Thursday, March 4, 2010

Good Read: Palin a populist?

When pundits brand Palin a populist, they're relying on discredited cultural history--real populists weren't cranky conservatives who just said "no"--they stood up for an active government role in protecting the economic welfare of the working majority. "Real populists" stood up to found AfD--and are still standing for democratic governance and an end to corporate rule.

by Charles Postel. Posted on March 3
When David Broder praised Sarah Palin’s speech at the National Tea Party Convention as “perfect-pitch populism,” real Populists were surely spinning in their graves.

In the 1890s, American farmers and other activists rocked corporate power in a populist revolt. Now, the Washington Post columnist has passed the populist mantle to Palin. If they could, the Populists would protest this misuse of their name.

But why do political analysts insist on using the word “populism” to describe conservative activism? Why should we care? Because it makes hash of both history and our current political conflicts.

The Populists were all about economic justice. They demanded government regulation of railroads, banks, telecommunications and insurance. And if that failed to curb corporate abuses, they wanted public ownership or at least a “public option.” They demanded a federal stimulus to get the economy out of the terrible depression of 1893-97.

The Populists were the ones who pushed for a progressive income tax to pay for the needs of the people, especially for better and more accessible public schools and universities. The Populist Party of the 1890s failed. But, in failure, its proposals refashioned progressive politics for generations.

Yet the populist reputation has suffered a cruel fate. In the 1950s, historian Richard Hofstadter discovered a “cranky” side of populism. “Progressive populism,” he suggested, had morphed into the conservative intolerance of McCarthyism.

It didn’t matter that this never happened. It didn’t matter how many scholars had showed that there was not a scintilla of evidence for a populism/Joe McCarthy connection. The damage was done.

Today’s political analysts channel Hofstadter. George Will’s Feb. 18 Washington Post column smugly reduces populism to the whiny politics of self-defeating resentment “that never seems serious as a solution.” It may be bad history, but it makes for simple story lines about “angry” politics.

So they tell us Palin is a populist because she speaks for the “common people.” But every ambitious politician over the past 200 years has laid claim to “the plain people,” “the neglected middle class” or “the silent majority.”

Palin is a populist, the political analysts tell us, because she is “resentful” and “angry.” But Americans are divided in their anger. And those divisions run along well-worn historical ruts.

Take health care. Lots of Americans, in the populist tradition, are mad at the social injustice of 40,000 people dying every year because of a lack of health care. Lots of other Americans, in the conservative tradition, are no less angry at the idea that government would provide the care that they need.

Or income taxes. Lots of Americans, in the populist tradition, resent the fact that schools and bridges are crumbling because Wall Street millionaires no longer pay their share of taxes. Lots of other Americans, in the conservative tradition, believe that progressive taxation means theft — putting “your tax dollars at work for those who won’t!”

Or President Barack Obama’s stimulus. Lots of Americans believe that the feds should take more action — that is, print more money to pull the economy out of its slump and put people back to work. The Populists of old wanted to do this by taking the United States off the gold standard and printing money or coining silver.

This gave rise to the late-19th-century “battle of the standards” that we learned about in high school — with the conservative “gold bugs” pitted against Populist “greenbackers” and “silverites.”

Today’s tea party conservatives, like the gold bugs of yore, have put fear of inflation at the top of their political agenda. Tea party protesters are demanding a return to the gold standard.

Earlier this month, Mike Pitts, a conservative legislator in South Carolina, introduced a bill to make gold coins the only legal currency in the state. Fox News’s Glenn Beck peddles his “three-G system” of “God, gold and guns” on his show.

If we want to make sense of the storms brewing in American politics, a little history can’t hurt. The conservatives haven’t adopted gold as their symbol by accident. They are today’s gold bugs.

They proudly follow in the footsteps of the “sound-money” enemies of Populism. Of the conservative bloc that fought Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Of the militant Republicans of the McCarthy cabal, who exposed Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower as traitors. Of the Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan wing, who promised to free America from Social Security and government slavery.

But many Americans have different concerns. They want government action to put the unemployed back to work, to stem the tide of foreclosures and evictions, to regulate the financial industry, to provide health care security and to repair schools and infrastructure.

For such people, there’s another historical tradition they need to know about: It’s called Populism.

Charles Postel, an assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University, won the Bancroft Prize in American history for his book The Populist Vision.

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