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News Flash: Populism Is Popular

Posted on Apr 23, 2009

By David Sirota

In 2006, journalist Christopher Hayes wrote a little-noticed article for In These Times magazine about a proposal in Oregon to crack down on predatory lending. The initiative had become so popular that conservative legislators supported it out of fear that if it were put on the state’s ballot, the resulting gusher of grass-roots support would not only ratify the measure but depose the bank-allied Republican Party, too.

Hayes’ piece was titled “Economic Populism Proves Popular,” the headline a sarcastic middle finger flashed at a political and media Establishment that portrays policies “supporting the rights and power of the people”—i.e., the dictionary definition of populism—as somehow anathema to the people.

That depiction, of course, continues today. But now, populism isn’t just popular in America; it is becoming the dominant paradigm, and that has the Establishment frightened.

For years, the country watched its populist desire for health-care, tax, trade and financial reform run into the reality of elite politicians handing out trillions of dollars in corporate welfare and bank bailouts as the economy collapsed. Not surprisingly, a new Rasmussen poll on attitudes toward government and corporations shows 75 percent of the country “can be classified on the populist or Mainstream side of the divide” while just 14 percent “side with the political class.”

As if to confirm the chasm, this “political class”—consultants, politicians, lobbyists and commentators—has been denigrating populism as too overwrought to be taken seriously. Listen to a typical pundit defending AIG’s bonuses or criticizing demands for a new trade policy, and you will inevitably hear the word populist accompanied by the word rage and/or dangerous, followed by tributes to the status quo.


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This elite propaganda, says Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin, dismissively implies “that anger from ordinary people is emotional, coming from people who don’t understand how the economy works and are just lashing out at their social betters.”

The caricaturing cribs from Richard Nixon’s playbook. Whereas the 37th president got himself re-elected by steering the country’s anger at the Vietnam War into anger at countercultural war protesters, today’s political class portrays the public’s outrage as the nation’s biggest problem, rather than what the public is justifiably outraged at.

Today, though, Tricky Dick’s tactics aren’t working, and not just because 2009’s economy is far worse than 1972’s.

This is the era when “You” are Time magazine’s person of the year—an era whose information and interactivity revolution now has us looking to ourselves for direction, not officialdom’s gatekeepers. Additionally, America has lately been taught to expect results from democracy. TV viewers get to decide “American Idol” winners, Facebookers get to change their site’s bylaws and voters get to autonomously use Obama campaign resources to win elections—and we get to do all this from outside the press clubs and smoke-filled rooms.

This profound rewiring of instincts and expectations is why the vilification of “populist rage” has failed as a political barbiturate, why the country still seethes, and why both parties are suddenly listening to “the people” instead of the Establishment. This is why, for instance, Republicans are staging “tea party” protests against federal spending and why Democrats are pushing bills to expand health care, re-regulate Wall Street and cap executive pay—because they know the political class, however offended, can no longer stop a voter backlash.

Admittedly, contradiction is everywhere: Republican rallies bewail deficits the GOP manufactured, and Democrats lament deregulatory schemes they originally crafted. But no matter how hypocritical the response is, it is a response, and that represents change from decades of aloof government. It suggests a democratic renewal whereby populism—i.e., advocating what the public wants—isn’t merely one popular brand of politics, but is politics itself.

David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books “Hostile Takeover” (2006) and “The Uprising” (2008). He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future. Find his blog at or e-mail him at

© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 28, 2009 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

‘narcis guess you just slept thru the 2008 election, oh well no one ever said liberals read or have any real intellectual curiosity’

Well, I’m the one who offered a theory and gave some historical evidence to support it.  It’s pretty hard to detect any movements of the intellect whatever in your (apparent) criticism.  Want to try again?

