Populist politicians appeal to the lowest common denominator – usually the least educated voter. They promise whatever it takes to get elected; invariably goodies from their government paid for with somebody else’s money – the very people they disparage. They are performance artists seeking more and more political power. They are associated with the Left on economic policies in all countries. (Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro are classic examples.)
If they are not politicians, performance artists are selling tickets for speaking tours, or books, or an ideology – a way of life. Their appeal always is based on nostrums of “feel good,” a formula for happiness or success seen as within reach of the listener – provided they buy the book or change their lifestyle. Performance artists have universal appeal.
The quid pro quo for the politician is your vote. “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” remains the quintessential example of a quid pro quo offer by a politician. (Herbert Hoover – 1928.)
Populism, as a political tool, tries to appeal to the hopes and fears of the average person who believes he or she is being denied the good life. It often directly or indirectly promotes class envy by using incendiary rhetoric coupled with unrealistic promises.
“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” morphed into rhetoric that empathizes with the sentiments of new millennium progressive liberals. (Besides, you can now get a chicken with food stamps, and a car with no down payment – something unheard of in the 1920s.) A somewhat hackneyed prefatory phrase used by contemporary liberal politicians is: “Every American has the right to...,” and then you fill in the blank – a right to own a home, a right to health care, a right to a well-paying job and so on.
Right wing populism, if you can call it that, is a different breed of cat – nowadays personified by the Tea Party movement. Its hallmark compares with the philosophy of old-time conservative Republicans, or Blue Dog Democrats. They are trying to “conserve” government funds by reducing government spending or the endless cornucopia of goodies and unaffordable entitlements.
Populists, as elected officials, generally provide poor leadership and have little understanding of economics. But they get elected precisely because of their oratorical skills as populists – not their knowledge of economics – using these talents to appeal to the poor and less educated.
Andrew Jackson is thought of as our first populist president, but not in the style of Barrack Obama, who I would argue is our only populist president, in a 21st century sense of the word.
“Old Hickory” also had nothing in common with his six predecessors, the founders of the country and framers of the Constitution. Jackson grew up in poverty, struggled against the British, and after the Revolutionary War was in the military fighting Indians on the American frontier. “Old Hickory” was the first “Mr. Everyman” elected to office. He was not a snob who tried to emulate the customs of Europe. This was a rough-and-tumble guy who dressed in homespun clothing just like the average American of that time. He was beloved because he was just like them. He was the first president to invite the public to attend his inauguration ball. For this and other reasons it is understandable why he was labeled our first populist president; yet totally unlike Obama.
Populism today connotes political strategies and tactics such as class warfare and resentment. (The powerless victim vs. the selfish oppressor.)
In explaining the new populism, George Will observed: “Populism’s constant ingredient has been resentment. It always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.” I would agree, but argue that Tea Party leaders do not quite fit the Athenian classical definition of being populist demagogic leaders inciting followers to take the property of the wealthy and redistribute it among themselves. (Tea Partiers believe there is enough redistribution going on.)
Will is precisely correct about the constant ingredient being resentment. If we accept Jackson as the first populist president, then Obama clearly would be the next in line. But using the classical definition, Obama has been our only populist president. I don’t know why Will didn’t connect the dots. Given the modern era of 24/7 media coverage, a demagogic president can hone his negative message of resentment down to an art form keeping his followers in a constant state of anger. And in Obama’s case, he prefers to campaign constantly rather than govern. As a populist in the style of a union organizer, he can’t help himself.
It is fascinating that James Madison, mindful of the experiences and fears of the Athenian philosophers, tried to finesse the dangers of a pure democracy with its mob mentality and classic populism, by designing a democratic republic in the Constitution. He had this fear, as he explained in the Federalist Papers, that “passions” not the “reason of the public would sit in judgment.” And in Federalist 10 he warned that “factious leaders may kindle a flame.”
Responsible Democratic leaders surely realize that another Obama-like populist regime could be the tipping point between a self-governing Democratic republic, or a government with far too much power centralized in Washington in the hands of a chief executive always on the hunt for more executive power.
John Reiniers is a retired lawyer and regular columnist who lives in Spring Hill. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.