Throughout its flirtation with relevance, the “tea party movement” has attempted to lay claim to the mantle of “populism” — that uniquely American philosophy premised on juxtaposing the moneyed and the powerful against the ideal of the Noble Commoner. Wherever you look, the populist thread pervades the tea party movement, at least in form, from their ill-understood adoption of the Gadsden Flag (“Don’t Tread On Me”), to the strategic alteration of pronouns in sixteen-year old Republican platforms (“Contract with From America”). And we largely seem willing to concede the label to them — but we probably shouldn’t.
When we’ve previously talked about populism, we’ve referred to an attempt to defend the Common Man from all enemies, both corporate and governmental. For example, Thomas Jefferson, the first true American populist, opposed the creation of a federal Bank out of a fear for “swindling futurity on a large scale” — a concern that today’s tea partiers would probably share — but Jefferson’s distrust of federal corporations stemmed from a wider distrust of all corporations.
I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
Even in to the modern era, distrust of corporations has, in fact, been the defining hallmark of American populism. William Jennings Bryan, arguably both a conservative and a populist, embraced Glenn Beck’s hated progressivism as a necessary restraint on corporate greed, and campaigned for the presidency on a pledge to regulate railroads and “robber barons.”
And yet it’s precisely this belief in the importance of regulation, for the good of the Common Man, that tea party “theory” (such as it is) explicitly rejects out of a purported fear of government power, instead embracing the very notion of the fundamental rights of economic actors and corporations against which politicians like Bryan fought for their entire lives. To Glenn Beck, Bryan, the model populist, is closer to a “socialist” than a freedom-loving tea party populist.
What to make of this then? It may be best to approach it as an indication of just how masterfully corporate interests have manipulated social conservatives, through the fragile alliance that is the Republican Party, to sell corporatism to the lower class. Old-time populists stood against elites of all types: today, thanks to the pervasive nature of “culture war” themes, the only elites we talk about are defined by social movements. The meanest, poorest Berkeley hippie is, to conservative America, more of an “elite,” and thereby a greater threat to the Common Man, than the CEO of Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield. The social/fiscal conservative alliance split the old populist bloc, and it can never be rebuilt until that alliance breaks down. And in the meantime, the Common Man will worry more about whether dudes can get married than how much they’re paying for healthcare. That’s too bad: the populist instinct is something uniquely American, and if we Democrats still fight for it, we’re just terrible at talking about it.