With all the rage at Wall Street and AIG pirates (not to mention Somali ones), it's natural that people would be expecting that these times are fertile grounds for the revival of populism. The press looked for populism's comeback during the 2008 campaign, but it failed to materialize in any significant way.
Sure there were echoes of populist rhetoric, but nothing that caught fire. Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama were aspirational candidates, more about uplift for women and minorities than the down-trodden per se. Late in the campaign, John McCain bizarrely morphed into a fire-breathing man-of-the-people railing against Wall Street greed and packin' an armed side-kick from Wasilla, Alaska, but few bought it. Mike Huckabee had campaign buttons featuring him with his imaginary running mate, the 148-yer-old William Jennings Bryan. John Edwards tried to forge a kind of progressive populist message early on, but he was undercut by $400 hairdos, a new mansion, and a mistress.
The media is still looking for a prairie fire, but there's barely a smolder, even though all the ingredients seem to be there: greedy bankers, foreclosures, unemployment lines. Yet the polls show most people are positive so far about Obama's handling of affairs (71 percent find him credible on the economy) and they're optimistic. There's anger, yes, but it's situational, not class driven. There is more a mood of come-together-and-conquer rather than divide.
At Real Clear Politics, David Paul Kuhn writes that populism now is barely popular, and pretty thin. The eat-the-rich mood was much stronger during the Great Depression. "Gallup indeed found in 1936 that four out of 10 people believed 'the government should limit the size of private fortunes, for all Americans,'" Kuhn writes. "Today, solely for companies saved by tax dollars, it's controversial to merely demand executives don't get bonuses." Today's masses want their IRA's back and a system that's policed for fairness. The lust for banker blood seems limited to demanding a modest paycuts for entrenched kleptocrats.
The "populist" anger there is seems to be coming from Wall Street's enablers, not its critics. It's the cable business network pundits who are brandishing pitchforks. It's the right that's throwing "tea parties" in protest against the oppression of bond brokers and derivatives dealers. What's at risk is the free market jungle, and its enemies are regulation, reform, and international socialism. Time to strike a blow for financial Darwinism (as long as we don't teach actual Darwinism in schools)! This is something new: pinstripe populism clad in grievance and Brooks Brothers.
To fan the faux populist flames, some have tried to conflate all enemies into a single evil movement. The cheerleader is Fox News's Glenn Beck, who is boosting his TV ratings with nightly rants calling everything "fascism." The "f" word was much bandied about by liberals during the George W. Bush era, and the case was better as America tortured, invaded, and eavesdropped in the name of freedom. Now right-winger Beck fancies himself a latter-day Paul Revere warning us that in the Obama era, "fascism is coming!"
Beck's world view does share with some incarnations of populism a distinct paranoia — his diatribes come complete with screen-filling images of Nazi swastikas and jackboots on the march and dire warnings that Obama is selling us out to the international socialists. But his critique is mostly incoherent, as if someone dropped the tray of right-wing refrigerator magnets. Lyndon Larouche makes more sense.
Beck looks to history and asks who stood up to the creeping fascism of the New Deal? He answers, "Henry Ford." That's Henry Ford, the anti-semitic Nazi sympathizer who helped the real fascists. Oh yes, and Teddy Roosevelt, the icon of progressive Republicanism, he was a proto-fascist. And Beck reminds us that some liberals (like Will Rogers) once liked Mussolini! Oh, and did you know the symbol of fascism, the ancient Roman fasces, appeared on the tail side of old U.S. Mercury dime! That revelation rated TV time because the Illuminati had already been outed for co-opting the backside of the dollar bill.
If Beck's paranoia slides toward the paranormal, it also serves a purpose. It mainstreams radical right wing thought. What was once a conversation among neo-Nazis and John Birchers is now fodder for prime time television. No one tracks and deconstructs this better than Seattle's Dave Neiwert (briefly a Crosscut staffer) who devotes himself to documenting how right-wing fringe talk increasingly molds mainstream conservative opinion. He has a new book out on the subject (which I have not yet read), The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right. He's long been warning of the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism by the likes of Beck and Rush Limbaugh who promote what Neiwert calls "pseudo fascism," a softer and less violent but still pernicious form.
While many people are convinced such jokers will never be taken seriously, they actually are. Limbaugh's power to make the GOP mainstream bow and scrape is an example of real power to shape the debate. While the ideas aren't populist per se, they tap into fears, even legitimate ones, about the over-reach of government. The problem is, they often give such skepticism a bad name. There even might be legit reasons to be paranoid (any liberal who lived through the Bush era should understand), but they're not built on Glenn Beck claims that Teddy Roosevelt, one of two Republicans on Mount Rushmore, was a goose-stepper for having mainstreamed a few populist reforms to tame the robber barons. Are we also to believe that Abe Lincoln was Hitler in a stovepipe hat?
For Obama, there is one wise approach to populist anger. In his piece "Populism and Paranoia" in The New Yorker, George Packer riffs on the populist "pathology" Glenn Beck exhibits, the type described in Richard Hofstadter'ês The Paranoid Style in American Politics. "The modern American right, which is congenitally vulnerable to paranoia, gives into its own tendencies most readily when Democrats are in power and its own sense of dispossession is greatest," Packer writes. This is what comedian Jon Stewart meant when he told Republicans recently that they had confused tyranny for simply losing.
But Packer argues that Obama should not tune out populist angst entirely. In fact, he can turn it to good use:
Obama is a liberal, and liberalism can't afford to be deaf to populism, or it ends up in the graveyard where the campaigns of McGovern and Dukakis are buried. Nor can liberalism, which seeks to strengthen institutions of governance, afford to be driven by populism's destructive side. Thus, Obama's recent comment that he wants not to clamp down the public's anger, but to "channel" it (he didn't add: "so it doesn'êt destroy my presidency"). It takes the political skill of a [Franklin] Roosevelt to uphold the liberal value of rational governance in the midst of a populist storm.
The storm hasn't arrived, but there are certainly examples of old-school populism being channeled constructively. Teddy Roosevelt did this, for one. In the Northwest, Washington state's only populist governor, John Rankin Rogers (elected in 1896), spearheaded the movement to usher in all kinds of reforms: direct election of state officers and senators, equal education for rural students, the initiative and referendum process, women's suffrage, taking on the railroads, land reform. Rogers and other rebels shaped what later became the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Populism need not only be paranoid and angry, but can be a positive force for democratic (small d) change.
In other words, ask not what populism can do for you, but what can populism do for your country?
But there's little that can be done with the looney faux populist critique of Glenn Beck except, as Neiwert does, read its tea leaves. For what was on the extreme fringe yesterday is on Fox today, and in the mouths of some Republican leaders tomorrow.