Banana Republic, U.S.A.? "Populism" Comes to America

Confronting economic malaise, the country seems to be heading back into one of its perennial populist cycles. As a result, "going populist is now smart politics and good policy."
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In the wake of Scott Brown's electoral victory in Massachusetts, establishment pundits have been fretting about the new political landscape. During a recent discussion on the PBS News Hour, New York Times columnist David Brooks worried that populism was coming into vogue. The political zeitgeist, he said, was turning a lot of people into Ron Paul.

"A lot of serious people suddenly think, oh, if I bash the Fed, I can go home and say, oh, I told those Wall Street types," Brooks declared. "I think it is incredibly irresponsible," he added. Responding to Brooks, co-panelist Mark Shields sounded the alarm. The Democrats were urging the White House to become more populist, he said, and sought to distance themselves from the excesses of Wall Street. "Now it's every man for himself," Shields declared, as if we were in the midst of the sinking of the Titanic.

Brooks and his conservative colleagues are probably right to feel alarmed. Confronting economic malaise, the country seems to be heading back into one of its perennial populist cycles. John Edwards attempted to mine such sentiment in 2008, but now it is the Republicans who are profiting from this predominantly white, non-college educated voter backlash.

Voter surveys reveal the extent of the Democrats' problem. According to exit polls, Obama carried white voters without college degrees in Massachusetts, 57 percent to 42 percent for McCain back in November, 2008. Scott Brown however carried those same voters, 62 percent to 37 percent over Democrat Martha Coakley.

While there was no outpouring for a right wing agenda, Brown got 50,000 more votes than McCain. Some polling data from Massachusetts suggests that the Democrats lost support not only from the white working class but also from senior citizens. While Coakley carried Cambridge and the student vote with 84% of the vote as well as Boston, she lost communities elsewhere in the state such as Andover, Middleborough, and Weymouth.

According to the Boston Globe, a whopping 61% of voters in Massachusetts believed that the federal government paid too much attention to big banks and Wall Street instead of average people. Brown effectively capitalized on this sentiment: he captured the vote of those who felt the economy was not doing well, 56-to-39 percent. The AFL-CIO has gone as far to say that what happened in Massachusetts was nothing less than a "working class revolt." As Jeff Crosby of the AFL CIO put it, "Many working-class people who voted for Brown were voting for the blue-collar underdog against the Washington elite."

Most alarmingly for Democrats, even union household voters, which are generally at least 15% to 20% more Democratic than the American electorate as a whole, voted 49 to 46 percent for Brown over Coakley. Moreover, Coakley did relatively poorly in some of Massachusetts' Democratic strongholds including smaller working class cities. Mourning the GOP victory, which ended the Democrats' supermajority in the Senate, Crosby wondered "Would an aggressive labor-populist campaign have won this election? I think so.

In the months and years to come, we're likely to hear much more talk about "populism" in our politics. But, what does it all mean?

I first got interested in populism in graduate school at the University of Miami. There, I took a fascinating class with Professor Steve Stein about populism in Latin America. I was amazed at the number of published articles on the subject, which had seemingly become a cottage industry. Stein, author of the insightful Populism in Peru, assigned us readings dealing with classic populists such as Cardenas, Peron and Vargas.

In Latin America, many populists stress their own personal, messianic struggle and deride vaguely defined powerful interests in an effort to identify with the masses. They frequently come out of the military. Masters of psychological manipulation and demagoguery, they rely on the media and employ symbolism and mass rallies to bind the leader to political followers in a paternalistic manner. While Latin American populism is not necessarily identified with the right, its leaders tend to emphasize nationalism as a core element. At other times, populists may employ anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Though populists may carry out some progressive change once they get into power and favor the working and middle classes, they are never truly revolutionary. Juan Peron, an opportunist who attacked Argentina's oligarchy, advocated modest social reform. His political career was aided through the demagogic appeal of his wife and ex-radio actress Evita. Together, Juan and Evita developed a personality cult facilitated through use of posters, press and radio propaganda and stage managed events.

