On February 11, 2010, the late Washington Post political columnist David Broder puzzled and amused left-leaning portions of the political blogosphere with a column praising the strategic savvy and tactical competence of abdicated Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Broder had been impressed by her recent address to the National Tea Party Convention, one of the sundry right-wing "tea party" groups to spring up in the wake of Barack Obama's inauguration, during which she displayed what he called "her pitch-perfect populism." (Watch the speech here. During the question-and-answer session, she checks the notes written on the palm of her hand.)
"Her invocation of 'conservative principles and common-sense solutions' was perfectly conventional," Broder admitted. But that was beside his point; Broder was more interested in "the skill with which she drew a self-portrait that fit not just the wishes of the immediate audience but the mood of a significant slice of the broader electorate…. she has locked herself firmly in the populist embrace that every skillful outsider candidate from George Wallace to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton has utilized when running against 'the political establishment.'"
What kind of magic lasso is "populist," that David Broder can throw it over those five immensely different politicians simultaneously?
Can it possibly be the same term used to describe Tom Watson, William Lamb, and William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s? Can it be reconciled with the "prairie populism" sometimes attributed to Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, and/or the old-school conservative isolationism of Pat Buchanan, and/or Albert Gore, Jr., Harvard Class of 1969, and/or the entire 1972 Democratic Presidential field, give or take Scoop Jackson? Is it a useful description of the political reality represented by any of these figures?
Does the label "populist" help us understand Sarah Palin, or the group of people she addressed that night in Nashville? Does it matter that she had notes written on the palm of her hand?
The Original Populists
From its first appearance in the political vernacular, "populist" has been an adjective expressing an attitude—a popular anger against elites perceived as distant from and antagonistic to the struggles of ordinary Americans—more than delineating a coherent set of political beliefs.
The usage of "populist" began in 1892, as a secondary means of referring to the southern and western political insurgency that actually called itself the "People's Party," and which fielded third-party challengers to Republicans and Democrats in many states in 1892, 1894, and 1896.
These original Populists were largely farmers from the cotton, wheat, and corn belts. And they were responding to recent economic changes which simultaneously depressed the value of their commodities and plunged them into ruinous debt at the hands of banks, mortgage companies, and furnishing merchants.
Their policy demands were statist. They demanded 1) inflationary monetary policy, 2) state-run, state-subsidized systems of commodity credit and storage, and 3) state regulation of the transportation network through which their commodities flowed to market. They wanted the government to print paper money, monetize silver, store their crops, and aggressively regulate—some Populists went so far as to say nationalize—the railroad and telegraph networks. They also sought direct election of Senators and a national income tax.
In other words, these original Populists saw large-scale government intervention as the solution to their economic problems.