With unemployment surging and the public mood souring, populism is in the air. Sarah Palin, flattered in recent days by a comparison to William Jennings Bryan, is a plausible presidential candidate, according to George W. Bush's pollster. Lou Dobbs, the modern incarnation of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, is dropping hints about running for the White House in 2012, presumably without the benefit of the Hispanic vote. And Glenn Beck is planning a huge rally next summer in Washington dedicated to "Re-founding America." If Beck pulls a big crowd and wins some credit for decimating Democrats in the midterms, it's not hard to guess what he might try next. (Click here to follow Jonathan Alter).
We haven't elected a populist president since Andrew Jackson 180 years ago. But we haven't had a black guy with no experience and a Muslim name as president either. Our omnipresent mediacracy makes a lot of unthinkable things thinkable. Barack Obama's use of social networking and YouTube in 2008 just scratched the surface of what's possible when anyone can have access to any idea or image at any time. That's the science-fiction society we live in now.
The resulting Tower of Babel has good news and bad news for would-be populists. The good news for them is that the dissemination of outlandish ideas is easier than ever. Where cranks were once limited to red-ribbon typewriter rants or maybe a radio show, they now have unlimited potential to get their message out. The bad news for them is that they have nothing to say. They say nothing loudly, colorfully, and sometimes even charmingly, but it still doesn't amount to a new vision for the country. If their means of communicating are dramatically enhanced, their ends are hopelessly conventional.
Populism has been expanded to include anyone on the side of the people against the elites. But the word once had a more particular meaning. The anger had content. Populists of the past like Bryan in the 1890s, Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s, and even Pat Buchanan in the 1990s were angry about East Coast capitalists who were hurting the little guy in the heartland. They were anti–Wall Street, strongly protectionist, and committed to economic justice, even when some of them descended into racism and anti-Semitism.
Today's faux populists also feast on emotions—anxiety, anger, resentment—that intensify in hard times. But they are more accurately described as plain old reactionaries, a wonderfully precise word that has gone out of common usage. They're reacting against the pace of change and feeding right-wing nostalgia for a bygone era when a liberal black man wouldn't dare run for president. Palin might try to echo Bryan, but she would consider Bryan's Populist Party platform of 1896 communistic were she to add it to her famous reading list. Dobbs, once corporate America's biggest apologist, still has no use for labor unions, which might make it tough to forge a connection with working people. Beck said recently that his reading of history suggested it was in the progressive era that the United States first started going to hell. He wants to make the country safe for the 1880s.
And that's what will likely save us. That instead of wanting to be president, Palin just wants her own talk show, Dobbs (whose ratings were in steep decline before he left CNN) merely hopes to boost his speaking fees, and Beck aspires to nothing more than dethroning Rush Limbaugh. The Foxulists all know that actually running for office is a lot harder than signing books and mouthing off about Obama.
That still leaves room for a more serious reactionary populist—perhaps Mike Huckabee—to push Obama on deficit reduction, as Ross Perot pushed Bill Clinton. Perot, a billionaire, bought TV time to show his charts of scary numbers (all of which were proven wrong within a few years). Today you don't need money for TV, just a message that's catchy enough for a few million hits on YouTube.
But even the most artful use of new technology won't likely make a populist president. That's because the country is conservative in a deeper sense. Populism—reactionary or progressive—is disruptive of the social order at a time when most people crave some sense of control over fast-moving events. Sure we want someone to give voice to our frustrations. But from the heart and head, not the spleen.