Forget Populism

You've heard the strategy before: Speak for the people. Decry powerful special interests and elites (if that includes financial institutions, bless your stars for aligning). Show indignant anger that the times demand. Mobilize frustration. In short, play the populist card to win votes on Election Day.

Indeed, fiery populism seems perfect for this moment, with fat-cat bankers jacking up their salaries while still claiming bailouts, big corporations ruining the ocean, and what's left of the middle class falling off an economic cliff. What better time than now to deride economic royalists? What better time than now for elected officials to bond with the salt of the earth in pitched battle against elites?

It's no wonder pundits are advising Democrats -- and President Barack Obama -- to take the populist approach to the upcoming election cycle. Robert Kuttner, a founding editor of this publication, argued several months ago that Obama should embrace Harry Truman's "language of populism" and "class warfare." If he doesn't, warns critic Michael Lind, the president's "cautious minimalism" will fail to meet the challenges of this day. Yet the president has remained a cool-cat technocrat, choosing to talk rationally about problems and evade ideology. In the words of Thomas Frank, Obama is a "silver tongued" president in a day and age of "fantastic villainy." Jim Hightower charges, more bluntly, that the president "lacked the Rooseveltian audacity to take on the power elites" and "rally the people" -- and thus he faces "decline."

But liberals, like it or not, have to worry about more than just rallying the masses around their collective anger. They have to worry about governing -- and nurturing the semblance of rational dialogue that governing requires. Populism is susceptible to pandering and over-promising in its rhetoric, prone to outlandish promises that generate disillusionment in the face of the reality of political compromise and the demands of governing in a complex world. Liberals can't promise the people that translating their anger and frustration into political power will fix everything that's wrong with America. And they have to admit the reality: Like it or not, since the 1960s populism has steadily become the property of the right, precisely because it is dramatic and simplistic in its worldview.

Populism's simplicity is its central fault. Its philosophical premise -- if there is such a thing -- is that "the people" are the embodiment of virtue, uncorrupted by power and wealth the way elites are. "The people yes," as Carl Sandburg hymned in one of his more famous poems, meaning we should accept the people as we find them. Populism holds that elites are bad and all we need is "a government as good as its people," as Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign slogan went. (He rethought that slogan when he learned that people were beating up pregnant women waiting in line to pump gas in 1979.)

Liberalism, however, doesn't assume that people are automatically virtuous. It suggests that people need to become more than what they are. Civic-minded liberalism, unlike populism, projects a vision and political language appropriate for both campaigning and governing. It accepts that everyone is tainted by self-regard -- leaders and the people they lead. It recognizes the appeal of playing up anger and emotions in politics, but it also acknowledges that such an approach won't save us from the complexities of the problems we face. Civic-minded liberals believe in the need for expertise and intelligence in solving problems, a demand that flummoxes populists. Consider the BP oil spill currently devastating the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, we must force the corporation to clean up its own mess at its own expense. You could call that the populist spirit behind any sensible policy -- the interest of "the people" versus the power of corporations. But beyond that, we also need science and expertise in monitoring the situation, those elitist skills that populists inherently distrust. Similarly, in order to create a good solution to the health-care crisis, we need intelligence and hard scrutiny of our existing system. Both situations demand an ability to explain how policy works to solve problems. Whooping yawps against big corporate health providers might rally the masses but will only get us so far.

In this way, civic liberalism takes after community organizing, which engages people where they are but initiates a dialogue that lifts them to a higher purpose of collective engagement through a rational -- or as rational as possible -- understanding of the issues at hand. It pushes and pulls and concludes, "The people, sometimes."


