What the Heck is a Populist, Anyway?
We need a new political vocabulary that includes "populist," "sellout," & "fascist": If the American press were to use simple, clear labels like this, it would save us all a lot of political confusion
The Chyron on MSNBC yesterday said, “Populist Fedderman Wins PA Primary.” A few weeks ago during the French elections the American press was referring to Marine Le Pen as a “French populist.” Trump is often called a “populist” in our media, as is Bernie Sanders.
All of which raises the question: “Why are we using this one single word to describe radically different types and stripes of politicians?”
Is “populist” simply shorthand or pop-news-speak for media-friendly, outrageous, or high profile politicians?
Or is a populist, as Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction argues, a person representing a political position or movement that reflects the needs and desires of the majority of the population, and is opposed to the interests of corrupt elites?
Consider Ted Cruz, for example, who hungrily embraces the label of populist:
“I am a conservative, an unabashed conservative,” Cruz told a conservative DC newspaper. Elaborating, he added, “I'm also a populist. I am deeply a populist. … When it comes to populism, I think the most fundamental and important shifts in the last decade in politics is that Republicans have become the party of the working class.”
So the guy who votes — along with his entire party — for trade deals that ship jobs overseas, who votes to raise taxes on working people while cutting taxes on the morbidly rich, who strongly opposes the right of working class people to have union representation in the workplace, fights to keep the minimum wage at $7.25/hour, is heavily funded by billionaires and corporations, and supports big employers busting unions is a populist?
Ted Cruz is no populist, no matter how much he tries to play one: the essence of populism is to put the needs and desires of the people above those of elite special interests.
Claiming the mantle of populism, in fact, pretty much requires having as your opponents an actual “elite,” which is why Newt Gingrich suggested Republicans should always try to work the word “elite” into any reference they make to Democrats.
But, like most of what Newt did during his political career, it’s a lie that Democrats are the party of the elites. And pointing to Barbara Streisand as an “elite” as if she were an elite rightwing billionaire who opposes workers’ rights doesn’t make it so.
The Republican Party is almost exclusively funded by giant corporations, foreign governments, and the morbidly rich. It doesn’t get more elite than that. It’s time, therefore, to stop using the word “populist” to describe any Republican politician unless they have turned on and renounced the positions of their party.
Of course, there’s no shortage of Republicans who pretend to do this.
Cruz, for example, claims to put working class Americans first, but everybody knows it’s a lie: it’s why his hypocritical trip to an elite Cancun hotel when Texas was in the midst of a freezing power crisis went viral so quickly.
Trump pretended to be a populist in his 2015 primary campaign, calling out Republicans during the debates and charging that every one of them wanted to end Social Security and Medicare, cut taxes on the rich, and suck up to giant corporations by keeping pay low and imports from China high. He even pretended to walk the talk, briefly, imposing a handful of largely meaningless tariffs on Chinese goods.
But his populism when he took power was just as phony as Cruz’s. He borrowed over $2 trillion from the US Treasury and handed it to himself and his fellow billionaires, all while using the Defense Production Act to force low-wage working class people back into meat-packing plants at gunpoint during a deadly pandemic.
There is, however, plenty of real populism in America’s history.
In the last century, Theodore Roosevelt was our first populist president, followed by his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was reelected three times because he did the will of the people. He was followed by Harry Truman, who engaged a war in Korea that people didn’t like (not populist) and they voted for the peace candidate in 1952, bringing in Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was a populist, too. He kept taxes on the rich at 91% and continued FDR‘s work on the New Deal, supporting labor unions and building a modern America for the middle class.
As Michael Hiltzik notes in his book The New Deal: A Modern History, just one of those programs used that top 91% personal and 48% corporate income tax bracket to rebuild America from top to bottom:
“The WPA produced, among many other projects, 1,000 miles of new and rebuilt airport runways, 651,000 miles of highway, 124,000 bridges, 8,000 parks, and 18,000 playgrounds and athletic fields; some 84,000 miles of drainage pipes, 69,000 highway light standards, and 125,000 public buildings built, rebuilt, or expanded. Among the latter were 41,300 schools.”
Eisenhower added an additional 47,856 miles of interstate highway and continued an aggressive program to build schools, hospitals, and public works. Instead of getting tax breaks to billionaires and cushy contracts to crony contractors, he built schools, parks and hospitals across the nation.
Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford, and Jimmy Carter were all populists, by and large: each promoted programs that were widely popular and help strengthen the middle class.
And when they failed to be populists — like the hated Vietnam War for both Nixon and LBJ — it hurt them badly and helped destroy their careers and legacies.
