Friday, February 19, 2010

#$%& Populists!

What, exactly, is populism anyway? You know, the ideology that, presumably, populists everywhere embrace. Or is ideology the right word? Phenomenon perhaps? No matter. One thing I do know is that whatever else I might be, I sure as hell don't want to be a populist. And if you call me one, true or not, well, them are fightin' words. Or at least they ought to be.

Please! Can't we do better than this?

The focus of George Will's Washington Post column yesterday was an otherwise balanced assessment of Sarah Palin. (She's stupid, but it's not her fault.) Nevertheless, he uses the occasion to work in a few shots at populism, a perennial bete noire of his. I think his characterization is shallow, ripe for challenge, and I want to ask the rest of us to resist employing this once again fashionable epithet until we at least consider a bit more seriously what it is we mean when we use it.

Will begins by offering a partial description of populism as "a celebration of intellectual ordinariness." Really? Is that anything like championing common sense? Anyway, to prove his point, he proceeds by listing a few of the usual suspects in a long roll that apparently began with Andrew Jackson. William Jennings Bryan, George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, and Ross Perot, he implies, rightly deserve our derision as they were all, successful or not, habitual practitioners of the populist art. But, and perhaps not surprisingly, his list fails to include one Ronald Wilson Reagan. Do I need remind him that Reagan, a president he genuinely admired, was also dismissed by many at the time for his simplistic appeal for common sense solutions and was similarly derided as a populist for many reasons, among them his, well, popularity?

Will continues: "Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution." OK, but doesn't this beg the question of whether my, and millions of others', support for Reagan was a similar expression of resentment and whininess? Or, were the late-1970s with its stagflation, emasculating hostage crisis, "malaise", etc., actually a more tranquil time than I remember? It depends. Doesn't it?

In the 1980s, "ideologue" served a similar rhetorical purpose for the Left. Reagan (him again) and those who advised him were often described by political adversaries as dangerous ideologues. I remember a quip at the time by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. of The American Spectator that an ideologue was anyone with whose ideology you disagreed. I'm afraid the amorphous quality of the label "populist", along with the manner in which it is increasingly used as an all-purpose slur, makes it a target for similar sport. A populist, it seems, is anyone who engenders some appreciable degree of popular enthusiasm , but whose ideology, whose policies, programs, complaints, or even style, you find disagreeable.

I'll say it again: Can't we do better than this?

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