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03.17.09

A Short History of American Rage

From AIG to John Thain, the current public anger is just the latest expression of two centuries of periodic outrage—and Obama still has a chance to tame it.

A specter is haunting the Obama administration, Congress, and just about every big bank in the land—the specter of populism. Not many Americans grasp how “credit default swaps” and “collateralized debt obligations” helped push the country into a deep recession, but they do know that the wise guys and gals who set up such arcana got obscenely rich and want to punish them for acting as if they should not be suffering like everyone else, or worse.

Sarah Palin’s praise of small-town folks who grow our food and run our factories earned her more ridicule than votes.

The spirit of populism is unlike the specter of communism famously invoked by Marx and Engels. It is ideologically promiscuous, homegrown, and nearly as old as the republic itself. The powers that be will try to bend it to their will or get stymied by an anger they cannot control.

Since at least the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson fought an epic battle to shut down the “money power” embodied in the Second Bank of the United States, politicians and citizen-activists have spewed outrage toward elites who ignored, corrupted, or betrayed the common people. But left and right have seldom agreed about who those elites are and which “people” are rising up against their evil deeds.

The left traditionally trains its fire on corporate tycoons and the politicians they favor. During the Gilded Age, the primary villains were men like Carnegie and Rockefeller, McKinley, and Hanna. They sinned by driving small businesses out of the marketplace, busting unions, and constricting the currency to create a nation of debtors. During the Great Depression, the main targets were such fierce opponents of the New Deal as Henry Ford and Herbert Hoover. The car maker dispatched goons to beat up union organizers; while the grim-faced president responded to the crisis by denouncing radicals and urging the hungry to rely upon rugged individualism. Their spirit still lingers in the congressional leadership of the Grand Old Party.

But cultural resentments can also spur energetic populist revolts—and economic discontents are rarely separate from those based on style, religion, and status. During the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin broadcast attacks on “international bankers” and “atheistic” Jews friendly to FDR—and drew a market share Rush Limbaugh would envy. Twenty years later, Senator Joseph McCarthy sided with the “real people” from rural areas and small towns “who are the heart and soul and soil of America.” He vowed to defend them against “the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths” who were “selling this nation out.”

McCarthy overreached, but he schooled his fellow conservatives well. During the half-century since his swift rise and humiliating fall, Republicans on the right have rarely stopped singing from the same populist hymnal. From Nixon’s praise of “Middle Americans” to Fox News' gleeful derision of John Kerry windsurfing, cultural populism helped the GOP win many an election and consistently put its opponents on the defensive.

Last fall, Sarah Palin tried to re-arrange the familiar verses. But her praise of small-town folks “who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our war” and her cute-tough sneers at “the permanent political establishment” and “Washington elite” earned her more ridicule than votes. With stock prices dropping and foreclosures abounding, the old bogeys of effete liberals and tax-eating bureaucrats had lost much of their power to scare, at least last year.

Yet a defeat for right-wing populism does not mean the left’s version is once again in command. The “people” no longer means what it did during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, blue-collar wage earners flocked to unions that promised “industrial democracy” and applauded FDR when he bashed his opponents as “economic royalists.” For most workers, Wall Street was an exotic neighborhood that few would ever have the cash to visit. Most Americans did not even pay federal income tax until World War II. For most of the nation’s history, the rhetoric of haves and have-nots had a strong claim on reality.

Since the 1950s, however, the U.S. has been a middle-class nation. It also gradually became a stock-owning one, as 401(K) plans and Internet day-trading knit an implicit partnership between financial wizards and nearly everyone with a decent job. As a consequence, in the current economic debacle, far more Americans think of themselves as cheated investors than as horny-handed captives of “the money power.”

That doesn’t, of course, lessen taxpayers’ anger at saving the bosses of Merrill Lynch or AIG from their venal errors—or paying them fat bonuses from the Treasury. But that rage is free-floating, untethered as yet to either a social movement or an insurgent party that together might insure that such behavior never happens again.

Still, we should understand the public’s wrath instead of fear it. As the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote half-a-century ago, “One must expect and even hope that there will be future upheavals to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish the periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of our democracy.” Like the American dream itself, ever present and never fully realized, populism lives too deeply in our culture to be trivialized or replaced. And without it, the partisans in one of our oldest, most charged modes of debate would be left with little to say.

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan . He teaches history at Georgetown University.