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.