Populists Edwards, Huckabee spur competitors’ talk of economic inequality

Saturday, February 2, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:00 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

With Super-Duper Tuesday on the horizon, we’re hearing a lot of a word that had pretty well disappeared from Americans’ political lexicon. No, I’m not talking about “liberal.” Nobody except the occasional bloviator wants to be called that. I mean the word “populist.”

Former Democratic candidate John Edwards (he quit the race this week) is a populist, we’re told. So is Republican Mike Huckabee. Even the elites of their parties, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, have been described as relying on populist appeals.

All that label-dropping leads me to wonder what Sockless Jerry Simpson or Pitchfork Ben Tillman would think. I suspect they’d wonder about the historical literacy of some 21st century talking heads and print pundits.

It’s true that my American Heritage dictionary defines populism as “a political philosophy opposing the concentration of wealth in the hands of corporations, the government, and the rich.” In its heyday, though, populism meant a lot more than just a philosophy. Some of what it meant wasn’t pretty.

Around the turn of the last century, populism was a serious political movement, even for a while an actual party with the formal name of the People’s Party. The populists ran their own candidate for president several times and didn’t get far, which might suggest a cautionary lesson for any self-styled populists today. William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats stole the original populists’ thunder and most of their votes in 1896.

More than any other candidate, John Edwards relied on the themes and the rhetoric of traditional populism. His denunciations of corporate greed and lobbyist power stir echoes of the 1890s, when depression and repression moved farmers and laborers to organize in hopes of winning higher prices, higher wages and some respect.

In his and other candidates’ speeches, “the forgotten middle class” has replaced the truly forgotten working and rural classes of 100 years ago. That said, it is striking how far in the direction of the 19th century the Bush administration has led the country.

Historians tell us that the populists, largely unsuccessful on their own, eventually saw many of their goals such as farm aid, wage and hour laws and health and safety regulations achieved under the patrician Roosevelts, the progressive Theodore and the unashamedly liberal Franklin.

Along the way, the original populists left us with some classic sayings — Mary Ellen Lease’s “Raise less corn and more hell,” for example — and those classic nicknames. Sockless Jerry served in Congress from Kansas, actually wearing socks but chewing on a straw as he pretended to be the rube he wasn’t. Pitchfork Ben, elected governor and U.S. senator from South Carolina, embodied the southern strain of populism, which was infected with a heavy dose of racism and anti-Catholicism.

The faux populists of 2008 seem likely to be no more successful at actually winning the White House than were the populists of a century ago. They’re playing a similarly important role, though, as they push their competitors to the left, in both parties.

Without Edwards, will the Democrats be as concerned about economic inequality? Without Huckabee, would the Republicans even mention poverty or hunger?

Now where’s the Roosevelt for our age?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Patricia Williams February 4, 2008 | 12:36 a.m.

Thank you for a wonderful article. But it's not over yet.

Edwards supporters in Missouri and across the country are going to the polls to vote for our candidate in the upcoming primary.

Because Senator Edwards only "suspended" his campaign, he keeps his delegates, can add more, and is still eligible to become the party's nominee.

John Edwards has strong support in the "Show Me" state and Missourians are determined to show the cable TV pundits that they can not decide who gets our vote.

Grassroots volunteers have created a series of new signs, flyers, leaflets, and Web banners to get out the message "Suspended NOT Ended" and the many reasons why we are still voting for John Edwards. (Available for download at the volunteer site http:/www./ Many of us brought these new materials along with the chips to Super Bowl parties Sunday. And we will be showing our grassroots support for "The People's President" Monday and Tuesday.

The other populist candidate for President, Governor Huckabee, rightfully characterized Romney's public suggestion he drop out of the race as "presumptuous". Like his supporters, we in the Edwards camp are not going anywhere except to the polls.

I'm proud to be a Tiger and a John Edwards supporter.

(Report Comment)
Lee morgan February 4, 2008 | 1:55 a.m.

