Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Populism and Conservatism

As various observers have pointed out, we're hearing a lot of populist rhetoric from Washington these days. Populism, despite the term's democratic sound, is not a good thing:

In the U.S. and Canada, populist movements . . . arose among western (and southern U.S.) farmers in the second half of the nineteenth century. North American populism was less a doctrine or a movement than an expression of discontent directed against those whom the farmers held especially responsible for their problems -- the eastern bankers and railroad interests. Populist parties demanded easier credit, lower shipping rates, agricultural co-operatives, and other forms of public assistance.

(From A Glossary of Political Ideas, Maurice Cranston & Sanford A. Lakoff, eds. (Basic Books, 1969).) The U.S. populist party faded away once the Democratic and Republican parties absorbed many of its goals. As an attitude and a rhetorical stance, however, populism remains a big part of American life.

Among Republican politicians, populism often takes the form of castigating the "Eastern elites." Among Democrats, it often takes the form of what we're seeing today, scolding of "the rich" and "big business." Some public figures -- such as Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage -- are more populists than they are conservatives or Republicans, since they target all of the above in their attacks and don't try to maintain any kind of ideological consistency.

Unlike conservatism, populism has no intellectual foundation. It's a style of attack that can be used to motivate, distract, or entertain voters.

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