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By mandinka, April 27, 2009 at 2:18 pm Link to this comment

narcis guess you just slept thru the 2008 election, oh well no one ever said liberals read or have any real intellectual curiosity

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By Anarcissie, April 27, 2009 at 9:40 am Link to this comment

I don’t see much historical evidence that the people of a democracy are inexorably fated to vote to loot the treasury.  However, we do not have a lot of evidence about democracies; in the modern sense of the world, democracy has existed for only two centuries or so at the most.  In general, while the people like government largesse when it feeds their particular interests, they do not like either the high taxes, public debt, or (usually and) inflation requried to pay for other people’s particular interests, and a significant number of them are well aware of the connection.  An overwhelming majority of the citizens opposed Paulsen’s bailout, which, if the loot-the-treasury theory were correct, would have passed unopposed.  The elites prevailed, and massive, probably inflationary, debt was incurred.  But for real excursions into fantasy financial arrangements, check out 20th-century dictatorships in South America and Africa where there is no democratic restraint on the desires of the leadership.

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By Paul_GA, April 27, 2009 at 2:58 am Link to this comment

I believe you refer to a quotation attributed to 18th-Century Scottish historian Alexander Tytler, Mandinka; note particularly the second half of the quotation:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.”

I suspect we’re in the stage of dependency right now, just beginning to slip into bondage.

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By mandinka, April 26, 2009 at 1:05 pm Link to this comment

As our founding fathers said we have given you a republic not a democracy. Every democracy in history has failed once the populus realizes that they can take others wealth for their own until nothing is left. BO is the epitome of what they warned of

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By Paul_GA, April 26, 2009 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment

Darn tootin’, Shift! And may the Washington Bubble get popped—and soon!

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By Shift, April 26, 2009 at 9:29 am Link to this comment

Please allow me to introduce another perspective:  there exists a “Washington Bubble.”

The Washington Bubble encases those who falsely believe that they are above the law and beyond reach.

Populism has the capacity to destroy that bubble along with the hubris that sustains it.  It’s a modern version of “Pop Go’s the Weasels.”

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By Anarcissie, April 25, 2009 at 6:35 pm Link to this comment

One of the reasons populism may be held to be shallow or childish is that much of what goes for populism does not seem to move toward greater equality of power and wealth (one of the dictionary definitions) in any substantial way.  One of Sirota’s lists—“expand health care, re-regulate Wall Street and cap executive pay”—do not actually move power to the ordinary people, they merely direct the elites to behave somewhat differently.  Real populism, “deep” populism in these areas would interest itself in cooperative HMOs, banks (credit unions) and, in business, workers’ cooperatives as opposed to traditional capitalist corporations.  Nothing of the kind is proposed by shallow populism; instead, the government and the elites which control it are actually to be given more power.  It is not surprising that members of these elites are sometimes caught laughing up their sleeves.

As for the dangers of shallow populism, there are plenty of historical examples of movements which were supposed to secure the rights of the people being captured by tyrants-to-be.

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By samosamo, April 25, 2009 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

By Paul_GA, April 25 at 6:23 pm
“”“he meant this law of his in an economic way, but it can certainly refer to just about anything humanity does. We humans have this conceit that whatever we create, it’ll “last forever” (fat chance!).”“”

You’re so right and that is what is very troublesome to me that either side and all sides just about, have this idea that if what we have here in america, for example, is so good that it will last forever. But it won’t, as logic should tell anyone, but logic is what is sadly lacking so just more ‘shock doctrine’ to come. And even now this may be a harbinger of the end of it or some of it. And you can bet your last dollar this will not be on the msm.

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By Paul_GA, April 25, 2009 at 3:23 pm Link to this comment

Thank you so much, Samosamo! I looked Stein up at Wikipedia and you’re absolutely right. As Stein was an economist, he meant this law of his in an economic way, but it can certainly refer to just about anything humanity does. We humans have this conceit that whatever we create, it’ll “last forever” (fat chance!).

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By Jon, April 25, 2009 at 1:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama needs to start being the president of the country and the people in it, not the front man in the suit for the banks and power elite who exploit the country and its people.  He’s yet to show any humane, realism regarding the American economy.  On torture, he’s playing the game, rather than stepping up.  John Kennedy would have rolled the hard six.

