It began on the fringes a few years ago, with the Tea Party. Then came the smart, motley crews of Occupy Wall Street. The following summer, then-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren used her Democratic National Convention keynote to talk about hard-working people up against a system that’s rigged against them. Glimmers all — until this season of primaries and midterms and a looming presidential campaign.
Get out your pitchforks, everyone, because populism is back. From left to right, American politicians are picking up a populist mantle that’s been stuffed in a closet for about 100 years. Senator Warren’s crusading about it on book tour; the enraptured crowds want her to run for president. In June, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was soundly defeated in a primary by Tea Party member David Brat, an economist who spent his campaign talking about how bankers should’ve gone to jail after the 2008 financial crisis. Last week, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan jumped in with an anti-poverty plan whose raison d’etre could have been cribbed from Warren’s book: “Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.”
Populism has become a meme.
That’s American populism’s message, in a nutshell: business and government are in cahoots, and they’re screwing over the common man. It made its first dramatic appearance in the late 1800s, when leaders like William Jennings Bryan channeled farmers’ anger against Eastern elites. (The pitchfork as populist symbol comes from its origins as a peasant movement.) Teddy Roosevelt, running under the banner of the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party in 1912 campaigned to “dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.”
While populism never disappeared from the American stage, it’s played mostly bit parts since then: Think Ross Perot, or John Edward’s “Two Americas.” The new populists are more mainstream. They’re out to avenge avenge crony capitalism and special interests. Moral outrage is their fuel.
“Populism has become a meme,” says Roger Hickey, who co-directs the progressive Campaign for America’s Future. In May, it convened the New Populism Conference, featuring speakers like Warren and other Democrats, like Senators Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown.
But the new populism isn’t just a progressive phenomenon. Republicans had their own awakening after Mitt Romney’s defeat, which showed the GOP that the “47 percenters” he privately disparaged as moochers were voters, too. It’s just what American Enterprise Institute scholar Tim Carney has been waiting for. “I’ve been saying for a while that to defend free enterprise, you have to fight crony capitalism,” he says. “And now Republicans are saying that, and they’re saying let’s advance policies that actually help regular people. It’s a new thing for Republicans to say.”
The pundits are debating whether the new populism has staying power, especially beyond the midterms, or whether it’s just lip service intended to coddle America’s anxious middle class. Even if their dislike of crony capitalism is genuine, Republicans face a serious rift in their own party, between establishment, Chamber-of-Commerce types and insurgent moralists like Ryan. Democrats have their own big-business issues — in 2008, Barack Obama raked in more Wall Street money than John McCain — and the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is as liberal-elite as they get.
The new populists differ on who was corrupted and who did the corrupting.
Still whatever its fate, the new populism sets out interesting possibilities. Among them: the prospect of a conservative-progressive alliance on certain issues. After all, left or right, the new populists share a common enemy in the unholy alliance between big business and big government.
That’s what Ralph Nader thinks, anyway. You remember him, right? The 80-year-old consumer-rights crusader and onetime Green Party presidential candidate just published a book called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. It calls for the left and right to play nice together in the interest of toppling crony capitalism.
Observers say there’s room for populist alliances on some issues, like military spending, net neutrality and job creation measures. But deep ideological rifts between the parties would prevent broad-based cooperation. Left and right agree that big business and government are in bed together, sure, and that they shouldn’t be. Where they differ is on the matter of who was corrupted and who did the corrupting.
In the right-wing version of populism, government corrupted free enterprise. For those on the left, big business and capital corrupted government. The remedies in each case are different. Those on the right pare back government regulation of business, while those on the left would regulate more.
The upshot? Instead of joining together in a bipartisan crusade for the little guy against elite interests, Republicans and Democrats will continue doing what they usually do: fight. In this case, they fight about who’s the real populist. That’s why Warren has come under fire for supporting the Export-Import Bank, which finances certain corporations overseas, while Tea Party types have gotten reamed for sucking up to billionaire ideologues like the Koch brothers.
In this case, they fight about who’s the real populist.
“I don’t think anybody owns populism, or can own populism,” says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian who is also editor of the leftist Dissent magazine. Kazin’s 1998 book, The Populist Persuasion, argues that populism is “not an ideology, but an impulse and a language, a way of talking about the People as a moral assemblage,” he says. “And they are being betrayed, robbed, exploited — use your favorite adjective — by the elite.”
Ideological malleability and moral force are its strengths, in some ways. “Populists are good at building constituencies and movements,” he says. But they’re also weaknesses: “They have a hard time winning national office” because, he says, populists come off as too angry and dark. The electorate, it seems, prefers sunshine in the Oval Office.
Why you should care
After a long hiatus, populism is back on both sides of the aisle. It probably won’t lead to bipartisan cooperation, but it could herald a new focus in American politics.