Monday, October 11, 2010

Is the Tea Party Populist?: Fareed Zakaria GPS Panel Debates Populism and Conservatism

by Michael Kaplan

Kudos to Peggy Noonan and Richard Brookhiser for some first rate analysis of the Tea Party and populism on Fareed Zakaria GPS (October 10, 2010). The other half of the panel, historians Robert Caro and Charles Postel, fell back on the well-worn liberal progressive caricature of the Tea Party as racist, nativist, and a puppet of corporate interests and the well funded right-wing hate machine. Noonan and Brookhiser did a good job challenging Caro and Postel on this point and engaging them in a debate on whether or not the Tea Party really is a populist movement.

Here is the video. The panel starts at 3:40.



The differences between the conservative and liberal halves of the panel turned on a broad versus a narrow definition of “populism.” As I pointed out in a previous post, Jacksonian populism is neither completely of the right nor the left, and at different times has switched its allegiances between the Democrats and the Republicans. Jacksonians lean left populist on economic issues (they hate collusion between big government and big business), while they lean right populist on social and cultural issues. Noonan and Brookhiser incorporated both right- and left-wing populism in their analysis while Caro and Postel limited their definition of populism to the left-wing version, in particular the Populist movement of the 1890s.

Noonan led off the discussion arguing that the Tea Party movement was both conservative and populist, and that by challenging both Democratic and Republican elites it could appeal to centrists. “The Tea Party has some of the style and—and spirit, if you will, of classic populist movements. It is anti-establishment, it is anti-elite, it is broad, it is spontaneous, it is still evolving. It is not something that is set.” She added that the Tea Party is “very much within American tradition, and I also think it is where the energy is on the political scene right now.” Caro, biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, insisted that the Tea Party cannot populist because it rejects the liberal progressive idea of social justice. The Populists of the 1890s, like William Jennings Bryan, Tom Watson, Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather Sam, and many others according to Caro, wanted the government to use its power to make life better for those without power and influence. Lyndon Johnson’s father once told him that “the job of government is to help people cordon the tentacles of circumstance. That’s what populism wanted. Populism was for social justice, where government’s stepping in to help people fighting forces too big for them to fight themselves.” Postel, author of The Populist Vision, agreed with Caro that the quest for social justice is the essence of populism. “The Tea Party is a conservative movement, not a populist movement. It's a conservative movement that doesn't think the government should make a better life for poor people, for—for the common person.”

Richard Brookhiser brought some needed historical perspective to the discussion, tracing American populism back to the American Revolution itself. The common thread that ties together populism of the right and populism of the left (both part of the Jacksonian tradition) is not a quest to use government to promote social justice but a movement to curtail the power of the elites and prevent the centralization of power. Sometimes, as with the Populist movement of the 1890s, economic elites were seen as the threat to popular liberty and so populists tried to use government power to restrain the power of private corporations like the railroads. At other times like today, the Tea Party populists see government bureaucrats, academics—the whole liberal progressive upper middle class technocratic elite—as a bigger threat to popular liberty than Wall Street and the private sector corporations. But whether they come from the left or the right, the essence of populism is anti-elitism and anti-centralization of power. Thomas Jefferson’s movement to prevent Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists from centralizing political and economic power in the new federal government, Brookhiser adds, was just such a movement. “The anti-elitist movement of the 1790s was the first Republican Party, which was Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And they said, look, the Federalists are running things and they’re—and they're doing it badly. They’re getting us into war with France. They’re betraying the Republican principles of the government, and we got to stop it. And they got elected president.”

Race inevitably made its way into the discussion. As to be expected the left half of the panel, Caro and Postel, accused the Tea Party of “tapping into racist feelings.” Caro, responding to Fareed’s question on whether the Tea Party’s passion was driven by having the first black president in office, noted that it was forty-five years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In those forty-five years African Americans had made amazing progress, moving forward in all areas of American life. “You say that has happened so fast. I think that in a way, it takes time for people to absorb that. I happen to believe that race does play a factor in everything in American life, even those of us who would like to pretend and hope that it doesn't, and I think that what you ask is at the bottom of a lot of what's happening today.”

Robert Caro is a brilliant writer and historian. I read the first volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography over twenty years ago; it brought Johnson and his world, a world shaped by Jacksonian populism, to life as no other book has. My late father read Caro’s book on Robert Moses. But Caro is stuck in a time warp on race matters, even after conceding that race relations have made fantastic progress since 1965. This isn’t Caro’s problem alone. The liberal progressive elite simply can’t accept or acknowledge that Jacksonian America has been coming to terms with its history of white supremacy and moving beyond it. The Aquarian counterculture ’60s did make an impact on Jacksonian America which has become a much more tolerant and open culture. Black Americans, who largely share Jacksonian values of self-reliance and rugged individualism, are making their mark in all corners of American life, and are quite conspicuous in the very Jacksonian military. But for Caro, as for most liberal progressives, is will always be 1965; indeed it will always be 1865. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Bull Connor will always be lurking behind every corner, lynch ropes in hand to enforce white supremacy. And decent hardworking Americans who refuse to march to the liberal progressive tune, will always be slandered and demonized as racists, bigots, and xenophobes.

