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So You Say You're a Populist

Populism is thriving as a style. What has become, though, of populism as politics?

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On the hundredth anniversary of William J. Bryan's great silver crusade, it is fitting that pseudopopulism should become something like a permanent style of American politics. Virtually no one's a Keynesian anymore, but everyone's a populist. Everyone's furious about the inside-the-beltway crowd; everyone's a person of the people; everyone's our ally in the perpetual war against the cultural, economic, and political elite. We all know that Washington stinks, that shadowy interests run everything, that boodle is king: this is the monotonous verdict of novel, film, and even corporate press release. So the symbols and images of populism were the lingua franca of this year's political discourse. The common American's struggle against the forces of tyranny was a story that every journalist wanted to tell and every politician wanted to star in.

It was probably inevitable, considering the other ways in which the 1990s are echoing the 1890s. A hundred years ago, control of critical industries like oil, steel, and railroads had been neatly concentrated into the hands of various trusts; today, we watch agog as Westinghouse buys up every last radio station in America and the word "Sony" appears on everything from telephones to rap records to movie theater popcorn. In the late 19th century the nation's egalitarian dreams, fed by Jeffersonian ideology and the frontier myth, were being rudely crushed by an industrial structure that impoverished those who worked and propelled those who owned to bizarre new heights of wealth. Today Bill Gates prospers, you get downsized, and editorialists wring their hands over the evaporation of the American dream.

In the 1890s the extremely wealthy and the great corporations virtually retained their own senators and congressmen; today the process ("campaign finance") has been cleaned up a bit with legal procedures and restrictions, but as a result of being brought out into the open it's even more notorious.

In the 20 years before 1896 the two major parties spent most of their energy in an almost meaningless battle over tariffs; while Democrats and Republicans kept up the pretense of fierce opposition to one another, democracy seemed incapable of solving or even confronting the problems of the vast majority of citizens. Today the national show is enlivened with angry speculation about whether or not the 60s took place in Gomorrah or America, but when it comes to serious business like "welfare reform" or NAFTA, both sides selflessly put partisan differences aside and do what's right for American business, dazzling the media pundits with a resurgence of the "vital center."

A hundred years ago this combination of forces ignited an explosion of popular outrage against institutional power; today the captains of industry and the career politicians know the game better, steering and even leading us in expressions of outrage against themselves. In political year 1996, both sides were on your side in the struggle against privilege. Bill Clinton might as well be a direct descendant of Bryan, so natural is his Bubba act (which comes complete with enormous appetites, in true Bryan fashion). Meanwhile the plainspoken Bob Dole was a one-man populist crusade against labor unions, bureaucrats, foreign plutocrats, and eastern newspaper editors. Even Newt Gingrich--who has referred to himself as the historical heir of William McKinley and his industrialist fund-raiser/campaign manager Mark Hanna, the duo who neatly dispatched Bryan in 1896 by running the most expensive political campaign the nation had ever seen--even Newt adopted a form of pseudopopulism, albeit an exotic strain from the Limbaugh right, imagining vast plots against the faith and values of the common people orchestrated by "countercultural McGoverniks," the NEA, and the Washington Post. "The People Outraged" was the only TV show on the only network (brought to you by Ameritech and Archer Daniels Midland, naturally); the election was just a casting call for the lead role. And four years later, once we have discovered that the heroes of '96 were a gang of fakers, a new coterie of certified-authentic populist heroes will show up to help us reclaim democracy from the interests.

Populism is thriving as style. What has become, though, of populism as politics? Where are the descendants of the capital-P Populists, who terrified industrialists and legislators all through the 1890s with their demands for currency reform, income tax, fair play for labor unions, and nationalization of railroads and telegraphs? On election night I forsook the corporate-sponsored cocktail round favored by journalists and spent this most sacred of democratic holidays in a place where electoral struggle is still conducted by ordinary people: the modest East Side campaign headquarters of Clem Balanoff, a labor and environment-oriented progressive of some repute who was challenging Jerry Weller, a probusiness Republican freshman, to represent the congressional district that stretches from the southeast side to La Salle County.

