Note: I wrote the following column in advance of a sure-to-be-shit-kicking day of populist festivities this Saturday, May 1, at Texas State University. “The Living Spirit of Texas Populism,” from 1 to 7 p.m. at Texas State University, will feature local music, food and brew, and panel discussions on populist politics and culture, with speakers including yours truly, former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Linda Chavez-Thompson, Observer cartoonist Ben Sargent and, of course, Jim Hightower. To make sure you get a seat, RSVP at either [email protected] or 512-245-2313.
“Populism” is surely the most abused noun in the English language these days. If you’re a white, well-educated sort who detests government and worships the mystical powers of free markets, you’re a populist. If you’re protesting health-care reform and Photoshopping toothbrush mustaches onto images of President Obama, you’re a populist. If you’re Gov. Rick Perry, rhetorically bashing government while using it to enrich the rich, you’re a populist. If you’re Perry’s political paramour Sarah Palin, declaring at the National Tea Party Convention that “We got into this mess because of government interference in the first place,” you’re not merely a populist; according to that paragon of the establishment media, David Broder, you’re espousing “pitch-perfect populism.”
Except that you’re not. You’re doing exactly the opposite.
If anybody ought to understand this, it’s Texans. Populism—the real kind—was born here, after all, when the Farmers Alliance movement was formed in Lampasas in 1877. The Alliance helped spawn the People’s Party, which had a brief but heady national run in the 1890s and dreamed up damn near every significant progressive reform of the 20th century.
Populism was—still is—all about making government a force for economic justice. It’s about class warfare, straight-up and unapologetic. It’s the sworn enemy of the right-wingers now claiming the name. As Peter Beinart wrote recently on The Daily Beast, “The Tea Partiers aren’t standing up for the little guy; they’re standing up to the little guy.”
Lord only knows what these folks would do if we had an actual populist in the White House. “We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded,” declared the original 1892 platform of the People’s Party, “as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
Like the tea partiers, populists have always railed at Washington—not for doing too much, but rather too little. The original populists worked for democratizing reforms—women’s suffrage, direct elections of U.S. senators (long chosen by state legislatures), getting rid of literacy tests and poll taxes—that would make government more responsive to the people and less the tool of the moneyed elite. And while plenty of racist Southern politicians later espoused economic populism, the real deals were dedicated to empowering blacks and whites alike. So what can we accurately call the tea partiers? Kevin Baker, in Harper’s, suggests “counter-populists.” I think “anti-” might work—as in “anti-populist Gov. Rick Perry.” That has a bell-clear ring of truth to it. Then again, so does a term I spotted in a cartoon on the web site of Texas’ best-known living populist, Jim Hightower: “WASPulist.”
Beinart has another suggestion: “What kind of adjective suits older, grumpy, well-off Americans who believe Democrats are communists, the poor have it too easy and white people are oppressed? The term ‘Republican’ comes to mind.”
Call them what you will; just don’t call them populists. Why does it matter? Because, no matter how much it’s been distorted, there is serious power in owning the word. That’s why the right has fought so hard to claim it. And why the left needs to reclaim it—not only in name but in spirit.
“Populists have always been out to challenge the orthodoxy of the corporate order,” Hightower writes. That’s a far cry from the liberalism embodied by Obama. “Classic liberalism,” Hightower notes, “seeks to live in harmony with concentrated power by regulating its excesses.”
That’s the liberalism that creates health-care reform that delivers millions of new customers to private insurers—rather than a single-payer system. Contemporary liberals work to make things better, not to bust them apart and reinvent them for the people’s benefit. And that’s partly because we’ve swallowed the notion that populism is the property of the right—that the American people, at their core, are fundamentally and unshakably devoted to small government and big money.
“The triumph of populism,” writes Observer alumnus Lawrence Goodwyn in the definitive book on the populist movement, Democratic Promise, “was the belief in possibility it injected into American political consciousness.”
We’ve lost that belief. It’s way past time we got it—and populism—back.