“Perfect populist pitch,” beamed CBS analyst Jeff Greenfield right after Gov. Sarah Palin‘s big speech at the Republican fawnfest in St. Paul, Minn. “She’s a populist,” echoed Karl Rove over at Fox News.
Excuse me? Palin is to populism what near beer is to beer, only not as close. She might be popular, she might be able to field dress a moose, she might live in a small town, she might enjoy delivering “news flashes” to media elites, she might even become vice president — but none of this makes her a populist.
By trying to place the noble crown of an authentic people’s movement atop the head of a candidate who is a shameless corporate servant, the chattering television pundits are perverting language, American history and the substance of today’s genuine populists.
You want a taste of the real thing? Try this from another woman who hailed from a small town and was renown for her political oratory:
“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street. … Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. … The people are at bay, let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us thus far beware.”
That, my media friends, is populism! It comes from Mary Ellen Lease‘s speech to the national convention of the Populist Party in 1890. Lease spoke all across the land, rallying a fast-spreading grassroots revolt against the corporate predators of her day. “Raise less corn and more hell,” she urged farmers. She didn’t need to brag that she was a pit bull in lipstick because her message, idealism and actions made her an actual force for change.
Populism was and is a ground-level, democratic movement with the guts and gumption to go right at the moneyed elites. It is unabashedly class-based, confronting the Rockefellers on behalf of the Littlefellers. To be a populist is to challenge the very structure of corporate power that is running roughshod over workers, consumers, the environment, small farmers, poor people, the middle class … and America’s historic ideals of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all.
“Populist” is not an empty political buzzword that can be attached to someone like Palin, whose campaigns — lieutenant governor, governor and now vice president — are financed and even run by the lobbyists and executives of Big Oil, Wall Street bankers and other entrenched economic interests.
Populists don’t support opening our national parks and coastlines to allow the ExxonMobils to take publicly owned oil and sell it to China. Palin does. Populists don’t hire corporate lobbyists to deliver a boatload of earmarked federal funds, then turn around and claim to be a heroic opponent of earmarks. Palin did. Populists don’t favor giving yet another huge tax break to corporations. Palin does.
Another thing populists don’t do is sneer at community organizers, as Palin did in her nationally televised coming-out party. Indeed, populists of old were community organizers, as are today’s, helping empower ordinary folks who are besieged by the avarice and arrogance of many of the corporations backing Palin. Since the governor likes to put her fundamental Christianity on political display, she might ponder a new bumper sticker that expresses a bit of Biblical populism: “Jesus was a community organizer, while Pontius Pilate was governor.”
Working for such needs as clean elections, environmental justice and fair wages, community organizers embody the vitality of modern populism, doing the essential grunt-level work of democracy. What gives Palin any legitimacy to denigrate that? By standing with the rich and powerful whom grass-roots folks are having to battle, she’s a plutocrat, not a populist. Big difference.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.