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A New Populism in the United States

by Omar Ali on Nov 26, 1999

On November 11, black independent leftist Lenora Fulani announced her endorsement of former Republican Patrick Buchanan for the Reform Party’s nomination for president. Fulani’s announcement and Buchanan’s acceptance of her endorsement has drawn sharp criticism from both liberals and conservatives, who say the unlikely match has opportunism written all over it. 

Fulani’s and Buchanan’s willingness to work together, however, may actually create the basis for a much broader rapprochement between two groups of voters who have seldom seen eye-to-eye in the voting booth: African Americans and working-class whites. While African Americans have been overwhelmingly loyal to the Democratic Party, blue-collar whites have regularly shifted their party affiliation between the two major parties. Both agree — in action, if not in words — that their current political choices are limited. 

Given decreasing voter turnout (on average, less than half of the American electorate votes in any national election) and increased disaffection from the major parties, African Americans and white working-class Americans are likely to come out in large numbers in support of an independent candidate if presented with an attractive third option. The anti-corporate populism of Buchanan and the pro-independence of Fulani in the Reform Party could fit the bill.

While Fulani and Buchanan have been accused of compromising their respective positions on social issues, both have vehemently denied the charge. Fulani continues to speak as passionately about being pro-choice as Buchanan does about being pro-life. Instead, both speak of the Reform Party’s positions on economic and political reform (term limits, ballot access reform, and campaign finance reform) as the basis of their coalition. 

Those who insist that this is a coalition of convenience argue that Buchanan is seeking Fulani’s influence within the Reform Party to grab both the party’s nomination and its $12.6 million in federal matching funds Fulani, who joined Buchanan as co-chair of his presidential campaign, is said to be attaching herself to the country’s latest and best-known two-party defector to command a larger podium from which she can undermine the two-party system. Fulani, the first woman and the first African American to appear on the ballot for president in all 50 States, when she ran as an independent in 1988, received 45 percent of the vote this summer when she ran for the Reform Party’s vice-chair.

If politics is about taking advantage of opportunities, the unlikely duo may just have created one of the most promising opportunities for a new populism to emerge in the United States — a populism that goes beyond left-center-right ideological categorization. Instead of bringing Americans together to solve the country’s most pressing social issues, the two major parties have kept Americans both distant from each other and politically impotent by focusing on their ideological differences. A non-ideologically driven third party could go a long way to helping resuscitate American democracy by bringing together voters of diverse backgrounds and beliefs into dialogue with each other. 

Racially and ideologically diverse coalitions are nothing new to third parties. In the 1850s, Whigs, Democrats, and Free-Soilers came together in the Republican Party in an effort to stop the spread of slavery in the new territories. Populists in the 1890s brought Southern black and white farmers and laborers together in the People’s Party to alleviate their economic plight. Finally, in the late 1960s even Black Panthers worked with the predominantly white Peace and Freedom Party in opposition to the Vietnam War. So, why not Fulani and Buchanan in the Reform Party?

According to the most recent Gallup Poll, 38 percent of all Americans 18 and older say they’re independents, making them the largest electoral group in the United States. The Pew Research Center confirms that voters under the age of 30 are the most independently-minded age group, and a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that African Americans who identify themselves outside the two major parties have increased by 55 percent in the last two years alone — from 14.8 percent in 1998 to 23 percent in 1999.

The emergence of a new populism in the United States less driven by ideology — be it conservative, moderate or liberal — than by the need for fundamental political and economic reform seems to be underway. The historical precedents of black and white independents working together in the electoral arena, the growing disaffection from the two major parties, and the advent of Fulani’s and Buchanan’s alliance in the Reform Party make for an incendiary electoral situation that looks as if it could upend many political calculations in this strange election season. 


Omar Ali teaches history at Long Island University and is a writer for the History News Service.