Whither Populism?

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.



  1. Steve Jeffers · ·

    ‘just how masterfully corporate interests have manipulated social conservatives’

    Say what you like about corporations, the way they can commodify dissent is perhaps their killer app – want to trangress these days, want to do something truly subversive? Well, there’s an app for that, and someone will sell you the T-shirt.

    Glenn Beck rails against the corporations on Fox News (News Corp), Threshold Books (CBS), Premiere Radio (Clear Channel). ‘Grass roots’ organizations rally on the internet using computers, software, websites and telephone lines owned by bigger corporations than that.

    The health debate yesterday laid bare the main corporate strategy these days: getting it into people’s heads that individuals are their choices are powerful, so you don’t need all that pesky government regulation in the way when you deal with a corporation. Time and again, the Republicans proposed a model of ‘individual choice’ where one party was some guy who – by their own admission – doesn’t understand medicine or insurance and the other party was a multinational insurance company. Or, alternatively, one party was an individual family doctor, the other was a multinational pharma company.

    All this discussion of Fox, no one ever points out that we’re the hens.

    1. You know, the thing that rankled me most about the healthcare summit yesterday is how the Republicans spit out “government” as if its a four letter word, and how those elected officials sitting in that room seem to see it as something they are NOT a part of. Paul Ryan even said so in his mealy mouthed quote about choosing benefits and treatment. Who do these people think government is – a bunch of hamster in cages running on orange plastic wheels?

  2. Apropos of nothing, this was massively fun to write, too. Thomas Jefferson was essentially crazy leftist. Good times.

    1. He had considerably more leftist-speaking contemporaries… and then along came Jackson. There’s something ironic about Jackson’s portrait being on bills issued by the successor to the institution that Jackson dedicated his career to fighting.

  3. From ACG:

    “Throughout its flirtation with relevance, the “tea party movement”…”

    “…the populist thread pervades the tea party movement…”

    Point of interest: In the past you have been a very vocal critic of the use of ‘Democrat Party’ to describe the guys in blue verses the more accurate ‘Democratic Party’. So why the lower case phrasing here?

    Before you use some fancy lawyering to defend yourself, let’s check in with the Internets:



    I went back and looked at some articles from early last year when the movement was just starting and some publications did use the lower-case phrasing. Now though it seems the more formal ‘Tea Party’ is the accepted terminology.

    If it were someone else I might chalk this up to a slip of the fingers. You’re too smart for that Ames and too much of a loyal soldier for the DNC to use that excuse. I suspect that you are being deliberate in your use of ‘tea party’ verses ‘Tea Party’ as if to make them seem less relevant.

  4. Ah. Capitalization implies a proper noun. If I capitalize Tea Party, to what am I referring? Tea Party Nation, the corporate backed interest? Or the subsidiary movements that use the same label? I’ll capitalize when the movement has an uncontested leader making it moremproper to refer to a single capitalized entity than a wide swath of entities defining themselves around a lower case concept.

    1. Using the lower-case terminology actually implies more familiarity and mainstream acceptance of said institution (ex. Progressives are now progressives)

      “…a wide swath of entities defining themselves around a lower case concept.”

      What lower-case concept? Their movement was named after a formal event, which is still capitalized today in every history book in America.

      This is just simple rules of grammar. You’re subliminal partisanship is an ironic footnote given your previous complaints on the fairly innocent Democratic – Democrat substitutions.

  5. Bah. They can have their capitals when they start serving cucumber sandwiches; no proper Tea Party should ever lack cucumber sandwiches.

  6. Don’t hold your breath. I’m fairly sure that cucumber sandwiches are Socialist.

    Yes. Capital-S.

    1. Not to mention British, and I don’t know what’s worse.

      Wait a minute. We know Obama’s a Socialist, that goes without saying. And he’s also a British citizen, only a Socialist would deny that. And I’m pretty sure I heard some guy saying that cucumber sandwiches were served at a White House event some time.

      A pattern emerges!

  7. Re: cucumber sandwiches:

    Seriously, cucumber is for one purpose and one purpose only: pickle. Not sandwich. Pickle.

  8. […] What’s remarkable, then, is the GOP’s utter unwillingness to deal with the issue. For the past six months, we’ve been subjected to the myth that the right’s anti-regulatory kick is an attempt to keep the government’s hands out of our pockets — when it’s really an attempt to keep the government from keeping unregulated corporations out of our pockets. The choice aspect in the healthcare debate let the GOP gloss over the issue, but we’re well past that point. The collapse of the financial markets left us with innumerable corporate bad guys — almost all of them unregulated — and there’s just no populist case against regulating them, unless we have, finally and irrevocably, excised the anti-corporate crusade that has, for more than two hundred years, defined the populist movement. […]

  9. […] The very minute you look for enemies below rather than above you, the populist mantle, at least as worn by Jackson and Bryant, slips from your […]

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