If Latin American populists made skilled use of radio in the twentieth century, today's populists must master the media environment to an even greater degree if they wish to thrive. In certain respects, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela harks back to classic populism. Like Peron, he came out of the military. And, like other populists, he emerged during a period of acute political and economic instability which facilitated his rise to power.

Through use of television and his own personal TV show, Alo, Presidente!, Chavez has sought to appeal to the masses in a direct and personal way. Messianic in style, he employs anti-imperialist rhetoric while deriding his political opponents. He has integrated the working poor into his movement through skillful symbols such as the color red [for a closer discussion of this, see my chapter "Red is the Color of Revolution," in my latest book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left].

If you compare and contrast Latin American populists, you notice many similarities but also significant differences across time and space. While taking Stein's class, I frequently recall feeling frustrated by populism's slipperiness. Years after graduate school, I went back to Miami to deliver a talk and sat down with Stein once again to talk populism [the result was this interview in my local paper, Brooklyn Rail, which you can read here].

As if the discussion surrounding populism could become no thornier, Stein brought up the issue of "neo-populism" in Latin America. Traditionally, populists would redistribute wealth in society but neo-populists like Alberto Fujimori of Peru actually pursued policies which increased poverty while employing some of the propagandistic and psychological tools of classic populism.

Because populism is often times ideologically inchoate, writers like Michael Kazin have defined this political phenomenon as more of a style of organizing than a concrete set of principles. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has little in common with the likes of Hugo Chavez. Yet, many have referred to the billionaire media mogul turned politician as a populist, albeit of the rightist variety.

In economic orientation, Berlusconi is akin to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher and has pursued "neo-liberal" economic policies stressing privatization, tax cuts and deregulation. His flag-waving patriotism, taboo in Italy since Mussolini's heyday, has alienated the intelligentsia while appealing to the masses.

On the stump, writes Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times, Berlusconi "comes off like a wired Steve Forbes with a touch of Eva Peron." Unbelievably egotistical, vulgar and crass, he speaks with braggadocio and possesses an "unfettered self-aggrandizing streak." Fatuously and ridiculously, Berlusconi even invented a word to describe himself: "entusiasmatore." The adjective underscores Berlusconi's hyper-salesmanship which aided his rise from Milan real estate developer to Italy's richest businessman.

The New Statesman says that Berlusconi is a product of the modern TV age and has used his media "to create a populist image that draws on commonly known figures from myth, fairy tale and legend...he is David battling Goliath, King Midas and Casanova all at once. He is the successful entrepreneur, the restless manager, the king of the airwaves, and the caring father and husband."

Berlusconi's political campaigns have become a startling marketing phenomenon over the years. For example, in 2001 the politician's face appeared on billboards and banners all across Italy and pedestrians could not cross a single corner without seeing the media mogul's cheery mien. As if that was not enough, Berlusconi printed up and distributed a whopping 12 million glossy magazine copies of his autobiography.

While establishment European politicians surely mock Berlusconi in private, they would do well to sit up and take heed. Though the Italian politician is easily caricatured, his media mystique has proven resilient. Given the right conditions, populists of Berlusconi's ilk could conceivably emerge elsewhere, an eventuality which many Europeans would surely wish to avoid.

Some might argue that it's misplaced to draw comparisons between Italian or Latin populism and the United States. To be sure, this country hasn't produced nearly as many colorful or bombastic populists as Latin America, yet the U.S. south would appear to specialize in such personalities. From Huey Long to Ross Perot to John Edwards to even Jesse Jackson, the south, which arguably has more cultural affinity to Latin America than the U.S. north, seems to be particularly suited to populist politics.

The story of Ross Perot demonstrates just how easy it is for a rightist to pick up populist momentum. Like Berlusconi, Perot was also a billionaire but sold himself as an underdog fighting the establishment. A charming, folksy businessman with a Texas twang, Perot proved himself to be a superb political salesman. Like many other populists, the Texan had a penchant for reducing complex political issues to short, pithy slogans.

Millions of Americans, fed up with a corrupt and wasteful political system, were drawn to Perot during the billionaire's two runs for the presidency in 1992 and 1996. In both cases, Perot ran as an independent, anti-tax figure pledging to restore power to the people. Had he won, we might have witnessed the emergence of a jingoistic, militarist government blended with top down corporate-style leadership and a cult of personality.

