Just about everybody in politics is claiming to be a “populist” these days–leftwinger Elizabeth Warren, rightwinger Ted Cruz, establishment icon Hillary Clinton, the Christian right’s Mike Huckabee, Occupy Wallstreeters, Tea Partiers, and on and on.
Rutgers history professor David Greenberg points out that the term once had a very specific meaning, relating to the farmer/labor coalition against the railroads and bankers in the late 19th century, as led by William Jennings Bryan. The ideology combined a type of socialist economics (nationalize the railroads!) with respect for “ordinary” Americans (a man of the people! champion of the common man!). Today liberals are seizing upon the economic part (while comprising the cultural elite that the old populists scorned), while conservatives are seizing upon the ordinary American part (a demographic that today tends not to like socialism).
But this reminds us that the left owes a big debt to William Jennings Bryan, today often mocked for his creationism at the Scopes Monkey Trial. And that there was a time when evangelical Christians were often leftists.
Candidates of the left, right and center have something in common: They all want to be seen as populists. Hillary Clinton attacks income inequality and issues booklets showing how well she stacks up, even against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as a booster for the embattled middle class; Sen. Marco Rubio invokes the American dream; Mike Huckabee and putative libertarian Sen. Rand Paul are against giving President Obama a free hand to negotiate the Pacific trade pact.Meanwhile, pundits and journalists prowl for populists everywhere: Sen. Ted Cruz is a “populist egghead.” Rubio showcases “populist themes” of up-by-the-bootstraps success. Huckabee is going “full populist.” And Paul’s “populist country music video” blamed banks and Washington for lost jobs. The only top-tier contender seemingly unlinked to populism is Jeb Bush — son of one president, brother of another, backed by establishment heavies — although even his approach has been labeled “populist,” too.
Yet these aren’t modern versions of William Jennings Bryan, fiery crusaders jousting on the campaign trail, railing against politicians who “only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous” and thereby “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” All the candidates have taken what was once a very specific ideology and extracted their favorite parts, selectively interpreting the vision and generally bowdlerizing it. With so many different policies and philosophies vying for the label, the word “populist” is in danger of losing all meaning. If we’re all populists, it’s because populism has been stretched so thin.