Return of the populist campaign

Democrats work to tap the fairness issue.

Fighting for the "little guy" against wealthy, powerful interests has been a staple of American politics since the first New England patriots railed against King George III's tax policies.

Today, in similar manner, the leading Democratic presidential contenders are trying to present their effort as a populist uprising against a plutocratic administration in which wealth is the basis of power. They remind voters incessantly that while Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm got large contracts for work in Iraq (some of them without bid), 3 million jobs have been lost on President Bush's watch. Or that the drug industry, oil companies, and HMOs are profiting at the expense of average Americans. Or that paychecks for middle-class and lower-income workers have lagged in comparison with managers and executives at the upper end of the pay scale.

It's not exactly class warfare, since unprecedented numbers of Americans now own stock and therefore are capitalists. But the rhetoric has taken a decidedly populist turn.

Does this message resonate with Americans, especially those who have yet to choose sides in the presidential race? A recent Time/CNN poll has 57 percent of the public (and 63 percent of independents) agreeing that Mr. Bush "pays too much attention to big business."

"A lot of Democrats see this as a new Gilded Age, with a widening gap between wage earners and the elites," says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. "Clearly, this sort of heightened populist rhetoric responds to [the perception that] the Bush administration is a throwback to the days before the New Deal. Bill Clinton, to a degree, revived that in 1992."

The 2000 election

It didn't work, however, for Al Gore in 2000 (although there were other factors, like renegade Ralph Nader, not to mention a controversial Florida vote count). So why should it work for a Democrat this time?

One major difference: Mr. Gore was warning against the theoretical threat of a corporate takeover of the White House. This time, Democratic contenders say there's solid evidence that such a takeover already is under way.

In the South, which has become more and more Republican in recent decades, populist-sounding Democrats are counting on voters like Charley Raley, who's soured on the GOP. "They've been vacating all our jobs, and now we ain't got no place to go," says Mr. Raley, whose job at a plant in Winnsboro, S.C., was transferred overseas. "These rich people don't care. We need somebody who stands up for the rest of us." In 2003 alone, South Carolina lost more than 22,000 jobs - more than any other state.

Democrats also are counting on an electorate that appears to have become more divided since Bush took office. "In general, ideological polarization has grown when compared with a comparable point in the 2000 campaign," reports the Pew Research Center. For the most part, according to this survey, "the leading Democratic candidates are closer ideologically to the public's average than is Bush."

Still, Democrats have at least one major problem: Much of today's grass-roots populism takes the form of antitax activism. That's not exactly a good thing for a party trying to shed its tax-and-spend image.

Image is important here. Howard Dean's trademark rolled-up sleeves. John Kerry's love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. John Edwards's millworker father.

But a key question remains: Can a patrician Boston liberal (Mr. Kerry) or a trial lawyer (Mr. Edwards) - both multimillionaires and both of whom have accepted campaign contributions from special interests - really paint themselves in the hues of the "Great Commoner" William Jennings Bryan?

Populism's downside

Then again, one danger in evoking the spirit of the 19th-century populist movement is that it came to be used by demagogues to rail against foreigners and nonwhites. Even in modern times, populism has had its dark side. Take George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent black children from entering. Or Pat Buchanan's nativist rhetoric.

"Much of this goes back to what George Wallace did in the 1960s when he turned populism on its head and made government the seat of all evil," says Dan Carter, a historian at the University of South Carolina. "It was very closely linked to race and still is linked to race."

Today, it may be more accurate to call Democrats' revival of that political philosophy "progressive populism" or "economic populism." Their message is not just for farmers and factory workers under the thumb of bankers and capitalist titans (as it was in the 1890s) but also for high-tech workers who've lost their jobs and for relatively well-off suburbanites facing higher medical or school expenses.

This could make political sense, given shifting public concerns. As many Americans now rate the economy as their top priority as they do protecting the US against terrorism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Pew also finds other domestic issues are increasingly important to the public: Balancing the federal budget is now a top priority for 51 percent, up from 40 percent last year. Providing healthcare to the uninsured is up to 54 percent from 45 percent.

Meanwhile, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states have had to cut programs for the current fiscal year. Seventeen states - several headed by Republican governors (including Jeb Bush in Florida) - have found it necessary to raise taxes to provide essential services and fill unemployment claims.

Whether or not Democrats can successfully blame any of this on Bush's handling of the national economy (or his priorities in federal spending) remains to be seen. But there's no doubt they will try.

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from South Carolina.

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