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  • Populist Currents in the 2008 Presidential Campaign
  • Ron Formisano (bio)

"Populism is everywhere in American politics, but nowhere in particular."1

Populism as style and rhetoric has long dominated American political campaigns. Its roots reach back deeply into the nation's history to the American Revolution and the early days of the Republic. In the colonial struggle for independence from Britain, as well as in the making of the national constitution, American political leaders invoked "the people's sovereignty" as the theoretical basis of their rebellion and subsequent nation-building.2

Although "the people" might be sovereign, the Founding generation of gentlemen tended to be exclusive rather than inclusive in their often vague definitions of just who constituted the people. In the early years of the republic, Virginia gentlemen, for example, were not above "swilling the planters with bumbo" on election days, but they tended to disdain courting voters. In the post-Constitution states, which resembled aristocratic republics more than "democracies," candidates "stood" for office rather than "ran," while their political allies exerted "influence" on their behalf.

But by the 1820s, aspirants for office not only couched their appeals to and for "the people, " they also styled themselves as truer representatives of ordinary folk than their opponents. Andrew Jackson, the first president not from Virginia or named Adams, won election in 1828 in large part because of his popularity as a military hero, but also because he seized the populist mantle of the "common [white] man." Even so conservative a political leader as Senator Daniel Webster declared, in his famous 1830 debate with South Carolina's Robert Y. Hayne over the nature of the Union, that it was "the People's Constitution, the People's government, made for the People by the People; and answerable to the People."

In 1840, General William Henry Harrison, a sometime Indian fighter, parlayed his military reputation and alleged log cabin roots into a winning [End Page 237] presidential campaign for the Whig Party. Harrison indeed had won battles against Indian and British foes, but he had been born on a Virginia plantation, a son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the Whig's "Hard Cider and Log Cabin" campaign of 1840 became a historic marker of the triumph of populist posturing in elections.

To be sure, authentic populist movements arising from the grass roots and claiming to represent the people also have played a prominent role in American political history. They have ranged from armed agrarian insurgencies in the late eighteenth century to social movements and third parties in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that also employed a populist rhetoric and style. Populist social movements and parties, too, have been both progressive and reactionary, and often have mixed contradictory impulses from opposite sides of the political spectrum.3 The focus here, however, will be on the rhetorical and symbolic populism expressed by various candidates during the presidential campaign of 2008. In any year, a latent populist mentality forms part of the bedrock of American politics, but in 2008 lingering culture wars and a staggering economy repeatedly intensified populist appeals in the presidential campaign.

A populist strategy aims to align candidates with ordinary people who lack power or are being oppressed by undemocratic elites who wield excessive power. The essence of populist language is to set up an us who claim to speak for the people against a they of elites or a powerful few who have taken over or corrupted the political system and rigged it to benefit themselves. These few have assumed various incarnations throughout our history, including "aristocrats," "the money power," "the Slave Power," "capitalists," "robber barons," "malefactors of great wealth," and "economic royalists." Economic populism has usually struggled against cabals of the wealthy and powerful who not only oppressed but looked with contempt upon ordinary people. A Kansas Populist of the 1890s characterized them as "the aristocrats, the plutocrats, and all the other rats."

More recently, especially since the rise of anti-Communism in the 1950s and the culture wars growing out of the 1960s, an invigorated cultural populism has targeted an additional set of elites that are alleged to violate traditional "values" of morality, family, and religion...


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