It was just about 100 years ago, after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, that the original, agrarian Populist movement collapsed and gave way to the more broadly based Progressivism of the early 1900s that permanently altered American government and society. But Populism, despite its short and checkered history, survives in our political vocabulary, and there are a fair number of people who brighten up at the thought of a populist revival. I am, however, not among them.
From the outset, the populist impulse has been to play upon one public emotion above all: anger. That anger has typically been directed at a diffuse enemy at the top--the monopolies, the interests, or elites of various kinds. The populist mind suspects conspiracies in high places, often in league with foreign influences, and appeals to a kind of insular Americanism that is suspicious of both immigrants and other countries. The grievances that populism taps are no doubt genuine. Its rhetoric and remedies are oversimplified and dangerous.
From this year's election coverage, a stranger might think that populism was still a major force in American politics; the term "populist" has been used to characterize three of the candidates in the race for president. Patrick Buchanan represents the right-wing populist tendency that turns its anger chiefly against cultural elites, but his campaign has gone nowhere. Having sunk to less than 1 percent in national polls, Buchanan has been reduced to an asterisk, though he is certainly a "major-league asterisk," as Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post has generously called him.
As of early September, Ralph Nader was doing better, pulling as much as 4 to 5 percent in the polls, which could be enough to tip the election. Nader's populism is the left-wing variety directed at corporate elites; it starts with legitimate criticism of corporate abuses but fails to provide a persuasive understanding of the economy as a whole. Nearly 30 years ago, as one of "Nader's raiders," I worked for Ralph on a study of Vietnam veterans and the Veterans Administration. Those were the days when Nader was a "consumer advocate" and swore that he had no ambitions for elected office, which was a good idea since he certainly didn't have the temper for it. The irony of Nader's presidential campaign is that if it succeeds, it may enable Bush (and his likely nominees to the Supreme Court) to dismantle the very agencies and policies that Nader himself helped to create in the early years of his public career. This would be success only if you count self-cancellation as an achievement.
The third candidate the media have dubbed "populist" is the surprise of the campaign: Al Gore. Gore earned the label by claiming at the Democratic convention to stand for "the people, not the powerful," and criticizing "big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs." It was a critical turn for Gore, helping to reassure the base of the party about his Democratic bona fides. Nader reacted indignantly that Gore wasn't really a populist, and of course Gore isn't. He has no general antipathy to business, much less to the establishment.
So was his appeal at the Democratic convention fraudulent? Not at all. On a variety of issues, such as prescription drug benefits for the elderly, a patients' bill of rights, environmental protection, and the regulation of tobacco, Democrats face fierce, heavily financed opposition from business interests. Setting aside "big oil" (obviously singled out because of the makeup of the Republican ticket), Gore's list underlined a determination to prevail over business opposition on issues that are central to the campaign. In a survey question that quoted Gore's list of specific industries, a BusinessWeek/Harris poll in late August found that Americans agree with the vice president by a margin of 74 percent to 22 percent, but they don't necessarily harbor any deep anger against corporations: 68 percent also agree that American business should be given "most of the credit" for the current prosperity.
The Democrats are not an anticorporate party, but they are more willing than the Republicans to take on business interests to pursue goals that have broad public support. It was important for Gore to make clear that he would do that, not only to consolidate support for November, but also to establish a basis for a mandate afterward if he wins.
As a general approach to politics, populism long ago fizzled. Prosperity today makes an appeal to public anger and suspicion particularly implausible as a winning strategy. But there is still room for a politics that pushes back against corporate influence and seeks to assert the primacy of a public interest. The recent scandal involving Firestone tires is a reminder of the kind of corporate malfeasance that genuinely arouses public support for strong regulation of business. You don't have to be a populist to want political leaders who know when to put business in its place. ¤