For most of the year Balanoff looked like an extreme long shot. Weller, outspending his challenger three to one, employed a high-powered law firm from suburban D.C. to sharpen his image while Balanoff relied mainly on union and student volunteers. But toward the end Balanoff managed to pull even in the polls, whereupon Weller promptly consulted the political recipe concocted in the days of Hanna and McKinley: when challenged by someone who questions the wisdom of the global business order, call him anti-American and forget about him. It worked against Bryan, blasted as an "anarchist" by Republican forces; it worked against the Populists, smeared by the newspapers of rival parties as "atheistic, anarchistic, communistic." And it worked against Balanoff, who, Weller campaign literature pointed out, had a "Communist" uncle and had spent a number of years among the hippies in California!

Strangely there were no hippies evident on election night in the basement of the modest one-story Balanoff family law office at 101st and Ewing. Nor could I pick out a single D.C.-dazzled powerkid of the sort who usually swarm at these events. Balanoff campaign workers, who shared the room with piles of old office furniture, opted for the jackets and hats of their local unions over the golden ties and thick velvet suspenders that are de rigueur at tonier political-corporate soirees. They smoked Best Buy cigarettes and drank Old Style Light in cans chilled by a creaking International Harvester refrigerator. They sat on worn-out desk chairs around rickety card tables and ate pizzas brought in from the restaurant across the street. Their spirits raised by early TV returns showing Balanoff ahead, they talked excitedly about union organizing efforts, about the upcoming Teamster election, about the hated Vrdolyak machine. The beer ran low. A campaign worker asked me to drive to a nearby Jewel to buy more.

Upstairs in the law office, though, things were somber and silent. Fifteen loyalists clustered around a television while another tersely answered the constantly ringing phones, typing the vote tallies that were read to him into a simple spreadsheet program. Eventually the bad news became clear: Weller had taken the lead. Minutes later the TV broadcasters, looking for closure before everyone went to bed, switched to Weller campaign headquarters and broadcast the Republican's remarks for a full 15 minutes. There were no cameras at the main Balanoff headquarters in Joliet; the few viewers who remained after Weller's speech had to settle for a correspondent's telephone description of the losers' somber mood.

Then came the cruelest blow. The program's anchors, accompanied by a political analyst from the Chicago Tribune, congratulated Weller, whose candidacy the Trib had endorsed and whose victory it had predicted, for staving off the powerful forces that were threatening Republican congressmen elsewhere. Weller had won culturally as well as electorally: not only would he remain the congressman, but he got to be the underdog as well, the incumbent and the challenger at the same time. Even his red-baiting was passed over by the Tribune expert as "lighthearted."

The Balanoff people were stunned. Longtime leftists and labor activists, they were of course accustomed to losing elections. But this was defeat compounded with indignity, a version of events in which they had somehow ceased to be the ordinary people they imagined themselves to be and instead became precisely the corporate vassals and shadowy manipulators they had spent years fighting. Balanoff's effort had run on populist idealism and volunteer labor, but to hear the TV tell it he was the well-financed proxy of malign interests.

A sharp marketing consultant could have spotted the problem with only a glance around the room: Positioning. Brand image. Demographics. It takes big money to be a populist these days. Idealistic folk like Clem Balanoff and his working-class supporters can't afford it.

As the losers dispersed into the night, the East Side air reeking from the mills nearby, I wondered what they would make of Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson's recent book-length manifesto for a new brand of progressivism. As an account of Tommy's ten-year reign, it's pretty forgettable fare. But as a deranged document of a deranged era it deserves to be remembered and studied. The book is a typically Republican call for returning power to the states and through them to corporations, but old Tommy wasn't about to call this effort "Pandering to the Plutocrats." No, in what was no doubt a moment of epiphanic inspiration, he titled it Power to the People and included a frontispiece depicting himself seated on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

There can't be many readers who aren't by now familiar with the mantra of the Republican revolution, but for those who managed to make it through the last few years unexposed, Thompson goes through all the standard gestures. Washington, see, is the preserve of a "distant, insulated elite" who haven't a clue what's going on in actual places like Wisconsin. State governments, on the other hand, permit "the real-world common sense of ordinary people" to rule. What this means in practice, of course, is that enlightened governors like Tommy Thompson compete with other governors in "creating a pro-business environment," thereby luring corporations and jobs away from the common-sense ordinary people in the state next door.

