The unpopularity of populism

This year, presidential candidates who embraced issues like class warfare, corporate greed, and monetary reform have done poorly. Populism seems to have lost its pop.
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A Ron Paul sign at the off-ramp of Interstate 5 at Northeast 65th Street in Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

This year, presidential candidates who embraced issues like class warfare, corporate greed, and monetary reform have done poorly. Populism seems to have lost its pop.

The 2008 presidential race has seen both an unusual array of populist candidates in the major parties and a surprising rejection of their messages. In this cycle, populism has no mo, and no mojo.

Candidates who have embraced various aspects of the traditional populist amalgam – class warfare, corporate greed, fundamental monetary reform, and general antiestablishmentarianism – have tanked.

John Edwards is the first casualty, dropping out of the race after failing to win one primary, not even in Iowa where he railed about corporate greed and promised to fight the big boys every day. Populist messages are always dissed by the establishment, but in Edwards' case he was criticized for promoting "class warfare" (George Will ridiculously compared him to Leon Trotsky) and being a hypocrite: What kind of populist gets $400 Beverly Hills hairdos and lives in a mansion?

True populists are grittier. Think George Wallace, Fred Harris, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Ross Perot, even Jesse Ventura. Mike Huckabee fits the mold better – his Christian evangelism, his preacher's folksy humor, his suspicion of corporate interests, his Arkansas roots. Even the fact that he isn't a pretty boy but a former fat man slimmed down, yet with the dark, jowly look of a Richard Nixon (albeit a nicer Nixon). But his cloth-coat, anti-Wall Street conservatism would make him person non grata in either major party. Huckabee has said of people elected to office: "They are not elected to the ruling class but to the servant class." I don't think many in Washington, D.C., have gotten that memo. It was probably round-filed by the lobbyists in the foyer before the butler ever had a chance to deliver it.

Ron Paul's candidacy is even more out of step with his own party. The former Libertarian candidate, in fact, seems like he would be more comfortable back in the Libertarian party where he could be a freewheeling insurgent. He definitely has populist appeal to the Internet masses, and his belief in fundamental changes in the monetary system – he hates the Fed, wants to go back to the gold standard – resonates of 19th century debates (though turn-of-the-20th-century populists favored free silver and hated that old "cross of gold"). Nevertheless, as the primaries continue, Paul is fading into the single digits.

One thing interesting about today's populists is that red meat around race, immigration, and nativism is mostly missing. No major candidate is standing at the border waving a musket like Pat Buchanan – Huckabee has, in fact, drawn fire for coddling the children of illegal immigrants. Paul has distanced himself from race war rhetoric that used to pollute the pages of his newsletter. Edwards' protectionism seems half-hearted.

So why has populism fallen flat in 2008? Despite fears of recession, war, and immigration angst, there seems to be a lack of the anger and fear that fuel populist movements. After eight years of Bush, voters seem drawn to competence first, but also they are willing to risk a twist – a black, a woman, a Mormon, a maverick – as long as they don't seem like real boat-rockers. Spirit boosters, perhaps. People seem to want a change in tone, not an uprising.

On the progressive side, voters are drawn to the Kennedy-esque, unifying appeal of Obama or the ultra-experienced, tough-as-nails competence of Clinton. In either case, both are very establishment-style candidates who work across party lines.

On the conservative side, the choice is between maverick John McCain, a mainstream Republican with appeal to independent voters because of his willingness to buck the party line, and Mitt Romney, who looks like the Ken doll version of a president. McCain has experience in war, Romney is a businessman who has worked effectively as the governor of a liberal state. Both can make a good case accusing the other of having held some liberal positions.

So bipartisanship and blurred borders between left and right seem to be in: We can all embrace JFK and Ronald Reagan. The only other insurgency in the offing is the possible candidacy of independent New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not a populist but a mainstream politician who promotes bipartisanship – hardly the platform of a fire-breather.

Populism is constantly morphing; It is a current, not the mainstream. It comes and goes throughout our political history. It's sometimes a cult of personality. It's rarely in the driver's seat, and if it is, it's not long before it gets its licensed pulled. Its coalitions are almost always unlikely and unstable. These days, populism works best through the old reforms that populism brought into being a century ago, the initiative and the referendum. People don't necessarily trust populists to govern, but in places like Washington, California, Oregon, and Colorado, they don't mind situational insurgencies that hamstring the powerful.

Unless something alters the mood, populism's not going to get much of a speaking part on the national stage, but its low-level insurgency in the states will continue to shape local political playing fields.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.