night TV hours with pitches to take on your case, fight the big boys, and win. And if he makes some money for himself along the way, well, it's fine for the tribune to feather his nest as long as he makes sure you get your share. Ain't no Standard Oil men gonna deny you compensation for your neck injury/Call 1-800-TRY-HUEY.

3. The rhetorical style. And then we have the phony-baloney populists of today's presidential campaign. They like to present themselves as outsiders, and they like to complain about entrenched political interests—lobbyists, insurance companies, "liberal elites"—but they won't stray far from consensus politics. This is populism as a part-time style, the rhetorical equivalent of a hairdo. Its most egregious practitioners, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, have managed to paint themselves as outsiders even while occupying the Oval Office.

Are there any candidates whose populist instincts go deeper than this? Yes, a few. The first brand of populism is represented at least arguably by the maverick Democrat Mike Gravel, whose pet gimmick—a national ballot initiative—is aimed at bringing power directly to the people. The libertarian Republican Ron Paul might fit this category, too. His grassroots, volunteer-driven effort is the most participatory campaign in the field. And his plans to radically roll back the federal government is a Jeffersonian, anti-statist version of the populist campaign against concentrated power. Hamlin Garland would like him, though William Jennings Bryan probably wouldn't.

What about the second brand of populist, the people's tribune? Another maverick Democrat, Dennis Kucinich, might fit the bill, given his roots in Ohio's ethnic politics and his battles with the power companies during his stormy term as mayor of Cleveland. Tom Tancredo's crusade to deport every illegal immigrant—and to virtually halt legal immigration as well—mixes easily with resentment toward the Beltway elites who he says could close the borders if they wanted; there's an echo there of Jackson's Indian policy.

And then there's John Edwards, who has the advantage of being an honest-to-God trial lawyer. One anti-Edwards Democrat, Terry Michael of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, has wisecracked that Edwards presents himself as the "trial lawyer to the underclass." But while Edwards talks of "two Americas" and plays up (read: exaggerates) his allegedly humble origins, his style is ultimately more progressive than populist. When he tours America's poorer communities, his model is Bobby Kennedy promising to lift up the disadvantaged, not an angry People's Party man threatening to tear the system down.

Populism is one of the liveliest, least predictable threads in American politics. It is perpendicular to both the conventional left/right spectrum and the alternative libertarian/statist spectrum as well. At its best, it represents a radical challenge to stale ideas. At its ugliest, it's still a valuable reminder of the demons that haunt the country, and of conflicts the conventional politicians would leave to fester until they suddenly explode. A real rush of type-one or type-two populists into the race would mean a more raucous and open political debate. That's one option that will always be invisible in Hillary Clinton's ads.

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.