Beyond McPopulism

The populist movement lasted barely two decades, disappearing by the turn of the last century. Yet the movement's themes have continued to esonate in American politics. Politicians with sharply divergent agendas-- from Jimmy Carter and dRonald Reagan to Jack Kemp and Tom Harkin-- have evoked the legacy of populism. Bill Clinton called his campaign platform "Putting People First" and accepted the Democratic nomination "in the name of all those who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules." Once in office, he has continued to sound populist notes, warning that his economic program would take aim at the "privileged elite."

Populist themes have persisted over the century because they mesh contemporary political concerns with the historic American dream of yeoman democracy. Populism was the first attempt to pose this Jeffersonian and Jacksonian vision of America against the encroaching reality of corporate, industrial, urban capitalism. As a political movement, populism failed abysmally, yet it bequeathed a set of ideals and a language of conflict by which Americans have continued to understand their circumstances and to judge their politicians.

Different political movements, including progressivism and conservatism, advanced their own practical agenda in populism's wake. While their programs differed from one another and from that of populism, they nonetheless used populist rhetoric and themes to describe what they were doing. Franklin Roosevelt, the progressive, and Ronald Reagan, the conservative, were the most successful at doing this. Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush were the least.

Bill Clinton sought to follow Roosevelt's example of using populist appeals to justify a progressive program of economic reform. But halfway into his first year in office, Clinton appears much more to be following the path of Carter, his Democratic predecessor, who failed to adapt the populist promise of his presidential campaign to the everyday realities of his presidency. Clinton has been burdened by economic circumstances that have made it hard to apply the rhetoric of populism. But he has also pursued policies and made appointments that have undermined his own rhetoric.


The populist movement emerged in the 1880s in the South, Southwest (particularly Texas), the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain states. Most of its adherents were small farmers. At the movement's peak, the Populist Party, formed in 1892, threatened to displace the Democratic Party, but as an organized movement, populism disappeared by the end of the century.

The populists were proponents of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. They believed that American freedom and prosperity rested upon the diffusion of property ownership through the proliferation of small farmers and mechanics. The populists did not see society divided between worker and owner, but rather between "the people" and a corrupt elite of bankers, land speculators, and railway tycoons who through a conspiracy were wresting "special privileges" from the government.

Like the Jacksonians and the Radical Republicans, the populists conceived of the people as "the producers" and everyone else--from immigrant labor to absentee landlords--as parasites. As members of a radical rather than reformist movement, the populists aimed to eliminate these non-producers from business and government. Stated one manifesto, "On the one side are allied hosts of monopolies, the money power, great trusts and railroad monopolies. . . . On the other are the farmers, laborers, merchants, and all other people who produce wealth and bear the burdens of taxation. . . . Between these two there is no middle ground."

Like the Jacksonians, the populists, who championed the initiative and referendum, believed that "the people" could rule directly without assistance from a governing class. But unlike the followers of Jefferson and Jackson, the populists did not identify government itself with the reign of monopoly or tyranny. They did not seek a stateless Arcadia but rather the creation of popular government that could sustain a producer democracy. They wanted the federal government to nationalize the railroads, break up monopolies, discourage land speculation, distribute its own silver-backed Greenbacks, and institute a progressive income tax.

The populists were a middle class or petit-bourgeois movement, but they differed among themselves in defining who belonged to the people and to the elite--differences that have led historians to sharply different portrayals of the movement. While some populists steadfastly supported a movement of black and white, many southern populists, particularly after 1892, sought to exclude blacks. Western populists excluded Chinese immigrant labor from "the people." By the same token, many populists identified the privileged elite simply with their economic function, but others identified the members of elite as Easterners and even as Jews. Kansas agitator Mary E. Lease described Grover Cleveland as "the agent of Jewish bankers and British gold."

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These differences between populists contributed to the fragmentation of the original movement and to two different political tendencies that grew out of it. One current, epitomized by young Tom Watson of Georgia, sought to unite the middle with the bottom of society, including whites and blacks, owners and laborers, against the top. The other tendency, epitomized by the older Watson or South Carolina's Pitchfork Ben Tillman, defined the people off against both the top of society and the bottom--against blacks, for instance, or immigrants. The more inclusive populism formed the rhetorical component of progressivism, while the more exclusive underlay the appeal of modern conservatism.

