Modern American populism grounded in the Constitution has been a major force in American politics, especially in the conservative movement, for nearly six decades. Since the Draft Goldwater Committee of 1962 to 1963, constitutional populism has helped to shape the politics of American conservatism and its chosen political instrument, the Republican Party. Populism on the Left as personified by Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is far different—with its socialist, secular, globalist, and utopian roots.
Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican presidential nomination and then the presidency in 2016 was the latest manifestation of conservative populism’s consequential role. Trump tapped into the deep populist reservoir in the heartland of America that stretches from the South to the Midwest in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In his victory speech, Trump promised that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” referring to working- and middle-class Americans left behind economically and culturally in the fast-paced Age of Information. Ironically, Franklin D. Roosevelt used the same language, invoking “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” in a 1932 campaign speech. But Roosevelt and Trump had far different ideas of who the “forgotten” American was.
FDR’s forgotten American was an out-of-luck worker stuck between the breadline and a Hooverville whom Roosevelt would rescue through the New Deal and add to the new political coalition he was building. Trump was non-ideological with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, but targeted so-called Reagan Democrats. He was the latest in a long line of populist politicians on the Right.
The Forgotten American has had different names over the years—Silent Majority, Moral Majority, Tea Party—but has sought most of the same things: a respect for the Founders and the founding documents, a less intrusive federal government, a balanced budget and a reduced national debt, a code of law and order that favors the victim and not the criminal, and a strong national defense. The Forgotten American loves America, which he considers exceptional, and is protective of its Judeo-Christian heritage and historic symbols like the American flag. He is more conservative when times are good and more populist when the times are not so good, but always looks to the Constitution as his political compass.
What is populism? Rather cynically, Merriam-Webster first defines a populist “as a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people.” Its second definition is less polemical: “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica says that populism can be either democratic or authoritarian. In the U.S., the term was first applied to the Populist Movement, which gave rise to the Populist or People’s Party in 1892. Several planks of the party’s platform were adopted as laws or even constitutional amendments, such as the progressive income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators. But early populism was progressive in its objectives—early reflections of the socialist goals of politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez—and is far removed from the constitutional populism of the Tea Party.
In the second half of the 20th century, says the Britannica, populism was identified with demagogic Latin American leaders like Juan Peron and Hugo Chavez. The encyclopedia errs by not including Fidel Castro in its list of Latino caudillos. There is no similarity between these revolutionary populists and populist conservatives like Goldwater and Reagan.
“Populist” can properly be used to describe a politician who panders to a people’s fears or anger. A case in point was the racist presidential candidate George Wallace, who tried to conceal his racism behind criticism of what he called “pointy-headed intellectuals” in Washington. In contrast, Ronald Reagan promised to make the government “work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”
In his farewell address, Reagan acknowledged the role of conservative or constitutional populism in his presidency, saying of the American Revolution: “Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words, ‘We the people.’ ‘We the people’ tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us.” The idea of “we the people,” he said, was the underlying basis for everything he had tried to do as president.
As to present-day American politics, Senator Sanders is not a populist but a soft socialist as is the media’s current crush, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, who mistakenly refers to Denmark and Sweden as “socialist.” “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy,” insists Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. “Denmark is a market economy.” It is also an advanced welfare state with universal health care and “free” education financed by a top income tax rate of almost 60 percent and a 25 percent sales tax. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, there is no such thing as a “free” college education in Sweden or anywhere else.
Goldwater’s Forgotten American
In advance of his presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater wrote a manifesto that focused on what he called the “Forgotten American” whose interests, he said, “were not represented by existing political pressure groups and whose voice was drowned out amidst the cries of big government, big labor, and big business.” The man from Arizona called for a total war on inflation, victory in the Cold War, and protection of workers against abuses of labor. Here is how, in my Goldwater biography, I described the Forgotten Americans of 1964:
The[y] were little old ladies in tennis shoes, truck drivers with tattoos, professors who read Hayek rather than Keynes, right-wingers convinced that Wall Street and the Kremlin were conspiring to run the world … retired people on Social Security worried about inflation, Westerners tired of catering to Easterners, anticommunists demanding action against Cuba and Khrushchev, small businessmen fighting a losing battle against government rules and regulations, readers of The Conscience of a Conservative, high school and college rebels looking for a cause—all of them believing that it was possible to solve problems as America had in the past, through the First Baptist Church and the Rotary and Kappa Kappa Gamma and the Salvation Army and in their towns, cities, and communities without the direction of federal bureaucrats.
