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Populist Misfire Or National Crisis?

Ross Douthat has a thoughtful piece in the NY Times today on the failure — so far — of the populist wing of the Republican Party to find candidates and policies that can compete at the presidential level.  He’s certainly right that figures like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Herman Cain generate excitement among populist Republicans but don’t connect with a broader electorate — and often seem to falter over time.

My own sense is that populists today are more clearly united by what they oppose than by a common program for what to do next.  It is easier to be against President Obama’s health care reform than to come up with an alternative.  It is easier to know that big government is bad and that the federal government has gotten too big to work well than it is to know how to develop new models of decentralized federalism.  It is easier to perceive and resent the failures of elites than to develop and build majority support for new ways to reform entitlements, manage America’s participation in the global economy and develop foreign policy ideas to cope with everything from terrorism to the rise of China to the break up of the euro.

Historically populism in America is more about visions than about programs.  In the past, leaders as different in character and opinions as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have benefited from support by populists who believed they were the strong leaders American needed at the time.

Often, by the way, these leaders when elected with populist support ended up doing some things that populists did not support.  The key was that ordinary Americans trusted these leaders; they believed that a George Washington would guide the US in the right direction even when they did not understand or did not like what he was doing.  All leaders sometimes disappoint the base; great leaders may do it more often — but they keep the public trust even as they lead the public in a new direction.

The quest for real leaders is more difficult today; the kind of press scrutiny candidates must undergo would almost certainly have kept FDR and JFK out of the White House.  An Abraham Lincoln might not run, knowing what the campaign publicity would do to his wife and how her fragile mental health would become an issue.  I am not quite sure why so many reporters are so self righteously certain that the modern press system makes government “better” than previously; it seems to me a country in which people like Lincoln and Roosevelt can serve is better than one in which they can’t.

But the problem of populist conservatives, that they can’t find a leader, is something they share with the United States as a whole.  2011 is not one of those times when our political life is led by giants; Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Charles Sumner would not find all that many friends and peers in the vainglorious chamber of winds that is the contemporary US Senate.  Why a republic of 50 million could produce more great leaders than one six times that size is an interesting conundrum, but there is no doubt that among America’s many problems today, the absence of great national leadership looms large.

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  • Derick Schilling

    It’s Ross (not Ralph) Douthat.

  • Eric from Texas

    I think Glenn Reynolds made an important point about this trend a couple of years ago. We’re seeing the disintermediation of of the political class, with the Tea Party leading the charge. The reasons for this change are the same ones you’ve mentioned in this blog (such as technological change, its impact on institutions). Given the speed with which this transformation is happening, I’m not surprised there is no one to step up. The type of politician that would lead this revolution wouldn’t have succeeded early and often in temps perdu “becoming someone important through politics.” Paul Ryan might be as close as a current politician can be in leading the charge for the Republicans in 2012, but his youth and family obligations seem to weigh against a run now. Too bad. He’d be a great contrast to the President.

  • Scott

    Editorial question, did you mean “they believed that a George Washington would guide the US in the wrong direction even when they did not understand or did not like what he was doing.”? I think you may have meant they did “not” believe that a George Washington… but I may have missed the point.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Scott: should have been “right” rather than “wrong”. An intern has chopped off a finger joint to demonstrate sincere apologies to the readers.

  • Glenn

    Proof-reading standards are deteriorating: “He’s certainly write [sic] that figures like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Herbert [sic] Cain generate excitement…” Anyway, the most interesting thing about Douthat’s column was the attack on Fox News and Roger Ailes in its last two paragraphs, as though TV, a populist medium, were responsible for the shallowness of populism.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Glenn: Thanks for pointing it out! We are keelhauling the intern responsible for this as I write.

  • Stephen Clark

    Interesting that your list of Senators predates the 17th Amendment.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I don’t know why you feel that a leader should already have been picked, when the primary procedure for picking a leader is still in full swing?
    Could it fail?
    Of course it could, as it did in the Perot era, when the fiscal conservatives (pre-TEA Party) were split off from the Republicans in 92 and 96. But it’s pretty clear that the TEA Parties will pick someone to lead them who’s vision of America is something they can get behind.
    Only time will tell if the leader chosen will become great like Reagan, Lincoln, or Washington. It’s impossible to tell ahead of time, as 20/20 hindsight only works when looking back through time.

