Fueling populism wave

Everyone’s talking about it. But I’m not sure that anyone knows exactly what it is. I’m speaking of “populism.”

It’s as ancient as Greco-Roman polities and as fresh and new as the latest all-American scandal that causes populism to suddenly spring forth from its secreted hiding places. It’s a movement, a state of mind and a force to be reckoned with, all in one. Some say it’s all about economics and competition between haves and have-nots. Others say it has a cultural component, alienating believers from skeptics. Still others see an urban-rural schism at work. In short, it’s one of the tantalizing mysteries of the political times. Even its official chroniclers — the pollsters — aren’t quite sure how to measure it. (Just try to find a poll on populism.)

The latest populist outbreak is fueled by the economic angst brought on by the recession and financial scandals like Bernie Madoff’s. The AIG bonuses were the gasoline firebomb that set the entire forest ablaze. Populist anger is running amok. Politicians are consulting the collected speeches of dead populist agitators like Huey P. Long, Big Jim Folsom or “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel, looking for just the perfect one-liner to place them on the side of “the little people” who are seeking justice for the outrageous excesses of the establishment powers-that-be, whether political or economic.

Authors like Kevin Phillips have made careers of dissecting the politics of rage we sometimes call populism. Lately there has been an outbreak of columns, essays and blog postings by historians and other academics trying to put the latest angry outbursts of the American public into some sort of context. The best of these urge us to look beyond the outward rage that populism engenders. Rage is just an outward manifestation of the phenomenon that does little to explain it. It’s like looking at a mushroom cloud, hoping to discover the schematic for a nuclear device; or watching a child’s temper tantrum at the mall food court, wondering whether it’s just the “terrible twos” or a sugar-induced rampage. The mushroom cloud and tantrum provide few clues to what set these events off.

There is little doubt that resentment between factions of Americans plays a role in populism. But resentment is again a response, like anger, that doesn’t necessarily tell us why someone is or is not a populist. And resentment can be present on either side of the equation. The little guys can resent the stuffed-shirt establishment while at the same time the elite will resent the irresponsible rabble in the streets. So discerning resentment doesn’t necessarily help us sort it all out.

I have always felt that at its deepest taproot, populism is little more than favoring the little over the big. In primal ways, the populist favors small towns over big cities, little shops over giant regional malls, startup entrepreneurs over global corporations, independent churches over archdioceses and local governance over federal columns of granite. If I know whether consumers like their burgers and fries regular or biggie-sized, I’m well on my way to understanding whether they are populists or not.

If I am right about the origins of populism, Republicans should celebrate its revival. Democrats are often on the wrong side of the divide when it comes to little-big dichotomies. Democrats are all about big cities. They run the big hedge funds and unions and the biggest universities and movie studios. Religious Democrats lean toward the biggest denominations. And, of course, Democrats are the architects of big government.

As for Republicans, about the worst that you can say is that they are in bed with big business. But I can challenge that notion with FEC records showing Democrats feeding at the trough filled with big-business donations. Thank you, Huey P.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.