Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tea Party Populism

Check Henry Olsen, at National Affairs, "Populism, American Style." Olsen contrasts the millenarian populism of modern totalitarian regimes to the historically moderate populism of the American case:


American populism shares with its classical cousin the use of heated rhetoric against an unjust "other," and the idea that popular control of the state is essential to the restoration of justice. But it breaks from the classical model in three significant respects.

First, successful populist movements tend to characterize the American people not as helpless victims, but as honest folk dispossessed of their right to achieve prosperity and happiness through self-improvement and hard work. As such, American populists seek not a charismatic leader who will bring them order and justice, but rather a re-opening of the avenues to self-advancement and self-reliance.

Second, the "other" in American populism tends not to be vilified as an implacable enemy without rights. Instead, he is an adversary: one who might be corrupt or acting unjustly at the moment, but still a fellow citizen who retains his basic American goodness, is capable of redemption, and is secure in his rights. Despite some reckless accusations to the contrary, today's populist movement seems no different on this front.

Third and most important, effective American populists generally do not seek to take the enemy's property to redistribute it to the people....
This passage might raise an eyebrow for folks today looking for lessons from the past:
In the '60s, many Americans grew uneasy with the course the country seemed to be taking, both politically and socially. The America of farms and small towns was giving way to a nation of suburbs; the growth of large corporations, the rise of television, and the sharp increase in internal mobility were eroding the cohesiveness of local communities. Accompanying these changes was the growth of the national government, which had continued apace even under Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Despite increasing affluence and relative peace abroad, an ever-larger number of Americans felt their country was becoming unrecognizable — and they wanted to take it back.

So it was that intellectual conservatism and popular anxiety joined forces in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign to create a crude populism of the right. But despite what would appear to have been a favorable political climate, this amalgam proved dismally unpopular. While the rhetoric of Goldwater's campaign was generally fairly measured, that of his backers was too often not. Much like the Populist farmers in the late 1890s, Goldwater's supporters felt themselves to be oppressed. Many railed against elites, sometimes crossing the line from battling an adversary to assaulting an enemy; they argued, for instance, that there was a conscious conspiracy between business, government, and intellectuals to end American freedom and to yield to communist ambitions at home and abroad ....

Ronald Reagan, then an increasingly political Hollywood actor, entered the fray near the end of the campaign with a nationally televised speech on Goldwater's behalf. Casting the election as a choice between "up or down — up to man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism," Reagan accused incumbent president Lyndon Johnson of spreading socialism. Johnson's administration, Reagan said, was seeking to "trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state" and engaging in "appeasement" with our enemies. Noting that he was a former Democrat, Reagan closed with a conscious invocation of Franklin Roosevelt: "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness." The movie star's message roused the faithful, but fell flat among the voting masses.

Goldwater's crushing defeat seemed to all but the most die-hard conservatives to be the death knell of this nascent movement. Viewed against the backdrop of American political history, it is not hard to see why Goldwater lost: The tone and ideas of some of his extreme backers were viewed as odd and frightening by most voters ....
But check this passage on the prospect for upcoming elections:
Those who believe that the aggressive, angry pitch of the Tea Partiers' rhetoric will automatically alienate independent voters should think again. As we have seen, successful populist movements define adversaries in stark and often abrasive terms. Skilled political leaders in a democracy — figures like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan — know what pundits and academics often overlook: that they must move the heart before they can persuade the mind. In our modern mass democracy especially, this often requires a simple narrative: an easily identifiable "good" hero, a "bad" villain, and an unambiguous moral arc — one that shows how society can be redeemed from its current, fallen state, and how average Americans can flourish under the reformed regime. Such an appeal obviously requires sharp rhetoric and clear divisions.

Critics of the Tea Partiers and other conservative populists are right, however, in their concerns that aggressive rhetoric can go too far. William Jennings Bryan lost because he painted a portrait of his time that voters didn't recognize, and because he made a majority afraid. Some libertarian populists, with their rejection of every facet of the modern welfare state, are likely to do the same — because even this center-right nation does not want to see the welfare state dismantled. And just as some of Barry Goldwater's supporters tainted his campaign with their accusations of communist conspiracies reaching even to the presidency, the conspiracy theorists who insist that President Obama was not born in America risk damaging conservative populism today.
Sound statements.

A skilled conservative/libertarian might do well to ponder them as we head into 2012's "invisible primary," which launches almost as soon as the votes from this November midterms are counted. But who might be that skilled, that is, "Reaganesque"?

PHOTO CREDIT: An enthusiastic tea party patriot at
Irvine's tax day tea party, April 15, 2010.


Super Patriot said...

Incredible post. Sadly we are sorely lacking in the "Reaganesque" leader department. Hopefully one will emerge soon.

Incidentally I've got a tribute to Reagan posted on my blog today-- his legacy is fantastically relevant 30 years after his inauguration.

Also, I appreciated the "hat tip" a while back. We've gotta stick together in these tough times. I'm linking you.

Keep spreading the truth.

-Super Patriot