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By yours truly, April 25, 2009 at 11:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The most effective way to ensure that elected representatives respond to the will of the people is for them to be subject to recall.  Better yet, a “keep or kick out” vote carried out online every 2-3 months.  This will require a constitutional amendment, of course, but right now that may not be so difficult to attain, thanks to our nation’s populist mood.  Power to the people!

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By samosamo, April 25, 2009 at 10:03 am Link to this comment

By Paul_GA, April 24 at 11:57 pm
Thanks, Samosamo. Who said that one, if I may be so bold?*******************
You may. I can’t remember if it was nixon or reagan’s terms but here it is from an interview with chalmers johnson by tom englehart:

**Herb Stein, when he was chairman of the council of economic advisers in a Republican administration very famously said, “Things that can’t go on forever don’t.”**

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By Paul_GA, April 24, 2009 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

Thanks, Samosamo. Who said that one, if I may be so bold?

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By samosamo, April 24, 2009 at 6:09 pm Link to this comment

By Paul_GA, April 24 at 6:40 pm

There is another old saying from one of reagan’s or nixon’s cabinet that goes like this:

“Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.

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By Paul_GA, April 24, 2009 at 3:40 pm Link to this comment

The grievances are building up like water in a reservoir behind a weak dam. The dam has so far held up, but will it hold up forever, as the Elites think it will?

As the saying goes, “Après moi, le déluge.”

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By herewegoagain, April 24, 2009 at 11:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

They may be listening, but they’re still not acting on what we’re telling them. They’re still going forward with TARP and the war in Iraq, while not budging at all on EFCA, abuses against credit card holders, and now apparently investigating torture.

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By BobZ, April 24, 2009 at 10:49 am Link to this comment

Thanks Dave for this post about populism and the way it has been turned into a derogatory term by our cable and mainstream media. Of particular note are the fascist media networks - Fox News and CNBC who are very dismissive of anything they feels smacks of “populism”. Populism is one of those words that is not very well defined, therefore it has been twisted to mean an idea of mass popularity but with little thought behind it.  Neil Cavuto and Larry Kudlow, two of our most right wing business commentators love to dismiss any liberal ideas they don’t care for as “populism”.  They both have that east coast Wall Street elitism attitude that anything coming out of the main street crowd isn’t worth listening to. Chris Matthews is a somewhat liberal commentator who also loves to use that term to put an idea down, he doesn’t agree with. You know sometimes the majority of the country is correct - like Wall Street getting away with stealing our money for example, or that we need a massive overhaul of our health care systems, and the wealthy are getting way too many tax breaks at the expense of the rest of us. And of course if the “populism” accusation doesn’t work they throw out the “class warfare” accusation, especially if anyone brings to their attention that most of the economic rewards since the mid 1970’s have gone to a very small group of already wealthy individuals. The income disparity is now worse than at any time since the “gilded age” of the first 20 years of the last century. Anyway, it’s about time someone pointed out how the media tries to put down any ideas of mass popularity.

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By samosamo, April 24, 2009 at 10:21 am Link to this comment

“”“"This elite propaganda, says Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin, dismissively implies “that anger from ordinary people is emotional, coming from people who don’t understand how the economy works and are just lashing out at their social betters.””“”
This is one of the favorite tricks of that electorate that hides behind a very narrow faux difference of the 2 parties; convincing the msm treated fools into thinking that they ‘don’t know nutin from nutin’ and that only those political elite and the money elite really know how the real economy works. Which for the people and now even more and more people that are waking up to the fact that while they were being snake fasinated by these crooks, their pockets were being picked, our manufacturing base was hollowed out, our jobs offshored to cheaper labor and we were tricked into believing voodoo economics that enriched the ‘aloof’ bastards at our expense. Basically creating US AND THEM.

