Why the New Populism Won’t Go Away

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

As they sought to overturn the narrow victory of George W. Bush in the decisive Florida vote, Vice President Al Gore and his political operatives draped themselves in a cloak of anticonstitutional populist legitimacy. “Joe Lieberman and I have won the popular vote,” proclaimed the vice president as his lieutenants sought first to attack the “butterfly” ballots in Palm Beach County and then the machine-counted—and recounted—votes in heavily Democratic areas.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Press.

The repeated assertions of merit based, as his lieutenant William Daley suggested, on the notion that “the candidate who the voters preferred becomes our president,” were soon augmented by a harsher, more ugly brand of left-wing populist hate speech, none more ugly than the Internet column of former White House assistant and Gore debate coach Paul Begala. Recalling how the relatively few Gore states were denoted in blue on election night television reports while Bush’s states appeared as a sea of red, Begala continued: “But if you look closely at that map you see a more complex picture. You see the state where James Byrd was lynched behind a pickup truck until his body came apart—it’s red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay—it’s red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees—it’s red. The state where an army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews forth its anti-Catholic bigotry: they’re all red too.”

The Strategy

Faced with a substantial deficit in the polls and the need to reunite his base, Gore had introduced populist themes into his campaign in his acceptance speech delivered to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. There he pledged to tackle an assortment of corporate villains, “big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs.” In the short run, the tactic seemed to work as Gore seized an impressive lead in the polls, which carried him through the first debate. But as his lead then eroded and Bush sprinted by, Gore’s populist theme struck many as counterproductive if not somewhat bizarre. After all, this was no outsider campaigning for the presidency in a closed corporate society but half of an administration that had presided over a period of surging prosperity, when there was work for all and when “twenty-something” Internet millionaires were buying matching Porsches and homes in the country. When the Gore campaign fell just short at the wire, one could be excused for thinking that his “New Populism” fell with him.

But that is probably not so. Gore’s presumed position as the “shadow president”; the likely ascendancy of the populist-style Richard Gephardt from his perch as House minority leader; the huge Democratic IOU to organized labor, minorities, feminists, and other constituency groups; the need to preempt another run by the Naderite left; and what is almost certain to be the emergence of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as a national Democratic force all combine to make it very difficult for the moderate New Democrat approach associated with President Clinton to prevail. Thus it is useful to briefly recall the old populism—the populism that sprang up during the last third of the nineteenth century from the farmland of the South and Midwest—to better understand the roots of what may be Gore’s political legacy.

The Rise and Fall of American Populism

Some of the twentieth century’s greatest historians of American politics—John D. Hicks, Eric Goldman, and Richard Hofstadter—disagree about what history’s final accounting of the populist movement should be. But there is no disputing its origins. The closing of the frontier, the rise of the industrial class, the railroads, the emergence of a powerful class of big financiers all combined to place the small farmer at the mercy of the market for his goods. Only the efficient would prosper. Once the crop was harvested or the beef or pork ready for slaughter, it had to be sold at the going rate. There was no holding it for another day.

So the farmer sought help from the government, to get cash loans for his crop so he could support his family while holding his produce off the market until prices went up and to overthrow what he regarded as the tyranny of stable currency pegged to the price of gold. What he needed was plenty of cheap currency available when the time came to repay his loans. And he also sought government intervention to bust the powerful trusts and take back the railroad land holdings and bring down the “Shylock-like” rates of usury.

Historian Hicks traces some of the progressive causes embraced by the populists: the direct election of senators, the graduated income tax, the ballot initiative and referendum, women’s suffrage, an assortment of farm programs that later became law under the New Deal, the effort in many of the southern states to bridge the political interests of the so-called wool hats—the poor white farmers—and the recently emancipated blacks.

Gore Sr. was frank about his devotion to high taxes. Why give the money back to people who might squander it in socially unproductive ways?

There is no doubting the power and sincerity of at least some of the populist rhetoric. More than a century after they were delivered during a debate over the currency plank at the 1896 Democratic convention in St. Louis, for example, the words of William Jennings Bryan remain part of American political lore: “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for the gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

But like many popular movements spawned by real problems and some legitimate grievances, the grander populist vision rested upon ugly conspiracy theories, class and ethnic hatred, provincialism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Like many, it looked to government to dictate solutions to problems that had their roots in changing technology, demography, and market demands. And like many, it would fail as a movement. Some historians say populism failed because southern Bourbons were able to exploit racial fears and antagonisms and thus split the movement in half in its core region. Others note that, with its opposition to the tariff and hatred of immigrants, it lost all chance of a lasting alliance with the emerging labor movement.

