The Roots of Conservative Populism

By Bresler, Robert J. | USA TODAY, May 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Roots of Conservative Populism

Bresler, Robert J., USA TODAY


THE BUCHANAN INSURGENCY will not disappear soon. Pat Buchanan has tapped a source of anger, alienation, and anxiety boiling beneath the surface of American politics. He dubs himself a populist, a concept that embodies an attitude more than an ideology. Populist figures such as William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan can not be categorized easily. They all, however, invoked the virtues of the common folk and the corruption of the elites.

Many populist causes are based upon genuine grievances, yet populism has a dark side. It oversimplifies the political dialogue and often takes refuge in a search for scapegoats. The list has varied over time--evil bankers, greedy railroaders, arrogant bureaucrats, undesirable immigrants, corrupt corporate executives, militant civil rights leaders, and the decadent media.

Populists speak to the unarticulated frustrations of ordinary citizens beset by economic and cultural changes beyond their control or comprehension. In times of profound change and uncertainty, such explosions can tear a democratic society to shreds. Witness Adolf Hitler and the Weimar Republic, and many shiver to think who will emerge from the stormy politics of contemporary Russia.

American has been fortunate. Reassuring leaders, effective programs, and intervening events eventually have quieted the voices of flame-throwing populists. The Democratic Party absorbed the Populist Party in the 1890s, and both Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson translated many of their concerns into programs. In the 1930s and 1940s, the promise of the New Deal, the leadership of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, and the economic prosperity of the war years smothered the demagogic appeals of Father Charles Coughlin, while Long's movement ended with his assassination.

The early years of the Cold War gave us the first conservative populist--Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R.-Wisc.). Like Long and Father Coughlin, McCarthy found support among the white working class. Even young Sen. John F. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) refrained from attacking McCarthy for fear of antagonizing many of his Irish-Catholic supporters. Eventually, the end of the Korean War, the prosperity of the 1950s, the reassuring leadership of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, and McCarthy's own reckless behavior muted the senator's appeal and, for a time, the populist anger he had aroused.

It erupted again in the 1960s when civil rights leaders, anti-war students, and their supporters in Washington replaced communist subversives as the chief villains. This anger found its champion in Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who attacked black leaders, excoriated anti-war liberals, and ridiculed "pointy-headed bureaucrats." As with McCarthy, Wallace gave populism a cultural edge. Wallace's showing in the 1968 presidential election (13% of the popular vote) should have been a fire bell in the night for the political establishment of the Democratic Party and a clear warning that they were losing their grip on the allegiance of the white working class.

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