I really hope this is more than high hopes because the issues of a corrupt msm, electorate, military industrial congressional complex with their ‘lobbyitsts’ are areas that have obama looking less and less like the messiah people make him to be because one reality that is hard to cover even by the cess pool of the current msm it that actions speak louder than words and loss of power to provide for one’s self and family is not lost on the people. Hard to sugar coat that with false physcological bullshit.

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By Paul_GA, April 24, 2009 at 9:54 am Link to this comment

The way Obama wants everyone to love him, KISS, I suspect he’ll handle protests here at home with kid gloves. The last thing he’d want is a sort of American “Jallianwala Bagh Massacre”.

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By KISS, April 24, 2009 at 6:22 am Link to this comment

And with populism you don’t get an egg roll, instead you get the low point of democracy.
“Beginning on October 1[2008], the First Brigade Combat Team of the Third Division will be placed under the command of US Army North, the Army’s component of the Pentagon’s Northern Command (NorthCom), which was created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with the stated mission of defending the US “homeland” and aiding federal, state and local authorities.” Who’s job “1” is to quell citizens from raising too much ruckus in a populous dissension.And this is Amerika, where fascism is just fine and dandy.

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By Paul_GA, April 24, 2009 at 5:17 am Link to this comment

Long may populism wave! The Establishment has had things their way for far too long in this country; it’s time to shake this country up.

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By bluelori, April 24, 2009 at 4:26 am Link to this comment

Sure it’s all the republicans allied with the banks clinton repealed glass-steagall nothing to see here move along right.  And oh the smelly one let’s see he voted FOR the banks in the Bankruptcy bill and what was his bribe er I mean contributions…

It pays $$$$$ to be the King!

Seven of the Obama campaign’s top 14 donors consisted of officers and the same employees of the same Wall Street firms charged time and again with looting the public and newly implicated in originating and/or bundling mortgages they now call Toxic Assets.  BAILOUT LOOTING NOW!

These seven Wall Street firms are (in order of money given): Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse. There is also a large hedge fund, Citadel Investment Group, which is a major source of fee income to Wall Street. There are five large corporate law firms that are also registered lobbyists; and one is a corporate law firm that is no longer a registered lobbyist but does legal work for Wall Street. The cumulative total of these 14 contributors through February 1, 2008, was $2,872,128, while the resident was still in the primary season. (Source Open Secrets)


On February 10, 2005, then Senator Obama voted in favor of the passage of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  Here is an excerpt of remarks Senator Obama made on the Senate floor on February 14, 2005, concerning the pas sage of this legislation:

“Every American deserves their day in court. This bill, while not perfect, gives people that day while still providing the reasonable reforms necessary to safe guard against the most blatant abuses of the system. I also hope that the federal judiciary takes seriously their expanded role in class action litigation, and upholds their responsibility to fairly certify class actions so that they may protect our civil and consumer rights..”.

Three days before Senator Obama ex pressed that fateful yea vote, 14 state attorneys general, including Lisa Madigan of Senator Obama’s home state of Illinois, filed a letter with the Senate and House, pleading to stop the passage of this corporate giveaway. The AGs wrote:

“State attorneys general frequently investigate and bring actions against defendants who have caused harm to our citizens… In some instances, such actions have been brought with the attorney general acting as the class representative for the con sumers of the state. We are concerned that certain provisions of S.5 might be misinterpreted to impede the ability of the attorneys general to bring such ac tions…”
The Senate also received a desperate plea from more than 40 civil rights and labor organizations, including the NAACP, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Justice and Democracy, Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund), and Alliance for Justice. They wrote as fol lows:

“Under the [Class Action Fairness Act of 2005], citizens are denied the right to use their own state courts to bring class actions against corporations that violate these state wage and hour and state civil rights laws, even where that corporation has hundreds of employees in that state. Moving these state law cases into federal court will delay and likely deny justice for working men and women and victims of discrimination. The federal courts are al ready overburdened. Additionally, federal courts are less likely to certify classes or provide relief for violations of state law.”

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