Trump appealed to populist conservatives just as Richard Nixon did in 1968, Reagan in 1976 and again in 1980, Newt Gingrich in 1994, and as the Tea Party did in 2010. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, Reagan benefited significantly from the Moral Majority, Gingrich tested the popular appeal of the Contract with America through extensive grassroots polling. The Tea Party was committed to constitutional populist objectives of smaller government, lower taxes, fewer government regulations, and strict law and order, especially after the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Heritage Foundation distributed tens of thousands of its pocket copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to the Tea Party.
Buckley and Populist Conservatism
Nixon’s 1968 presidential win was anticipated by William F. Buckley, Jr.’s seemingly quixotic 1965 decision to run for mayor of New York City. Although he received only 13.4 percent of the vote, Buckley sketched the outlines of a winning coalition of ethnic, Catholic Democrats and middle-class Republicans for future politicians. In his 1969 landmark study, The Emerging Republican Majority, Kevin Phillips cited Buckley’s vote in New York’s Catholic assembly districts as a “harbinger” of the new majority that accounted for Republican victories to come (including Trump’s capture of “Reagan Democrats” in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2016). Phillips argued that the GOP should take advantage of the “populist revolt of the American masses who have been elevated by prosperity to middle-class status and conservatism.”
Nixon recognized the importance of what the political scientists Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg dubbed “The Social Issue,” which covered everything from crime, busing, drugs, quotas, and welfare to draft dodging, capital punishment, and even sexual orientation—all conservative populist themes. Scammon and Wattenberg argued that these issues had gained in salience in the tumultuous year of 1968 and had become dominant in American politics.
Ever sensitive to political trends, Nixon placed the social issue at the center of his campaign, declaring:
Working Americans have become the forgotten Americans (emphasis added). In a time when the national rostrums and forums are given over to shouters and protestors and demonstrators, they have become the silent Americans. Yet they have a legitimate grievance that should be rectified and a just cause that should prevail.
Nixon’s law-and-order pledge was his response to third-party candidate George Wallace, who in mid-September was leading Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the old Confederacy with 45 percent. At the same time, the AFL-CIO revealed that one in three union members supported Wallace. Nearly 10 million people wound up voting for the Southern segregationist, 13.5 percent of the national total. Wallace carried five Southern states with their 46 electoral votes. Speaking to an overflow crowd of 20,000 in Madison Square Garden a week before Election Day, Wallace tried to identify the domestic issue of the campaign:
It’s people—our fine American people, living their own lives, buying their own homes, educating their children, working the way they like to work, and not having the bureaucrats and intellectual morons trying to manage everything for them. It’s a matter of trusting the people to make their own decisions.
But there can be no sugar-coating of the fundamental difference between the Jim Crow Confederate populism of George Wallace and the Middle American constitutional populism of Nixon and Reagan.
In the fall of 1969, with anti-Vietnam war demonstrators filling Washington’s streets, Nixon outlined in detail his Vietnam policy which would, he said, produce “a just and lasting peace.” Speaking from the White House, he appealed directly to the American people: “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.”
Vice President Spiro Agnew had already tested the phrase in a series of public addresses, saying, “It is time for America’s silent majority to stand up for its rights, and let us remember the American majority includes every minority.” Some historians have suggested that the White House might have been inspired by AFL-CIO head George Meany, who said two years earlier that union members like himself who supported the Vietnam war were “the vast silent majority in the nation.”
The New Right and Populism
The political strategist Kevin Phillips first used the label “New Right” in 1975 when discussing social or populist conservatives. He wrote that New Right founders like Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich wanted to build “a new coalition reaching across to what elite conservatives still consider ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’” Phillips explained that New Rightists were “a group of anti-establishment, middle-class political rebels more interested in issues like abortion, gun control, busing, ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], quotas, bureaucracy, and the grassroots tax revolt than in capital gains taxation or natural gas deregulation.”
The New Right was more blunt in describing the establishment they felt controlled the government and much of society, calling them the four “bigs”—Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Media. These are the primary targets of the populist conservatives of today, although Big Labor no longer exerts the same political power.