The populist strain in American history, which emerged during the 1880s and 1890s, is both apocalyptic and fervid. Go back to the Populist Party platform of 1892, and there you'll find not just calls to nationalize the railroads and set up an alternative credit system but the diagnosis that America had been "brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin," that "the fruits of the toil of the millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few ... and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty." Consider Tom Watson, a founder of the Populist Party in Georgia, who claimed in 1892 that populists would bring forth "a new order of things" and a "revolution in the old systems." Or think of William Jennings Bryan who, four years later in one of the most famous speeches in history, asserted that the "struggling masses" deserved better than the gold standard: "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Good stuff. Yet it didn't work, not even back then. The Populist Party won slim margins in 1892 and suffered the fate of most third parties in America (in this case fusing with the Democrats before crumbling); Bryan lost the 1896 election. But let us imagine for a moment that the Populists had won. Would their rhetoric have saved them from the difficulties that lay ahead, allowing them to institute reforms in the interest of the people?

Historians have debated the meaning of the original populist movement for years. Some, like Larry Goodwyn and the late Christopher Lasch, believed populists were democratic yet reactionary, hoping to block progress and preserve petty-bourgeois ownership against the onslaught of modern industrial capitalism. Others, like the late C. Vann Woodward and Charles Postel, depicted populists as rational and forward-looking. As Postel points out in The Populist Vision, populists believed in planning and took as their inspiration for government's effectiveness and power the success of the American postal system (not exactly a model ripe for replication today, of course).

These distinctions are important for historians, but they're largely academic. Once America moved from being a small, rural society to an industrial and then a post-industrial high-tech society, populism veered rightward. Huey Long's "share the wealth" slogan may have had a left-wing populist tinge in the 1930s, but it was wrapped up in a dangerous form of demagogy. Recent attempts to paint Harry Truman as a raging populist ignore significant portions of his presidency, such as his willingness to let the Office of Price Administration wither, his argument that Joseph McCarthy's populist attack on the State Department (the senator's demonization of the silver-spoon, Ivy League elite) was dangerous, his building of the national-security state, and his dislike for labor unions in times of crisis. At one point, he talked of shooting John Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers.

Since the 1960s, populism has succeeded on the right and has produced few if any left-wing counterparts. The tradition has moved from the segregationist George Wallace, who derided the federal government and pointy-headed intellectuals, to Richard Nixon's celebration of "the silent majority" and Spiro Agnew's attack against journalists and elites. It has fed on an easy hatred of government and taxes, from the "I'm Mad as Hell" chants of the California tax protesters in 1978 -- the spirit that helped get Ronald Reagan elected president -- to the Tea Party of today. There's no way to steer this boat back to left-wing shores.

Like it or not, today Sarah Palin (whose this-great-country-of-ours remarks sound robotic and who famously stated that "the best of America" and the "real America ... is in these small towns") is today's most recognized populist. A woman who slathers love on the American people, she has tapped the essence of populism, its simplistic emotionalism about "the people yes." This is a woman whose conception of contemporary American history is foolishly providential, ignoring Vietnam, Watergate, and Iraq, along with the broader idea that, yes, America can make mistakes.

Populism -- because it glorifies the "common sense" of the people -- is prone to the sloppy, slapdash thinking of figures like Palin. Richard Hofstadter pointed out years ago that a "paranoid style" and populism march hand in hand. Hence, the outlandish charges of "socialism" and "death panels" from today's populist right. Take, for example, one of Palin's more famous remarks about Obama: "I'm not going to call him a socialist. But as Joe the Plumber has suggested, in fact he came right out and said it, it sounds like socialism to him. And he speaks for so many Americans who are quite concerned now after hearing finally what Barack Obama's true intentions are with his tax and economic plan."

Translation: The people, yes, and damn the facts.


