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.
They were regarded at the time as dangerous radicals, particularly by the traditional machine politicians they sought to upend, and by the laissez-faire bankers and businessmen they identified as their economic enemies. Nevertheless, many of their "radical" demands had come to pass by 1916 or so.
But the original Populists were also making an argument about their own centrality to American life, and they were doing so at more or less the exact historical moment it was no longer true. The insurgents had a reasonable grasp of what was happening to them economically, but for complex cultural reasons they believed that it could only be happening to them as the result of conspiratorial action taken at great physical and moral distance from themselves.
They were farmers; they were producers; they were the People; they lived in a democracy; they ruled. They could only be losing as a result of subterfuge and blackguardism perpetrated by villains from the East Coast.
One of the most popular and compelling works of Populist political persuasion—an anti-gold standard monetary treatise called Coin's Financial School—offers a glimpse of this worldview.
It described the 1873 demonetization of silver—largely unnoticed and uncontroversial at the time—as the "Crime of 1873," and argued that only the full and unlimited re-monetization of silver at traditional fixed ratios could reverse the conspiracy against producers. Its titular hero made the case by tutoring a classroom of economists, bankers, newspaper editors, and other gold-bug city slickers in the unassailable logic of bimetallism. All are convinced. [Read here for more on the history of currency and today's currency wars]
It also featured a cartoon depicting a Bunyonian cow, the size of the nation, being fed corn and wheat by suffering farmers in the south and west and milked by top-hatted, stripey –panted elites in New York and Boston. The milk buckets had dollar signs on the side.
Surely the answer to such a problem was something called the People's Party.
This self-image was deeply shaped by the Jeffersonian agrarian romanticism which permeated their politics, and indeed their lives. James "Cyclone" Davis, one of the most colorful and effective Populist stump speakers, carried with him an edition of Jefferson's works from which to select thunderbolts suitable for hurling at the farmers' foes.
Jefferson told them that, as farmers, landowners, and producers, they were the backbone of the nation. So did Cyclone Davis, and most of their other political leaders, and their newspaper editors, and their school primers. Everything in their experience told them they were the People, and were the "real" America.
They were nevertheless living through the historical moment at which industrialization, urbanization, and immigration began to knock rural producers out of the center of American culture.
America, as historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger famously wrote, was born in the country and moved to the city. He was referring to the 1880s and 1890s. The United States may not have been moving as the result of a conspiracy, but small farmers in the south and west were not wrong to perceive the country was moving away from them economically and politically.
Though "populists" and "populism" have subsequently come in many flavors, a few generalizations characteristic of the original Populists have usually remained true.
First and foremost, contemporary use of the term assumes there is anger somewhere in the room. This anger may be justified or irrational; organic or ginned-up; economic, racial, cultural, or regional; but without palpable anger and resentment, most observers would probably choose different terminology. This anger and resentment is usually directed at "elites," and these elites are usually economically, socially, and/or geographically distant.
Second of all, populism is generally construed as a strategy or technique of political persuasion rather than a matrix of beliefs. It is a method of identifying a villain and shaking a fist. This is so even if it also reflects real policy choices. "Raise marginal tax rates on high earners" is a policy choice. "Tax the rich" is populism.
Finally, populist political labeling usually implies someone is deliberately creating or highlighting a perception of status differential. This is a partial consequence of defining an in-group not just against an out-group, but against an "elite."
Virtually all effective political communication involves defining an in-group versus an out-group, an us versus a them. But a populist politics stipulates a people against a plutocracy, or defends "real Americans" from condescension, or condemns a haughty elite looking down its collective nose in contempt at ordinary folks.
Populism and the Great Depression
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a number of public figures revived the combination of anti-elite animus, visceral distaste for banking and corporate finance, and bold demands for government action on behalf of ordinary people which had been characteristic of the original Populists.
One of them, of course, was Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs intervened aggressively in wide swaths of American economic life and rearranged national political coalitions for a generation or more. Roosevelt defended the New Deal with increasingly anti-elitist political language, particularly after 1935 or so, when he began to welcome the hatred of "government by organized money" and sharpen his rhetorical attacks on "economic royalists."
This combination of policy and rhetoric is widely credited by historians and political scientists as having created the modern definition of "liberalism" within the Democratic Party, disconnecting the term from 19th century concepts of laissez-faire and aligning it with robust use of government power in the perceived public interest.
Several contemporary critics of Roosevelt, however, threatened to build new mass movements of their own by combining anti-elite rhetorical tropes and demands for economic relief with conspiratorial hyperbole, appeals to status anxiety, and attacks on Roosevelt and the New Deal.
One was the colorful and charismatic Huey Long, who built a powerful political machine around himself as governor and then Senator from Louisiana. A Democrat, he supported Roosevelt in 1932, but turned on the Administration almost immediately upon reaching Washington in 1933.
He began building a national following for himself by declaring "Every Man a King" and founding a series of "Share Our Wealth" societies around the country in support of his aggressively redistributionist economic schemes—and, most contemporary observers believed, his own Presidential aspirations. He was assassinated in 1935 before these ambitions could be tested, but he was nevertheless regarded by Time magazine (and others) as a potential dictator and demagogue.
So was Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from a working-class suburb of Detroit who used a radio network to build a national following. Coughlin's radio sermons combined fervent anticommunism with demands for social justice, a spirited defense of the economic aspirations of ordinary people, and scathing attacks on the illegitimacy of international banking and monetary policy.
Like Huey Long, he had initially supported Roosevelt and then changed his mind; like Long, he spoke to many of the same people Roosevelt was trying to bundle into the New Deal coalition; like Long, he struck some observers as a potentially dangerous force.
His attacks on communism and international banking grew more conspiratorial, and more anti-Semitic, as the 1930s progressed. By the end of the decade, he was republishing portions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his national newsletter. He was finally pulled off the air by the Archbishop of Detroit in 1941. He has subsequently become synonymous with political demagoguery via mass media.
From an economic and demographic standpoint, Long and Coughlin spoke to many of the same political constituencies Roosevelt did, and about many of the same things: the universality of economic aspiration, the redistribution of economic privilege, the Depression as a set of structural, rather than personal, failings.
The original Populists had spoken this way. And like the original Populists—but unlike the largely upbeat and optimistic Roosevelt—Long and Coughlin spoke in discontented and conspiratorial tones.
Richard Hofstadter and the Paranoid Critique of Populism
Liberal intellectuals, who have rather well-rationalized systems of political beliefs, tend to expect that the masses of people, whose actions at certain moments in history coincide with some of these beliefs, will share their other convictions as a matter of logic and principle. Intellectuals, moreover, suffer from a sense of isolation which they usually seek to surmount by finding ways of getting in rapport with the people, and they readily succumb to a tendency to sentimentalize the folk.
-- Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 1955
That the practice of politics might have psychological dimensions held greater significance for observers after 1945. The Great Depression, World War II, and Cold War generated a completely new set of intellectual contexts within which mass movements built from anger and resentment were compared to one another.
The basic irrationality at the root of the inter-war European political regimes that triggered World War II, and the near moral insanity of the war itself, caused many postwar historians and political scientists to consider the possibility that politics was best understood psychologically rather than economically.
The most prominent historian among these postwar intellectuals was Columbia's Richard Hofstadter, who began the process of re-interpreting American political history away from a story of economic conflict—as most other historians of his generation had been trained to do in the 1920s and 1930s—and toward a story of status conflict, sublimated anxiety, and social psychology contained within a framework of relative economic and ideological consensus.