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What Populist Candidates?


The belief that populism has a place in American politics does not require a belief that every populist candidate should be uncritically supported; and the belief that one can acquire political wisdom outside Washington does not absolve an outsider candidate of the obligation to demonstrate that they have wisdom, as well as talking points, to fall back on.

If I understand Ross’ larger point, Palin’s more sympathetic critics want to insist that extra-Beltway experience and unconventional backgrounds can be healthy and desirable things to have in national candidates, but they would very much like those candidates to have at least some preparation in and understanding of national policy issues.  That seems reasonable enough, but what is not clear is what any of this has to do with populism.  If Palin sometimes talk as populists talk, it is boilerplate “make the government work for you” talk that means nothing.  Listen to these excerpts from her speech before that massive crowd in Florida and find something she says that is not simply a talking point.  Turn challenges into opportunities!  Better regulation, not worse regulation!  “We defy them!” it is not.    

If Palin is a “commoner” by background, and indeed that is the main appeal of her candidacy to her enthusiastic fans, she is necessarily even more wedded to conventional GOP establishment views on policy because it is assumed, apparently correctly, that she has to be brought up to speed on most of these issues.  The deal is straightforward: Palin exchanges her outsider status for membership in the highest level of the national political class, and in return for the boost her outsider reputation lends the old establishmentarian she agrees to accept the establishment’s views, which obviously have nothing to do with populism of any kind.   

The different treatment of Huckabee and Palin continues to amaze me more than a little.  Conservative elites–including most Palin fans–seemed to hate Huckabee with the fury of a thousand suns mainly because he was an evangelical with a working-class background and a strong regional accent who frequently made fun of puffed-up Eastern elites, but most, including no less than Romney himself, seem to have made the adjustment to embracing Palin’s derision of the same Easterners.  A legitimate criticism of Huckabee was that he, like Palin, wasn’t terribly well-versed in policy detail.  (Then again, neither is McCain, as his daily off-the-cuff be-bopping all over the ideological map on domestic policy in recent weeks ought to make apparent.)  This didn’t seem to hurt Huckabee or McCain electorally, while Mitt “The Weeds Are Important” Romney did suffer on account of his technocratic instincts, but it did leave Huckabee open to mockery when he talked about the Fair Tax despite clearly not understanding the consequences of such a policy. 

One of the most frustrating aspects of Huckabee’s candidacy was the coverage of it, as he was routinely described as some kind of economic populist for mouthing platitudes about the ingenuity of the American worker and the need to pay attention to the interests of workers.  Economic conservatives believed this, and consequently went to war against Huckabee, who had a fiscal record that was no better and no worse than the sanctimonious fraud they embraced as their champion.  Meanwhile, Huckabee supported exactly the same trade, immigration and economic policies that a real economic populist would find abhorrent.  Huckabee’s so-called economic populism had nothing to it except for stump refrains about wanting to be a President “who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.”  This reminder-based populism was necessarily toothless and had no real implications for negotiating trade deals, enforcing immigration laws, reforming the tax code and entitlements or any of the policies that are detrimental to the interests of the many.

Palin has given cultural populist cues derived from her biography–we are told endlessly that Palin’s story reminds voters of their own lives, or that she “gets” their experience, and the same cues that endear her to Middle Americans freak out people on the left who imagine Palin to be some sort of theocrat.  Likewise, Huckabee gave those meaningless so-called economic populist cues by talking about “reminding” people of the guys they work with, and those same cues freaked out conservative elites who thought he was coming to take their money.  In neither case are these cues indicative of the policies that Palin and Huckabee support.  In both cases, the hysterical reactions against the candidates showed how absolutely intolerable anything that even resembled populism was.  On closer examination, we find that neither one of them is actually a populist once you get beyond their stump speeches.  It would be interesting to see the reaction to a well-informed, policy-driven populist campaign would be, if there were any campaigns of that kind in either major party.  Then again, those who remember the derision heaped on Pat Buchanan during each one of his campaigns already know what the reaction would look like.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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