Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A short discussion of Populism

It is possible that the word "populism" is the most misused word in politics.   I have written pretty extensively on the subject but of course, the real classic treatise on Populism was written by Lawrence Goodwyn called The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America.

First, an excerpt from my little history of Populism.
Populism—An introduction
Populism is a term that doesn’t travel well. Last summer in a conversation, a visiting university professor from Scandinavia called Sarkozy, an anti-immigrant French politician who would ultimately replace Chirac, a “populist.” I objected, claiming that a Frenchman who took such political positions probably misunderstood a political philosophy invented by immigrants on the American frontier. “Start a trend,” I pleaded, “even if this definition of ‘populism’ has become standard usage in the EU, you should try not to use the term as a catch-all description of political backwardness--out a sense of historical accuracy.”
It would be unfair to pick on a Finn describing French politics in English because there IS a certain element in USA that uses the term “populism” in exactly the same way. Joe Klein of Time magazine summed up the elite Washington view in a Slate essay when he described populism as a “witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid.”
Anyone who took political science from any self-respecting liberal arts college in USA probably learned to spout the same reactionary nonsense. But in the land where Populism was invented, such academic indoctrination often fails its accomplished task. The late writer Molly Ivins, a hero of American progressives, proudly called herself a Populist and proved her credentials on a regular basis. The cultural Texas Populism of her youth proved more durable than her fancy Ivy League education.
Molly Ivins could reject the slanderous definition of Populism even if packaged by elite academe because the story they teach has a fatal flaw--it is almost totally untrue. Of course, an historically authentic Populist like Ivins probably already knew the traditional answer to elite slander even before she left for school--the opposite of Populism is Elitism.
This political fact explains much of the open hostility expressed by folks who deliberately misdefine “populism” into a word of slander. It also explains why the people who will attempt to get the USA back from the criminals and warmongers who have been so heavily represented in the age of Bush the Dim, will probably describe themselves as Populists and will employ traditional Populist appeals. more
And from Texas--arguably the home of real Populism.

Meet real populism, not the phony Tea Party kind
The weekend that gave us May Day 2010 was eventful for those of us who believe in authentic populism–not the ersatz stuff peddled by the Tea Partiers. Bill Moyers ended his PBS program reminding us that his bias has always been against plutocracy (government by the wealthy), and to help drive that point home, he concluded the three-year run of Bill Moyers Journal by offering us an interview with one of the leading modern-day populists–Jim Hightower.
The next day, Hightower was feted with an exhibition of his work and memorabilia that is now part of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, the same school that LBJ graduated from in the early days of the Great Depression. The exhibition is entitled “Swim Against the Current,” the title of Hightower’s new book, written with his long-time collaborator Susan DeMarco.
During the April 30 interview with Moyers, Hightower distinguished real populism from the Tea Party variety: "Here's what populism is not. It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial tea party effort [was], and as most of it is still today -- though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is just a determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government.
...One big difference between real populism and... the Tea Party thing is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can't say, 'Let's get rid of government.' You need to be saying, 'Let's take over government.'"
Hightower continued: "I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power -- overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they're the top dogs, and we're a bunch of fire hydrants, you know?" more

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