Friday, February 13, 2009

Rethinking Populism

Rachel Maddow addressed populism the other night and got me thinking. During the election, we most often heard populism mentioned in reference to Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, and often in a sort of derogatory tone from certain David Brooks-ish commentators who pined for a more elitist Republican party (oh, the irony, it is thick).

But populism is inherently little-d democratic, and should also be a mainstay of today's Democratic party. Yet we somehow got pigeonholed as the party of East Coast and West Coast champagne liberal snobs. The party that actually supports the rights of working people got written off as the party of pointy-headed rich intellectuals.

Barack Obama won by not being afraid of that label and utterly defusing it. The idea of calling this man, raised by a single mother and forged in the streets of Chicago as a community organizer, was somehow more elitist than a guy who couldn't remember how many houses he owned, was laughable.

Also laughable were the desperate attempts of his opponents to make him look out of touch. Hillary Clinton's stage-managed whiskey shot, anyone?

This might be the election where we figured out that populism doesn't mean condescending to America. It means actually understanding the crap Americans are going through.

Michelle Goldberg (h/t matttbastard, who inspires more of my posts than I should admit to you lately), wrote an excellent piece about the rise of the Sarah Palin wing of the Republican party.

Now, the irony is that the more marginalized the GOP becomes, the more powerful the religious right becomes within it because it’s one of the last constituencies standing. The 2006 and 2008 elections each left the party more socially conservative than before, as moderates were defeated. The remaining voters seem to like it this way: According to a recent Rasmussen poll, a plurality of Republicans think their party has been too moderate during the Bush years, and fully 55% of them want their party to model itself more on Sarah Palin. The conservative intelligentsia has spent the past generation hymning the virtues of simple heartland believers indifferent to the opinions of coastal eggheads and cultured cosmopolitans. Now, they’re going to have to realize that that includes them.

She referenced Tom Wolfe's famous "Radical Chic" essay, which pokes fun at Leonard Bernstein's attempt to hobnob with Black Panthers.

In one of my courses last year, we read Wolfe the same week as we read Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson was the kind of populist that we should be looking at now, moving forward. The consummate outsider, constantly angry at the powerful, constantly on the side of the little guy.

When I get angry at NPR's Science Friday for being completely clueless about the purpose of an auto industry bailout, it's that spirit that I'm invoking.

It's not condescendingly taking a whiskey shot or implying that your audience is racist. It's much more than that. Obama managed to ride populist support into the White House without ever attempting to change who he was. Because he gets it. He knows what it's like to be broke, to have to decide between paying your heat and buying food. And yeah, it's been a long time and two Ivy League schools since he's had to make those choices, but I don't think he's forgotten.

Thoughts? I think populism is a word we should be looking at and reclaiming more. (as in, this might be the first post in a series.)