03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We the Populists: How to Make Taxpayer Funded Bailouts Toxic

Those creative folks at SEIU (Service Employees International Union) have done it again. They are flooding the switchboards at Goldman Sachs, telling them that union workers are tired of bailing out the companies that are eliminating American jobs.

Want to join in the fun? Call Goldman's executive offices at (212) 902-1000, and tell them that nobody makes big profits at public expense while 10.2 percent of Americans are unemployed.

The idea here is to make the "transaction costs," as business people say, of using public dollars so high that Wall Street firms will think twice before feeding at the public trough again. Better to face their peers at Deustche Bank, ING, and Societe Internationale before pulling a switcheroo on the American taxpayer -- begging with one hand and skimming with the other. Being publicly shamed can be a deterrent, especially when your nose is rubbed in it.

Oh dear, but then we'll be accused of being "populists." Have you noticed how "populism" has become the dirty word du jour? As though what the people think is irrelevant, or even worse, stupid? Check how patronizing the pundits are when they use the term.

Populism in my history books was a good thing, started in the late 1800s when a Kansan named Mary Lease reputedly urged farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." She helped lead a movement to fight back against the concentrated economic interests that were destroying the quality of life of the average American--most of whom were farmers.

Her motto? "Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street." Sounds as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.

Unfortunately, the populist movement has often been portrayed as synonymous with racism and nativism, as though other political groups in America at that time were not infected with the same biases. They were. Yet it is only in a politics where the overall good of the people counts for something that the social fabric will stay strong. Once it unravels, the only other option is revolution.

That reminds me of those greatest populists of all time, the framers of the American Constitution. We tend to forget this, but according to Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School, the ratification of the Constitution was "the most . . . populist event the Earth had ever seen."

Funny how those words "We the People" keep recurring in American history. Sometimes, a little pitchfork-waving is for the common good.