But since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have figured out a way to pretend they are populists while actually trashing the interests of average working people.
It started with Reagan’s dishonest “trickle down/supply side” sales pitch, telling the American people that middle-class prosperity would increase if we cut taxes on the very rich “job creators” and deregulated corporate polluters.
From there, the GOP has degenerated to embracing open bribery of politicians by right wing billionaires and giant corporations, all with a legal patina provided by five Republicans on the Supreme Court.
Most recently, Trump doubled down on those lies, rejected any semblance of respect for the rule of law, repeating Reagan’s trickle-down scam with his massive tax cuts, and pitting Americans against each other with racist and violent rhetoric and actions.
The fact is, what our media calls “Republican populism” is really fascism, a system of government that merges state and government interests while holding political power by demonizing minorities, foreigners, and the powerless.
So let’s just be honest and call them “fascists.”
On the Democratic side there’s similar confusion in the press.
Virtually the entire Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is made up of populist politicians: they not only advocate positions wanted by a majority of Americans in almost every single issue category, they also eschew support from the corporate and billionaire elite.
Calling Bernie Sanders, Ro Khanna, Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, or Elizabeth Warren a populist is accurate. The majority of America wants the progressive reforms they advocate:
Accessible, low-cost healthcare for all
Free or low-cost college and trade-school education
Modern, well-funded public schools
Expanded Medicare and Medicaid
Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
Higher wages and the right to unionize
Comprehensive immigration reform
Tight regulation of banks and insurance companies
Getting money and other forms of bribery out of our political system
Returning to Hamilton’s “American Plan” to bring our factories back home
Paying for an American renewal by appropriately taxing the morbidly rich
Breaking up corporate monopolies that rip us off and give us terrible service
Ending “corporate personhood” and returning those rights to the people
Every single item on that list has over 50% support among all of the American people, earning the 100+ progressives in Congress the true label “populist,” yet the press insists on also using that label to describe “popular fascists” like Cruz and Trump.
And where the heck did the term “centrist” come from to describe the remaining Democratic politicians who still dance to the tune of donor industries?
We’re having a primary election this week in Oregon and the press insists on referring to incumbent Democratic Congressman Kurt Schrader as a “centrist,” apparently because he worked to sabotage President Biden’s Build Back Better program and voted against allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
He did those things (among others), of course, not out of any deeply held philosophical or political belief that he or anybody else could articulate: he did them because he was being paid off by ideologues and industries (particularly Pharma).
What’s “centrist” about taking money from industry, betraying your constituents to help that industry, and then sending out slick flyers lying to your voters that you’re a “progressive”?
“Hypocrite” or “opportunist” seem like better labels, although I’m personally fond of “sellout.”
The past forty years have seen American politics turned upside-down:
Five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery with Citizens United, giving the GOP a huge financial advantage while throwing the Democratic Party into chaos. Another decision in favor of Ted Cruz just this week allows donors to give bribes directly to candidates to put straight into their own pockets in exchange for political favors, as Elena Kagan’s dissent clearly pointed out.
Bernie Sanders called out the neoliberal turn the Clinton and Obama administrations made, beginning the process of bringing the Democratic Party back to its roots as the party of working people.
Donald Trump kicked off his 2015 primary campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and later referring to nations with large Black populations as “shithole countries,” mainstreaming overt racism in the Republican Party.
Mitch McConnell engaged in scorched-earth hardball politics to block every Obama initiative and pack the federal courts, including the Supreme Court.
Since the late 1980s, billionaires and their foundations have invested in a rightwing media infrastructure that includes 1500 rightwing radio stations, hundreds of rightwing TV stations, three fascist TV networks, the takeover of more than half the nation’s local newspapers, and the creation of literally thousands of rightwing websites.
Since Reagan stopped enforcing the anti-trust laws in 1983, giant multinational corporations have bought out or run out of business millions of small- and medium-sized companies and are now using their massive wealth to wield political power unseen since the Gilded Age.
We need a new political vocabulary, and it needn’t be particularly complex:
“Populist” identifies politicians who are doing the people’s business, usually in opposition to the desires of elite power-brokers, corporations, and the morbidly rich.
”Sellout” identifies politicians who claim to do the people’s business but are in fact dancing to the tune of those corporate or billionaire interests.
”Fascist” identifies politicians who scapegoat racial and gender minorities while writing corporate desires into law.
If the American press were to use simple and clear labels like this, it would save us all a lot of political confusion and America’s voters would be a whole lot smarter.
The Hartmann Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.