08/19/2009 08:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Use Populism to Beat Populism

St. John, Virgin Islands.

As I watch people windsurfing at Cinnamon Bay, it comes to me: "That's the image that gave us an extra four years of George W. Bush!" The photo of John Kerry windsurfing was exploited successfully by Karl Rove and company to paint the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate as an "elitist" and so, from the perspective of Middle America -- "not one of us."


The same kind of diversionary attack is being used today against President Obama and health care reform.

How can such populist appeals using misinformation be beaten? Through populist counter appeals using accurate information.

Most people resent elites; they always have. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.

The decisive question is: Against which elite is the public's anger to be directed?

Although they overlap, there are two types of elites.

Business and financial interests have for several decades skillfully exploited cultural populism to divert the public's anger away from themselves and toward intellectual and cultural elites. Economic populism must be used to redirect the public's anger toward the appropriate target.

If that can't be done after what the economic elite has done to the American people in the past two years, something is seriously wrong with Democrats and progressives. At times when big business and financial institutions are severely discredited, such as the Great Depression and today, economic populism naturally trumps cultural populism and someone from the cultural elite -- Franklin Roosevelt or Barack Obama -- can be accepted as a champion of the people.

OK, most folks don't windsurf. But neither do they make millions of dollars a year while screwing ordinary people.

Progressives and the Obama administration need constantly to remind the public that the people bringing us the lies about health reform and encouraging the disrupters of town hall meetings are the same interests who brought us the economic collapse.

Attack the messenger and the fraudulent message, but not the people have been taken in.

So people have been swayed by false arguments. What else is new? The last thing progressives should be doing is calling them stupid and making fun of them. That simply reinforces the viewpoint that makes them susceptible to right-wing lies.

There are two sides in the health insurance reform debate: The private insurance companies, multinational drug companies, and for-profit hospitals are on one side, supported by politically motivated enemies of the president, talk radio, and Faux News.

On the other side are the American people. Health insurance reform is for us -- all of us, except the few who are enriching themselves off the misfortunes and insecurity. That is the message that needs relentlessly to be hammered home in the coming weeks.

There's good populism and bad populism -- populism directed against those who really are exploiting the people and populism used to divert people's attention from those who are exploiting them by instead focusing their anger at another group.

We -- and the president -- need to forcefully utilize the former to block the latter.


Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College & author of The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 2009-04-15-TGD2.gif (Random House) and Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man" 2009-04-16-DandO2.jpg (North Carolina).