Via Ross at his shiny new Atlantic blog comes this Noam Scheiber piece on phony “populism” and Fred Thompson. Mr. Scheiber is right that the Americans who are drawn to Fred Thompson’s pickup truck act want “their rich people” to act as they do. It isn’t as if voters are entirely unaware that they are rallying around millionaires and dynastic heirs. On the one hand, the rich Republican politicians serve as a kind of goal for aspirational voters who want to make their own fortune; the rich Democratic politicians tend to operate more according to a rather distorted notion of noblesse oblige (hence, Edwards, son of a mill worker, now claims to feel obliged to “help” others succeed as he has–by using the state to compel others to do the helping). (This, in addition to the nature of the institutions where they are working, may help to explain why privileged upper-middle kids who have enjoyed the best education tend to go overwhelmingly for left-liberal politics and politicians–their politics is at least partly an expression of the debt they feel they owe.)
Mr. Bush’s brush-clearing doesn’t necessarily endear him to anyone on an egalitarian basis, especially when he is clearing his brush on a gigantic ranch. It seems to me that these things, even if they were completely fake and done for public consumption, don’t work because they show the rich politician to be “just an ordinary guy” (which he obviously isn’t for one reason or another) but because they show the rich politician as someone who doesn’t have to do his own brush-clearing but who does it anyway. It elides inequality, which in turn helps the voter forget the vast disparity in power between himself and the politician whom he is about to invest with still more power. Phony “populism” makes it easier to entrust a politician with great power, because the phony “populism” seems to suggest (though it can often deceive) that the new power will not distance the pol too much from voters.
But let’s clear something else up. What these pols do with their homey performances is not really populism, phony or otherwise. Any attempt of a slick Eastern or Californian transplant (such as the Georges Bush and Allen respectively) to play as the down-home country boy has nothing to do with populism, though it may be classed as a kind of symbolic demagoguery. (The pioneer of Eastern transplantation to the West, T.R. was a progressive and extremely hostile to the trusts, yes, but no one could reasonably confuse him with a populist like Bryan.) Populism has to have some theoretical connection to empowering or serving the popular interest, which has typically meant the breaking up of concentrated wealth and concentrated power and distributing power more evenly throughout the body politic. Obviously, the GOP has never really wanted to attack the former and historically has only rarely attacked the latter and has since ceased to attack it at all. The original party of consolidation makes for a poor vehicle for any kind of populism. The symbolic demagoguery of pretending to be just like Middle Americans (or enough like them to assuage their doubts) has had to make up the distance between the nature of the party and the desires of its constituents. On the national level, I think this bridge is finally beginning to strain and break from having to stretch so far and bear so much weight.
What typically drives liberals crazy about this phony “populism” is the example of men belonging to the historic party of corporations and the moneyed interest hamming it up as one of the common people, when they actually serve entirely different interests. (This doesn’t mean that Democrats serve substantially different interests these days–it is the success of “third way” politics that the Democracy is equally in hock to corporations.) What I think many liberals still don’t quite understand is just how powerful and visceral Middle American resentment of overbearing and unaccountable government (especially in its more culturally radical forms) really is. Republicans have been able to tap into that populist resentment of government intrusiveness for a time, but this was only possible so long as the GOP retained some credibility as being at least a marginally more small-government party. Once that has vanished, as it assuredly has over the past few years, the GOP finds itself exposed for what it is–a party that purports to represent Middle America despite the reality that its every major policy priority seems almost designed to ruin or harm Middle Americans, the Party of Immigration, Imperialism and Insolvency.
Not even a funny actor, a red pickup truck and a Southern accent can repair the damage done to the GOP brand. I think I begin to understand more why many people think Fred Thompson will save the Republicans, but they are still operating according to the culture war rules of the late 20th century. According to what I am guessing will be the new rules, at least for a little while, the GOP will be forced to defend the expanded warfare-welfare state they have created and embraced, creating temporarily the space for Democrats to position themselves not only as economic populist foes of corporations (which will, of course, simply be an act for most of them) but as the party opposing expansive and intrusive government. The cultural issues will continue to motivate and influence elections and the GOP will continue to win considerable support for advancing cultural conservatism, at least rhetorically, but without the responsible/limited government leg of the GOP stool cultural conservatism alone cannot keep the GOP standing. It strikes me that a Giuliani campaign, which can plausibly draw on neither the cultural issues nor the symbolic demagoguery nor a responsible/limited government message, would bring about electoral disaster for Republicans. Fred Thompson would not do a lot better, but he does at least have that red pickup truck.