My own sense is that populism disintegrated early during the last century because its vision, its utopia, lay not in the future but in the past, a past that could never be recaptured, a past in which the state was dominated by agrarian interests, with few millionaires, little urban poverty, and no corporate power. Frustrated by what was at root a shallow intellectual context, the populists resorted to a more comfortable world of hatred, oversimplification, and bigotry. Thus did Bryan rail against “the corporate interests of the United States, the moneyed interests, aggregated wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless.” And the Greenbacks and Silverites attacked the “international gold ring,” headed by “Jewish Shylocks” like the House of Rothschild.

Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, perhaps the leading populist of his era, blamed business for bringing immigrants to these shores, taking jobs away from proud Americans. “The scum of creation has been dumped on us,” he cried. “What brought these Goths and Vandals to our shores? The manufacturers are mainly to blame. They wanted cheap labor: and they didn’t care a curse how much harm to our future might be the consequence of their heartless policy.”

A movement steeped in such prejudice and paranoia would one day develop its own peculiar breed of demagogue like Theodore Bilbo, Huey Long, and George C. Wallace. Bryan himself became increasingly quirky in his later years. Appointed secretary of state in the Wilson administration, he resigned because he thought Wilson overreacted to the sinking of the Lusitania—in which 128 American passengers lost their lives—by sending a sharp diplomatic note to Germany. In his final years, Bryan’s great causes were prohibition, an effort to prevent the Democratic Party from denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, and a passionate anti-Darwinism that led, just before his death, to a calamitous confrontation with Clarence Darrow at Tennessee’s Scopes trial. A leading political observer at the time said of Bryan: “His ideas are cement hardening to stone before they can take rightful shape. . . . Mr. Bryan thinks a problem simple because he sees not its complexities.” Like Bryan, populism lost most of its luster in the early twentieth century and never seriously competed for national power.

Al Gore’s Progressive Roots

Tennessee, Al Gore’s home state, did not have quite as strong a populist tradition as many of its southern neighbors. But in the town of Possum Hollow in Smith County, part of the hilly yeoman country of middle Tennessee, on the farm of Allen and Maggie Denny Gore—Al Jr.’s grandparents—the spirit of William Jennings Bryan was alive and well. Allen Gore would read and discuss Bryan’s ideas with his family on the front porch. His life epitomized the conditions Bryan called to national attention. For protection, he divided his life savings among three local banks, only to see all of them fail on the same day. There were years when his harvest brought less then $100 on the wholesale market. And his son, Albert Gore Sr., despite being enrolled at a state school, was so hard-pressed for funds he could never attend college for more than two consecutive semesters.

Albert Gore Sr. inherited his father’s populism and labeled himself a populist through his 14 years in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate. He was a reflexive, unwavering champion of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the taxpayer-subsidized, regional monopolistic provider of coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power that many of the senior Gore’s generation saw as the better alternative to private industry. Also, while Albert Sr. was personally close to JFK, he took issue with much of Kennedy’s economic approach. For one thing he wrote Kennedy an angry letter opposing the appointment of C. Douglas Dillon, a Republican investment banker, as secretary of the treasury. Dillon represented all the things Gore hated, which a recent New Yorker article summarized as tax cuts, privatization, tight money, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve Board.

Gore Sr. was frank about his devotion to high taxes. Following Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral in 1962, JFK invited Gore to accompany him back to Washington aboard Air Force One rather than the chartered congressional plane. It was on that flight that Kennedy disclosed his plan for a sizable tax cut. Gore was aghast. Cutting taxes meant the government was relinquishing some of its power to control human activity. If you want something done, why not simply raise the money through taxation and pay for it? Why give the money back to people who might squander it in socially unproductive ways?

The “New Populism”

At least some of Albert Gore Senior’s populist attitude appears to have rubbed off on Al Gore Jr. Faced with a budget surplus projected at $2.2 trillion over the next 10 years, Gore could hardly ignore tax relief during the campaign. He produced a bewildering assortment of 29 tax code changes designed to micromanage taxpayer behavior, sustaining the control that was so important to Albert Gore Sr. At a time when most economists urge simplifying the tax code and not trying to interfere with marketplace economic decisions—thereby providing help for someone other than loophole lobbyists and tax lawyers—even Gore supporters were forced to concede that his plan went in the opposite direction. As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, to really benefit from the Gore tax cuts, one must have been a “middle income widow with many children, all about to enter college, who does not receive health insurance from her employer, is enrolled in a training program, drives a fuel-efficient car, and is about to inherit a farm.”

Like its ideological ancestor, of course, Gore’s populism oversimplifies to the point of misrepresenting the nature of the issues and the kinds of choices confronting the American people. Take oil for example. The high current prices resulted from the habits of America’s energy consumers, the increasing reliance on oil imported from members of OPEC, and the failure of this country to expand its refining capacity.

