Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Dangers of Populism

The 'populism' of Sarah Palin is being remarked upon more and more. Populism is a kind of political movement that, as Kathleen Parker put it today in the WaPo today, declares "a populist war of Us vs. Them -- everyday, honest, hardworking Americans against Wall Street, greed, corrupt politicians, liberals and, of course, the media." I mentioned it here several weeks ago with reference to McCain's recent campaigning as well, though he is not really believable as a populist (he's a wealthy hawk). Palin is a much more believable populist.

It's hard to categorize populism on the typical 'conservative-liberal' spectrum. It has not really ever gained political power in America that I'm aware of, but it has at certain times flared up and then burnt itself out almost as quickly. Populist movements tend to be headed by inflammatory orators, like Father Coughlin, who in the 1930s, spoke to millions over the radio, and railed against the New Deal, the Jews, Wall Street, etc. There was a quasi-fascist tone to it that frightened many people. The Klu Klux Klan was a populist organization, I would argue, organized by white Southern men around the turn of the 20th century to defeat the dangerous forces of Yankee carpetbaggers, freed African slaves and foreign Catholic hordes.

Pat Buchanan is often referred to as a populist, though he has 'mellowed out' some because of his media commentary role. But he has run several races for President and done reasonably well. It is no accident that one of the most fervent supporters of Sarah Palin on the media is Bay Buchanan, a sister to Pat Buchanan, who also speaks admiringly of Palin.

There are some things within populism that can be admired, I suppose. I resonate myself to the sympathy for the 'little guy' over against the corporations and financiers, for the old traditional ways of culture versus that which is decadent and wild.

But populism is also thought to have a strong streak of political irresponsibility, violence, and fanaticism about it, as the previous reference to the KKK and Father Coughlin clearly indicate. Some think that Adolph Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany started out as a quasi-populist movement, railing against both the liberalism of the Weimar Republic and the Jewish bankers and industrialists in Germany, thus seeking to gain the support of the average German. They did, and using that support, went on to wreak havoc upon the world.

In our American political universe of 'conservative liberalism', beginning with the Jeffersonians and the Federalists (and their successors), populism has never gained much of a foothold. It has been coopted by movements such as unionism and the New Deal. Let's hope that it stays that way.

No comments:

Post a Comment