The Right Kind of American Populism

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, July 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Right Kind of American Populism


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

Economically populist causes and candidates have not had the best of runs in recent decades. Jerry Brown tried it in 1992, as did Ross Perot. Eight years later, in an echo of his father's New Deal origins, Al Gore campaigned for president talking about the "people versus the powerful," a theme John Edwards unsuccessfully appropriated in 2004 and 2008. If anything could have given new life to old-style populism, the financial meltdown of 2008-09 should have--but, remarkably, it did not.

At first, in the age of Jackson, American populism was about money; later, in the age of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, it became more about culture. It is admittedly difficult to draw precise lines between these things (money is inescapably a driver of culture, and power is a common denominator), but it is safe to think of economic and cultural populism as two different, if occasionally intersecting and overlapping, forces.

Safe, and useful, for the passage of financial-reform legislation in the House last week and a dispiriting report on jobs brought the curious history of populism to mind. Given the clinical economic and political facts of the hour, we should be living through a Jacksonian era of hostility to the rich and the well connected. Those whom Jackson called "the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers" ought to be generating substantial political pressure to exact reparations from, and impose severe new regulations on, the plutocratic few. Unemployment remains high; poverty too pervasive and intractable; the moneyed classes too skilled at the Washington game to make contests over economic justice even remotely fair fights.

And yet the pitchforks are being brandished not to encourage government to curb the excesses of the elite but to warn the citizenry that the government has turned into a socialistic threat to free enterprise.

Populism's shift from economics to culture in America is as important a development in our politics as the rise of civil rights at home or the fall of the Soviet Union abroad. Without an effective progressive economic movement, questions about wealth and power become questions of degree, not kind. The status quo is accepted (that's why it's called the status quo), and even the ablest of modern Democratic politicians find themselves at work in an arena defined by those with an interest in limiting reform and thwarting revolutions. …

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