“Oh, the raging of many nations—they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples—they roar like the roaring of great waters!”
A long, long time ago, when I was but a lad, I was involved with an organization called the Texas Populist Alliance. This was back in the late eighties-early nineties, when Texas was just making the transition from corrupt, incompetent and vicious Democratic one-party rule to corrupt, incompetent and vicious Republican one-party rule. The idea behind the Alliance, as conceived by then-Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, was to form a bipartisan, grass-roots, working-class coalition that focused on economic issues without getting bogged down in the divisive social issues (abortion, school prayer, gay rights, etc.) that were causing working people to vote for Republicans who only shared their real interests in the same way that coyotes share the interests of sheep. It didn’t work, of course. For one thing, trying to organize progressives, with their genetic antipathy to authority of any kind, is like trying to herd cats with a fire-hose. At our committee meetings, some of the more neo-hippy members even objected to using Robert’s Rules of Order, on the grounds that it was too “coercive,” and wanted to instead make decisions based on consensus, in other words, talk and talk and talk and ultimately do nothing. That’s why I get a big kick out of conservatives who think some shadowy cabal of liberals secretly runs the world; progressives couldn’t organize a sock drawer, much less a conspiracy. The original populist movement began at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century, and their underlying philosophy was outlined after a meeting in Johnson County, Texas, in 1886, in a document known as “the Cleburne Demands.” You’ll note that these were not the “Cleburne Suggestions” or the “Cleburne Polite Requests.” The original populists were farmers and small businessmen who saw their livelihoods threatened as the country was sliding into a severe Depression (or “Panic” as they were charmingly called back then) and an indifferent government utterly dominated by big corporations (any of this sound familiar?). The Cleburne Demands called for regulation of banks, corporations and railroads, protections for laborers, and fair wages. A newspaperman working for the Cleburne Chronicle at around the same, Jim Hogg would later incorporate some of these demands into his platform when he ran for governor. For a few brief years, until just before the First World War, the Populist Party was on its’ way to becoming a political force to be reckoned with, winning elections all across the South and West and threatening to upset the rule of white supremacist Democrats in the South (the Populists were the only really racially integrated party in the country at the time) as well as the Republican economic oligarchs in the North. Ultimately, they failed for a number of reasons: the economy got better, lessening the sense of urgency; the Democrats in the South instituted a brutal wave of repression, instituting poll taxes and literacy tests to keep poor whites and blacks from voting; and Democrats like Jim Hogg and William Jennings Bryan and Republicans like Robert M. La Follette and (to a lesser extent) Theodore Roosevelt co-opted some of their platform, stealing their thunder. The point of this history lesson? To demonstrate that, contrary to the lazy mainstream media’s shorthand, neither Mike Huckabee nor Ron Paul are, in any sense of the word, populists. For one thing, populism means anti-corporatism, which pretty much disqualifies all Republicans. For another, Huckabee is nothing more than an avuncular tele-Pharisee with a fine eye for conspiracy theories (he pushed for the parole of a convicted rapist because his victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton, thereby convincing the lunatic fringe he must be innocent. Upon release, this man, Wayne Dumond, raped two more women and killed at least one) and shameless self-aggrandizement (he brazenly invited political donors to buy him gifts off his wedding registry when he and his wife renewed their vows). Essentially James Dobson with a bass guitar, Huckabee is a subscriber to the blasphemous “health and wealth” gospel (epitomized by the insipid “Prayer of Jabez” craze a few years back), which holds that money is just God’s way of showing how much He loves rich people. Ron Paul is, well, frankly, insane. Endorsed by neo-Nazis, with a penchant for anti-Semitic and racist ramblings, not to mention flirtations with bizarre 9-11 conspiracy theories and Confederate apologists, Paul has proclaimed a bold Nineteenth Century economic policy (bring back the gold standard). Only his opposition to the war, and the Republican establishment’s clumsy ham-fisted efforts to muzzle him, have gotten him the attention he has leveraged to raise money from people who either ought to know better or, more alarmingly, agree with him. The only person who even distantly resembles a populist in this race is John Edwards, who, like me, is a disarmingly handsome trial lawyer with great hair and who shares my fear that “free” trade is systematically eviscerating the US economy and turning us into the Belgian Congo. So why does the media insist on tossing out the label “populist” like a party favor? For one reason, most of the media are too intellectually lazy to be bothered with the sort of research (say a couple of minutes with Google) that would be required to reveal that if Huckabee is a populist then I am the long-lost Romanov heir, Alexei. For another reason, political discourse in America has become so debased that “populist” is used to describe any candidate who expresses even the slightest sympathy for the plight of the poor and the working poor, as opposed to the Republican policy of grinding them up into free pâté for the rich. Huckabee brazenly mentioning in his stump speeches that Jesus Christ actually never called for a cut in the capital gains tax has led to the hilarious spectacle of Conservative elites frothing at the mouth and gnashing their teeth at Huckabee’s success in Iowa, as reflected by Rush Limbaugh’s oxycontin-flavored rants and a recent column excreted by Ann Coulter; for the Republican politburo, evangelical social conservatives are supposed to show up to vote but otherwise keep their mouths shut and be rapturously grateful for the lip service paid them by the anointed candidates of the economic royalists who run the GOP. Evangelicals are certainly not supposed to (gasp!) run for President. So, run Huck, run! Keep giving George Will, official spokesnerd of the politburo, the vapors. Help the Republicans learn what the Democrats felt like when Jesse Jackson ran in 1988. Just stop trying to fob yourself off as a populist.