The Ideology of Populism

Author: Gary Hart

Though a kind of part-time political theorist, I’m neither a political scientist nor a political historian. So I don’t know whether populism, a periodic wave of us-against-them, is necessarily left or right. I suspect it is not necessarily either.
The question arises because the movement that calls itself the Tea Party seems almost exclusively conservative or even farther right. But its counterpart a hundred years ago was considered left or “progressive.” What the two movements have in common is anger at the status quo, distrust of power in Washington and Wall Street, a sense that the political and economic systems are not on their side, and an instinct to tear it all down.
The populist era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries lost steam when the Progressives, then, ironically enough, young Republicans, mobilized populist anger into a political agenda and mounted an era of reform. As someone cleverly said: The Populist went swimming and the Progressives stole their clothes.
The same thing is happening again in the early 21st century, although the Republicans stealing the Tea Party’s clothes are distinctly not progressive. They are turning popular anger into an anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation rant that seeks to return the country to a period that led to the earlier Populist uprising. You can’t appreciate politics or history these days without a keen sense of irony.
The Tea Party profile is heavily, though by no means exclusively, older, white, and Christian (in the institutional, not spiritual, sense of the word.) Many of its members receive Social Security and Medicare. Where do they think those programs came from? (Remember “Keep your dirty government hands off my Medicare?”) To my knowledge, no one has succeeded, or perhaps even tried, to elicit from the Tea Partiers exactly what parts of the government they want abolished.
It is not the Defense Department, nor Social Security or Medicare, or housing subsidies or a host of public policies and programs from which, knowingly or not, they benefit. You have to suspect it is all those things that benefit other Americans, but just not them. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful country if each of us got everything we wanted and no one else got anything they wanted or needed. That happened in the Soviet Union, but only if you were a member of the Politburo.
There is no member of the Tea Party who is more angry than I am at current conditions in Washington. It is corrupt and almost totally run by special interests, including special interests to which I, and Tea Party members, belong. There is little courage and almost no conviction. There is too much careerism and little nobility. While too many seek the amorphous “center”, too few look over the horizon and seek the stars. Our nation is better than this. But it will not be saved by destroying its government.

11 Responses to “The Ideology of Populism”

  1. Tim Davidson Says:

    Ask yourself why Washington is so corrupt. The answer is actually quite easy. Washington is corrupt because it is involved in so many programs that distribute so much money. Special Interest groups of all types go to Washington to obtain the money. Consider Solyndra, GM or ACORN. They all worked the political system to obtain money in pursuit of their goals. Which is why we have so many lobbyists and a Government that only answers to the folks with the most cash.
    Now, if we reduce the amount of government, then we logically reduce the motivation of people to try to influence Government.
    At this point in the life of our nation, the Government (especially the federal government) has far too much influence in our lives.
    The Tea Party is NOT an organized group and therefore does not have well established ‘official’ positions but I would imagine that most members want a smaller government that does not waste $500M on a failed solar firm that only real qualification for the money seems to be political connections.

  2. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Hey Gary. While I’m a Democrat (and proud of it), I also have populist leaning tendencies as well. My favorite? Of course, Russ Feingold! Don’t feel bad; I liked you too! I just have an affinity for Russ and his mid-Western roots. I was devastated at his loss last year. These historic ‘movements’, the late 19th/early 20th Century Populist movement, the 1960’s Left, and now the Tea Party Movement really are similar. They’re angry and want to tear it all down. I look at my ‘faves’ from the 60’s (Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin) and I think now they’ve been replaced by people like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry. Except there’s one difference; they weren’t running for office. They were working outside, not inside (or trying to get inside). And yes (sorry about this) but they were way more intellectual. The treatises they spouted while not exactly academic, they weren’t trivial either. That’s the point. The 60’s Left might have wanted to turn everything on its ear; but they were far from dumb. Sure we wanted to change things; the young always do. But we didn’t fling out nonsense. Lies. Make up stuff. Ideas were exchanged. Maybe not accepted, but exchanged. Here based on the last Republican ‘debate’ all they can come up with is shrill lies pandering to their ‘base’. And to top that, you’ve got an audience acting like a bunch of jackals. Their answer to Health Care? DIE! That my friend is the REAL scary part. THESE are the people that want to take charge? Be afraid, be VERY afraid!

  3. Brian C McCarthy Says:

    Hard to say if populism is left or right and I’m not sure any two political scientists would agree on a definition of the term. It seems to have become a meaningless label that applies to those conservatives who can convince “Joe the Plumbers” that economic policies favoring the very wealthy are somehow in their best interests as well.

  4. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    I am tired of those who divide the citizens of this country into opposing groups so that we, the people, end up fighting amongst ourselves instead of focusing on the real problems that face this Nation, Country, and People. Those in power and their supporters do not want us to realize that they are the cause of our problems and are keeping us from identifying and solving the problems.

    I am also tired of talking about what the problems are and who is to blame. It is time to act and to wrest control of government from those who have brought us to this disastrous situation in which we find ourselves. We have allowed others to ruin government instead of running it. It is now time to step forward and take action as the governed and govern ourselves instead of letting others do it to us, for they have long since stopped doing it for us. If we do not take control before the end of the next Presidential election, it will be too late to do so peacefully. I refuse to take up arms on either side of the issue should it come to that, but I will protect myself, my family, and what is rightfully mine. The Revolution is coming! You can still have input as to how it resolves the issues at hand. I agree with Senator Hart, our Nation “will not be saved by destroying its government.”

