Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Populism 2008 - Revenge of the Cow Cutters and Clerks

“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.”
- William Jennings Bryan

Another day, another primary. Sometime later tonight the good people of New Hampshire will let the rest of us know how they feel about election 2008. If the polls are right, it appears that Barack Obama will win the Democratic primary and John McCain will win on the Republican side. Mike Huckabee, my candidate, is projected to come in third or fourth. Pundits are saying that Mike is going to head to South Carolina, where he has a strong support base made up primarily of foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists and populists like me.

One of the interesting things playing out here is that some of the rules seem to have changed. Gender politics is out. That’s good. If Hillary Clinton wins her party’s nomination it should be on the merits, not her gender. The politics of race is also out, and oh, isn’t it time. If Barack Obama wins it will because he has stirred something in the American soul and because he’s being judged by the content of his character. I suspect that Dr. King is smiling down from heaven.

This brings me to the theme of populism, which seems to be sending shivers up and down the spines of the high and mighty, particularly in the Republican Party. From George Will to Larry Kudlow, the masters of the Laffer Curves and excel spreadsheets have sprung to the attack against the populist rabble. Hence, defending the I.R.S. against the assaults of Mike Huckabee and his barbarian hordes has become mainstream Republicanism.

Pundits are wondering why so many of what used to be Republican Party stalwarts are flocking to a guy like Mike. They can’t seem to see the obvious, even when he tells them what it is. And, this is it. He looks and acts more like the guy in the plant getting laid off than the guy who’s laying him off. He’s speaking to the man or woman who makes cupcakes on the other side of town here or the guy luggin’ beef carcasses around over at Tyson. He’s speaking to the retiree making six bucks an hour up at the Wal-Mart because his pension or social security check just won’t stretch from payday to payday. He’s speaking right to the heart of the matter and they’re responding. He’s not coming armed with spreadsheets, with complicated macros designed to hide some of the wicked truths the working poor here have to face. He’s not being followed by batteries of fawning accountants armed with briefcases. He’s not asking for the seal of approval of the Republican illuminati. Like Obama, Mike Huckabee is talking about change, and the message is beginning to resonate.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why the power brokers can’t see this.

Back in my undergraduate days I met a young guy who was quite enamored with Nietzsche and his ideas of “ubermensch.” He really believed that crap, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince me that it was a great idea. Each time he did, I would try as politely as I could to ask him and his friend Nietzsche to come out and play in the traffic for a while.

I think that same advice holds true for those who are now spending an inordinate amount of their time excoriating Mike Huckabee and his populism. Come, you high and mighty, take a walk down Sixth Avenue here in Emporia, Gaze at the hovels owned by slum lords raking in the profits as you do. Come and play in the traffic. When you’re done, take a minute or two to gander at some of the numbers you’ve bypassed in your calculations – 18% poverty rates, low median incomes, low paying jobs. Top that all off by going back out into the streets and you’ll see that it all has a human face. If you really care to see it, you’ll see a curious mixture there. You’ll see dignity in the faces, pock marked by the fear of losing a job. You’ll see furrows on the brows, etched in by the incessant fight against the numbers. You’ll see the things your spreadsheets, briefcases, and Wall Street talk don’t take into account.

When I first moved out here to the Kansas Flint Hills in 1999 I didn’t understand the appeal that populism has in this part of the world. Nor did I understand how deep the loyalty of people here ran in the Republican Party. Nor did I understand how subtly the populist message had been twisted into something it was never intended to be. Oh, there were voices of dissent, like Thomas Frank’s. He saw then what a lot of us couldn’t. Like the slick raking in the money at the three card monte table, the Republican establishment had convinced the cow cutters, farmers, and clerks of the Heartland that everything being done was for their benefit:

“Over the last thirty-five years the Republicans have transformed themselves from an aristocratic minority into the nation's dominant political party, a brawling, beer-drinking buddy of the working man. The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it's sometimes hard to believe it's actually happened.”

Well, this is William Jennings Bryan country. Populism still has a great deal of appeal out here. The experts and party elites say that’s Mike Huckabee’s problem. Folks out this way disagree. They say that’s the Republican Party’s problem. Like Dylan, they’re saying that “the times they are a changin’.” The gilded Republicans need to close their briefcases and turn off their spreadsheets long enough to see that populism is back and that it may be back with a vengeance.

2 comments:

joshbmack said...

First off, great analysis. You're right. I grew up on main street and understand why Huck's message resonates so well.

One thing I try to emphasize is that his form of populism is not about creating a nanny state. It's about getting government and lobbyists out of our lives. It's about changing the tax system so that every man and woman can be in control of their taxation. It's about ending the ability of the IRS to imprison people for failing to pay enough tax out of THEIR income. It's about listening to the average joe. It's about wall streeters who claim they just want a free market, yet spend millions to lobby government for favorable taxation, bailouts, and the like. Let firms fail. Small businesses don't get that kind of help from government.

Huckabee populism is about fairness or the unfairness of the special treatment and handouts that only monied interests can garner in Washington. When banks make poor decisions lending, government should not be their guarantor.

I like Mike, partly because he is so disliked by the establishment.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Republicans have been looking for the Ronald Reagan of this generation among the candidates, and they haven't found one. What you're onto is that they should be looking for the Teddy Roosevelt of this generation, since that's what the people want. Mike Huckabee does seem to be that person.

The only problem is that Barack Obama has done a really good job coming across as that person despite not being so once it's clear what his views are. So let's hope that if he gets the nomination his views will become clear enough to make some of those people question whether he really is what they want.