Most populists don't introduce themselves as such, but Lou Dobbs isn't an ordinary populist. He's a Ken doll kind of populist, a mainstream fellow who says, with all sincerity, "I am an independent populist," as if it's the title on his business card.
He wears the suit of a presidential candidate – dark and conservative – with a steel-blue tie and flag pin. He's moderate, not an old-school pulpit-pounding populist. He's more Peter Jennings than William Jennnings Bryan. And unlike Tim Eyman, you're never going to see this guy in a gorilla suit – he's a serious populist with a Harvard degree.
Oddest of all: Lou Dobbs says, "There's no one more critical of corporate American than I am." Which isn't true. There's Ralph Nader and Hugo Chavez, for starters. But Dobbs might be the most vocal and influential critic who gets his paycheck from a large corporation – CNN. That makes his populism a bit more interesting: Is he telling truth to power, or is he a big fat hypocrite?
Last night Dobbs, a former KING-TV reporter, was at Town Hall pushing his new book Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit, in which he makes the case that both political parties have failed and it's time for an uprising of the political middle. He's pro-union, tough on immigration, outsourcing, and globalization, wants to spend whatever it takes to get our schools whipped into shape, and fearful that American sovereignty is being eroded. (He hates the United Nations convention on the Law of the Sea.) His populism is a hybrid of policies promoted by John Edwards and Ron Paul – seasoned with a little Pat Buchanan-style nationalism.
Can American middle-class populism coalesce into a national force that can exceed Ross Perot's 1992 performance, which set a modern high watermark for such movements (20 million votes and nearly 20 percent of the popular vote)? Dobbs thinks so. He says he's not running himself, but he boldly "forecasts" that none of the candidates being put forward currently in either party will be president a year from now. "I think we're going to see an independent populist candidate emerge in the next few months." Why? Because there's a lack of enthusiasm for the contenders in both parties, and he senses "a broad populist spirit in this country." He offers no names.
Much as I'd like to believe him, a lack of enthusiasm didn't save us from Clinton and Dole in 1996, Bush and Gore in 2000, or Bush and Kerry in 2004. And populist spirit has a knack of turning into weary pragmatism once the major parties have put forward their choices. Unless someone can harness that spirit with the force of personality – and lots of cash – it's hard to imagine a prairie fire on the crabgrass frontier in 2008. But hey, with a recession looming, $9 trillion in debt, a war with Iran on the horizon, and boiling rage over illegal immigrants, Smokey the Bear might say the fire danger is "extreme." We can only hope.
Dobbs describes himself as an advocacy journalist – he's dumped the stance of faux neutrality favored in his profession outside of Fox. He's an editorialist, and last night he wasn't afraid to criticize some of Seattle's sacred corporate cows. He knocked Bill Gates for his push for foreign worker visas. Gates thinks we need them to stay competitive in the knowledge economy; Dobbs views the visas as a form of outsourcing – the imported workers, mainly fromm India, make lower wages than their American counterparts, and most are employed by foreign companies operating here.
And Dobbs scoffed at the very idea of a "knowledge economy," saying that what has actually happened is the largest "transfer of knowledge" overseas in our history. While the Europeans have unfairly but pragmatically retained their ability to manufacture planes with Airbus, Boeing has shipped our capacity overseas. We assemble Dreamliners, but we don't really make them. He thinks we ought to be investing in our own workers – pay them well and let the money "trickle up and to hell with trickle down!" he says.
Dobbs slaps his head and rolls his eyes – the idiocy of those who would sell us out confounds him. He cannot imagine that America lacks so much imagination and gumption that it would suffer 28 consecutive years of a Bush-Clinton dynasty (if Hillary were elected). The last 20 years has been bad enough.
To his credit, he is no fear-mongering populist. In answer to an 87-year-old woman who voiced fear for the future, Dobbs emphasized our ability to get things done fast. In the aftermath of Sputnik, he said, we mobilized and revolutionized our education system and put a man on the moon in just 11 years. The problems ahead are daunting, but Dobbs-style populism promotes shared sacrifice, stewardship, and "working on one another's behalf." It's a communitarian vision. Dobbs said he prefers a "wise country" to a "knowledge economy."
That style of populism brings to mind both Teddy Roosevelt progressivism and the politics of John Rankin Rogers, Washington state's only populist governor (elected in 1896), who once described himself as a "positive reactionary." It's a kinder, gentler populism, but underneath it's still mad as hell that we've wandered so far from the Constitution and basic common sense. Dobbs is using his corporate bully pulpit to spread the word.
It remains to be seen if anyone is listening besides his viewers.
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