Populists Real and Imagined -- 1896 to the Present

THE term ''populism'' is again in vogue. All manner of politicians and groups are being tossed together under its banner, and candidates vie to be known as its champions.

But what in fact is a populist? What are the distinctive contemporary developments in American populism?

Historian Michael Kazin's new book, ''The Populist Persuasion'' (Basic Books), illustrates the problem in using the term promiscuously. He lumps under the ''persuasion'' -- recognizing that in no sense can it be called a coherent ideology -- Samuel Gompers and the early labor movement, Prohibitionism, the ''Catholic populism'' of Father Coughlin, the CIO in the 1930s, McCarthyism, George Wallace and the racial protests of the 1960s and 1970s, and now the various groups of religious conservatives playing an influential role in Republican politics.

These groups have literally nothing in common other than the fact that they all enjoyed substantial popular support.

One of the silliest contemporary uses of populism is its application to Texas business tycoon H. Ross Perot. Calling any man who made and kept more than $1 billion a populist is ludicrous. Saying that of one who made his riches through back-room negotiations with government agencies just may be the biggest misappropriation of a political term since Communist dictatorships named themselves ''people's republics.''

The Perot usage is seen as all the sillier when the concrete historical movement known as Populism is considered. This was a political protest located in agricultural America in the 1880s and 1890s -- its apogee being the 1896 presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan. Rapid industrialization was then tearing at the fabric of traditional American society, and Populism arose to resist. The currents running against it were too strong, however. It failed and largely disappeared.

Mr. Perot, wheeler-dealer developer of new technology, is as far as one can get from the tradition Bryan represented. He is the literal antithesis of historic Populism. Yet throughout the 1990s Perot has routinely been given the populist label. Is it because he speaks with a Texas accent?

If the term is to have any meaning beyond the 19th-century movement, it must be found in what was Populism's central and distinguishing feature -- its far-reaching protest against the emergent establishment of its day.

By 1896 the swing from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial had been proceeding for a half century, and Jeffersonian America was fast fading. Many lamented its passing. But the leadership of the new industrial order -- centering around corporations and an urban middle class -- had gained the upper hand.

Populism was not really antiestablishment. Jeffersonian America had its own established groups as much as did industrial America later on. Bryan's Populism was a challenge to the growing ascendancy of new interests and their outlook.

This is the recurring theme in later populist reactions. The social balance of power shifts, and groups dissatisfied with the direction charted by new interests organize to express concerns.

It's not surprising that we see today political expressions that resemble those of 19th-century Populism. Entry into our present postindustrial era was accompanied by the rise of new constellations of interest. The intellectual community is one key example. College professors, journalists, media elites, think tankers, et al., saw their ranks expand enormously after World War II, and especially after 1960.

''Power'' is a hard thing to measure. Still, it seems evident that groups in the intellectual community have achieved in the postindustrial setting influence surpassing that of their less numerous counterparts in earlier eras. Aspects of the group's distinguishing social outlook -- pronounced secularism, for example, in sharp contrast to the traditional religiosity of much of the country -- have spurred ''populist'' protests.

It's easy to see that the establishment inviting protests in Bryan's day was business-centered. Today, some find it harder to see that it's the idea-generating and communicating strata that are resented -- and in much the same way.

What's different in today's populism is that the decline in influence of the groups constituting it -- which did much to define politics in the 1960s and 1970s -- has been reversed. Bryan's Populists lost the battle for national direction; today, their descendants are at least holding their own.

They are doing so because the social outlook of the new elites simply has not prevailed. Their unusual visibility, given their position in education, the media, and the arts, made the new sectors appear more formidable politically than they really were. Today's populist protests are awaiting leadership more comfortable in the recognition that they are no longer losing the battle of ideas.

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