Reagan and Conservative Populism
Reagan had been a populist conservative since at least 1964 when he said, in his famous TV talk, “A Time for Choosing:”
I suggest to you there is no left or right, only an up or down. Up to the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism…. Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual [elite] in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
In his 1980 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Reagan sought to bind together all the elements of the GOP while reaching out to independents and Democrats disillusioned by Jimmy Carter’s feckless leadership. He quoted from the Mayflower Compact, the Founding Fathers, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Franklin D. Roosevelt on the danger of excessive government spending. He described the guideposts for his administration with five little words that can be found in any populist dictionary: “family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.” Seeking to explain Reagan’s 1980 landslide triumph, the liberal pollster Louis Harris concluded that Reagan had won “his stunning victory” because evangelical conservatives, particularly the Moral Majority—with an estimated four million members—“gave him such massive support.”
Perot and Populism
The power of constitutional populism was demonstrated by the independent Ross Perot, who in 1992 came closer to winning the presidency than any other third-party candidate in modern times. He did so by appealing to the same heartland of America as Donald Trump would a quarter of a century later.
Like Trump, Perot was a billionaire businessman, a political maverick, and a shrewd user of the mass media who promised to balance the budget, raise taxes on the wealthy, restore law and order to the land, and withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said would result in the loss of thousands of American jobs. His ideas were called a mix of “East Texan populism [and] high-tech wizardry”—a reference to his promise to initiate electronic Town Halls across the country to determine the people’s views on matters of public policy. Like Trump, Perot was not a conservative although he borrowed freely from conservatism with his promise to balance the budget and pursue a strict law and order path. He offered himself as an independent alternative to the elitist candidate George H. W. Bush and the moderate liberal Democrat Bill Clinton. His success signaled the great political and cultural divide developing in America that would account for the paper-thin margins in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016.
On Election Day, Perot received 19.7 million votes, an impressive 19 percent of the popular vote in his three-way race with Bush and Clinton. It was the highest percentage of votes won by a third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Perot finished second in two states—Maine and Utah—and won counties in seven states, including Texas and California. The high point of the Perot campaign came in late May when a Time magazine poll found that Perot had 37 percent support of the electorate, leading both Bush and Clinton who were tied at 24 percent each.
The feisty candidate who promised to restore an America “where you leave the doors unlocked” seemed to be on the edge of making history when he abruptly announced on the cable TV program Larry King Live that he would not seek the presidency. He explained, lamely, that he did not want to throw the election into the House of Representatives if no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College. On and off the record, however, campaign aides cited the increasingly negative media coverage that angered Perot, the ever mounting cost of the campaign, assassination threats, his failure to take advice from seasoned campaign advisers, and gaffes such as referring to African Americans as “you people” at a national meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Unlike Trump who thrived on media criticism and partisan charges, Perot cried “No mas.”
The always unpredictable Perot then stunned the political world by reentering the 1992 presidential race on October 1, because, he said, he wanted to explain his economic plans to the American people. He promised they would eliminate the budget deficit in five years. He demonstrated his new-found commitment by spending over $60 million on television, especially half-hour and full-hour “infomercials” that featured him with a metal pointer and simple charts and explaining, “We got into trickle-down economics and it didn’t trickle.” He participated in three presidential debates—winning the first according to most surveys—spoke at seven major rallies, and underwrote a series of 60-second ads on ESPN, CNN, and other cable networks (Fox News did not debut until 1996, four years later). The final NBC-Wall Street Journal poll put Perot in third place with 15 percent behind Bush with 36 percent and Clinton with 44 percent. Some surveys reported that 35 percent of voters would have voted for Perot if they thought he could win.
Exit polls showed that Perot took votes almost equally from Bush and Clinton. He reached out to unhappy voters left, right and center, looking for an alternative to what they regarded as an antiquated and unresponsive two-party system. His strong showing was due in large part to the votes of conservative populists, but they alone could not carry him to victory, even in a three-way race. Perot’s third-place showing suggests you cannot win an election by depending exclusively on constitutional populists. They do comprise, however, a significant percentage of the body politic that cannot be ignored or dismissed. Trump understood this and received 63 million votes in 2016, including a sizable number in the populist heartland.
