The Populist is Dead, Long Live the Populist!

Matt's post using the liberal establishment's widespread apathy, and indeed, antipathy towards Dick Gephardt's candidacy as evidence that the designation "left" now turns more on things like war, the environment, and gay rights than on economic populism may be true, but I'm having trouble with it. Gephardt was abandoned by all sort and manner of folk because, after his time in the House, no one liked him. He was dull, ineffective, opportunistic -- yawns directed at his candidacy were aimed at the man, not the policy platform. That said, Edwards got a fair run of great press for seriously taking on poverty and making class an issue. Indeed, of all the candidates (save maybe Dean), he's the only one I hear anyone talking about in a policy sense, an odd outcome considering his reputation as a lightweight but a wholly understandable one if you think, as I do, that many Democrats are thirsting for an authentic populist.

But when Edwards' populism-lite is sparking fires, you know you've a problem. And indeed, we don't know how the party feels about populism because we haven't run a populist for quite awhile. The problem, I think, stems from two places. First, any good populist has to come across as a man of the people. Southern Democrats are, for a variety of reasons, most able to pull that off. Unfortunately, Southern Democrats are generally centrist, pro-business kinda guys owing to electoral realities in the region. Think Carter, Clinton, Bredesen, Breaux, Gore etc. Northern Democrats, like Kerry, tend to be wealthy and aristocratic, not to mention a smidge unelectable. Western Democrats, until California's recent switch (remember, we produced Nixon and Reagan), didn't much exist. And which regular guys have we produced? Jerry Brown may think like a populist, but he acts like a particularly nuts Angeleno. As for the Midwesterners, the only two we've recently tried out were McGovern and Mondale, and, to put it nicely, they had their own problems.

The second issue is that we're a bit scared of being "class warriors", which means no national Democrats are really trying it. That's partially a reflection of our recent reliance on corporate money, which effectively eliminated serious populism from our toolbelt, and partially a reaction to the media consensus that populism is an old, loser-Dem kinda stance. In any case, that doesn't mean liberals and lefties don't remain enamored of balls-out populism, they've just had to accept that few candidates are willing to publicly display it and thus they've created a different set of liberal litmus tests. But it'd be interesting to see what happens if we did run a Bernie Sanders-style populist whose whole pitch was an attack on income inequality and corporate pay. I've a feeling that The Nation, The American Prospect, and MoveOn would react quite well. Guess we'll see if and when Edwards has the guts to turn his populism-lite into the real deal.