Populism: Not As Popular As You Think
“This is about the people!” Sarah Palin exclaimed in the rousing speech she delivered this month at the Tea Party convention in Tennessee. “It’s so inspiring to see real people, not [cue scornful tone] politicos, inside-the-Beltway professionals, come out, stand up and speak out for common-sense conservative principles.”
It’s all those references to “the people” (real ones, no less) that have helped brand the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee a populist, as well as win her ardent applause and adulation from her target audience.
That populism does not seem limited to those responding to Palin, though. President Barack Obama’s defense of nothing-if-not-unpopular bankers caused quite a backlash from those who are nostalgic for the days when he got in trouble for talking about “fat-cat bankers.”
Seemingly logical conclusion: Populism is newly popular, on the left as well as the right.
But though one might think that believing in “the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people” would, almost by definition, be likely to be “commonly liked or approved,” it turns out the p-word is not as universally acclaimed as current events might indicate.
“Populist” is actually the least popular of five common political labels, with just 8 percent of U.S. voters viewing it as a politically positive description and 36 percent classifying it as a negative description, according to the Rasmussen Reports polling company. It got beat out by “political liberal” (which 14 percent consider positive), “libertarian” (18 percent), “progressive” (22 percent and heading downhill) and “conservative” (40 percent and on the upswing).
Perhaps the confusion over the (un)popularity of contemporary populism is related to the confusion over which ideas this populist fervor seeks to propagate, and on which side of the aisle those ideas belong.
Though the anti-Big Government ideology might seem like it would mesh with classic Republican tenets, this kind of Palinesque populism is also anti-Big Business, without which the GOP would probably just be the OP. It also doesn’t really have the support of those inside-the-Beltway politicos who happen to be Republicans – and who are trying to convince Wall Street that, unlike the Democratic White House, they’re on the side of Big Business.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he visits New York about twice a month to try to tap into Wall Street’s remorse about supporting a president who has been publicly attacking them.
“I just don’t know how long you can expect people to contribute money to a political party whose main plank of their platform is to punish you,” Cornyn said.
So if the Dems are anti-Big Business and the Tea Partyers are anti-Big Business, is everyone on the same populist page, but just shouting so loud they can’t tell? Or maybe the answer to the question of which ideas today’s populism is pushing is: All of ‘em! As long as it makes me mad!
That’s pretty much what James Surowiecki argues in The New Yorker, writing: “The electorate, we hear, wants Barack Obama to be more of an economic populist but less of an ambitious reformer. He has to aggressively create jobs but also be less spendthrift. This advice may be contradictory, but then so are the economic opinions of the many angry voters who are animating what’s being called the new populism.”
This new populism, he adds, “has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one ‘I’m mad as hell’ quilt. The people may have spoken. It’s just not clear that they’re making any sense.”
Photo by ann-dabney
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