Instant populism

Sam Smith
1972

AS one of the first of the new populists, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the philosophy before it strangles on its soaring popularity. It’s in danger. The Black Panthers were never the same after Lennie Bernstein found them; women’s lib may not survive Gloria Steinem’s publishing ambitions; and the new populism is going to have hard going if it continues to be embraced by every Democratic presidential candidate and Village Voice writer.

I didn’t know I was a populist until a banker friend of mine told me. Irate because I had published a speech by the venerable old populist Wright Patman, he wrote that I had “chosen to subscribe to the conspiracy view of American life,” and went on to accuse me of taking a seat with “the bigoted populists of all ages – from Pitchfork Ben Tillman to the Josephs McCarthy and Welch – who always see one evil group controlling the destiny of America.” I committed that sin back in 1964. Since that time the conspiracy view of American life has gained a sizable number of adherents.

I quickly discovered that my friend was right; by temperament and politics I felt more comfortable in the populist tradition than in the intensive care ward that was keeping New Deal liberalism alive or in the new Puritanism of the new left.

I had a hard time explaining it, though. When I described myself as a neo-populist, the looks glazed. The liberals were hanging on to Hubert Humphrey and the left to Karl Marx while I was boning up on Henry Demarest Lloyd.

Then George Wallace began being identified as a populist. That wasn’t much help to neo-populists. The blank looks turned to expressions of mild disbelief – spurred by the assumption that no one north of Alexandria, Virginia, would voluntarily associate himself, even tangentially, with George Wallace.

Now, thanks to the desperate search for self-identifying issues by the baker’s dozen of Democratic presidential politics, that’s all changed. Where just a couple of years ago, confessed populists in northern states were outnumbered by the pileated woodpecker population, now everyone who’s anyone is a populist.

We have McGovern the populist. Humphrey taking populist stances. Muskie leaning towards populism. Jackson the conservative populist. Even Gore Vidal has joined the movement; he has been nominated to be secretary of state by the populist-leavened People’s Party of Dr. Spock, the well-known pediatric populist. If it keeps up, there is every possibility that Richard Nixon himself will campaign on a slogan of “Populism With Responsibility Under Law.”
I’m not complaining. It’s one of the healthier political trends in some time. It’s forcing liberal politicians out of lobbyists’ offices and into South Milwaukee living rooms. It’s helping the new left to introduce itself, finally, to the people it has been saving from oppression. And best of all, it offers some chance of political change.

The problem is, however, that the people are being presented with a hastily prepackaged movement in the hope that they won’t come up with one of their own. A gaggle of conventional liberals are attempting to pass themselves off as authentic spokesmen spewed out of the alienation of the masses. It’s phony, of course. Hubert Humphrey is the same man he was before he (or his campaign managers) read Newfield & Greenfield’s the Populist Manifesto. McGovern is a run-of-the-mill liberal who shines only in comparison with his competition. Muskie is no more a creature of the people than Larry O’Brien. A media team can no more turn a candidate into a populist than an atom bomb can create Albert Einstein. The new populism, as filtered through the surviving Democratic candidates, rather than being a grassroots movement, is just a bunch of .salesmen hawking Astroturf.

We shouldn’t be too hard on them, though. It wasn’t their idea in the first place. The major political decisions these days aren’t made in smoke-filled rooms, but in the offices of New York publishers, as they choose the fall book selections – one of which is certain to be the major topic of discussion on the campaign trail and in the political columns.

Politicians and newspapermen don’t have much time to read books, about one a year is the most they can handle. And they have found that it helps if everyone reads the same one book so that conversation, debate and pontification flow smoothly. Thus the power behind the throne of American democracy has passed with the publishing seasons from southern strategist Kevin Phillips to real majoritarians Scammon and Wattenburg to manifest populists Newfield and Greenfield.

Aside from the reassuring progression from right to center to left, there is another interesting aspect of this phenomenon of literary politics: it doesn’t work very well. The primary reason these efforts are doomed is not because of the thought behind them, which is often at least stimulating and worth the contention, but because the books are published in the first place. If the southern strategy had been clouded in secrecy it might have gotten .somewhere, if Richard Scammon hadn’t opened the closet door of the American center, same politician might have been able to put his advice to good effect, and if the Field boys had been modest enough to restrict their ideas to a memo to McGovern, the senator might have had populism to himself for awhile.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is unfortunate since, unlike the machiavellian cynicism of Phillips, Scammon and Wattenburq, the new populism is an idea worth pursuing. But like just about everything else in this country the people have lost control of it. A few more months and the new populism may just be another subsidiary of the military-industrial complex registered under the laws of the state 0£ Delaware. And if anything should belong to the people and not the Hartford Insurance, it’s populism.

American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting lands. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payolagiven to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.

One hundred and ten years later, in an act of ingratitude towards the great American revolution, farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.

The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.

:It was the end of the nineteenth century , though . that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism and it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects. As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn’t long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It’s not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran. a candidate on its own.

The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which was also restrained by its racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, though, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights, civil liberties and economic welfare carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power. The Democrats emphasized the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power .

Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers the potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It bring right and left libertarians together against the totalitarianism of the American middle. It create. common ground for whites and blacks to stand upon as they fight their common predator. . It emphasizes the issue that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power .

The elitists of the center are already showing nervousness about the talk of populism… Columnists are warning that populists in the past have included racists. and demagogues. Political aristocrats fear the end of the two party system, one of the great weapons of the American establishment. against the grievances of those it controls. Others say that the people can’t handle too much power and quake at the thought of the rabble reentering American politics.

In all of this, of course, there is nothing said of the inherent racism of American liberalism – or of the subtle invasive demagoguery of moderation that whips people into catatonic incapacity. The most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle — with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress; its slogan “Not Now;” and its goal to maintain the temerity of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation are rushing to control and blunt it. They’ll play populist, but work at old time liberalism.
The other day, one of the greatest populists of recent years died. Adam C1ayton Powell’s funeral was attended by a couple of thousand people, but none of the new-found populists among the presidential candidates were there. And the libera1 press, with its last opportunity to write about this extraordinary man , chose to offer final recriminations over Powell’s personal behavior. It was a small reminder that the new populism is still only column deep.

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