The Tea Party in the eyes of liberal progressives.

Richard Brookhiser could barely hide his outrage at this use of the race card against the Tea Partiers. The race card is dynamite. To be called a racist is the ultimate form of de-legitimization in contemporary America; any hint of racism places an individual or a group beyond the pale. That’s why it’s such a deadly and effective weapon in the liberal progressive arsenal. Conservative charges of anti-white reverse racism don’t have the same impact—think of Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to pursue the New Black Panther voter intimidation case. So one has to be very careful about who one calls a racist. Brookhiser asserted that many groups in American history, elite and populist, were tarnished by racism. “Well, I just want to back up and, you know, yes, race is a dark and bloody ground throughout American history and we should acknowledge here that many of the populists were awful racist. So there was a lot of, you know, this bad baggage appears on the right, on the left. It appears from elitists, it’s appeared in populist movements, sticking up for the little guy, as long as he was the white little guy. So let's not have any ‘Not me, lord.’ It’s that public.” Very few were without sin when it came to race matters in America’s past. But today, when one-fifth of Tea Partiers had voted for Obama in 2008, Brookhiser was not buying any accusations of racism. Peggy Noonan agreed that race has little to do with the Tea Party. The Tea Party, Noonan insisted, was driven by a sense of economic and political crisis in America “and an attempt by people to deal with it in a way that is not driven by parties but is driven by individuals who are connecting through the internet, through various ways, and trying to move the ball forward in a way that they think is commonsensical and right. I think it begins with a sense of crisis, not with race.”

Brookhiser’s and Noonan’s contention that race is of limited importance in the Tea Party is supported by a study conducted by UCLA Ph.D. student Emily Ekins for her dissertation research. Going row by row, hour by hour, over the crowd at the 9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington on September 12, Ekins took 250 photographs of signs carried by protesters. She found that the media greatly exaggerated the number of controversial signs that touched on race. No more than 5% of the signs made mention of President Obama’s race, Islam and the Ground Zero mosque, and only 1% leveled “birther” charges questioning the president’s citizenship. All together, only 25% of the signs expressed any anger against Obama. By far the vast majority of the signs focused on a message of limited government, reining in government spending, and preserving liberty. Ekins concluded: “Really this is an issue of salience. Just because a couple of percentage points of signs have those messages doesn’t mean the other people don't share those views, but it doesn’t mean they do, either. But when 25 percent of the coverage is devoted to those signs, it suggests that this is the issue that 25 percent of people think is so important that they're going to put it on a sign, when it's actually only a couple of people.” Ekins’s findings make it clear that the liberal progressive media is reading its own obsession with race into the Tea Party. One sign at the rally expressed it quite succinctly: “IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT THIS SIGN SAYS. YOU’LL CALL IT RACISM ANYWAY!”


The Populist movement was the last stand by nineteenth-century agrarian Jacksonian America against the new urban industrial capitalist order. Populism was a Jacksonian movement adhering to an ideology of producerism which validated the productive labor of the working and middle classes, but was very suspicious of the unproductive poor at the bottom and the unproductive rich at the top. William Jennings Bryan, the most famous Populist leader, ran for president in the historic election of 1896 on the Democratic and Populist tickets. This election marked both the high point and the defeat of the Populist movement. Bryan looked back to Andrew Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States as a model for what the Populists were trying to accomplish. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan invoked the memory of Old Hickory: “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth. . . . It is true. If you will read what Thomas Benton said, you will find that he said that in searching history he could find but one parallel to Andrew Jackson. That was Cicero, who destroyed the conspiracies of Cataline and saved Rome. He did for Rome what Jackson did when he destroyed the bank conspiracy and saved America.”

William Jennings Bryan

Populists believed in free enterprise and were not looking for government to spread the wealth around socialist style. Bryan saw farmers as entrepreneurs, as part of a “broader class of businessmen,” not as workers. Holding these ideas, the Populists alienated both the labor movement of Samuel Gompers and the Socialists of Eugene V. Debs. Explaining the producerist view of economics, Bryan declared:
When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.
Tapping into Jacksonian agrarian sentiment, Bryan argued that the wealth and dynamism of the industrial cities ultimately rested on the productivity of the self-reliant and stubbornly independent American farmer: “I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” History’s jury is still out on whether or not Bryan was right.

The concept of social justice is a rather slippery one. Noonan suggested to Caro that he was confusing populism with progressivism. When Caro and Postel talk about social justice—about the government “stepping in to help people fighting forces too big for them to fight themselves,” or that “the government should make a better life for poor people”—it’s unclear whether they mean that the government should guarantee equality of opportunity or equality of results. Bryan and the Populists, like Jackson, wanted to ensure equality of opportunity. Many Populists had doubts about whether the government could do this. Tom Watson of Georgia, who ran for vice president on the Populist ticket in 1896, proclaimed: “We arraign the Government of the United States and indict it before God and the American people of high crimes and misdemeanors against the people. We charge that they have governed this country in the interest of the few as against the many, in the interest of the classes as against the masses, of capital and the money power as against the producer.” Bryan and Watson, like Jackson before them and Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin after them, wanted to take control of the government back from corrupt special interests (as they defined them) and return it to the American people.

