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Republican Populism

Daniel Larison [1] and Rod Dreher [2] both discuss the status of populism in the Republican party. Larison’s reference to “folksy mummery,”accurately sums up the substance of Republican populism these days.

In their defense, deploying faux populism has been reasonably successful strategy for the Republican party (see Bush, George W.) as  they devote themselves to the interests of corporations and the wealthy and mock “elitist” Democrats for looking French [3]. A few years back I quoted [4] Rich Lowry’s positively gushing article on the  flavor-of-the-month at the time, Sen. George Allen:

 Allen has benchmarks for whether he will instantly find someone compatible or not. If he likes NASCAR is one, and “if his driver is Earnhardt Jr., that’s someone I agree with.” . . . If he is a rough-and-tumble Oakland Raiders fan, that’s another good indicator. If he is a Harley-Davidson rider, that’s still another. These are all signs, as Allen puts it, of, “good, individualistic, non-conformist minds.”

Allen was a rising star in 2005 and may have been the 2008 Republican nominee except for YouTube [5]. Rick Perry isn’t doing so good these days, but I haven’t seen any evidence that he is flopping because Republicans are searching for a real populist.

And I should add that while Dreher wrote, “It is simply a fact that on the Right today, there is no constituency for breaking up concentrations of wealth and power, except government wealth and government power,” I assume that he meant to add the phrase, when Democrats are in power.

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#1 Comment By Matt On October 6, 2011 @ 8:08 am

There is a constituency on the right for breaking up concentrations of wealth and power, but it is small and there is disagreement on what the target should be. There is one on the left too, but because of nondiscrimination theology it tends to be much smaller. For most left-inclined, decentralizing power means letting the racist yahoos have power, so it’s a nonstarter.

#2 Comment By 1nation On October 6, 2011 @ 9:54 am

I disagree with Rod Dreher on this one. The two party system stands in the way, obscuring the interests that voters share. The stench of corruption arising from the collusion of private wealth with government is overpowering. There is a constituency spanning Left, Right and Center for breaking it up.

#3 Comment By Sean Scallon On October 6, 2011 @ 11:00 am

Cris Christie is a good study of this kind of faux-populism. Why would some members of Conservative INC. be pushing his candidacy when he takes so many un-conservative stances? Because Christie has the conservative style down pat. It’s the in-your-face, attack, demogouge, insult, yell, scream, gut-punch, fighter style which has been with us since the days of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. What did McCarthy say once? “You don’t win a lumberjack fight with lace-curtain tactics.” Well then this is what these so-called conservatives do so that the supposed conservative man (as we would assume their thinking goes) sees the style rather than the substance and says ‘This is my guy! Because he fights back against the Leftist!” Nixon became president this way. George Wallace built his career this way.

This style is especially popular where conservatives aren’t quite so numerous such as the northeast where Christie is from, or with Scott Brown or Al D’Amato or especially with Rudy Guliani. You also saw it in the “Morton Downey Jr.” show. The idea is to fit into character-type on television (where this style was born” and hope the imagine overwhelms the less-than-conservative voting record which they figure most voters won’t care about anyway or take time to study. A neat shortcut to where someone from New York who supports abortion rights and dresses as a drag queen can get the support of a voter in Oklahoma.

#4 Comment By Sean Scallon On October 6, 2011 @ 11:03 am

I should also say talk radio perpetuates this style. It’s why, unfortunately for John Derbyshire, a highbrow conservatism of Buckley sort is impossible to recreate in today’s media environment because producers assume conservatives only respond to visceral anger rather than intelligence. This is what makes Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck what they are because they know their target audience.

#5 Comment By Matt On October 6, 2011 @ 11:58 am

True Sean, I’ve heard more than once that Palin should be supported because she makes the left so mad, and therefore must be right.

#6 Comment By Tumbrels On October 6, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

I agree with 1nation. Populism isn’t necessarily a right/left matter.

Even Joe Biden seems to get part of it: “What is the core of that protest [e.g. the Wall Street protests and the Tea Party] and why is it increasing? The core is that the bargain has been breached with the American people. The core is that the American people do not think the system is fair or on the level.”

What Biden doesn’t get is that the anger spans the political spectrum and is directed at both parties. He doesn’t understand that the Tea Party, which he says is the main obstacle to deals to solve national problems, is just one manifestation of a generalized disgust with national institutions. People don’t want “deals”.

And Biden also doesn’t understand that they aren’t angry with “the system”. They are angry at individuals, the insiders who always seem to slip away, who recommend stupid policies and are then excused on the grounds that “nobody saw this coming”, who always seem to keep their jobs, or their place in the commentariat, or their pensions, even when they get it completely wrong, screw up or break the law. People want real accountability. They want people thrown in jail. They want the incompetent and corrupt expelled from positions of influence and leadership.