Buchanan and Populism
The story of the 1992 campaign would not be complete without including The American Conservative’s founding editor Patrick J. Buchanan, who challenged Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. One of the ablest polemicists in the nation, Buchanan declared that “a religious war [was] going on in our country for the soul of America.” He startled Bush and most political pundits by winning almost 38 percent of the popular vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary. Although outspent and out-organized by the Bush camp, Buchanan kept campaigning, receiving three million votes in the primaries—23 percent of the total.
Buchanan went on to found the American Cause “to promote the principles of federalism, traditional values and anti-intervention” in U.S. foreign policy, and to run again in 1996. Buchanan’s Brigades delivered a victory in the New Hampshire primary over Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and victories in three other states: Alaska, Missouri, and Louisiana. Echoing Thomas Paine, he declared, “All the peasants are coming with pitchforks. We’re going to take this over the top.”
But Dole’s barricades repelled Buchanan’s Brigades and in the Super Tuesday primaries, the Kansas senator defeated the Washington writer by large margins. After receiving 21 percent of the Republican popular vote—some 3 million votes, as in 1992—Buchanan suspended his campaign and endorsed Dole after he picked Jack Kemp, the apostle of supply-side economics, as his running mate.
Two decades later, a billionaire in a Brioni suit won the support of constitutional populist Republicans and the paleoconservative populist Buchanan with his America First theme.
Contract with America
The ten items in the 1994 Contract with America were of fundamental importance but were also “doable”—they could be achieved because of broad public support. Extensive public opinion polling by Frank Luntz and other pollsters showed that at least 60 percent of Americans supported all ten points of the Contract. They included such popular reforms as a balanced federal budget, welfare reform, term limits, and a $500 per-child tax credit. Gingrich argued that the Contract could create such momentum that Congress could take on more challenging changes like the elimination of environmental regulations and Medicare and Medicaid reform.
For all its public policy emphasis, the Contract rested upon a principle that resonated with conservative populists: “The American family is at the very heart of our society …. After forty years of putting others first [we] will put families first…. It is through the family that we learn values like responsibility, morality, commitment and faith.”
On November 8, 1994, a day that will live in conservative political history, Republicans gained 54 seats and assumed a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president. It was a Republican triumph and a Democratic debacle with “a long-term significance,” wrote Congressional Quarterly, well beyond that of other congressional landslides. After eight years as the minority in the Senate, Republicans recaptured the upper house by 52-48, winning six open-seat elections and defeating two Democratic incumbents. “Conservatism’s long march through institutions,” wrote columnist George Will, “began thirty years ago with Barry Goldwater’s capture of the Republican Party.”
Responding to constitutional populist pressure, House Republicans passed historic welfare reform legislation in 1996 (after two Bill Clinton vetoes) and balanced the budget four times from 1998 through 2001 with Clinton’s reluctant cooperation. They took Clinton at his word that “the era of big government is over.”
The Tea Party
In February 2009, a supremely confident President Barack Obama dismissed warnings about a conservative populist backlash and set in motion the transformational change he had promised as a candidate, starting with a $787 billion economic stimulus package. There were widespread predictions by the Obama administration that unemployment would drop and the economy would rise. But nine months later, the wrong indicators dominated the news: unemployment stood at 9.8 percent, the highest rate since June 1983, and the economy was sputtering at an annual rate of barely 2 percent.
While discussing the $800 billion federal bailout, the fiery CNBC analyst Rick Santelli boiled over: “If you read our Founding Fathers—people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson—what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.” To applause from other brokers on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli escalated the rhetoric: “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing.”
Instead of “capitalists,” populists began popping up all over America and organizing Tea Parties. Thousands turned out on July 4 at various rallies, and on September 12, 2009, almost 800,000 Tea Partiers marched on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. according to its organizers. Their signs shouted: “Stop Saddling Our Grandchildren with Debt!” and “Start Acting Like Responsible Adults!” The Heritage Foundation offered this summary of the assembly echoing the earlier description of a 1964 Goldwater crowd:
One saw Middle America at its best. These were ordinary, hard-working people. They bought their own bus and plane tickets, paid their own hotel tabs, and made their own signs. Many came as families: parents, grandparents, and children…. They radiated good cheer among themselves and outrage toward their government. They were fed up with politicians squandering their taxes and appropriating powers not found in the Constitution.
The protests confirmed Tocqueville’s finding that when roused to action, Americans unite in voluntary associations. Like no other people on earth, remarked Heritage’s Ed Feulner, “Americans will join causes for common purposes.”