Many historians have attributed the populists' precipitous decline to their co-optation in the 1896 election by Bryan Democrats and Western silver interests. That was certainly a factor, as much of the movement was diverted into a monetary will 'o the wisp. But the populists had difficulty withstanding the combined assault of Northern business and labor who rested their faith in the progress of industrial capitalism. The populists stood poised between past and future. They wanted to use the power of an active, popular government to restore the economic circumstances of America's frontier past. As a movement both radical and reactionary, they were destined to fail.

What survived the movement's collapse was its style and themes. The populist style endured in Theodore Roosevelt's shaking hands on the day of his inauguration with thousands of well-wishers at the White House--a practice repeated by Clinton almost a century later--and in Reagan's singling out of an exemplary American during his speeches; in the homespun language of Harry Truman and Ross Perot; in Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats.

On a deeper level, what endured was a political worldview. The populists understood politics to be a conflict over power and wealth between a productive, hard-working people and a parasitic, privileged elite. Populism was America's petit-bourgeois version of the class struggle. Franklin Roosevelt represented the "forgotten man" against the "economic royalists," Richard Nixon the "silent majority" against the "liberal establishment." FDR identified the privileged elite with irresponsible financiers; Nixon, Reagan and George Wallace with government bureaucrats and with upper-middle class antiwar protesters and civil rights demonstrators.


The first major movement to succeed populism was progressivism. Unlike the populists, the leaders of the early twentieth century Progressive Era believed that corporate capitalism's emergence was inevitable rather than the result of dark conspiracy, and they thought it could be shaped through regulation and state supervision toward egalitarian ends. The "real progressives," Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1911, accept "the inevitableness and the necessity of combinations in business, and meet it, by a corresponding increase in governmental power over big business."

While Roosevelt and other progressives accepted the existence of corporate capitalism, they attacked individual capitalists for pursuing "special interests" that were distinct from the national interest. They drew a distinction between productive and unproductive labor, rejecting the power of unearned wealth. "Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered--not gambling in stocks, but service rendered," Roosevelt declared.

Privately, and in their writings, the progressives expressed a preference for what Woodrow Wilson called government by an "educated elite." But as politicians, they extolled the populist conception of politics. Theodore Roosevelt backed the direct primary, and Wilson attacked his opponents for favoring "government by experts." If the average person cannot "understand the job" of government, Wilson declared, then "we are not a free people."

This combination of practical progressivism and rhetorical populism reached its apogee during Franklin Roosevelt's second New Deal and during the election of 1936. Roosevelt himself was a progressive rather than a populist or socialist. He wanted to reform rather than overthrow corporate capitalism, but he also framed his reform program in populist terms, promising to defend the "common man" against the "economic royalists" and to redistribute "the concentration of wealth and powe r. . . built upon other people's money, other people's business, other people's labor."

Roosevelt's populism was inclusive rather than exclusive; it was focused on the middle of society, but it included the bottom in alliance with the middle against the "economic royalists" at the top. It attracted white and black, worker and small business owner. Its success was predicated partly on Roosevelt's political skill, but also depended on the depth of the Depression, which cut a wide swath through American society, condemning black sharecropper and white urban shopkeeper to a similar fate, and on the surge of the labor movement that united the bottom and middle of society.

After the Depression ended and the labor movement began to falter, progressives--later called "liberals"--found it increasingly difficult to rally the middle and bottom of society against the top. Progressive populism was further threatened by the economic changes. Beginning in the 1950s, American capitalism began to shift from urban assembly-line factories to the suburbs, services, and highly automated goods production. This shift created a fissure between the middle class and the working class, between white suburbanites and inner city blacks. Like the pre-Civil War plantation economy, it polarized society along lines that made an inclusive populism very difficult to sustain.

During the same period, the new civil rights movement championed political equality for blacks and other minorities. As a result, liberal and progressive politicians were increasingly forced to choose between the conflicting demands of their white and black, suburban and urban constituencies. Much of the old Democratic party base periodically deserted to such conservative populists as George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, and even to Richard Nixon.

