10/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Great Populist Divide

The populist hero was born on a small farm not far from the Canadian border. As a boy, he scraped together money by raising chickens and managing a grocery store. He then worked his way through an unprestigious law school, and enlisted in the Marines to fight for his country.

My doctrine, the young Republican senator liked to say, "is Americanism with its sleeves rolled up." Given his background, he said he identified with "real people" from rural areas and small towns "who are the heart and soul and soil of America." He vowed to defend them against "the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouth" who were "selling this nation out."

The senator regularly presented himself as a man of strong faith. "Today," he declared in 1950, "we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between Communistic atheism and Christianity...the chips are down - they are truly down." His name was Joseph R. McCarthy.

Populism in America is nearly as old as the republic itself. Since President Andrew Jackson's epic battle to shut down the "money power" symbolized by the Second Bank of the United States in 1833, politicians and citizen-activists have voiced their outrage about the "elites" who ignored, corrupted or betrayed the common people.

Right-wing populists typically drum up resentments based on differences of religion and cultural style. Their progressive counterparts focus on economic grievances. But the common language is promiscuous -- useful to anyone who asserts that virtue resides in ordinary people and has the skills and platform to bring their would-be superiors down to earth

During the half-century since McCarthy's remarkable rise and ignominious fall, his fellow conservatives have rarely stopped singing from the same populist hymnal.

"I had the privilege of living most of my life in my small town," beamed Sarah Palin in her bravura speech to accept the GOP vice presidential nomination Wednesday night. It was, she explained, the kind of place inhabited by the people "who do some of the hardest work in America...who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars." She defiantly contrasted her plain-folks view of the world to that of "the permanent political establishment" and "the Washington elite."

It may be the same old song, but cultural populism has helped Republicans win many an election and has consistently put their opponents on the defensive. Richard M. Nixon championed the values of "Middle America;" Ronald Reagan damned a tax policy that took "from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned," and George W. Bush mocked "liberal elites" for being soft on terrorism and warm towards gay marriage.

Conservatism would never have become a large and influential movement without such language; and liberals have yet to find a way to counter it. Why?

The answer has much to do with the anxieties of a racially divided consumer culture and the absence of a social movement grounded in the workplace. After World War II, most Americans, for the first time in U.S. history, considered themselves "middle class."

But that homogeneous identity obscured big differences between a minority of "cosmopolitan" Americans -- who could afford a four-year college, who lived in cities with large non-white populations, who had a professional job -- and those who were not. The bitter conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s added in resentments over sexuality, religious faith and affirmative action.

Meanwhile, the labor movement that had done so much to build support for liberal Democrats, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson, gradually lost both its numbers and its aggressive, populist spirit. Blue-collar workers had once flocked to unions and voted for politicians who bashed their opponents as "economic royalists."

But by the 1970s, a rigorous labor movement that had helped lift incomes and gain job security for millions of wage-earners seemed to be resting on its laurels. Fast-growing unions of government workers were the exception -- but as unruly public "servants," they were unable to brighten the image of labor. With the stagflation of the Ford and Carter years, corporations were able to brand unions a fetter on productivity and growth. New movements that focused on race and gender gained the headlines and the attention of prominent liberals.

As a result, no one on the left seemed able to speak to ordinary white men and women who earned a decent income. but resented their diminished status in society.

Contrary to nostalgic mythology, Americans have never been a united people free of rancorous divisions. As Kevin Phillips once wrote, accurately if cynically, "knowing who hates who" and acting accordingly has usually been the key to electoral success.

With a dynamic labor movement behind them, liberals had been able to exploit antipathy against wealthy employers and the Republicans they bankrolled. But when conservatives began attacking liberals as an elite that was unpatriotic, condescending, ungodly and licentious, they had no rebuttal to offer.

This election will, in part, be a test of whether right-wing populism still works. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, will try to use the rise in foreclosures and joblessness to stir up anger at Republican policies, from which Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee and the owner of multiple luxury dwellings, may not be able to separate himself.

McCain clearly hopes to refresh the conservative mantra of tax-eating bureaucrats and effete liberals -- a charge that Palin's small-town origins and tough demeanor may help drive home.

Conservatives have dominated the battle over populist rhetoric so long that even Americans who mistrust it bring up "elitism" and the "common-sense values" of "ordinary people" -- as if they were objective realities instead of partisan talking points.

If liberals hope to win the White House again, they could think about engaging with gusto in the battle to define these terms. For better or worse, populism lives too deeply in America's fears and expectations to be trivialized or replaced. Without it, both sides in the nation's long-running political conflict are lost.

Originally posted at the Washington Independent. For more news and commentary from the Washington Independent, click here.