Conservation could ease the problem in the short to middle run, if Americans were willing to limit those activities that are energy intensive or to perform them in more efficient ways, like driving Volvos instead of SUVs. In the longer run, expanding sources of supply or moving to other forms of energy can also blunt OPEC’s power, but neither is likely to happen in any substantial way unless energy prices remain high enough to make additional exploration profitable. That’s the issue. Simply bashing oil companies distorts the process.

Or take the conflict over HMOs. These organizations have gained a rising share of the health care market because the cost of traditional medical care was going through the roof. That they have managed to control costs somewhat is at least partly because their “gatekeepers” provide some checks on the type and quantity of care offered to the patient. Is this a form of rationing? Certainly. In rare cases, are patients denied the treatment they need? The law of averages as well as anecdotal evidence suggests so. Then why not a full-dress patient “Bill of rights”? Fine, if you are willing to limit the rationing discretion of the HMO and pay the price for doing so. Then the HMOs would offer little protection from the runaway annual increases in medical costs characteristic of the early 1990s.

One could go on. Al Gore’s campaign against pharmaceutical company pricing policies essentially came down to the government picking up much of the tab for drugs and then jawboning the companies into slashing prices. Can this be done? Certainly, at least to a point. What would be the impact of the development of new drugs now financed out of high drug company profit margins? That’s anybody’s guess, but unless Mr. Gore thinks he can redraw the basic Economics 101 supply curve, it could be severe.

Gore’s populism oversimplifies to the point of misrepresenting the nature of the issues and the kinds of choices confronting the American people.

Yes, but all this happened in a political campaign where talk was cheap. Is it reasonable to fear that bad policies would have flowed from this kind of rhetoric had Gore been elected? Most probably, yes. Most studies have shown that party platforms and candidate pledges have considerable resonance once a person is elected president, much more so than skeptics believe. Gore would have been locked into his positions on HMO reform, prescription drug coverage, and new tobacco penalties—the latter would have resulted in the equivalent of a $62 billion tax increase levied on middle-class, working-class, and jobless Americans, who smoke in disproportionately high numbers.

But let’s focus for a moment on another middle-class populist initiative, the tax deduction for college tuition. You would think that this kind of proposal would be celebrated in the academic community, but surprisingly, this is not the case. For one thing, those who have studied the proposal say it would open relatively few doors to higher education for those who can’t afford it now but rather would reward those families who had planned and saved for the event. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but since most fine schools admit on a need-blind basis and then help the student with a combination of grants, loans, and employment opportunities, the Gore grants would be doing largely what the colleges and students are now doing for themselves. Finally, not only would the Gore plan do nothing about the need to address runaway tuition costs, but it would subsidize those costs, perhaps delaying the day when our institutions of higher learning feel compelled to address that problem in a meaningful way.

Gore’s New Populism would also have set a poor tone for dealings with the private sector. During the campaign the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jerry Jasinowski, wondered in a newspaper column why the vice president seemed so “willing to play the populist card even if it distorts the record of corporations, fosters antagonism between company leadership and workers, and encourages the very stereotyping that, in other fronts, the Democratic party claims to be against.”

Jasinowski noted that Gore suddenly seemed oblivious to the words of his fellow centrist Democrat, the late Paul Tsongas, at the 1992 Democratic convention: “You cannot redistribute wealth you never created. You can’t be pro-jobs and anti-business at the same time. You cannot love employment and hate employers.”

With the election disputes now resolved and George W. Bush having won the White House, one may be tempted to conclude that the New Populism rests safely with the Gore candidacy. That could be a politically costly mistake for Republicans. For one thing, the Gore candidacy foundered not on populist issues but on the personality of the candidate and the widely discussed “Clinton fatigue” factor.

For another, Gore’s populist approach to such issues as prescription drugs, Social Security, and targeted tax relief drew wide if not majority support among voters. Finally, with a president elected by the narrowest of margins, a House that barely remained Republican, and a Senate split down the middle, the Democrats will have sound political reasons to strike populist themes. It was, they will reason, precisely such themes that defeated the Republican revolution led by Newt Gringrich, and there is no reason to abandon that approach against a far shakier Republican majority.

The Gore candidacy foundered not on populist issues but on the personality of the candidate and on the widely discussed “Clinton fatigue” factor.

Together with the factors listed earlier, including the influence of Democratic constituency groups and the rising influence of such left-of-center personalities as Richard Gephardt and Hillary Clinton, it seems likely that Al Gore’s New Populism will be at the center of political competition and debate in the years immediately ahead. Republicans who are not prepared for the challenge may find themselves overwhelmed by it.