During the 1970s, progressivism and liberalism became detached from the legacy of populism. The new liberalism of Carter, Mondale, McGovern, Hart, Jackson, and Dukakis claimed the moral high ground on civil rights, feminism, and social justice, but it lacked the political means to win back the workaday middle class. Liberalism--and by extension the Democratic Party--became identified with its social rather than economic positions. It degenerated into an alliance of civil rights activists, trade unionists and feminists with wealthy social liberals from Hollywood and Wall Street. In the hands of politicians such as Mondale or Dukakis, it lost both its identification with the middle class and its hostility to the privileged elite. Liberalism became almost exactly the configuration of interests that the original populists had attacked.

The second movement that drew successfully upon the populist legacy was modern conservatism. Originally a movement of anti-New Deal Republicans and hysterical anti-Communists, it achieved its first major political success when it opposed the civil rights and other new left movements of the 1960s. Through George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and other conservatives, it positioned itself as the defender of middle class "producers" against state bureaucrats and their welfare clients and of the middle class family against the threat of women's and gay liberation. The conservative conception of the people was exclusive, if rarely articulated: it consisted, in Nancy Reagan's memorable phrase, of "nice white people."

Conservative populism thrived off the decline of progressivism and liberalism. Even today it remains a viable politics in America--witness Ross Perot's continuing popularity. But Republican conservatism was set back by the onset of the recent recession and, more broadly, by the failure of Republican policies to deliver on their populist promises. The Republican failure opened the way for Clinton to attempt to revive Roosevelt's progressive populism.


Clinton himself emphatically comes out of the progressive tradition of American politics. He wants to reform American capitalism to make it more efficient and equitable. In establishing national health insurance, for instance, he doesn't want to eliminate, but to regulate, the role of large insurance companies. Clinton is also rooted in the social liberal politics of the 1960s. Having gotten his start in the McGovern campaign, Clinton is committed to the goals of the civil rights and women's movements.

But in preparing to run for president, Clinton recognized that the last three Democratic candidates, running as social liberals, had been defeated in landslides by conservative populist campaigns. Clinton understood that the Democrats could not win the presidency without recapturing the middle class, and that the way to do that was to reclaim the populist legacy that the party had ceded to the Republicans beginning in 1968.

Clinton's principal tactic was to repeat his commitment to the middle class (that is, "the people") at every campaign stop. He bemoaned their plight ("the middle class is collapsing, literally reducing in numbers, while more people work harder for lower wages") and promised them a tax cut if he were elected. At the same time, Clinton distanced himself from some of the Democrats' social liberalism. He rejected a plan by Jesse Jackson and Felix Rohatyn for pouring billions into American cities and also denounced Jackson for coddling pro-riot rap singer Sister Souljah. But he stopped well short of blaming blacks or the poor for economic ills.

In progressive populist fashion, Clinton attributed the plight of the middle class to special favors that the Bush and Reagan administration had bestowed upon the undeserving rich. "The Bush administration and the vice president represent an economic elite of the county," Clinton declared. "The people who made more in the 1980s by doing less and paid less taxes and are now giving lectures to the people who worked harder for less money and paid more taxes."

He also echoed popular skepticism about government waste, promising to "reinvent government" if he were elected. And as Perot gathered strength, Clinton began to attack the reign of lobbyists in Washington. "On streets where statesmen once strolled, a never-ending stream of money now changes hands--tying the hands of those elected to lead," wrote Clinton in Putting People First.

Once in office, Clinton has tried to sustain his populist appeal, but largely through style. He walked down Pennsylvania Avenue during his inauguration, held town meetings, lunched at McDonalds, and spoke at the graduation ceremony of a technical school rather than an Ivy League College. He has also continued to enunciate populist themes, attacking lobbyists, drug companies, and wealthy executives. But in spite of these efforts, Clinton, like Carter, has increasingly found himself cast as a social liberal rather than as a populist.

Like his predecessors, Clinton has found himself in circumstances that don't easily invite the kind of inclusive populist politics that Roosevelt promulgated. Clinton is far more constricted in his choices than FDR was. The bottom and middle of society are structurally polarized in a way that they were not in the 1930s. In a highly integrated world economy, U.S. fiscal policy is held hostage to international finance.

During his campaign, Clinton used the promise of a tax cut to woo the middle class, but once in office, he had to recognize that he could not reduce taxes and hope to bring down the federal deficit. In fact, Clinton had to increase taxes on the middle class. He could not confine himself--as Roosevelt did in 1935--to increasing taxes on the wealthy.

