The July 27 op-ed column by Howell Raines misspelled the last name of David Kusnet and incorrectly said he was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. Kusnet worked for President Bill Clinton. (Published 7/28/04)
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.