So where are the models for smart populist campaigning, for fueling progressive movements with small-guy rhetoric and anger at elites? Well, there's Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who expressed distrust in free trade on the campaign trail in 2006. There was Paul Wellstone who, out of necessity, ran his first campaign on the cheap and came across as a regular guy, the high school wrestling champ who was truly a political outsider and who would fight for campaign-finance reform (among other issues) once elected. There's also Bernie Sanders, the ultimate outsider whose recent calls to "audit the Fed" rang with populist tones. But these are hardly clear-cut men of the people. Both Brown (who graduated from Yale) and Wellstone taught college before they entered politics, and Sanders launched his career in the eminently hippie town of Burlington, Vermont. So you have to wonder if their populist appeal came from their educational backgrounds just as much as from some magical connection to ordinary citizens. What's clear about them, though, is that they used populist language without it seeming forced.

But populism isn't a one-size-fits-all style, and too often the advice to adopt populist rhetoric becomes advice to pander. Let us not forget the worst attempt at populist campaigning in recent history, Al Gore in 2000. The man known for his calls to "reinvent government," his support for free trade and centrist Democratic Leadership Council principles (many of them, by this point, pro-market), and his technocratic and wooden demeanor hit the campaign trail with the message: "They're for the powerful. We're for the people." I wouldn't go as far as Slate's William Saletan, who argued that populism lost Gore the presidency (I know, I know, he didn't lose the election). But Gore's attempts to mimic Tom Watson certainly didn't help. Gore couldn't pass the "who'd you like to drink a beer with" test, precisely because he sounded phony. And you don't have to be a populist to trust that people can see through bullshit, including populist bullshit.

Most populist techniques smack of pandering, precisely because once someone has earned office, any populist claims begin to ring false. Case in point: When I worked on the John Kerry campaign in Appalachian Ohio, we struggled with the fact that Kerry was no man of the people. When we were sent flyers from national headquarters showing Kerry duck hunting, I thought at first, sure, here's a good pitch -- this man won't take your rifles away (and more abstractly, Democrats protect public hunting lands better than Republicans, a message few voters seemed to absorb). But then I thought more realistically about my region: There were deer hunters in abundance, but there were no duck hunters -- that's so New England. As I distributed these flyers, I realized voters found the idea of John Kerry as a potential hunting buddy to be shameless pandering. This is anecdotal experience, yes, but still, fair warning.

Which is why all of the advice that Obama don a populist style is so preposterous. Like it or not, the president's calmness and coolness stem from his cosmopolitanism and educational background, a biography he can't shed anymore than he can shed his race. When Obama remarked on the Today Show that he was trying to figure out "whose ass to kick" over BP's failure to fix the gushing oil well in the Gulf, he sounded phony and out of character. And at the height of the health-care debate, when "channel Truman" and "give them hell" became mantras of Obama's populist critics, they failed to be honest about the obvious: Populist rhetoric didn't enable Truman to enact national health insurance. Why would it be effective today?

Health-care reform didn't need hyped-up rhetoric -- the sort populist critics heard echoing from Truman. What it needed and what it didn't get was an accompanying explanation of precisely how it would affect ordinary people and improve their lives in concrete ways. Obama has started that process of civic education now as the reforms are starting to kick in, at least for seniors. He's much better at giving rational explanations than he is at impassioned fist-shaking. And it's likely more productive.

To understand the absurdity of populist advice in this political moment, there is perhaps no better example than applying it to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's battle for re-election in Nevada. Can we imagine him delivering fiery, man-of-the-people speeches? No, what Reid should do is what he's been doing through surrogates -- illustrating how his Republican opponent Sharron Angle is an abject anti-government candidate with a set of irrational beliefs about political power. As Reid is perhaps aware, you sure can't compete with the gun nuts or the militia types by getting into the populist sandbox with them.

This doesn't mean we should deride the people, but nor should we celebrate their virtues at the expense of intelligence. We shouldn't fear our own capacity to explain our political positions to people in a way that doesn't pander to their anger. Liberals should embrace the difficult responsibility and balancing act of ensuring that political debate remain as rational as possible, that civility not be broached, that respect for expertise and intelligence be respected. All the while accepting the idea that what we really want to win is the respect of voters who trust us to govern, not just make them feel good about themselves.