Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Perriello's Perplexing 'Populist' Self-Identification

On more than one occasion, U.S. Representative Tom Perriello (D-VA5) has spoken of himself as a "populist."  He seems to think that is a good thing.

For example, in an article by Ray Reed for WSLS-TV in Roanoke, we find this:

Perriello said the Hurt campaign seeks to “falsely portray me as a liberal when I am a populist.”
Perriello told columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post:
"First and foremost, I'm a populist."
In an article in The New Yorker, George Packer explains the origins of the term "populist" in American political discourse and applies it to Perriello:
Perriello is less a Progressive than a Populist. The Populists were agrarians, and when Perriello told an audience at a grant-giving ceremony in Martinsville, Virginia, that farm jobs could be the jobs of the future, he was sounding a very old chord in American discourse. In his language and sympathies, his frequent use of the word “elite,” his vilification of Wall Street bankers, Perriello is carrying the banner of the laid-off seamstress, the struggling truck-stop owner, the hard-pressed tobacco farmer. These were the constituents of the original Populists. They looked with anger upward rather than with sympathy downward. They didn’t come from the professional middle class, though some of their champions did, and they didn’t put their faith in the training and education of experts. If anything, expertise was suspect as a cover for the interests of the powerful. Hofstadter described the “dominant themes in Populist ideology” as “the idea of a golden age…the dualistic version of social struggles; the conspiracy theory of history; and the doctrine of the primacy of money.”
I was incredulous when I first heard Perriello use the word "populist" to describe himself. Did he not understand the history of the term? Did he not know who else in American politics is, or was, a "populist"?

For example, Huey "Kingfish" Long, the corrupt head of Louisiana's political machine, was proudly "populist." Social Security Online -- a U.S. government web site! -- describes Long as
A nominal Democrat, Huey Long was a radical populist, of a sort we are unfamiliar with in our day. As Governor, he sponsored many reforms that endeared him to the rural poor...

The Kingfish wanted the government to confiscate the wealth of the nation's rich and privileged. He called his program Share Our Wealth. It called upon the federal government to guarantee every family in the nation an annual income of $5,000, so they could have the necessities of life, including a home, a job, a radio and an automobile. He also proposed limiting private fortunes to $50 million, legacies to $5 million, and annual incomes to $1 million. Everyone over age 60 would receive an old-age pension. His slogan was "Every Man A King."
Alabama Governor George Wallace, the segregationist who ran for President in 1968 and 1972, was so much identified with populism that the subtitle of a made-for-TV biopic about him was "the rise & fall of an American populist." And journalist Stephan Lesher's book about him is titled George Wallace: American Populist.

The Encyclopedia of Alabama begins its entry on Wallace like this:
He was elected governor for an unprecedented four terms in 1962, 1970, 1974, and 1982, and was de facto governor during the administration of his first wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, from 1967 to 1968. Wallace also launched four unsuccessful bids for the presidency on platforms that opposed the expansion of federal power and appealed to white populist sentiments. During each election cycle, he modified his racial views to suit the times. Despite his support for road construction, education, and industrial development, Wallace is widely known for his resistance to civil rights, limited economic vision, failure to reform the tax code, and total focus on campaigning, at the expense of running the state.
Then there's David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, racist, and anti-semite who ran for president on the Populist Party's ticket in 1988.

Perriello certainly has a lot in common with Pat Buchanan, the pundit and failed presidential candidate described by Alexander Cockburn as a "populist outsider" in the same category as Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown. Jonathan Alter called Buchanan a "Beltway populist" in a 1996 Newsweek cover story. Like Buchanan, Perriello opposes free trade with potential purchasers of American products overseas.

Whether these sordid associations are what Perriello seeks when he calls himself a "populist" is somewhat beside the point, because populism is, at its core, opposed to individual liberty and personal responsibility.

When I used to man libertarian booths at county fairs and gay pride celebrations, we used the World's Smallest Political Quiz and the Nolan Chart to explain how people really think about politics. The Nolan Chart turns the inadequate, one-dimensional left/right political spectrum into a two-dimensional grid that is better for identifying how people think.

Basically, the chart (using the quiz) measures how people view economic and personal liberty. People who score high on the economic liberty scale tend to be conservatives; people who score high on the personal liberty scale tend to be liberals.

People who score high on both scales tend to be libertarians.

People who score low on both scales, however, tend to be authoritarians or populists.

A commenter on an article called "Notes Toward a New Political Taxonomy" on The American Scene explained it similarly:
The Nolan chart is the simplest/most precise way to show this. It is a two dimensional chart, that thus has four corners.

The two dimensions are: Economic, Social.

Economic means the role of government in economic policy in taxes, spending on social programs, education, health care, etc. regulation.

Social means role of government in drugs, homosexuality, abortion, the draft, etc.

Those who favor social freedom but not economic are left/liberal

Those who favor economic freedom but not social are right/conservative

Those who favor all freedom, libertarian

Those who favor none, populist/authoritarian
Based on this taxonomy, a "populist" is someone who wants the government to intervene in people's economic decisions and also wants it to intervene in their social and personal decisions.

Put another way, if a "libertarian" is someone who wants to keep government "out of the bedroom and out of the boardroom," a "populist" is someone who wants to make sure government stays in the boardroom and stays in the bedroom.

Giving Tom Perriello the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he thinks "populist" is a synonym for "popular" or means simply that he wants to do things "for the people."

Even so, does he really want to be associated with the likes of Huey Long, George Wallace, David Duke, and Pat Buchanan? If not, why does he use the same word to describe himself when that word is applied so commonly to these figures from the dark side of American politics?

Either Perriello is ignorant of the nomenclature and ignorant of history or he's conscientiously linking himself to an anti-freedom political philosophy.

That's both odd and disturbing for a politician who thinks he has libertarian leanings.

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1 comment:

J. Tyler Ballance said...

My neighbor, the late Henry Howell, was frequently described as the "populist Democrat."

When George Wallace originally was tagged with the populist moniker, he too, was a Democrat.

Being a populist DOES NOT indicate that you want big government intruding in both corporate and private America.

A populist is, as Tip O'Neil used to say, someone who see's where the People are going, then jumps out in front to lead them there.

When I hear populist, I think of a politician (regardless of Party) who will play on key issues or sentiments that are currently popular with his constituents.

In the case of Howell, it was Henry versus the big corporations, like VEPCO/Dominion.

With Wallace, it was "The Guvna" against those damned trouble makers from "up nawth."

With Perriello, it's really nothing at all. He's never been for anything, just against Virgil Goode. Now that he can't ride Obama's coat tails and is now the one being challenged, Tom is looking pretty lame.

By the way Virgil Goode used to be a populist Democrat, before he became a populist Republican.

Ron Paul is a populist Republican, who is also a pot-head Libertarian. Now that, is quite an amalgam.