  5. Jim Engelking Says:

    Nor will it be saved by a lack of honor and courage, Gary. The deficit exists among members of both parties. The very idea that a Grover Norquist can intimidate every Republican is every bit as disturbing as a coup, because that’s what it is. Barack Obama offered us out last chance to prevent an oligarchy from totally controlling our government, and Senate Democrats torpedoed him during the summer of 2009, while Jim Demint led a partisan war to destroy his Presidency aborning. For what purpose? For whose benefit?

    I agree with you about many of the people who claim loyalty to some part of a Tea Party, which is really a multi-element complaint against government failure to support the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed. Exacerbated by post-9/11 fears and extremist evangelicism. And here we all are, at war, which we cannot afford, our public and private infrastructue old and crumbling, and almost unprecedented unemployment, destroying domestic production of and demand for goods and services. In the circumstances, even progressives find it difficult to think of the needs of other people.

  6. Joseph Furtenbacher Says:

    Q: What do you give a populist movement that has everything?
    A: A casus belli.

  7. Forest Book Says:

    Your words from “The Fourth Power” are intensely relevant: ‘Thus, one of the great challenges of strategic thinking in the current age is to convince Americans – and particularly those distrustful of their own government – that to have a national strategy is to liberate the nation’s energies in purposeful ways rather than approach the world as representing “one damn thing after another” and as requiring only ad hoc responses. // Those whose who see the world through ideological lenses will particularly resist the strategic enterprise.’ \\ The national strategy afoot is one that is concealed by this ridiculousness of blaming the government for our nations maladies: Keep control of our nations treasure in the hands of the few. It is painful to see the “serf” class defending, and actually believing the patrician class in this country cares about them. \\ So what is our national strategy? Are Americans capable of liberty?

  8. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Populism as instanced in the anger you see as a common denominator to its two waves in this country emerges in the context of historic trends. In the 19th century, there really was not the big government, Medicare, Social Security, or enormous defense spending, as there is today, but there was gilded age capitalism run amok, corporate trusts, monoplization and enormous urban blight. In that context, the Populists anger was against those corporate interests, and some useful programmatic reforms were suggested (and later, as you note, effectively stolen by the Progressives). Today, the anger emerges in a different post-New Deal context and follows thirty years of ideological pump priming by the right wing against all things governmental and redistributive, the consequence of which is that today’s Populism is less programmatic and more destructive than its earlier American version inasmuch as it has a governmental target that did not really exist in the 19th century.

  9. Publius Says:

    So we return, once again to Federalist #10. When James Madison wrote: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He could have very easily been writing about the Tea Party of today, but I fear that he was writing about the oligarchs who have wrested control of the government through their insatiable desire for more money, more power.

    Even using the Tea Party as a scapegoat and lightning rod for the liberals is part of their plan. Deflect the attention away from the elite – which controls the message and the market. How brilliant these manipulators are getting us to argue amongst ourselves as they bloat themselves, increasing their wealth while forcing more into poverty. Last week it was reported that 15% of all Americans now live in poverty and nearly 50 million have no health care. This is a country where the concentration of wealth is unacceptable, where the middle class is on the verge of extinction.

    The elite media of NewsCorp and ClearChannel perpetuate the myths of the American Dream long out of the reach of the majority. They push our needless consumption of goods and services that makes us poorer and make them richer. When was the last time that a politician of either side of the aisle called for austerity, concentrated on developing small scale sustainable methods of living and self reliance with home solar, gardens, water collection and community initiatives for instance. Never. The politicians who feed at the trough can’t get reelected without the special interest money. That money won’t be there unless we are convinced we need the crap at Wal-Mart or that our perfectly good car needs replacing every couple of years.

    We are all to blame yet we are convinced to find a scapegoat, immigrants, the poor,the liberals, the Tea Party. Unless we all realize that we’re all in this together nothing will change.

  10. MinerSam Says:

    EXCLUSIVE (in response to this convoluted treatise)

    Democrats == Popularism i.e. We The People as Employees, Shareholder, Soldiers, Women, Children, LGBS, Minorities, Elders, Workers, Small Business, New Economy Companies and intelligent CEOs.

    Republicans== The 5 million not too bright & Evil among the rich, Predatory Coporate Standards against We The People, Destruction of the Goverment We The People PAY to protect our quality of life and standard of living while we are (hopefully) busy working — And on behalf of old economy companies.

    Tea Party == GOP (Gas & Oil Party) or Republican Voters bamboozle, Microtargetted & Brainwashed into voting against their own interests, (since nobody would vote for them otherwise) Organized & paid for by the Health Insurance Industry, so they can continue to pocket 30% of every Premium dollar, and Bectel, Enron, Haliburton, Koch, BP.

    That’s the way it is and you and everyone else need to wake up fast to it!!

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    Thanks, as usual, to all contributing comments. I must say to MinerSam that
    the thesis here is pretty straightforward, not “convoluted”, and I am a pretty old dog to be told by anyone to “wake up fast.” I’m about as awake as you can get. You might consider being a little more charitable to those who don’t always see the world as simply as you do.

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