Populism in the United States is older than the republic and its
unprecedented constitution. It was a vital ingredient of the American
revolution in 1776, and provided much of the natural organizing
energy for the American colonists to overthrow the regime of
George III and his British army.
After the short "non-political" period of George Washington's two
terms as president, the revolutionaries of the 1770's split into two
camps or parties of the nation's political leadership, and created an
inchoate "establishment" that lasted until Andrew Jackson, renewing
some of the spirit of the colonist revolutionaries, initiated a then-new
populism that grew in the states and frontier regions further from
New York and Washington, DC. This early American populism evolved
into an agrarian populism which, although having anti-establishment
and radical elements, took on, at the same time, isolationist and
discriminatory elements of anti-Catholic, anti-Black and anti-immigrant
prejudice. This variety of populism flourished in the South and the
Midwest until the beginning of the 20th century.
Before World War I and just after it, there appeared a left wing
populism, much of it inspired by the appearance of radical and Marxist
ideology and regimes in Europe. This new populism was both leftist and
isolationist, and produced several governors and U.S. senators from the
West and upper Midwest. The coming of the New Deal saw the decline
of this populism, and its marginalization when liberals such as Hubert
Humphrey, campaigning against its Marxist and Soviet ties, reduced it
to fringe status.
In recent years, populist-styled movements, left and right, have
occasionally arisen, usually behind an opportunistic figure. Examples
of this have been George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader.
Most recently, and including this cycle, Ron Paul has offered an
economically libertarian-styled campaign combined with foreign
policy isolationism. Populist movements have influenced U.S. domestic
and foreign policy in the past, but rarely changed electoral outcomes.
Ralph Nader probably cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000, and Perot
may have altered the result in 1992. A notorious example of when
both right wing and left wing populist candidates tried to change a
presidential election at the same time was in 1948 when Strom
Thurmond, from the right, and Henry Wallace, from the left, used
populist appeals to try to defeat Harry Truman. Each of them received more
than a million votes, and Thurmond even received a notable number of
electoral votes, but Truman still won.
In 2012, however, we see a revival of an old populism, and the appearance
of a new one. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement is the new face of the
old far-left radical populism of the past. But the Tea Party movement may
be something new, i.e, a CENTRIST economic populism. This group had a
huge influence in the 2010 midterm elections, and helped fuel the big
Republican sweep of U. S. house, senate, gubernatorial and state legislative
contests. When I discuss this Tea Party movement, which is decentralized,
I am not speaking of its elements which advocate social and religious
issues. I am instead speaking only of the Tea Party's initial preoccupation
with economic and security issues, issues about taxes, deficits, enlargement
of government bureaucracy and spending, and advocacy of a strong military
and an engaged international foreign policy. Just as one hundred years ago,
the "new" left wing populism has now become isolationist, as has Ron Paul's
otherwise more conservative libertarianism.
Although his political background is as a backbench traditionally conservative
congressman, and later "establishment" speaker of the U.S. house, the
presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich has taken on elements of the new
conservative and centrist populism introduced by the Tea Party in 2010.
To the list of movement "villains" which include Obama social welfare and
tax-raising theorists, the federal bureaucracy and its regulations-obsessed
policies, and reduced defense and national security-weakening advocates and
legislators, Mr. Gingrich has added a relatively new "villain" into his policy
mix, the Old Media, including most of the national TV and radio networks,
cable networks and liberal establishment newspapers and magazines. Noting
the indisputable and measurable "bias" of this part of the media against
Republicans, conservatives and outspoken centrists, Mr. Gingrich has
tapped into a long-brewing grass roots resentment in the 2012 GOP
presidential debates, climaxing in the two debates just prior to the South
Populist movements, as I have suggested, sometimes influence American
policies in the long-term, but rarely take control of contemporary policy.
That is because they have been either left-wing or right-wing movements;
whereas the majority of American voters, some liberal and some conservative,
reside in the general political center. The question of the 2012 campaign is
becoming increasingly whether a new CENTRIST populism, responding to
the aggravated economic frustration of very large numbers of voters, many
with no allegiance to either major party, could possibly elect a president of
That is why the campaign of Newt Gingrich, in spite of whatever flaws and
controversies of the candidate himself may have, bears special watching in
the next phase of the presidential campaign.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman
All right reserved.