For over a century, politicians trying to rally their base and refocus voter anger have relied on a durable rhetorical tactic - populism - the framing of virtually any issue as us vs. them. President Obama used the strategy in his State of the Union address. Historian and author Michael Kazin describes the tradition and tactics of rallying the masses.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout.
BOB GARFIELD: What is popular with the populace? In his State of the Union Address Wednesday, President Barack Obama had just the ticket – bashing bankers and lobbyists and insurance companies, and even TV talking heads. It was hardly a tirade, and it came too late to preserve the Democrats’ super-majority in the Senate, but perhaps not too late to rally Americans to his ambitious program, because “we must” hasn't worked too well for the President, so perhaps “because they don't want us to” will strike a nerve. Obama thus, however timidly, joined a club of “us versus them-mers” going back to William Jennings Bryan, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy and Huey Long, not to mention Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, George Wallace, Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck. But if populism is a favorite tactic of the right, the left also has a long history of demonizing a disproportionately powerful other, tycoons being right at the top of the list. Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History, says put-upon electorates tend to distill complex problems into a sense of undue influence held by an arrogant few.
MICHAEL KAZIN: I think it’s basically a language of discontented people who blame elites for the problems, whether economic problems, political problems, cultural problems. It’s the people against the elite.
BOB GARFIELD: Haven't all presidential candidates in some way been populist in their message, claiming to represent the largest number of American voters?
MICHAEL KAZIN: Well, they all try to represent the largest number, but they don't all rail against an elite. Adlai Stevenson, for example, was very clear that he wanted to speak to the intelligent people, as he called [LAUGHS] them, and he was very loath to use populist rhetoric. And that was also true, for the most part, of Dwight Eisenhower, who defeated him in the ‘50s. And really it’s from the ‘60s on that the most successful presidential candidates have used this rhetoric because we've had a lot of social turmoil since the '60s, a turmoil that it’s often useful for a politician to depict one particular elite - economic for liberals, cultural for conservatives, who they blame for most of the problems.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you just raised an interesting point that David Brooks addressed in his New York Times column this week. Which elite is destroying our society depends on, on who you are. The Republicans traditionally look at the classic Adlai Stevenson figure, the academic, the Ivy League-educated, tweedy progressive as the intellectual elite that is out of touch with mainstream America. And Democrats, as the President of The United States did in this week’s State of the Union, seized on bankers who, from their gilded boardrooms manipulate the world financial system for their own greedy, [LAUGHING] nefarious purposes. Are these two caricatures equally elites?
MICHAEL KAZIN: Yes, of course. As you say, it depends who is attacking and who’s being attacked. The original populists began very much on the left. They opposed Wall Street, they opposed big banks. They wanted nationalization of the railroads and they wanted nationalization of a lot of things. They also had cultural resentments. The original populists were rural people, for the most part, and they didn't like the big cities and were very suspicious of intellectuals, who at the time were mostly conservative. Since 1945, conservative populists tend to rail against Hollywood, Cambridge, bureaucrats in Washington. Liberal populists rail against Wall Street, big corporations and big banks. That’s usually the way the roster of enemies works.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so the term “populism” goes back 120-some years but more recently it became popular. How?
MICHAEL KAZIN: Well, there was a huge debate among American historians in the 1950s and 1960s about the nature of populism, and a lot of liberal historians and social scientists argued that McCarthyism was a form of populism. They argued populism was not this rational, liberal or left wing critique of free market capitalism but, in fact, it was a system of irrational hatreds, of blaming alien non-American forces for the problems of the country. A lot of journalists went to school and read about this very influential interpretation of populism. And then when they began to report on people like George Wallace, in the late 1960s, and to some degree on people like George McGovern in the early 1970s, they said, well, both these guys are angry. They seem to be channeling a lot of this discontent in somewhat demagogic ways. So populism is an inclusive term, a way to talk about this anti-establishment anger. And since that point, the use of the term “populism” really skyrockets, from the early 1970s onward. And we've never lost it since then.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I've heard you say that you don't necessarily want populism to be deemed a pejorative, and yet when you go down the list, you know, with the possible exception of George McGovern whose enemy was the - I guess the military industrial complex, it’s all people who are scapegoating someone or other for what ails the society. Isn't that demagogic, in and of itself?
MICHAEL KAZIN: Well, are they scapegoating those people or are they blaming those people? It’s not the same thing. We believe this country is supposed to run for the interests of the large majority of the people who are hardworking and God fearing and patriotic. As long as we have that belief, then people will look for people to blame and look for people to represent their discontent. And people who listen to NPR might prefer they do that in very quiet, academic, look-at-all-sides ways, but that’s not how politics works.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael, thank you very, very much.
MICHAEL KAZIN: You’re very welcome Bob. I enjoyed doing it.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History.