Chip Berlet has remarked that Perot subtly encouraged nationalist xenophobia as an antidote to corporate globalization, a narrative picked up by others such as Patrick Buchanan. "American Perot-nistas," wrote the late columnist Molly Ivins, "bear a superficial resemblance to the Argentine variety. What we have here is a strongman, a right-wing populist: no party, no program -- just a cult of personality. All he needs now is an Evita."

In the U.S, populism has typically taken two forms: left wing and right wing. The first directs its ire against speculators who derive their money from the people who work in factories and offices. The second targets immigrants, blacks, the unemployed, and others -- groups that are perceived to be depriving the hard working of their rightful money. Sometimes, these two populist forms appear together. The white working class, which is embattled and may see itself under threat from both above and below, may be particularly susceptible to populist overtures.

Some might argue that populism isn't always a retrograde phenomenon on the American political scene. In the south, however, even progressive populists have turned out to be autocrats. Huey Long, who emerged during the Great Depression, played on economic anxieties while appealing to the common man. In his public declarations he would speak colloquially and, arms thrown wide, throw his fists down on the podium. A psychological master of radio, Long would typically address his listeners informally as "my friends," quote scripture and urge listeners to tell their friends that he was on the air.

Out in the countryside, he would brag of growing up barefoot and poor even though he came from a comfortable background. "How many of you wear silk socks?," he would ask. As the hands went up, Long would bend over and pull up his pants legs to show that he too had cotton socks. Then he would ask, "How many of you have holes in your socks?" When a couple of farmers would show their holes, Huey would proudly pull off one of his own socks to show his big toe sticking out.

While it's true that Long, as governor and later Senator from Louisiana, did a lot of good for ordinary folk by building roads, enacting educational reforms and building public works projects, he was also a kind of Juan Peron in miniature. Long for example forced the state legislature to increase his power, orchestrated elections and padded the voting lists. A virtual dictator, he even corralled the state militia to serve as his personal police force.

Just because we haven't had a memorable populist like Huey Long for a long time doesn't mean that a well organized populist campaign can't succeed politically. Perhaps, if Hillary Clinton had not been in the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and split the white working class vote, John Edwards might have secured his party's backing. In theory Edwards had a lot going for him including a compelling biography and social message as well as an economic downturn which favored his combative populist discourse. Indeed, Edwards arguably had more success with his populist appeals than any politician since Ross Perot.

The son of a North Carolina millworker, Edwards grew up in a tiny town and was the first in his family to attend college. As far back as 2004 when he first campaigned for president, Edwards emphasized his life story in an effort to appeal to the working class. Even this first campaign had an element of populism with its critique of "two Americas," one for the affluent and the other for the common man. In the years after Kerry's failed bid for the White House, Edwards took up the issue of poverty and established ties to organized labor.

Like Long, Edwards seems to have embellished his family history somewhat in an effort to demonstrate his populist credentials. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, Edwards was solidly middle class growing up. Writing in L.A. Weekly, Doug Ireland remarks that Edwards' father "quickly climbed upward, becoming a monitor of worker productivity as a 'time-study' man -- which any labor organizer in the South will tell you is a polite term for a stoolie who spies on the proletarian mill hands to get them to speed up production for the same low wages. Daddy Edwards' grassing got him promoted to supervisor, then to plant manager -- and he finally resigned to start his own business as a consultant to the textile industry."

On the stump in 2008, Edwards played up the fiery rhetoric. "We're now made up of a few rich people who are doing extremely well and everybody else," he declared in a speech. "Washington's response has been 'Greed is good. Take care of the lobbyists. Take care of the special interests.' There's another two Americas that exist in this country: there's one for the lobbyists, for the special interests, for the powerful, for the big multinational corporations and there's another one for everybody else. Well I'm here to say that their America is over!" When he was asked at a press conference whether he was playing up class warfare Edwards responded, "If you call wanting to give everybody a chance 'class warfare,' then so be it. That's what I'm for."

