Populism Without Pitchforks

All Democratic presidential campaigns, whether desperate or confident, in good times or bad, turn populist at the end. Barack Obama's is a little different. "Quiet populism," a phrase I first saw used by Ben Smith of Politico, seems at first to be the best concise description of the Democratic nominee's recent language on the economy, with its strong commitment to rebuilding opportunity but a cool, calm, optimistic tone of national purpose.

And yet, how "quiet" can "populism" ever be? Isn't populism as we know it characterized by the forceful oppositions of, say, Al Gore's "people vs. the powerful" in the closing weeks of the 2000 campaign, or by John Edwards' "Two Americas"? Alternatively, there's a right-wing populism that sets up a dichotomy between ordinary Americans and educated "elites," currently embodied by Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. In his great 1995 book, The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin offers "the most basic and telling definition of populism: a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter."

This is a better description of the McCain-Palin campaign, which recently supplemented its right-populist attack on cosmopolitan elites, as featured at the GOP convention, with a sudden promise to "put an end to reckless greed" and an argument that, "We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility, and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people."

Obama doesn't just turn the volume down, he all but strips populism of its oppositional qualities. Sometimes he does so explicitly: "We will all need to sacrifice and we will all need to pull our weight because now more than ever, we are all in this together ... there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street." At other times, it's implicit: "We are not a country where a young woman I met should have to work the night shift after a full day of college and still not be able to pay the medical bills for her sister who's ill. That's not right -- and it's not who we are."

There are no pitchforks in this populism. No "self-serving and undemocratic" elites. They're just part of the same America. And yet, there is, in both the language and policies, a deep and profound commitment to "ordinary Americans," to their security and their chance to get ahead. And while the attack on Wall Street is muted, the sense that it has obligations beyond short-term profits is loud.

This inclusive, communitarian populism is characterized by few enemies and very little talk of "rights." Forced by Tom Brokaw to define health care as either a right or a responsibility, Obama called it, "a right," and said his health plan would make it one. But on his own, that's rarely how he talks about health care or economic fairness -- both are wrapped up in a sense of national purpose, not individual rights: "That's not ... who we are." Obama doesn't talk about "responsibility" in McCain's sense -- you're responsible for your health and if you get sick and can't afford it, tough -- but a deeper responsibility to engage and build the kind of system or order that achieves these goals.

Communitarian populism, as practiced by Obama, solves three big problems that have crippled the language of liberalism for at least a decade. First, it's sustainable. The problem with the Bob Shrum-crafted populist posturings of, say, Gore in 2000, was not that it incited class warfare (the traditional counter-argument), but that, with all respect, he didn't mean a word of it. The Gore of 2000, had he been able to take the office to which the voters elected him, would not have governed with a people-against-the-powerful agenda. He would have maintained a steady hand on the economic tiller, making minor adjustments to spread the benefits of prosperity a little more widely, and avoiding tax cuts for the rich or dumb wars. (And if we could know what the alternative would have been, we would be mighty grateful.) Just like right-wing anti-elitist populist posturing, the fighting-words populism of Gore, Dick Gephardt and sometimes Edwards was worn lightly. It's not the visceral commitment of a William Jennings Bryan, not because they're insincere but because the times don't call for it. It's not sustainable as a mode of governing. Obama's approach might fail, but at least it's not a coat that he will shed on Inauguration Day.

Second, Obama avoids the problem Edwards faced of drawing the line between ordinary and elite. Because hard-populism is somewhat artificial, it's not really clear where the line defining the "Two Americas" falls. For Edwards, sometimes the problem was "poverty," in which case it's a matter of lifting up the twenty percent or so of families that are perpetually shut out of economic opportunity. At other times it was the middle class, and at one point it was "the very rich and everyone else." The line, then, might fall anywhere between the 20th percentile and the 99th. Obama's more inclusive approach avoids this confusion by refusing to draw the line at all, which is, of course, appropriate to the economic times, even if the laid-off janitor has little else in common with the man in loafers without socks carting his box of Lucite deal toys out of Lehman Brothers on its last Saturday.

Finally, Obama solves a problem we have almost forgotten about, so completely has it been resolved: the challenge of claiming a liberal language of ethics. "Values," we were told, created the conservative advantage, and liberals had to either trump the language of values with bigger economic promises, or capture a language of values of our own. Some Democrats pandered on values, others tried to "reframe" them around liberal goals, others tried to integrate the legitimate worries that parents and others had about the culture with an economic message -- for example, going after Hollywood for sexually explicit and violent rap lyrics or movies in order to make money. It was a futile quest, exemplified by Tipper Gore's embarrassing 1985 battle with Frank Zappa over rock lyrics.

The strength of the Republican or conservative campaign on values was that it created oppositions: gay people, and the elitists who love them, against the real Americans. Rappers and welfare mothers against the rest of us. And so forth. With the possible exception of abortion rights, the politics of values was really identity politics, and when liberals tried to claim it for themselves, it was by shifting identities of the values villains, to Hollywood executives, outsourcing capitalists, or lobbyists.

Here again, Obama's recent soft-populist language goes off in another direction entirely, not targeting much of anyone, but instead invoking a sense of natural order in which all of us live up to our responsibilities, in service of a sense of national purpose. It is an ethics based on a sense of mutual obligation and engagement, embodied in the ever-expanding circle of Obama's own campaign. And in this sense, it is deeply reflective of the best in American populism, what the historian Lawrence Goodwyn called, "the movement culture" characterized by "collective self-confidence," and the active engagement of millions in the practice of democracy.

Goodwyn notes that the late 19th Century populists were naïve in certain ways: failing to anticipate the barriers to bringing farmers, urban workers and rural African-Americans together in a single movement; or the counter-tactics that would derail their effort "to bring the corporate state under popular control. And Obama's soft, communitarian populism may similarly understate the structural divisions in society or the disruptive power of predatory capitalism. But these are different times, Obama's movement has different origins, the corporate state lies in ruins, and we really are all in it together.

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