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The Ghost of Populism Walks Again

Geoff Nunberg
"Fresh Air" Commentary, 3/30/09

Rage is all the rage right now, particularly the populist sort. Over the last month, I counted almost 200 news stories that paired populist with items like rage, fury, and frenzy, four times as many as in the whole of 2008. And there were more than 100 that mentioned AIG along with pitchfork, the implement that Stephen Colbert brandished as he urged his listeners to join him in forming an angry mob. The cover of the most recent Newsweek announced a feature section called "The Thinking Man’s Guide to Populist Rage" over a still from the 1931 film version of Frankenstein that shows the villagers in pursuit of the monster, with torches, cudgels, and dogs. 

Tongue-in-cheek or not, those images suggest the specters that populism triggers for a lot of people: demagoguery, social disorder, mob rule, and a new age of class warfare. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Suzanne Garment warned Obama that you couldn't just stir up a little bit of populism and turn it off when it gets inconvenient. Populism is dangerous, she said, recalling the racism that tainted some adherents of the original capital-P Populists, the radical movement that flourished in the western states and the South during the depression of the 1890’s. They advocated curtailing corporate power, an eight-hour day, and a graduated income tax -- proposals frightening enough to lead their critics to describe them as "wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatics."

But that's playing a little fast and loose with the P-word. Unless you're Stephen Colbert, it’s a big jump from figurative pitchforks to literal ones. Whatever people are getting at when they talk about the "populist rage" right now, it has only a remote etymological connection to earlier social movements. In fact the small-p populist label that people have been throwing around was actually an invention of the age of Nixon, not the age of McKinley. For more than half a century after the original Populists fell apart around 1900, their name was relegated to the historical dustbin, alongside of other forgotten third-party movements like the Free-Soilers and the Greenbackers. It was only with the political realignment of the late sixties that people revived populist to describe the candidates who were wooing the votes of the blue-collar workers and white Southerners who had abandoned their traditional allegiance to the Democrats. George Wallace was designated a populist, and so were Spiro Agnew and Hubert Humphrey.[1]

In 1972, the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote an article in the New York Times called "The Ghost of Populism Walks Again." He marvelled at the way the word populist was suddenly turning up in "improbable and unaccustomed quarters" -- what, he wondered, would an old-style nineteenth-century Populist have made at hearing the label claimed by a young West Virginia politician who bore the name of John D. Rockefeller IV?[2]

In his book The Populist Persuasion, the historian Michael Kazin says that populism is less an ideology than a language. Whether they come from the left, right, or center, populists claim to speak for the values of decent, ordinary people against the rich and privileged. But of course there are a lot of ways to carve the world into us's and thems: you can pit the provinces against the metropolis, the common man against economic royalists, the people who work hard and play by the rules against the fat cats who work the system, the normal Joe Sixpack American against the out-of-touch chardonnay-sipping elite.

Given its ideological promiscuity, it isn’t surprising that populist can be a positive or negative word, sometimes in the same sentence. My populist has the common touch; your populist is a pandering demogogue. But then any label that can apply to both Lou Dobbs and Hugo Chavez has got to have a fair amount of contextual flex built into it.

Still, whoever's deploying it, the language of populism always involves a direct appeal to the emotions. There's a lot of pop in modern American populism -- its immediate roots are in Hollywood and Nashville, not in the political movements of the nineteenth century. Listening to Reagan, Clinton, or Palin at their populist best, you don't hear any traces of the florid oritundities of William Jennings Bryan, who spoke in sentences hundreds of words long and studded his speeches with allusions to Cicero, Napoleon, and Peter the Hermit. You hear the echoes of Frank Capra's "little man" movies of the thirties, or of later films like "On the Waterfront" and "Twelve Angry Men," "Norma Rae" and "Rocky."

Actually, the biggest risk of modern populism is less that it will devolve from anger into violence than that it will tip from sentimentality into kitsch. It's a short step from Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds to Joe the Plumber, or from Merle Haggard to Toby Keith. In fact nowadays the word populist doesn't refer just to those who claim to speak for the downtrodden, but to anyone or anything whose appeal is down-home, down-to-earth, or down-market -- Banana Republic pants, the Linux operating system, Oscar de la Renta's mid-price fashion line.[3]

 That's helps to explain a curious linguistic difference between populist and words like liberal and conservative. We readily describe politicians as populists, but we're hesitant to use the word for the people they're trying to appeal to. We don't talk about populist Americans, populist voters, or populist radio listeners -- it’s as if the targets of populist rhetoric aren't supposed to be aware they're being worked on.

So there's an inescapable condescension in all those references to populist rage. Sure, people are angry, and everybody's trying to get a piece of it. But why do we have to reach for a special word populist when we're talking about the anger directed at the venality and arrogance of the rich, as if it's inevitably the product of class antagonisms? Can't I be angry just in my capacity as a citizen? And for that matter, why automatically assume we're dealing with rage, which is the violent emotion born of helplessness and powerlessness? Credit "ordinary Americans" with a measure of common sense. What we're seeing is simply an outpouring of public indignation, not populist rage. And that sound you hear isn't pitchforks, just a couple of hundred million people talking back to their car radios.

[1] In 1968, the New York Times reported, James Buckley, the Conservative Party candidate for the New York Senate seat, was asked if he considered George Wallace a conservative. No, Buckley replied, he was more of a Populist, adding "an old-fashioned word, I know." The Times went on to explain that "the Populist Party, also known as the People's Party, was founded in 1891 and ran Presidential tickets from 1892 through 1908." The assumption, obviously, was that "Populist" would not be familiar to the paper's readers. Return

[2] Beginning around this period, historians and political scientists and sociologists also applied populism retrospectively to a current of American popular movements going back to the Jacksonian period or before, and more broadly -- this in concert with uses of a related term in Russian -- to a range of social and political movements found in other countries. My sense is that the "populism" that the media like to invoke has only an incidental relation to these movements. I'm not thinking just of the pitchfork hysteria of the Wall Street Journal's editorialists: to describe the appeal of Sarah Palin as "semi-Poujadism," as Jonathan Raban did in the London Review of Books, is in its own way just as obtusely condescending. Return

[3] "This is a great time for Pinot Noir. The purists are going to be very resistant to change. They don't want to see their grape drunk by 25-year-olds at Mecca. But these are the first populist Pinot Noirs." The San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 2006. Return

Copyright © 2008 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.