Edwards, who wore broken-in jeans during his campaign stops, always sought to establish symbolic ties to the working class. His campaign tour for example was called "The Road to One America." His biggest applause lines on the stump came when he railed against free trade agreements like NAFTA and promised to clamp down on U.S. employers who hired undocumented workers.

During one Edwards rally in Des Moines, the candidate was joined by pop singer John Mellencamp. The Guardian newspaper reported, "The former North Carolina senator's rhetoric chimed well with the melodies of Mellencamp - an Indiana singer who echoes Edwards' populist, everyman tone...Mellencamp performed a solo acoustic set, offering renditions of five hit songs that described life in small-town America, like the mill town in which Edwards grew up. At one point, he led the audience in a chorus: 'From the east coast, to the west coast, down the Dixie highway, back home. This is our country.'"

If anything populist politics has been ramped up even more since the 2008 election, not too surprising given the rise in the unemployment rate and tough economic straits facing average Americans. On the Republican side, faux populist Scott Brown wears a brown leather "barn coat" in an effort to come off as a rugged outdoorsman. "Whereas Obama had to force himself to nibble French fries and drink beer (instead of his organic Black Forest Berry Honest Tea) during the Pennsylvania primary," writes New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "Brown truly loves diners, Pepsi, Waffle Houses and the unwashed masses."

Brown hides his elitist agenda by posing as a truck-driving common man. "The truck in question," according to GQ magazine, was a 2005 GMC Canyon pickup "with a purported 200,000 miles on its odometer, evidently registered deeply with voters, and featured prominently in Brown's stump speeches and advertising, telegraphing the empathy the former nude Cosmo model-turned-lawyer-turned-state senator and owner of five properties, felt for the working classes."

Not to be outdone, Obama is now, belatedly, trying to cast himself as a populist too. The White House favors a new tax on banks and new restrictions on banking activities. In his State of the Union address, Obama roared that Americans were angry at "bad behavior on Wall Street." American "cynicism," Obama declared, was the result of "selfish" bankers, CEOs who rewarded themselves "for failure" and lobbyists who "gamed" the system. In Ohio Obama said he would campaign against the banks, and used the word fight or fighting a whopping 22 times in one speech.

Meanwhile, old campaign hand David Plouffe wants Obama to get out of Washington more and give lots of speeches in the heartland. Time magazine says that in an effort to push financial reform Obama intends to "shift from an inside game to an outside game, from passive leader of a divided party to active agitator for change. The idea is to take an uncompromising stand, make a clear case to the public and then force lawmakers to choose sides -- as opposed to announcing general principles, letting Congress hash out its own details at its own pace and then desperately cutting deals to try to cobble together 60 Senators."

Precisely a year ago, I wrote an online article arguing that Obama could be America's first "techno-populist:"

"Obama is uniquely positioned to remake politics through the internet and to spur more popular engagement. Unlike Reagan or FDR, or recent Latin American populists for that matter, Obama has an amazing thirteen-million name contact list with 2 million volunteers. No president has ever entered office with this much information, which could truly revolutionize progressive politics. 'It is a mechanism that could truly morph the power structure in Washington,' notes a recent article in Esquire magazine, 'waking up the unused, overslept public...and making an end run around lobbyists and interest groups.' Recently, Obama launched the formation of a new group known as 'Organizing for America' which seeks to continue the grassroots advocacy of the presidential campaign and capitalize on the e-mail list. But up to now, 'Obama 2.0' has failed to live up to its full potential. Belatedly, Organizing for America sent out an e-mail on January 30th, urging supporters to hold 'house parties' designed to discuss the economic collapse and back Obama's stimulus. By that point however, the GOP had already taken to the airwaves, effectively blunting the President's message. What's more, house parties are hardly the most effective method of grassroots organizing. Could Obama be America's first 'techno-populist'? He has certainly squandered his first opportunity, begging the question of what the President has in store for Organizing for America."

Needless to say, one year later the promise of techno-populism still remains unfulfilled, suggesting that Obama is nervous about popular mobilization. Still, perhaps Obama has something of the populist in him. At times, his rhetorical style is reminiscent of Jesse Jackson.

