Do Liberals Have a Problem with Populism?

During the past four years, the Right has shown a marked ability to take advantage of popular discontent. In the face of one of the most severe financial crises of modern times, it was able to adopt a highly successful populist strategy to serve its anti-governmental cause. Using the rhetoric of anti-elitism, liberty, and free enterprise, it showed how it could manufacture an uprising of suburbanites in a matter of months. Liberals, by contrast, reacted to the same crisis by seeking establishment solutions and by focusing on process and the minutiae of policy. They in essence squandered an opportunity to appeal directly to the people, leaving an open field to the opposition.

T’was not always the case. The word populism itself was actually coined in the year 1892 to describe a progressive, not a conservative movement. The original Populist Movement was a rural-urban alliance that articulated the grievances of indebted farmers and oppressed laborers in opposition to the big monied interests. While rooted in anger and discontent, the movement was able to offer a mature vision for the future. It created its own party and proposed a program of reforms–including the graduated income tax, the eight-hour workday, and the direct election of senators–that was to constitute much of America’s progressive agenda over the next fifty years. As E. J. Dionne points out in his recent book, Our Divided Political Heart, late 19th century populism was “rational, reformist, egalitarian, and democratic.”

But in spite of this hallowed populist tradition and its apparent link to the liberal achievements of the New Deal that were to follow, liberals began at a certain moment in history to lose their taste for populism. In the years following World War II, liberal thinkers commonly saw populism as anti-intellectual and irrational. Making common cause with the people was, in their view, an exercise for sentimentalists. Their attitude seems to have been bolstered by their increasing identification with the new technocratic elite guiding the complex institutions of government begun in the Depression era. Viewing themselves as realists and experts, they showed little outward empathy for the uncontrollable and unruly masses. Their most famous representative in academia was Richard Hofstadter, whose book The Age of Reform stressed the less positive side of mass movements. Hofstadter, an impressive scholar who influenced a generation of college graduates, facilitated the branding of liberals as stereotypical egg-heads.

Meanwhile, as Dionne shows, populism was increasingly embraced by the Right, with often spectacular success. In the 1950’s and 60’s it was developed as an art form by two talented  demagogues, Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. McCarthy’s form of populism grabbed the nation’s attention during a period of fear and finger-pointing, but was soon discredited, as it proved too volatile even for its potential Republican beneficiaries. But Wallace’s populism, masking a not-so-subtle racism, soon showed how potent it could be in mobilizing alienated voters for the conservative cause. It was soon mimicked by Nixon and Agnew, who used law-and-order appeals to rouse the “silent majority,” and employed with consummate skill by Reagan in his efforts to skewer elites and the welfare state.

To be sure, there have been populists on the liberal side as well who have been true to the progressive traditions of the Populist Party.  Two from the Lone Star State stand out with particular distinction, the journalist Molly Ivins and the former Texan commissioner of agriculture, James Hightower. But such progressive voices more often than not arise in the hinterlands where their impact is limited. Other than perhaps Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, one can count few liberal/progressive populists at the national level.

This is immensely unfortunate because, especially in critical times, the nation’s citizens require an engaged leadership to connect with their deepest concerns. When the sky fell in 2008 and 2009, the Obama administration showed little ability to make the connection. Instead of directly addressing the people’s discontents, it deferred to the experts. Presented with a golden opportunity and no competition, the Right steered people’s anger away from the abuses of financial institutions to the ostensible sins of government. After this ideological detour, a confused populace was more likely to believe that the near collapse of the financial system was caused by too much regulation than too little!

Only with the emergence of the Occupy Movement in 2011 did the Left discover some remnant of its populist voice. The movement took up the real concern of citizens that their economic and political system was working in the interests of a small minority. By highlighting the dwindling of opportunity for the working and middle classes, it provided a retort to the Right and showed how it was possible to appeal on a gut level to the vast majority of Americans.

In spite of its contribution to a progressive narrative of events, the Occupy Movement is still not all that it can be. Any successful movement must go beyond slogans and generalities to be be lastingly effective. In this regard, liberals and progressives have many lessons of style and substance to learn from their populist ancestors. A fuller treatment of this topic we leave for a coming blog.

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