The Tea Partiers' Phony Populism

At their convention this weekend, Sarah Palin and her fans bashed big banks—and the idea of regulating them. Peter Beinart on how Team Tea is giving populism a bad name.

If there’s one thing the media knows about the Tea Partiers, it is that they are populists. They hate Washington; they hate Wall Street; they wouldn’t be caught dead on Martha’s Vineyard; the mere sight of tofu turns their stomach.

But what if they’re not?

A populist is someone who champions ordinary folks against the privileged few. For the original Populists—the people who created the Populist Party in the late 19th century—the ordinary folks were farmers and workers and the privileged few were bankers and railroad owners. The goal was to redistribute power from the latter to the former. The Populists wanted a currency based upon silver, not gold, which would make it cheaper for farmers to borrow and less profitable for bankers to lend. They wanted to nationalize the railroads, telegraphs and telephones so corporations couldn’t charge ordinary folks extortionate rates. They wanted a progressive income tax, an eight-hour workday, and laws making it easier to join labor unions, so workers would have greater protections and greater pay. And they wanted guaranteed pensions for sailors and soldiers, a kind of precursor to Social Security.

By reducing government oversight of Wall Street, as Palin demanded at the Tea Party convention, the Tea Partiers actually strengthen the very moneyed interests that the Populists wanted to restrain.

And what was the mechanism for this redistribution of power from the privileged few to ordinary folks? The mechanism was government. It was government that would coin silver, nationalize the railroads, and institute the income tax, pensions and the eight-hour shift. As the Populist Party declared in its first platform, in 1892, “We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded…as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

That first phrase is key: “the power of government—in other words, of the people.” For the original Populists, government action was the best way to empower ordinary folks, but only if those ordinary folks actually ran the government. That’s why at the same time the Populists tried to strengthen government they also tried to democratize it, by championing the direct election of senators and other reforms. In practice, the Populists were often fervently anti-Washington because Washington was controlled by the privileged few. But their anger at Washington and their anger at Wall Street were different. They believed Washington could represent the people in a way Wall Street never could. They cursed Wall Street because it was too powerful. They cursed Washington because it wasn’t powerful enough.

John Avlon: The Secret History of the BirthersCompare that to the Tea Partiers. The Tea Partiers also say they want to empower ordinary folk against the privileged few. But who do they mean by “privileged few?” Unlike the original Populists, the Tea Partiers don’t mean moneyed interests. After all, while they oppose bailing out banks, they also oppose more aggressively regulating them. In fact, the Tea Party crowd wants less government oversight over Wall Street. As Tea Party Convention keynote speaker Sarah Palin declared a while back, “We got into this mess because of government interference in the first place.”

By privileged few, in fact, the Tea Party crowd means government. The ordinary folks are the voters and the privileged few are the people who run Washington in disregard of their wishes. For the original Populists, the answer to this problem was more democracy: reforms that made Washington more responsive to voters and less responsive to moneyed interests. But the Tea Partiers have no interest in such reforms. They simply take it as a fact that Washington is unresponsive and self-interested. While the Populists wanted to empower government as they democratized it, the Tea Partiers want to disempower government because they don’t believe it can be democratized. And by disempowering government—by reducing its oversight of Wall Street, as Palin demanded at the Tea Party convention—the Tea Partiers actually strengthen the very moneyed interests that the Populists wanted to restrain.

The Tea Partiers, in other words, have flipped Populism on its head. They’re less Populists than anti-Populists. It’s time the media called them by their rightful name.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.