I appreciate your article on populism; however, I do long for a day when the press/media didn't use the word as if it were a bad one. lol In simplest terms, it means "for the people".

The election cycle has seen a couple of populists step forward. In my opinion, John Edwards is the best of those -- having laid out the very platform his Democrat counterparts are running on and having articulated the message and language they are both using to reach the American public. While they are speaking the language, they have yet to adequately address the important issues of a true populist's stand. Perhaps this is because John Edward's background is in tune with those issues in a way that the remaining candidates cannot identify, for him it is personal. Have the other two candidates ever even punched a timecard at any time in their lives?

Fortunately, while his campaign is suspended, it is NOT ended. A vote for John Edwards still counts and he will still continue to collect delegates. (Don't let anyone tell you differently either because misinformation is rampant.)

This campaign was 'for the people' and those very same people have chosen to take a stand. We have decided to stand for our candidate and our causes. We will proudly vote for John Edwards, and we ask other people to do likewise.

(Report Comment)
Phyllis Riley February 5, 2008 | 1:51 a.m.

As a proud Edwards supporter, I must reiterate that the John Edwards candidacy, is Suspended, Not Ended. John started his campaign 16 months ago, but many of his supporters have been supporters since 2003. His message is one of: look at what is in front, in back and beneath you, do you like what you see? if not, change it, help make it better. He is actually the original candidate for change in this country. The others who came after him adopted change, like they adopted so many of Edwards ideas and policies. His suspension of his candidacy has caused me, to take out internet ads, to call into radio shows and email furiously when I hear Edwards policies being scurrilously misstated as though the state of our country is a game to play or watch. John says "This is an election, not an auction". Now, I am not one to sit idley by if something seems wrong to me, but, I'm certainly not the radio show caller type, and especially not the taking out ads with my own finances type. But that is what I've been doing. John Edwards, is an inspirational person, he walks the walk and I cannot do any less. I hope that the idea of a Populist(caring) President is as exciting an idea as being the first African-American President or woman, because if it isn't I feel that we are a country that will be ruled by a media group with no focus,a lower income class that is invisible with no one to stand up and speak for them and a constant fear that there but for the grace of God .... On Primary or Caucus day vote for the ideas that John put on the table. Your vote for Edwards counts! The power hungry media will not decide who my President will be. Now more than ever a vote for Edwards helps advance ideas and people. Vote Edwards on Feb 5.

(Report Comment)
Roger Lake February 5, 2008 | 2:32 a.m.

Votes in Missouri on Tuesday for JOHN EDWARDS will count

You can still vote in Missouri for John Edwards or Rudy Giuliani on Tuesday.

For that matter, you can still vote for Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Fred Thompson, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Dennis Kucinich or Bill Richardson -- all of whom ended their campaigns after the Missouri ballot was printed.

Election officials say the votes -- including absentee ballots already cast -- will be counted. That means dropouts could earn convention delegates.

But it isn't likely.

Under Democratic Party rules, a candidate must meet a 15 percent "viability" threshold to qualify for delegates, a bar that is high for candidates who aren't running.


Dave Helling,


(Report Comment)
Roger Lake February 5, 2008 | 2:49 a.m.

I'm an avid hunter, fisherman all around outdoorsmen. But I find myself living in the Great State of Missouri that has gone RED.

The Democrats have lost a lot of white male voters of all ages over the issue of the 2nd Amendment.

with that said...

I'm also a UNION member here in the Kansas City area. I've been politically active for the past 15 years in Jackson County politics. I supported John Edwards in 2004 and worked on Gore's campaign 2000.

The one thing that stood out the most for me in the 2000 election was that Democrats are going to take our GUNS. This was coming from educated Union members. I herd the same thing in 2004 and I'm still hearing it today.

I think that John Edwards could use the 2nd Amendment to motivate white male voters to vote for him. Once they realize that he is not out to take their Guns, but he is out there to improve their lives, along with the lives of their women, children and parents.

Vote for John Edwards

(Report Comment)

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