The New York Times

August 15, 2004

The Curious Fate of Populism: How Politics Turned Into Pose


SHOP like a populist," wrote a columnist in The St. Petersburg Times earlier in the month, recommending a local store that specializes in quirky collectibles like old soap boxes and bowling pins.

That's what the "pop" of "populist" has come to, a century after the disappearance of the Populists, or People's Party, who were a powerful political force in the 1890's. They advocated restrictions on corporate power, the direct election of United States senators, an eight-hour day, and a graduated income tax - proposals that led critics to call them "wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatics."

Today, though, populism can be as much a matter of style as substance. In Boston Magazine, Jon Keller speaks of John Kerry's difficulty in "convincing southern Nascar dads and Wal-Mart moms of the populist empathy of a windsurfing New England multimillionaire." National Review's Jay Nordlinger writes that "President Bush is engaged in a little populist campaigning himself today - he's going to Indiana and Michigan, for a bus tour."

After the demise of the Populist movement, the term itself was chiefly used to disparage demagogues like Louisiana's governor Huey P. Long. It was only in the 1960's that a new generation of politicians began to reclaim the label, often shorn of its inconvenient connotations of class struggle.

They gave the term a second life. Over the past two decades, use of the term "populism" has been 15 times as common in the press as it was during the Eisenhower years. But now it can refer not just to those who speak for the downtrodden, but to anyone or anything whose appeal seems down home, down to earth or down market.

In recent articles the word has been applied to Michael Moore, John Edwards, Garth Brooks, Steven Spielberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fox News, Burger King, Donald Trump, Muktada al-Sadr, the Google initial public stock offering and Oscar de la Renta's new mid-price fashion line.

In the course of things, "populism" has lost not just its capital letter, but its connection to the sense of "the people" that the name was derived from. That's "the people," not as the populace or the citizenry, but as what William Jennings Bryan described as the "unnumbered throng" who were oppressed by the corporations, the money interests and the trusts, "aggregated wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless."

Those antagonisms sound creaky now, like "the people" itself. The "money interest" has yielded to "the elite," as populism has become a matter of "values," rather than class.

"What divides America is authenticity, not something hard or ugly like economics," as Thomas Frank suggests in "What's the Matter With Kansas?," a look at how the new populism has captured the imagination of the state that gave birth to the old one.

True, "the people" still exerts a nostalgic hold on some. Last week, two New Yorkers began distributing a "People's Guide to the Republican Convention," a title that made it clear that the guide was compiled for the benefit of protesters, not delegates. And Vice President Al Gore used the phrase in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention of 2000: "They're for the powerful. We're for the people."

But "the people" were absent from the speeches at last month's Democratic convention, and it would be surprising if they were allowed to appear at the Republican convention - unless accompanied by minders like "ordinary," "hard-working" or "good."

Nowadays, "power to the people" is a slogan used by both Microsoft and I.B.M. And "man of the people" usually has a sarcastic inflection.

The Boston Herald styles the Democratic presidential candidate as "Man of the People Kerry." On CNN's "Capital Gang," Mark Shields wonders how "that populist man of the people, George W. Bush," will deal with the New York firefighters who have been waiting for a raise since September 11, 2001.

The sarcasm usually reflects skepticism about the candidates' authenticity, rather than about their policies. ("He is not a man of the people, this French-speaking windsurfer," says Richard Reeves of Senator Kerry - transportation again.) Populism used to be a matter of speaking for the people; now it's a matter of speaking like them - dropping your g's, strategically mispronouncing "nuclear" and throwing in references to motor sports.

Old-style populists made few concessions to popular style. The "cross of gold" speech that secured Bryan the presidential nomination at the Democratic convention of 1896 and a place at the head of the Populist ticket as well, is remembered today for its stirring peroration: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." But it also included a thousand-word, redoubtably formal, disquisition on bimetallism and monetary policy: "Let me remind you that there is no intention of affecting those contracts which, according to present laws, are made payable in gold."

The average sentence-length in Bryan's speech was 104 words; the average sentence-length in George W. Bush's 2000 acceptance speech was less than 15 words.

Rhetoric changes with the times, of course. But even if you simplified Bryan's diction and syntax and pruned some of his more florid turns of phrase, the speech wouldn't come off now as "populist," but as artificial, aloof and a little wonky.

At the time, though, no one seemed to mind. What seems most remote about that bygone age is the image of thousands of farmers and small-town mechanics flocking to railroad depots to hear their champion repeat the "cross of gold" speech as he campaigned across the West in the summer of 1896.

They may not have understood all of the arguments, or the allusions to Napoleon, Jefferson, Peter the Hermit, Cicero and Catiline, but they were drawn to a champion who could make their case sound so exalted.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard on NPR's ''Fresh Air'' and is author of ''Going Nucular'' (PublicAffairs, 2004).

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