Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Winning the Populism PR War

By Howell Raines

In times gone by, Democrats were regarded as the master panderers
of American presidential elections on the basis of their supposed belief
in generous benefits for the working class. But as Democrats gather in
Boston,they do so as a party that has surrendered the title. The Republicans
are now the champion panderers in American politics and have been since
they discovered the demagogic value of what Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard
disingenuously calls "cultural populism."

Populism, of course, emerged as a force in American politics in the
1890s as an economic doctrine pushed by agrarian reformers in the Deep South
and the Midwest. The economic populists from the agricultural regions
wanted to wrest control of the federal government from the investment bankers and
industrial capitalists in the Northeast.

Various reporters have written incisively this year about the
egalitarian roots of economic populism and mutant populism's darker legacy as a
vehicle for nativist prejudices. These discussions were occasioned in large
part by the impact on the Democratic primaries of John Edwards's message about
"two Americas" -- George W. Bush's country of tax breaks for the rich and
war contracts for Halliburton, and the poorer outback America that has lost
2 million to 3 million jobs under Bush, lacks health insurance, and has
buried nearly a thousand of its sons and daughters killed in Iraq. The
Republicans take comfort in the fact that the Midwestern and Southern states, which
invented populism in the 19th century, now make up the Reagan-Bush
heartland. But the GOP fears a resurgence of the class consciousness at
the core of economic populism.

What needs to be watched closely this week in Boston is how John Kerry
balances his two most potent attack themes -- national security in the
physical sense and economic insecurity in the second America. Many
variables surround the physical security issue: an "October surprise" could save
Bush,or another terrorist attack could sink him. What will not change,unless
Kerry forces the issue, is the shell game by which the GOP uses
"cultural populism" to get millions of Middle Americans to vote against their
financial, medical and educational interests.

How was cultural populism -- which had its roots in Barry Goldwater's
opposition to civil rights legislation and Richard Nixon's racially
divisive"Southern strategy" -- turned into a political positive in the public
relations sense? Rupert Murdoch's kept journalists at the Weekly
Standard deserve much of the credit. The journal attacks economic populism as
"condescending" and "patronizing," because it implies that the masses
require government protection from the military-industrial, investment
banking and petroleum complexes. But "social," or "cultural," populism
is praised as a genuine expression of national values. Thus acceptance of
the agenda of Bush social policy -- abortion, gay marriage, school prayer,
guns--is required, even by people who know better.

"Country-club Republicans have been forced to accept it. Country-club
Democrats can't," Fred Barnes, an editor at the Weekly Standard, wrote
this year. This must be the most blindingly honest admission by any
Republican pundit this year, for it exposes the contract at the heart of the new
Republican pandering. As long as affluent, educated Republicans are
allowed to control wealth in this country, they're willing for the rednecks to
pray in the public schools that rich Republicans don't attend, to buy guns
at Wal-Marts they don't patronize, to ban safe abortions that are always
available to the affluent, and to oppose marriage for gays who don't
vote Republican anyway.

As the retro-populist journalist Thomas Frank pointed out in his
useful book, "What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of
America,"the Republicans have given U.S. workers a new cultural enemy to
replace their traditional class rival on Wall Street and in the big
corporations: the amorphously dangerous "liberal elite."

It has been, so far, a successful strategy, but it is hardly new. By
1894 the national Populist Party had become the most powerful reform
movement of the Gilded Age and one of the most promising in U.S. history in terms
of opening economic opportunity to the country's entire population. The
national Democrats figured out that they could kill the new movement by
the simple expedient of moving slightly to the left on farm credit and
national monetary policy. More important, they broke the Populists in their
Southern strongholds by unleashing "social, or cultural, populism," if you will,
in the form of the race issue. That is, the Democrats quickly produced a
generation of demagogic governors and senators, who warned that the
Populists' doctrine of economic equality for black and white voters
would lead to social integration and eventual black domination of the South.

By 1896 the racial assault had removed the populists as a national
political force. By 1910 the national Democratic Party had
institutionalized its Solid South through a series of laws that disenfranchised black voters and mandated racial segregation. Control of state governments and
public policy in the South passed into the hands of plantation owners and
their new allies in the executive suites of the coal, steel, textile and paper
industries being established from the Carolinas to Louisiana.

But despite its political demise, economic populism has been a lively
ghost. It provided a paradigm for the economic class struggle that
dominated politics throughout the 20th century. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal,
with its opposition to "economic royalists" and "malefactors of great
wealth,"was its lineal descendant. And it has created some odd-couple
alliances. On the surface, the academic liberals and unionized industrial workers who
supported the New Deal and later iterations of economic populism had
little in common. But they did share an economic ideology and a generally, if
imperfectly, egalitarian social ethic.

The Republicans' new cultural populism has created an odd couple of a
different sort. In their heart of hearts, the party's leadership in
Washington and the conservative think tanks disdain the social rigidity
and common tastes of the party's NASCAR wing. They worry a bit that George
W.Bush seems to have a genuine liking for the slumming required of a
self-created cultural populist. But GOP strategists and think-tankers
are able to stifle these concerns, because there's been no one since Ronald
Reagan so good at getting votes from Southern Baptists trying to raise
families on 40 grand a year.

Liberal intellectuals, journalists and candidates have been trying to
explain the class interests inherent in the tale of America's true and
aberrant populism for a long time now. It's a hard job made harder
these days by the Republicans' success in convincing the political press that
a rational appeal to voters' economic self-interest amounts to what the
Republicans, and Democratic cooperationists such as Sen. Joe Lieberman,
mislabel as "class warfare." In Bush's America, it seems only the rich
are allowed to invoke self-interest as a valid voting motivation.

The Democrats seem skittish about invoking personal income and tax
issues.David Kushnet, a former speechwriter in the Carter White House, has
written that U.S. voters do not resent wealth per se or corporate control of
public policy as much as would seem logical. "But," he observes, "they rebel
against wealth by gaming the system."

That should provide an opening for Kerry and his running mate. The
system has never been more thoroughly gamed than by Bush and his minders. For
that matter, the class warfare has not been so intense in the United States
since the days of the robber barons. But so far only one class is fighting,
and the ever-widening income gap in America shows who has been winning. At
the Democratic convention, there'll be a lot to watch for by way of a
predictor of the November election. One I'll have my eye on is whether
Kerry-Edwards seem to have a plan for freeing the political prisoners of George W.
Bush's brand of cultural populism.

The writer is former executive editor of the New York Times


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