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The Proliferating Role of Populism in American Politics

Posted: 12/23/2013 12:19 pm

Brian Schweitzer
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Populism (the doctrine that pits the people against established elites) might be at its high watermark in American politics. On both the right and the left, there is a proliferating challenge from a populist ideological bloodline whose adherents style themselves as being at war with the establishment elite of their respective parties.

Electorally, this phenomenon currently evinces itself mostly in the Republican Party, where the Tea Party is challenging longtime members of the U.S. Congress in their primaries. Most are full spectrum conservatives who believe their party needs to dramatically truncate federal spending and avoid foreign entanglements. They view moderation and accommodation with Democrats as apostasy. Many of these populists rail against the established political class as corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of the American people.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is now the face card of the GOP establishment. He has become a whipping boy for the GOP populists because of his support for the bailout of the banks and his support for a bipartisan budget agreement. Boehner has attracted two opponents in his bid for re-election to his U.S. House seat, one is businessman Eric Gurr who defiantly asserted, "Compromise is not a virtue and moderation is not a sign of intelligence."

Boehner's Republican counterpart in the U.S. Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is being challenged by businessman Matt Bevin, who is waging a populist insurgent campaign against the long-time elected official. Bevins, chastised McConnell as a "career politician ... with a big government, big Spending record." In addition, longtime Republican members like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thaddeus Cochran of Mississippi, and Pat Roberts of Kansas are fending off populist challenges from their right.

On the left, while few viable Democratic candidates are challenging incumbent members of Congress, there is a populist movement here as well whose adherents maintain that the Democratic Party is being corrupted by the donations it takes from Wall Street. The populist left has a litany of grievances against the Obama administration. There is angst that the Obama administration has abandoned the "public option" in order to get the Affordable Care Act passed through Congress. In addition, this progressive insurgency is appalled that the President has supported cuts in cost of living increases for seniors, launched drone strikes in the Middle East, and has supported the warrantless wiretapping program administered by the NSA. Like their rightwing counterparts, leftwing populists call for a more progressive Party.

Populism is nothing new in American politics. It usually garners momentum during times of economic tumult. In 1896, the populist left took over the Democratic Party. The country was mired in an economic depression. A grassroots movement began in earnest to challenge the laissez-faire policies supported by outgoing Democratic President Grover Cleveland. Affectionately wearing the sobriquet of "the great commoner," William Jennings Bryan, whose highest elective office had been U.S. Representative (which he held for just four years), capitalized on the populist ferment. He supported dramatic action by the federal government to put Americans back to work and lamented the Gold Standard which Cleveland supported. Bryan declared at the Democratic National Convention, "You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold." The populist insurrection successfully nominated Bryan for President. He lost the General Election to Republican William McKinley.

Cleveland and his ideological coefficients supported John M. Palmer, the Presidential nominee of the National Democratic Party. Palmer supported Cleveland's policies. However, this newly constituted political party did not last very long, and most of Cleveland's supporters returned to the Democratic Party. For much of the 20th Century, the Democratic Party had an uneasy cohabitation between the populists and the establishmentarians.

During the Great Depression, the populist wing of the Democratic Party enjoyed a recrudescence. U.S. Senator Huey Long (D-LA) took aim at both parties, and especially took aim at U.S. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson (D-AR) who came to be seen as too accommodating with his Republican Senate counterparts. In 1932, Long averred:

"They've got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters bring you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared by the same Wall Street Kitchen."

Huey Long barnstormed the nation, calling for "sharing the wealth" by capping income at $1 million and inheritances at $5 million, and instituting a 30-hour federal workweek. Long's grassroots supporters created 27,000 "Share our Wealth Clubs" around the country. The populists hoped he would run for the Presidency, but their hopes were dashed in 1935 when Long was assassinated.

On the Republican side, the appeal to populism is as much cultural as economic. In 1964, grassroots activists took control from the moderate Eastern wing, which had controlled the party for decades. They nominated U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ). Goldwater made no pretense to moderate his message in his quest for votes. In 1961 he joked, "Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea."

At the Republican National Convention in 1964, Goldwater galvanized his supporters and antagonized the party establishment by exclaiming, "Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of Justice is no virtue."

Similar to when Bryan won the Democratic nomination in 1896, some of the old guard, including Michigan Governor George Romney and Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, did not act as good soldiers by endorsing their nominee. Romney said in a letter to Goldwater, "Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation, lead to governmental crises and deadlock, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress." Goldwater won just six states, and the moderate wing of the Republican party returned to power with the nomination of Richard M. Nixon in 1968.

In 1968, former Alabama Governor George Wallace, the Presidential nominee of the American Independent Party, capitalized on the proliferating populist enmity leveled toward the counterculture, academia and protesters of the American prosecution of the Vietnam War. Wallace railed against the "pointy-headed pseudo-intellectual who can't even park his bike straight when he gets to campus."

When young hippies heckled him at a speech, Wallace retorted, "You come up when I get through and I'll autograph your sandals for you. That is, if you got any on ... You need a good haircut. That's all that's wrong with you ... There are two four-letter words I bet you folks don't know: 'work' and 'soap.'" He got an uproarious ovation from his mostly blue-color supporters in the crowd. However, Wallace was not able to draw support outside of his native South and garnered just 13.5 percent of the popular vote.

However, the enmity toward elites that the Wallace campaign elicited was not lost on the administration of Richard M. Nixon. Vice President Spiro Agnew tapped into this populist sentiment by waging war on the so-called elites, stating, "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."

The 2016 Presidential race will likely see serious populist candidates from both major political parties. On the Republican side, U.S. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have earned their stripes with the populist Tea Party movement for their steadfast opposition to efforts by their party's leadership to compromise with Democrats on the federal budget, and their willingness to support a partial government shutdown to show their ideological convictions.

On the Democratic side, there is some disenchantment from the populist left toward the preponderant frontrunners for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. They are viewed by the populist bloodline as too close to Wall Street and too hawkish on foreign policy. In addition, the populist left yearns for a candidate who will support a single-payer health care regime. So far, the only candidate who is trying to fill this electoral vacuum is former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. In a recent interview with The Weekly Standard, Schweitzer beat the populist drum by branding the Obama administration as "corporatist."

At a time when the American political system is held in disrepute, there is a growing populist insurrection to challenge established incumbent politicians. Political experience may prove to be an electoral liability rather than an electoral asset. These insurgents will certainly try to tattoo their establishment opponents with the scarlet "E" for Establishment.

 

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