THE BLOG
07/02/2015 08:01 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2016

Open Season on the Elites: Bernie Sanders Is Leading the Charge

Democratic Presidential candidate Bernard Sanders is drawing overflow crowds. He is garnering support at the grassroots level, and is raising "eye-popping" amounts of cash from small donors. Some of his enthusiastic adherents seem to believe there is no God but Bernie Sanders.

Part of the reason for this insurgence is not only what Sanders is proposing, but also who he is attacking. Insurrectionist candidates like Sanders often make a splash on the national radar by excoriating "the elites." On the Democratic side of the ledger, the elites are the "billionaire class" from Wall Street and multinational corporations. They are portrayed as having what Sanders calls: "unquenchable greed," and exerting too much influence over policy makers. Sanders told CNBC: "What I think is obscene, and what frightens me, is again when you have the top one-tenth of one percent owning as much as the bottom ninety."

Conservative insurgent candidates also can spark a firestorm of approbation by vilifying "elites." However, they take shots at a different kind of elite. They view elites in cultural rather than economic terms. An insurgent Presidential candidate can hit a nerve by lambasting academicians, liberal college students, intellectuals, and bureaucrats.

The left has a perpetual angst toward Wall Street and the concentration of wealth in the few. Populist insurgent candidates like Sanders exploit that enmity. As far back as 1892, James B. Weaver, the nominee of the liberal Greenback Party, fueled his populist candidacy by pitting working class Americans against the powerful. Like Sanders, he called for Federal Government action to narrow the economic disparity. Weaver bemoaned: "Our government has chartered thousands of corporations, turned them loose upon us and now permits them to commit from year to year... outrages upon our people."

While the Populist Party dissolved, many planks in their platform became enveloped in the Democratic Party. In 1896, the Party nominated William Jennings Bryan, who moved the message of the Democratic Party to the left, supporting a graduated income tax, an increase in social spending, and taking the nation off of the Gold Standard. Bryan branded himself as "The Great Commoner" and took on his own party and its relationship with Wallstreet. He avowed: "Our party should not defer to Wall Street and big business." Bryan's nomination forced establishment Democrats with close ties to Wall Street, including President Grover Cleveland, to support the third party candidacy of John M. Palmer.

U.S. Senator Huey Long (D-LA 1932-1935) became a cult figure for his declamations excoriating the influence of Wall Street on the political process. Like Bryan and Sanders, Long viewed both parties as beholden to the moneyed elites. Long exclaimed in 1932: "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 brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen." Before his assassination in 1935, Long was preparing for a primary challenge to Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who he viewed as too close to Wall Street. Long drew elephantine crowds from around the country. Roosevelt came to fear a potential challenge in his renomination bid in 1936 and his campaign commissioned the first ever nationwide poll, which showed that Long would garner about 6 million votes against Roosevelt.

More recently, during his 1992 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, former California Governor Jerry Brown drew legions of followers by railing against those at the top of the economic ladder. He called for dramatic reforms in the electoral and financial systems to level the playing field. His rhetoric was eerily similar to Sanders, and he drew similar crowds. Brown bewailed: "You have an incredible concentration of wealth that has no historic precedent . . . The 1 percent, who have been able to insulate themselves from this downward pressure on wages, this is the group that controls politics."

Interestingly, as the New Hampshire primary approached that year, one of Brown's opponents, Bill Clinton, adopted populist anti-elite rhetoric in part to distance himself from the New Hampshire front-runner and eventual winner Paul Tsongas, who was loathe to attack the upper classes. Clinton said that a vote for him would "send a message to Washington and Wall Street."

In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace, the nominee of the American Independent Party, won a largely blue-collar conservative following by exploiting the undercurrent of virulence they felt toward "cultural elites." Many were Democrats who had become disillusioned with "the new left." Many protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and many rejected contemporaneous American values. When heckled during a speech by a coterie of hippies, Wallace turned to them and averred: "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." The crowd awarded Wallace with an avalanche of applause. During stump speeches, Wallace would often draw thunderous applause by asserting that if he were to become President, he would: "bring all these briefcase-toting bureaucrats in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to Washington and throw their briefcases in the Potomac River."

That year, it was Wallace who filled the niche as the anti-elitist candidate, not the Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon. However, Nixon was a pioneer in challenging 'cultural elites.' In 1952, as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, Nixon gave the Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, who often spoke in a professorial tone, the moniker, "egghead." Stevenson tried to make light of the attack, quipping: "Eggheads of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your yolks."

As President, Nixon deployed Vice President Spiro Agnew to "crack those elites." Following the 1969 Moratorium to end the War in Vietnam, Vice President Spiro Agnew revved up conservative populist indignation toward the intellectual elites. He told a Republican Party fundraiser in New Orleans: "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." In an address to the California Republican State Convention delivered on September 11, 1970, Agnew excoriated the American news media, exclaiming: "In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club - The hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."

More recently, even Republican Presidential nominees who earned Ivy League degrees employ the anti-elitist tactic. For example, in 1988, George H. W. Bush bashed his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis, asserting: "His foreign policy views born in Harvard Yard's boutique, would cut the muscle of defense."

Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney, who earned two advanced degrees from Harvard University, tried to tether Democratic President Barack Obama negatively to the institution. Romney declared: "I didn't learn about the economy just reading about it or hearing about it at the faculty lounge at Harvard."

Sanders is singing from the same hymnbook of past contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination by railing against "the economic elites." The caricature of the elitist, which effectuates indignation on the left, is the rapacious billionaire who has no regard for those economically less fortunate.

So far in the 2016 Presidential election cycle only Bernie Sanders has opened fire on the elites. It probably won't be long, however, before other candidates take aim at the elites, be they cultural or economic elites. Elites are always a very popular target for candidates.