The 2010 elections set the elite political class against Middle Americans, and the people prevailed. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House of Representatives, exceeding the 54 seats captured in the 1994 Gingrich revolution and giving them a commanding voice. The GOP gained six seats in the Senate, almost eliminating the Democratic majority, and six governorships.
A philosophical explanation of the Republican sweep was offered by James Ceaser of the University of Virginia, who wrote that to the Tea Party, the inflated size of government and the extent of the federal debt “represented not only a burden on future generations and a threat to American power, but also a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution.” This theme, Ceaser said, “is what connects the Tea Party to the American tradition and makes their concerns matters of fundamental patriotism.” This theme also connects the Tea Party to the populist appeal of Goldwater, Buckley, Reagan, Gingrich, and Trump.
There are good reasons why Trump won in 2016: Hillary Clinton’s robotic performance, Trump’s unprecedented use of Twitter and other social media, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. All along, Trump tapped into a populist constituency that has been present in American politics and the conservative movement for six decades.
And there was the most emotion-laden issue of all—immigration. Every exit poll reported that immigration was the overriding issue for those who voted for Trump, more important than foreign policy, the economy, and terrorism. As a candidate, Trump made it clear that he wanted to limit legal immigration, take all feasible steps beginning with the building of a wall along our southern border to stop illegal immigration, and block the entry of people from countries with a heightened risk of Islamist terrorism. As president, Trump said that the United States must adopt an immigration system that first serves the national interest.
Trump critics and political opponents have charged unceasingly that a border wall is racist and xenophobic. But in pre-Trump times, many of these same critics favored a border wall.
Hillary Clinton admitted that as a senator, she voted “numerous times … to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in… I do think that you have to control your borders.” Were Hillary’s votes to control our borders the acts of a racist or a xenophobe?
In his 1995 State of the Union address, her husband Bill Clinton pointed out that “all Americans … are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.” That is why, he said, that his administration “has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.” Was Clinton’s decision to better secure our borders “racist” or was it a prudent response to the “large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country”?
Did a majority of Trump voters cast their ballot for Trump because they were racist or because they were responding to his campaign promise (echoing Clinton) to control the large number of illegal immigrants by building a wall along our southern border? As the late Charles Krauthammer put it, “Call it a wall. Call it a fence. Call it what you will… All that matters is that we regain control of the border…. Build the damn barrier.”
The great majority of those who support these measures are conservative populists who cite the preamble of the Constitution that “We the People” have the right to act to “insure domestic tranquility [and] provide for the common defense.”
Since 1964, Americans of a constitutional populist inclination have voted strongly for Republicans like Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, and Trump. They did not turn out in the same numbers for establishment Republicans like Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, or George H.W. Bush, who assigned a secondary role to constitutional populism. George W. Bush is a special case, usually tilting towards populism rather than elitism except in foreign policy.
What about the 2018 election? At first, the results were said to be a rejection of constitutional populism and a ringing endorsement of progressivism led by such new faces as Ocasio-Cortez and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib with her crude anti-Trump motto: “Impeach the motherf—er.” The Democrats picked up 40 seats and gained a majority in the House of Representatives while winning a net of seven governorships. A more balanced account would note the Republican pick-up of two seats in the U.S. Senate and the election of Republican governors in battleground states like Florida and Ohio. The Freedom Caucus in the House has increased its numbers and is positioned to play a leading role. Trump is determined to keep faith with his 63 million voters and build the wall.
An essential player in American politics continues to be constitutional populism, which is far removed from European populism and its extremes. American populism draws from 200 years of liberal democracy as outlined and protected by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It is not surprising that European populism should slip now and again into extremism given that the nationalist passions of countries like Hungary and Poland were forcibly suppressed by the Soviet Union and its communist satraps throughout the 45 years of the Cold War.
In telling contrast, constitutional populism in the 21st century is based on a conservative canon: government should be limited, individuals should be free and responsible in their freedom, there can be no lasting liberty without virtue, public and private, and peace at home and abroad is only made possible through a strong and vigilant national defense. Given its performance in presidential and other elections, constitutional populism is bound to play an essential role in America for many years to come.
Lee Edwards is distinguished fellow in conservative thought in the Simon Center at the Heritage Foundation.