During his campaign, Clinton courted middle class votes with a promise of national health insurance. But in practice, health care reform may not immediately benefit the middle class. Most of the middle class is already insured. If Clinton seeks to expand benefits to the uninsured and to control costs, many Americans who are already insured will suffer a decline in the quality of their care. They will have a narrower choice of doctors, and rigid utilization reviews will limit their treatment options.

Clinton's political quandary became abundantly clear during the debate over the economic "stimulus" package. The plan itself was ill-conceived and poorly presented. Equaling less than one third of one-percent of GNP, it was hardly a Roosevelt-style public investment and jobs program. It thus attracted only faint support from its natural allies, and it was vulnerable to conservative populist attack primarily because it committed resources --through block grants and summer jobs funds--directly to inner cities. Its defeat was as much the result of a structurally polarized electorate as of Clinton's ineptitude. Like his Democratic predecessors, Clinton has found himself torn between moral and political imperatives and between the conflicting needs of his own coalition.

But even when his options have been limited, Clinton has betrayed the promise of his own populism. During the campaign and during his first six months, he flayed the excesses of America's financial and corporate elite and the power of lobbyists in Washington, but his actions have given the impression that he is captive to the very interests that he criticized.

Appointments. Instead of filling his administration with officials who visibly demonstrated some affinity to middle Americans, Clinton has relied on the lawyers, lobbyists and investment bankers that he and Perot attacked during the campaign. He filled key economic policy positions with Wall Street investment bankers. Clinton picked Robert Rubin, the CEO of Goldman, Sachs, to head his National Economic Council, and another Goldman, Sachs partner to be director of the Export-Import Bank. Like other Wall Street firms, Goldman, Sachs prospered in the 1980s through arcane speculation rather than through helping to finance new industries. And Rubin himself is a classic social liberal--a friend of the urban poor, but an enemy of banking and securities reform. Clinton picked Roger Altman, a partner at the Blackstone Group, to be deputy treasury secretary and nominated another Blackstone partner to oversee trade at the Commerce Department. During the 1980s, Altman was in charge of arranging foreign takeovers of American companies. Both Rubin and Altman have become critical policymakers and public spokesmen.

Clinton even staffed his administration with ex-lobbyists for foreign companies and governments. These included Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Deputy National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, and Charlene Barshefsky, the number three at U.S. Trade Representative's Office. He appointed two former advisers and representatives to Toyota, Berger and Joan Spero, to high policymaking positions. Whatever their individual merits, their appointment suggests that Clinton did not take his own populist rhetoric seriously.

What kind of person might Clinton have picked? The best clue comes from his choice of attorney general. He began by nominating Zoe Baird, an insurance company counsel who was a protege of corporate lawyer Warren Christopher. Baird was forced to withdraw not simply because she broke the law in hiring an illegal alien for a nanny, but because her doing so crystallized populist resentments against her as a member of the irresponsible rich. Though she was female and presumably feminist, women's groups failed to rally to her defense because she was first and foremost a corporate power lawyer. After his second nominee had to withdraw for the same reason, Clinton finally selected a tough, folksy public prosecutor from Miami. Janet Reno, in spite of having botched the siege in Waco, has become the most popular Clinton official.

Economic Policy. Clinton was admittedly constrained in his economic policy, but he nevertheless acted in such a way as to suggest that his real allegiances lay to social liberalism and to the corporate and financial elite that he had attacked. Clinton abandoned his promise of a middle class tax cut even before the electoral college votes were counted, but he continued to support an investment tax credit for business.

Worse still, in negotiations over his economic plan, Clinton has repeatedly caved in to lobbyists from business and Wall Street. The grand design gradually mutated from one part investment and one part deficit-reduction to a plan designed mainly to calm the money markets and the Federal Reserve. He agreed to House Ways and Means Committee modifications of the energy tax to shift the burden from industry to consumers and to new tax breaks for corporations that take over other corporations. And he virtually gutted his proposal to limit excessive CEO salaries--a proposal that would not have raised much money, but that would have dramatized Clinton's opposition to the excesses of wealth.

