‘Populism’ By any Other Name . . .

<i> Michael Kazin, a history professor at American University, is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is the author of "The Populist Persuasion: An American History."</i>

As soon as Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, journalists rushed to dub him a “populist.” It wasn’t easy to find a fitting political description for the unpretentious candidate of the Reform Party, who made his reputation as a pro wrestler, actor and radio-talk-show host before he dared to upset the business-suited nominees of both major parties. So, commentators reached for the label of choice for anyone who mounts a challenge to the prosaic, centrist status quo.

Before “populist” was glued to Ventura, it got pasted on such feisty contemporaries as Patrick J. Buchanan, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson and Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, another Minnesotan. This roster spans the ideological spectrum, from right to left. But each man sought to challenge the conventional wisdom in the name of “the people,” and, for reporters on deadlines, that seemed to suffice. Few brought up the old image of populism as the refuge of bigots who sought to protect average Americans from racial “contamination.”

Populism wasn’t always so thoughtless a category. A century ago, it belonged to a third party of small farmers and workers who thrust class conflict to the center of U.S. politics. During the 1890s, the People’s Party competed for power, often successfully, in a number of states from the cotton South through the wheat-growing Plains to the Rocky Mountains, where mining was king.

The original Populists made clear where they stood: The enemy was an ungodly “money power,” composed of banks, big corporations and stock exchanges, that conspired to cheat hard-working, productive Americans out of what they had earned. According to the first platform of the People’s Party, written by a sometime novelist from Minnesota named Ignatius Donnelly, the “producing classes” had to take control of the government and “rapidly” expand its powers “to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.” They demanded easier credit, state ownership of railroads, an end to injunctions against labor unions and a progressive income tax.

In 1896, with a kindred platform and vision, William Jennings Bryan captured both the Democratic and Populist nominations for president and scared the eastern establishment of his day into spending the then-colossal sum of almost $16 million to defeat him.


Yet, the hardy anticorporate seeds the “Great Commoner” and his followers planted eventually grew into a bountiful New Deal harvest. By midcentury, strong unions, crop subsidies and programs like Social Security and the GI Bill had lifted millions of white working Americans into a new middle class. More recently, civil-rights legislation and affirmative action helped many black and Latino citizens get there, too.

But to administer these reforms, government had grown large and bureaucratic, and its enhanced prowess began to stir a new kind of antiestablishment revolt. Bryan’s “producers” had become taxpayers who resented that the state spent any of their hard-earned money on unwed mothers and foreign aid. By the late 1960s, George C. Wallace was drawing millions of votes with attacks on “pointy-headed bureaucrats” and the unnamed college professor who “knows how to run the Vietnam War but can’t park his bicycle straight.” His praise for “this average man on the street, this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, the beautician” sounded like an update of the old rhetoric, conferring dignity on the work of ordinary people. Political writers dubbed the Alabama inciter of racial conflict a populist.

Many conservatives shunned Wallace as crude and dangerous but imitated his ability to speak empathetically to the discontent of ordinary white people. Soon, Richard M. Nixon aide Kevin Phillips was giving his boss a “populist” strategy to secure a GOP majority; the new Christian right was bashing “country-club Republicans” and publicizing the fact that most Populists had been evangelical Protestants like themselves; and Ronald Reagan was calling his regressive tax policy “a big step toward economic power for people who’ve been denied power for generations.”

By the late ‘80s, such language had become so ubiquitous that it spread into mass culture. Journalists and copywriters pinned “populism” not just to candidates and officeholders but to certain talk-show hosts, rock musicians, film directors, bargain bookstores, even sports fans who boo when rich athletes play poorly. At one point, a clothing chain was touting “men’s 100% Cotton Twill POPULIST pants . . . steeped in grass-roots sensibility and the simple good sense of solid workmanship.” The dirt farmers and silver miners of the bygone People’s Party wouldn’t have known whether to laugh or cry.

They might also have had trouble understanding the appeal of Perot, certainly the first billionaire ever graced with the populist label. Perot’s solutions in 1992 were conservative ones: He advocated a balanced budget and wanted the government run more like a business because, he said, “in business, people are held accountable.” But he ran a classic “mad as hell” campaign that ridiculed his major-party opponents as betrayers of the true “owners” of the country, and alienated middle- and working-class voters flocked to his standard.

One of them was Ventura. This fall, as the candidate of the Minnesota branch of the party Perot founded, his politics still resembled those of his erstwhile leader, albeit with the taste and wit of a man who has never lost touch with his working-class roots. Ventura, like Perot, is basically a libertarian. “I want to be the governor who destroys the property-tax system as we know it,” he says. When his term is over, he’d like people to remember “when Jesse Ventura was around, ‘I didn’t even notice the government.’ ” The plebeian Perot adds a healthy mistrust of the war on drugs: “I don’t believe that government should be invading the privacy of our own homes, and I also believe that you shouldn’t be legislating stupidity.” Ventura makes libertarianism, a rather dogmatic creed, sound like everyday wisdom.

But all he seems to have in common with the original Populists is his talent at ridiculing the powers that be. Their electoral rebellion led to reforms that made America a more humane and egalitarian society. Unless Ventura finds a populist program to match his style, he might only provide his constituents with a few laughs during another long and brutal winter.