It is hard to imagine successful politicians, such as George W. Bush, John Kerry, Bill Frist and Hillary Clinton, for example, as populists. In fact, it has been a long time since any successful American politician seemed to fit the populist model. Politicians who practice divisive politics by focusing their messages (a.k.a lies) to well defined groups on the left or right are not populists. A true populist would try to appeal broadly, across the entire population, especially to the least privileged that make up the majority of people, not the smartest, not the richest, not the most educated Americans.
Writing in The Progressive Report, Don Stasi in a diatribe against the ring-wing conservative movement said that "a huge portion of the American public has been fed populist pabulum and little else for the past seventy years." I disagree. They have not been fed a genuine, honest populist message. That some left (progressive) and right (conservative) political messages, or green and libertarian ones, are popular with certain segments of the population does not make them populist messages.
Writing in the Guardian, Ralf Dahrendorf, a member of the British House of Lords, recently decried successful populists worldwide, saying: "It does not take long for voters to discover that the promises of populists were empty. Once in power, they simply make for bad government. ... populist episodes are signs of an underlying instability that neither serves national progress nor contributes to international order." Elitists don't respect populists, especially successful ones in developing nations. In developing nations populists often use military force to obtain power. By itself that does not negate their populist ideals. When economic-power elites control a nation there often is no alternative to violent overthrow of their government.
Here are some thoughts on what populism should be about, so that calling someone a populist can be seen for what it is, either a correct description, something to be proud of, or just a slur. Another attempt at accountability in a society filled with hype, spin and lies.
A populist must surely be a status quo buster by representing the interests of non-elites, the larger public of working- and middle-class people that are the victims of elitists. A true populist relates to the common person because he or she by virtue of their entire background is more of a common person than an elitist. It's hard to see someone who has graduated from Harvard or Yale, for example, as a populist. Nor can a child of a U.S. president or senator or some billionaire easily achieve credibility as a populist. Populists are not part of the establishment; they are fundamentally and aggressively anti-establishment. Bill Clinton with his Arkansas background tried to be a populist, but failed because he sought and achieved elite status through his education and ambition. Al Gore has done a little better trying to be a true populist. In contrast, John Edwards and Howard Dean as candidates seemed real populists. And this illustrates that America today is so much of an elitist plutocracy that true populists are not likely to win because they probably lack the resources and support of power elites to prevail.
The Encyclopedia Britannica provides this useful view of populism: "Political program or movement that champions the common person, usually by favourable contrast with an elite. Populism usually combines elements of the left and right, opposing large business and financial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labour parties. In the U.S. the term was applied to the program of the Populist movement of the 1890s."
Power to the people is a fine populist tradition. Sadly, it has a place in America as a quaint bit of nostalgia, not as a dominant principle of our society. Interestingly, some current media successes have a strong and genuine populist persona, including Jon Stewart, Don Imus, and Lou Dobbs. Others, however, are pure elitists. Take New York Times columnist David Brooks, please somebody take him to another planet where endless suburban sprawl is universally adored. Agonizing over the Lamont primary win in Connecticut he recently said that "Polarized primary voters shouldn't be allowed to define the choices in American politics." Pure elitism. And then there is Bill O'Reilly who deludes himself and tries to fool everyone else that he is a populist that can be trusted by common Americans. In truth, he is a rich and powerful media elitist. But he has the populist shtick down pat.
A true populist puts people above partisanship. A Democrat or Republican that turns populist stops being a team player and becomes a traitor to their party. Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter after achieving their highest political office became populists. A successful populist politician must be smart and articulate, actually smarter and more articulate than conventional elitist ones with big power and money behind them. As for Texans, think Lyndon Johnson, Bill Moyers and now Kinky Friedman. On his worst day campaigning for the governorship of Texas, Kinky Friedman exhibits more smarts through clever language than George W. Bush on his best day. Bush often tries to look and sound like a populist man of the people, as if being inarticulate, sounding stupid, and slaughtering the English language makes someone a populist. Tony Blair is a lot more of a populist. Don't get me wrong, highly educated and sophisticated (and even rich) persons can be great populist leaders. Recall John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, for example, that with longer political careers probably would have cemented their populist credentials. Ronald Reagan's political success had much to do with his populist persona. But his administration was not peopled with populists.
The whole American political system is stacked against populism. Some tools of direct democracy have been seized by elitist interests. Ballot initiatives and measures, for example, are often perverted by well funded efforts to defeat something on the ballot that would truly serve the public interest. Or some measures designed to benefit some elitist special interest are deceptively pushed on the public. Or, when citizen-driven measures are passed, powerful economic interests work the legislative system to negate them. Many electoral reforms would help populists have a better chance of succeeding, especially ones making it easier for third-parties to get on ballots, but they are opposed by elitist interests. And the mainstream media works hard to keep third-party candidates unknown to the public.
The Populist Paradox
The core problem is that "common" Americans are too distracted, too victimized by the propaganda of corporatist mainstream media and lying politicians, and too alienated altogether from the political system (as evidenced by low voter turnout). So, paradoxically, a true and honest populist has a hard time becoming popular enough to win against elite, corrupt and dishonest political opponents. Call this the populist paradox – a new type of tragedy of the commons – and a uniquely American phenomenon. What irony, here in what is touted as the world's greatest democracy, populism and populists have been slaughtered.
This paradox now defines our delusional democracy. In a quality, trustworthy representative democracy populists would be the dominant political leaders. Instead, we have an army of privileged elites, if not by virtue of their birth, education and career, then certainly because they have transcended their commoner background to become elitists, typically by being corrupted by corporate power elites, succumbing to their own greed or thirst for power, or being successful crooks for awhile (as in recent cases of corrupt congressmen and governors).