Tom Watson

Historians have argued that the inability of the Populists of the 1890s to transcend race played a major role in their movement’s failure. The Populists, as was true of most Jacksonians, were flawed egalitarians—they mistrusted blacks and foreigners. Liberal progressive charges of Jacksonian racism and xenophobia were all too true in the 1890s. The possibility of a Populist biracial coalition failed for two reasons. First, southern white Democrats had succeeded in creating the Jim Crow laws, restricting voting rights that prevented African Americans from becoming a political force. Second, raw racism impeded the acceptance of blacks by white Populists. Some Populists did seek to unite distressed black and white farmers, but poor white farmers could not forgo their racism. Thus few Populists addressed the needs of black farmers, and many used white-supremacist rhetoric to guard against accusations that they encouraged race-mixing. In 1892 Tom Watson wrote a widely read article, “The Negro Question in the South,” denouncing white supremacy and urging white and black Populists to work together to achieve their common goals:

Let the colored laborer realize that our platform gives him a better guaranty for political independence; for a fair return for his work; a better chance to buy a home and keep it; a better chance to educate his children and see them profitably employed; a better chance to have public life freed from race collisions; a better chance for every citizen to be considered as a citizen regardless of color in the making and enforcing of laws,—let all this be fully realized, and the race question at the South will have settled itself through the evolution of a political movement in which both whites and blacks recognize their surest way out of wretchedness into comfort and independence.
This was Jacksonian populism at its best and most inclusive. According to the great historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward, Watson at this stage of his career wanted nothing less than to break the stranglehold of white supremacy on Jacksonian populism and “construct a political alliance between the races in the South.” In 1892 Watson had little patience with special pleas for white supremacy. “To the emasculated individual who cries ‘Negro supremacy!’ there is little to be said. His cowardice shows him to be a degeneration from the race which has never yet feared any other race.” The spectre of “Negro domination” was nothing more than a paranoid fantasy. “Not being prepared to make any such admission in favor of any race the sun ever shone on, I have no words which can portray my contempt for the white men, Anglo-Saxons, who can knock their knees together, and through their chattering teeth and pale lips admit that they are afraid the Negroes will ‘dominate us.’”

Watson’s sentiments, however, were not the norm in the Populist movement. Postel writes in The Populist Vision (pp. 176, 196) that “The Populists saw themselves as shaping the modern society of the future—a future in which racial separateness would be further institutionalized and defined.” Even though black and white Populists found some common ground, for the most part they pursued separate agendas. White supremacy was too strong a force for Populists to resist on a sustained basis. Though in truth, they weren’t much interested in trying. Even Watson said “I want no mixing of the races. . . . It is best that both should preserve the race integrity by staying apart.” Watson’s position, as one of his followers explained it, was that while blacks should be promised justice they also had to accept that “it is the white man’s country.” As Postel sums it up: “The color line held. . . . From the strivings of the Farmers’ Alliance through the campaigns of the People’s party, the Populists played an active part in shaping the racial order that proved such an immovable political object.”

After the Populist defeat in 1896 Watson became increasingly embittered, coming to the conclusion that no political movement could succeed in the South if it challenged white supremacy. By 1907 Watson fully supported the repressive Jim Crow laws saying that “the great mass of the negroes would gradually reconcile themselves to the condition of a recognized peasantry—a laboring class.” Watson had been transformed from an advocate of racial cooperation to an apologist for lynching. “Lynch law is a good sign,Watson wrote in 1913, “it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people.” In 1917 he wrote that “we have to lynch him [the Negro] occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.” As Woodward sadly concluded “It was a far cry from the Jeffersonian equalitarianism and humanitarianism of the nineties to the Watson of 1920.” The tragic descent of Tom Watson into racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholic bigotry is the tragedy of Jacksonian populism in defeat, failing to live up to its highest aspirations and living down to its worst instincts.

But times have changed. Today’s Jacksonian populists are in the Tea Party. They have moved beyond white supremacy and are working to apply the positive vision of Bryan and Watson from the 1890s to the very different political and economic situation of the 2010s. Today’s Jacksonian populists are to the right rather than the left on economic issues and see big government as the problem, not the solution. Yet in 2010 as in 1896 their goal is the preservation of American exceptionalism and of equal opportunity for all Americans. The Tea Party is both populist and conservative. Of the GPS panelists Peggy Noonan and Richard Brookhiser recognize this. Robert Caro and Charles Postel would do well to examine Tea Party conservative populism without the blinders of the past or the biases of the liberal progressive narrative.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

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