On the PBS News Hour, pundit Mark Shields said that just because Obama went to Harvard Law School did "not in any way preclude his leading a populist revolution." Shields added, "remember that this establishmentarian, this president of the Harvard Law School, what did he do? He became a community organizer...He turned down Supreme Court clerkships...I would just like to see -- Robert Frost once said about Jack -- to Jack Kennedy, be more Boston and less Harvard. And Barack Obama is equally as complex and complicated as anybody else. And I would like to see him be more Chicago and less establishmentarian."

Others are more skeptical of a fundamental rebranding. In a rejoinder to his News Hour colleague, David Brooks remarked of Obama, "He went to Harvard Law School. He went to Columbia University. He appointed Tim Geithner, Larry Summers. You know, that's not who he is. He is a member of the establishment. He talks like it. He thinks like that."

"Obama is not a natural populist," writes Washington Post columnist Dan Balz, "even though he once was a community organizer. As a candidate, he was the antithesis of the class warrior. He did not attack bank bailouts when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned of an imminent collapse of the financial system in September 2008." Michael Gerson, Balz' colleague at the Post, chimed in by opining "Obama's main limitation as a class warrior is this: He is the least convincing populist I have ever seen. His manner is cold and cerebral."

If Obama is unsuccessful at his rebranding, some other populist could easily corral support from seniors and disaffected, undereducated white voters. According to recent polling, a plurality within both groups now disapprove of Obama's job performance. In five or ten years, we could see demographic shifts and the white working class vote may not matter as much. For the time being, however, the Democrats must take this slippage seriously. In particular, within the south and Midwestern states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and even in northern states like Massachusetts, these constituencies matter come election time. Seniors could represent a special liability as they turn out disproportionately in midterm elections.

It is these two constituencies which have represented the key source of populist anger with the Obama administration. Consider for a moment the case of the Tea Partiers, essentially a group of right wing populists. Review footage of the Tea Partiers at their rallies and you will see mostly aging white folk. The Tea Party movement has organized anti-tax protests across the country but it now seeks to field political candidates. The Tea Parties, according to the New York Times, "have proven their populist rage can be a power, whether to destroy Republicans -- driving one out of a special Congressional election in upstate New York -- or elect them in the most surprising of places, like Massachusetts."

All summer long liberal pundits mocked the Tea Party but if this movement should acquire a leader it could shake up national politics. Sarah Palin or Scott Brown could be contenders, though other lesser known figures might emerge in the days ahead. We could, for example, see the emergence of someone with a military background who promises to clean house, i.e. along the Latin American populist model. Or, maybe the next right wing populist will be someone more akin to Ross Perot and pledge to install a top-down managerial style in Washington, i.e. Michael Bloomberg (a less crass media mogul than Berlusconi). Another possible contender is someone like Lou Dobbs, the crackpot xenophobic heir to Perot and Buchanan. One line of attack for right wing populists is likely to center around global warming: they will accuse the Democrats of wanting to stifle economic development and insinuate that their opponents are environmental elitists.

What should the left do to counter such rising populist ire on the right? Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation has warned about the "generalized anti-establishment anger at loose in this country, reinforced by a White House team that has delivered for Wall Street but not enough for hurting communities." In the aftermath of the Massachusetts election, the Democrats could no longer afford to run as an establishment party. Indeed, she noted, "Going populist is now smart politics and good policy."

Now in a panic attack, Democrats seem to have finally woken up to their image problem. They want white progressive populist Ed Schultz to run for Senate in North Dakota in order to take over retiring Byron Dorgan's seat. Schultz, who hosts the Ed Schultz Show on MSNBC, is a rather corpulent and colorful host who frequently goes on rants against "the righties." Speaking with a twang, he specializes in shoot-from-the-hip-style rhetoric and shouts into the camera.

Like it or hate it, populism is now staging a comeback on the American political stage. "A year ago," writes Jeff Crosby of the AFL-CIO, "the Democrats crowed that the Republicans were 'irrelevant.' Today, the Republicans think the Democrats are mortally wounded. Both are wrong. In our non-ideological party landscape, in hard times whoever strikes the best pose of wounded underdog wins."

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