What happened to that proposal is symptomatic of what happened to Clinton's approach to economic policy. During his campaign and first month in office, Clinton promised to deny tax deductions to firms that awarded their executives salaries over $1 million. "The tax code should no longer subsidize excessive pay of chief executives and other high executives," Clinton told business leaders at the White House. He defined "excessive" in true populist terms as "unrelated to the productivity of the enterprise." He also cited "the enormously increased rate of executive compensation in the last 12 years as compared with the compensation of workers."

But under pressure from the financial community, Clinton quietly backed off. In April, the administration announced a plan that was riddled with loopholes. For instance, CEO stock options would not be included in the $1 million limit, and firms could take a deduction on straight salaries over $1 million if stockholders approved.

Clinton may even botch health care reform. He has railed against drug company profits, but he has oddly cast his political lot with an arguably even less popular component of the health-industrial complex--the big insurance companies. The risk is that comprehensive health reform will falter in the face of perceived or real budget constraints. And rather than being a reform to secure high-quality health coverage for the working middle class (progressive populist), the eventual bill will parallel other post-1968 reforms that are merely social liberal. It will mildly benefit the poor, enrich the already wealthy, and screw small business and the middle class.

In his economic policy, Clinton should have emphasized the distinction--central to populism and progressivism--between productive and unproductive labor and between enterprise and speculation. He should have waged a public battle over excessive CEO salaries. In addition, he might have proposed something like a transactions tax on stock speculation to balance some of the tax increases on the middle class. In his health plan, he should have required that insurance companies limit costs and profits. Clinton would be forced to fight for these measures, but it would be the kind of battle that would reaffirm rather than undermine his ties to middle America.

In presenting his stimulus program, he should have focused exclusively on public investments that would create jobs, and he should have embraced rather than rejected a proposal for across-the-board cuts in government departments. Instead, he commissioned Vice President Al Gore to undertake a "performance review" of government departments--a venture that in the long run will probably expand rather than shrink the realm of wasteful government spending.

Social Policy. At the same time that Clinton has appeared to contradict his economic populism, he has reinforced the impression that he is a liberal who is more concerned with social than economic issues. Clinton's first major actions in office were to lift the gag order on abortion counseling and to end restrictions on gays in the military.

Clinton's initial actions on abortion were popular, but he has proceeded to stretch the limits of his own mandate by proposing to include abortions in national health insurance. Clinton's lifting of the ban on gays was morally commendable, but it allowed the president's opponents to paint him as a social elitist. Neither abortion nor homosexuality is confined to a single class, but their public defense is widely associated with the urban upper-middle class--with Hollywood, New York's East Side, and the Ivy League.

The point is not for Clinton to abandon women's and gay rights. Clinton might have fought these battles without threatening his presidency if he had established his populist credentials elsewhere. But because he did not, his advocacy of advanced social causes has lent further credence to the idea that he is a social liberal who is indifferent to the middle class and its values.

Clinton failed to link his social agenda with economic reform because like other upper-class Americans, Bill and Hillary Clinton do not have the average American family in their sights. They worry about poverty and sexual discrimination, but not about the niggardly tax credits that parents receive for the enormously expensive task of raising children. In addition, it is just easier for a president to appoint a rainbow cabinet or to issue an executive order ending the gag rule than it is to transform the economic forces of postindustrial America.

By taking the easy road, however, Clinton has opened the door for a resurgent conservative populism. The immediate beneficiary has not been the Republicans, who remain shell-shocked from the Bush years, but Ross Perot. The Dallas billionaire not only articulates conservative populist resentments, but also embodies the paranoid style of old-time populism. He is a crank, but Clinton's mishandling of economic issues has made Perot an extremely popular one.

As the examples of Roosevelt and Reagan, Clinton and Perot demonstrate, American populism is neither good nor bad, left or right. The movement contributed a raft of social reforms to American politics, including the progressive income tax and the initiative and referendum, but it also promoted wacky monetary schemes and was dedicated to preserving a frontier society that was on the verge of disappearing. And its heirs have championed racial segregation and the War on Poverty, the abolition of welfare and national health insurance.

But a hundred years of elections demonstrate that a politician who spurns the underlying framework of populism does so at his peril. Jimmy Carter and George Bush were paralyzed in office, and not re-elected, largely because they got on the wrong side of populist debate; Bill Clinton, who seemed to understand the importance of populism during his campaign, has strangely forgotten it during the first six months of his administration.

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