The editors of The Nation are confounded. “What’s Fueling the New Nativism?” they asked. Their readers answered: we are.

“The roots of this xenophobic upsurge—fueled by economic frustrations and national-security phobias, and inflamed by voices of hatred—run far too deep …” claimed the lead editorial of the Aug. 28 issue. (They were not discussing some sudden proliferation of KKK rallies but recent immigration-reform efforts.) “[N]o one could have foreseen the breadth and fury of the new nativism that has risen up from Middle America with an ominous roar.”

Neither, apparently, could the old baron of leftist opinion have foreseen the breadth and fury of its audience’s reaction. The Nov. 13 issue confesses to “an avalanche of furious mail”:

“All who oppose illegal immigration are not right-wing racist extremists,” a North Carolinian chastised the editors. “I myself am black. And those of us in the lower depths are definitely negatively affected—not only by the downward pressure on wages but by the fact that a requirement for many jobs now is the ability to speak Spanish!” Another reader responded, “Your characterization of people who are anti-illegal immigration as racists is unfair and untrue. Like myself, most are just working stiffs. I’m a plumber, trying to hold on to my job and a way of life I grew up with.” Another went further: “By labeling concerns of American workers ‘nativism,’ you dismiss those concerns as reactionary or invalid. Characterizing those concerns as racist or xenophobic allows you to ignore the economic impact on the working class while gallantly mounting your high horse in defense of the oppressed minority you prefer to focus on.”

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That’s the flashpoint of the conflict, and Democrats’ answer will define their political fortunes. The party long perceived as fighting for the little guy has taken on new charges whose demands increasingly clash with the interests of its historic base. Their discontent—dismissed as prejudice—is a legitimate reaction to being forsaken as the Left attempts to force broad populism, its most reliable electoral asset, into a narrow multiculturalist mold.

Populism is one of the more elusory themes in American politics—and in terms of electoral utility, one of the most potent in this country without kings. From the earliest days when patriots served tea and treason in Boston Harbor, deep in the national DNA runs a satisfying view of ourselves as combative idealists taking the fight to outsized opponents. Those who tap that current touch something primal—and for decades the Democrats did.

Drawing an urgent divide between “two great classes—tramps and millionaires” in the dust of westward expansion gone bust at the close of the 19th century, the People’s Party platform surveyed the dark side of prosperity and found a “nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” These Populists—so called by an Ohio editorialist—failed to triumph under their own power. But they sufficiently defined an American sympathy to siphon one million votes and cost Republican President Benjamin Harrison re-election.

When the “Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan ran the next cycle, the Populists sold out for free silver, and both lost. Populism would enjoy no revival as an organized political force—in pure form it is too easily caricatured as anti-capitalist, much as the original intent ran counter to the Marxist dream, arguing not for abolition of private property but for its protection against corporate consolidation. But the Democrats had acquired a political code key. From Franklin Roosevelt’s “economic royalists” to “Give ’em hell” Harry Truman, fanfares for the common man became whistle-stop vogue. In rhetoric if not in action, Democrats were able to define themselves as champions of the producers versus Bryan’s “idle holders of idle capital” and reaped political dividends from FDR to LBJ.

But then the populist persuasion began to undergo a near fatal mutation from which it has yet to recover. In 1964, George Wallace took to the national stage burnishing familiar credentials by blasting “eastern money interests” and “bearded bureaucrats.” But he tweaked the old formula by refocusing “us versus them” to segregation’s advantage: his little guy was white. By the time Wallace left the party—taking 10 million votes with him—he had translated populism from economic to social terms, breaking Democrats’ grip on working-class whites in the process. Toiling in the civil-rights vineyard, the Left anticipated a replacement constituency even as they too redefined roles—in reverse. Those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder previously designated “the people” were now cast as “the powerful” because of the color of their skin.

Sensing a constituency in play, Republicans sought to win them over with familiar lines, sampling populist tropes with Nixon’s Silent Majority. Reagan went further, again recasting antagonists by mapping the battle as citizens against big government. But their fidelity to free trade and their corporate sponsors’ desire for cheap labor made the Republicans imperfect vessels. Reagan’s successor fell victim to a populist one-two punch: his own perceived aloofness and another third-party candidate—19 million votes this time.

Clinton’s “Putting People First” campaign rode through the middle. A sour economy suggested a return to populism’s roots, and he got the rhetoric right: “I expect the jetsetters and featherbedders of corporate America to know that if you sell your companies and your workers and your country down the river, you’ll be called on the carpet.” But as president he showed more interest in turning down the Lincoln bedroom covers for the rich and famous.

His ossified veep struck a populist pose and failed to convince, losing two-to-one among white men. Neither would Teresa Heinz’s husband prevail: only 38 percent of swing voters thought Kerry seemed like a “real person.” But Texas folksiness only goes so far. With scant daylight between Bush and the Democrats on globalism and government growth, populism had to be refitted. Thus Republicans channeled the impulse against cultural captains of industry—“media elites” in talk-radio speak. The old strain was officially buried.

The Left will spin its recent electoral success as a glorious revolution, but voters were far more interested in Bush’s war than fulminations about the minimum wage. Democrats have no agenda and are unable to raise the old standard at full strength.
Most of their candidates are distant from the common men they claim to represent, and many aren’t immune to the socialist tendency that has always been populism’s undoing. More critically, after Republicans joined them on civil rights, Democrats crawled out on the multicultural limb to maintain their supposed monopoly on public virtue. In so doing, they became a new breed of oligarchs, using powerful institutions and the cudgel of political correctness to enforce an artificial state of affairs. Thus, when they speak of trade they employ the vague language of human rights rather than American equity. And when they bring themselves to mention immigration, it’s to indict populists like CNN’s Lou Dobbs for “hysteria and jingoism” as The Nation did.

But they have lost touch with the philosophy that yielded four decades of majorities. In 1892—electoral high tide for the People’s Party—key to their platform was the realization that “imported pauperized labor beats down wages.”
These new elitists have also lost touch with the country. Polled earlier this year, 81 percent of Americans said that immigration policy is “out of control,” and 68 percent felt that the current level of immigration—legal and illegal—is “too high.” Not all of these can be xenophobes. After all, some of them read The Nation.
That realization has landed at other outlets of liberal opinion. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart writes, “In the coming years, unless Democrats take a hard line on immigration, their hard line on trade is unlikely to do them much electoral good. Economic nationalism may offer the Democratic Party its best chance in decades for an enduring reconciliation with the white working class.”

The good news for Democrats is that field is open. Republicans cannot capture the populist flag. Their diversity play involves immigrants themselves. Besides, their deep pockets demand a docile workforce while their intellectual wing argues that freedom requires an unchecked flow of goods and people. But they understand populism’s appeal enough to mint their own version, which succeeds in the absence of legitimate challenge.
Thus far the Left has been unable to answer. Between a resurgent faith in the old tenets of the populist creed and electoral success on their own terms sits the conflict that shocked The Nation. As a political calculation, it makes no sense to trade an established base for an imagined cloud of gay, feminist, Hispanic, and otherwise culturally correct witnesses. For as long as diversity is enthroned as the highest political good, concern for Joe Six-Pack cannot be primary. Worse, these average Americans who were once Democratic faithful are being antagonized by the condescension that deems their natural attachments hateful.
The question the Left must answer, therefore, is whether concern for foreigners outweighs loyalty to citizens, for the American minorities they claim to protect are most vulnerable to the flood of unskilled labor. That is their entry point into the immigration debate and the first step back to authentic populism. But first, they may need some time to recover from the revelation that they have been leading a long column of racists.

December 4, 2006 Issue