But in taking up his pen Tommy Thompson had more ethereal goals in mind than simply bringing more business to Wisconsin. Deep in his heart, for some reason, Tommy wants you to think of him as a "progressive," and the purpose of Power to the People is to capture for him, and by extension for his party, the coveted symbols of the moribund populist left. The Progressives, successors of the Populists, are best remembered for their efforts to break up the trusts, ensure living wages for workers, and build a government that could regulate corporate power. Granted, the need for a progressive revival is fairly plain these days: wages and labor are on the retreat in nearly every industry, and the logic of monopoly now works its magic in no less important a field than information. But going to war with the Culture Trust is not what Tommy Thompson has in mind. He aims to do precisely the opposite. He boasts, in fact, that Wisconsin was "among the first states to deregulate telecommunications"--for which the ever-dwindling number of media conglomerates shall be eternally grateful--and in Power to the People he spares no effort to prove that the interests of "the people" and those of "the market" are identical right down the line. "To be the party of the working class," Tommy even pronounces at one point, "you have to work with business to create jobs for working people." While the bulk of his book may not be worthy of much attention, the contortions through which he puts the American past in his quest to capture the motorcycle-mounted romance of the populist left deserves some sort of prize.

Thompson's strange claim to progressivism is based on two facts. First, (actual) Progressive leader Robert La Follette came from Wisconsin, and generally identified himself with the Republican Party (until late in his career, when he went off to start his own). Second, an early Progressive apparently once referred to state governments as "laboratories of democracy," and Thompson fastens onto the phrase with the zeal of a true market missionary. The main obstacle to his claim, of course, is that the people ordinarily referred to as "Progressives" happened to be the creators of the very government that Thompson so despises, the founders of the cult of expertise and virtually the inventors of bureaucracy. Nor could many of them--think of John Dewey or even Theodore Roosevelt--be counted as prominent boosters for the corporate way of life, or as partisans of the idea that states should act like feudal regimes ever on the lookout for a more generous corporate liege. But never mind the details: "The progressive challenge today is really the same," Tommy Thompson declares. "Only there is a different elite that has grown too powerful and too disconnected from the realities of everyday life in our communities. The first Progressives took power back from a private sector elite that had grown too controlling. Now we need to take power from a government sector elite that has grown too controlling."

One marvels at passages like these, at the fact that someone living in this same country, with better access than most to facts and figures, sat down and came up with these lines. Is Thompson profoundly ignorant or mad in some ineffable politician's way? Could it really be that he hasn't heard about Time/Warner/Disney/Westinghouse/Geffen/Murdoch? Did he fail to notice that both parties' 1996 political conventions, not to mention the presidential debates, were conspicuously brought to you by Ameritech, Kraft, United, Chrysler, and various regional banks, like any other sporting event? Could it be that no one has told him about the end of middle-class affluence, about the concentrating wealth and spreading poverty that have become so intense over the last ten years that statistically we are reentering the 19th century? Or is it just that Tommy Thompson regards this as progress?

Maybe what he's doing is casting about for that last missing ingredient he needs to make a presidential run of his own four years from now--a corporate sponsor. His book, after all, goes to great lengths to signal his openness to such a relationship: from his willingness to bend over backward to bring businesses to Wisconsin to the ridiculous photo of him on that Harley, an image that might well be used in an ad campaign. Maybe four years from now, backed by a company like Disney that knows how to mount a proper brand-image campaign, Tommy's new vision of Progressivism can sweep clean. This time his populist sentiments will be published by Disney's Hyperion; rapturous op-ed pieces saluting his dedication to democracy will appear in the dozen or so papers that Disney owns through Cap Cities; Tommy will host his own TV program on Disney-owned ABC, and the majestic People will communicate with him through the interactive wonder of a Disney-owned on-line service. Together Tommy and Michael Eisner will lead us against the nefarious forces that, we all know, are undermining the American way of life. What could be more "progressive" than that?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Peter Hannan.

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