Letters from New York: Variations upon a populist theme
Reading about Toronto’s buffoonish, corrupt Mayor Rob Ford made me think again about populism in all its contradictory variants.
Ford is the infamous crack-and alcohol-consuming politician who became mayor in 2010 with a populist right-wing platform of low taxes. Toronto voters were living with the memory of a monthlong gar-
bage strike during the previous summer, so Ford took advantage of anti-union and small government sentiment, with simple but effective campaign slogans like, "Stop the Gravy Train," attacking wasteful government spending, and "End the War on the Car," assailing the city’s previous mayor’s proposal for light rail transit lines.
The result was that he got elected. Despite his bizarre, outsized behavior, Ford still remains relatively popular with supporters, who credit him with saving taxpayer money and personally responding to their problems. Ford is an extremely flawed politician, who has a common touch that strikes a populist chord. His base lies in Toronto’s outer boroughs, which are extremely diverse and include less affluent, often first-generation imm-
igrants and minorities (around 10 percent of the residents
are South Asian, Chinese or black). Central Toronto has lar-
gely gentrified with corresponding increases in rents and property values, and like New York, the downtown business district and older residential neighborhoods have became wealthier, better educated and whiter.
Ford has been able to tap Toronto’s lower middle class resentment towards the elite for being pushed out to the city’s outskirts, for having to endure inadequate city services, and for the city’s vast income disparity. Ford is a wealthy man whose political agenda is generally conservative -- calling for cuts in government spending on inner city social programs, and promising to contract out garbage collection. But it’s his populist style and rhetoric that attract voters, and still gives him a chance to get re-elected mayor in Octo-
Populism is a complex phenomenon, which has manifested itself in differing political directions. The usual definition of populism is that it’s a political doctrine that sides with "the people" against "the elite." But its meaning is
historically determined and changes over time. In the early 1890s a coalition of farmers, laborers, and middle class acti-
vists in the United States founded the independent, anti-Wall Street Populist Party.
The party was the product of a broad social movement that emerged in response to both a precipitous decline in the income and status of farmers and wrenching changes in the American economy. Large-scale business organizations, in the form of railroad corporations and other giant and centralized enterprises, were beginning to dominate. Corp-
orate owners were building great fortunes, while the majority’s fortunes declined. The divide between rich and poor intensified. It was not so different from the state of contemporary American society.
The Populist Party platform called for a graduated income tax, the government ownership of railroads, a postal savings system (to avoid depositing money in private banks), and demanded a constitutional amendment allowing for the direct election of senators, democratic reforms like the secret ballot, the initiative, the referendum and recall. In 1892, the Populists ran James Weaver for president on this ambitious platform. He polled more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes.
However, the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan usurped much of Populist Party’s agenda, and the party collapsed after the 1896 election. Many of the Populists’ reform ideas were enacted into law over the span of the next 20 years. The movement did at moments bring together blacks and whites, who shared common economic grievances, but virulent racism promoted by populist leaders, such as the demagogic Ben Tillman, effectively cut them out of the movement.
The historian Richard Hofs-
tadter, writing about 19th century populism, emphasized the irrational resentments, such as a belief in conspiracies, and anti-Semitism, of the farmers as much as their economic grievances. He probably overstated this strain in the populist movement, but later American populist movements always seemed to be as shaped by psychological and cultural resentments as they were by political beliefs and economic difficulties.
Populism could have left wing and right wing connotations or simultaneously contain both strains. In the mid-’30s the radio priest Father Coughlin fused right-wing commitments (Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitism) and left ones (anti-capitalism) in his populist Soc-
ial Justice movement. Populist movements come and go, but the only truly effective one today in America agitating for change is the shrill right-wing tea party. It’s a decentralized movement committed to establishing a government that barely governs, and to reducing taxes and the deficit on both national and local levels.
Populism has come a long way from the big government advocates of the 1890s Populist Party, though there are still left/liberal mainstream politicians like Bill De Blasio and Elizabeth Warren who touch a populist chord. The tea party also claims to be opposed to large corporations and mainstream Republicanism, but it is subsidized by billionaires like the Koch Brothers.
Populist movements rarely project a coherent ideology, and what motivates the tea party beyond its political and economic agenda are resentments that have often manifested in anti-immigration and anti-gay positions. Many tea party members fear that the country is being stolen from "real Americans" -- a notion triggered by Obama’s election and re-election and vast demographic changes.
I have always been wary of populism. Appeals to something as nebulous as "the people," often laced with Manichean hatred for "the elite" or other enemies, lack the particularity, rationality, and nuance that I think an effective politics should be built on.
Leonard Quart can be reached at
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