  • Russell Snow

    ” the kind of press scrutiny candidates must undergo would almost certainly have kept FDR and JFK out of the White House.”

    Don’t you mean the kind of scrutiny Republican candidates get? Because Obama got no scrutiny whatsoever.

  • Richard S.

    Ross Douthat, and right, not write. Ah the interns!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Richard S. The interns are particularly sloppy on Sunday — something about being unpaid on a day of rest. The beatings will continue until morale improves!

  • Bob Watkins

    Typos and misnaming people is not the usual quality of this blog. Disappointing.

  • bill glahn

    It’s Ross not Ralph.

  • Glen

    There’s a typo in the second sentence: write should be right.

    Douthat (and, to a lesser degree, Mead) mischaracterizes the current state of the Republican Party presidential nominating process as a populist revolt. It is instead representative of a broad, grass roots libertarian sentiment that has been nourished by President Obama’s strident (and failed) embrace of top-down, statist control of ever larger parts of the average American citizen’s life.

    The appropriate response to ever-increasing and increasingly impotent state control isn’t more efficient or more effective control (by whatever metric) – it’s simply less control. Human society is currently in the midst of a communications revolution that permits even the largest and most complex endeavors to be managed from the bottom-up. Many of the structures of the Blue Social Model (and of other large organizations) were developed in a time when such communications were either impossible or impractically expensive, leaving hierarchical and rules-based structures necessary for anything but small undertakings.

    This revolution poses profound challenges to the types of power structures that were developed in earlier eras. Virtually everyone employed by governments at all levels (and particularly including elected and appointed officials) owes their livelihood to inadequate, inefficient and expensive communications mediums. As these barriers fall, so too will these power structures, and eventually, those who inhabit them.

    History tells us that it is not alway easy to identify the dynamics during the moment – that’s why history is written by historians, typically long afterwards. We are all living through such a moment, one where old approaches no longer seem to work, unexpected results are occurring, and experts explanations are lacking. It is not surprising that voters and pundits are momentarily confused.

  • Chris

    I think the main problem with you arguement is the belief that we can recognize great leaders while they are leading. Also, the ever pervasive media is there to immediately tear you down anytime you try to move forward. I think the lack of an objective media is the biggest problem in the country.

  • Anthony

    “All leaders sometimes disappoint the base; great leaders may do it more often – but they keep the public trust even as they lead in a new direction.”

    WRM, the notion of popular sovereignty perhaps mitigates against highly capable men/women assuming leadership specifically in our political arena – our politics tend to favor lawyers, people of independent means or in some business they can run by remote control as an adjunct to politics (people generally seeking to make their way in capitalism via political entrepreneurship).

    I think most Americans would assert that the best government would be that which is run by the most qualified men/women (leaders); now, the question is how do we get there in 21st century U.S. given our media-driven horse race elections among other things?

  • Eric from Texas

    Agree with Glen @ 11. The funny thing is that it could have been made by WRM himself.

  • Luke Lea

    @WRM – “An Abraham Lincoln might not run, knowing what the campaign publicity would do to his wife and how her fragile mental health would become an issue.”

    Well, Mary Lincoln’s fragile mental health had long been on public display in the capital of Illinois, to say nothing of what happened as soon as they arrived in D.C…

    Anyway, Lincoln married into the Todd family (and she married him for that matter) largely out of political ambition. When he said yes to her tearful plea he already had plenty of first-hand knowledge of her fragile personality (“Where are you going?” someone asked him on his way to the altar. “To hell, probably.” he answered.)

    In any case Mary’s eccentricities only became clinical with his demise. She could not live without him.

    This is not meant to be a criticism of Lincoln’s decision to take Mary as his political wife btw. It was a step he took with his eyes wide open and he remains in my book the greatest modern man, with no close runner-ups. We better pray it stays that way.

  • Toni

    I take issue with your premises. First, I think you and Ross Douthat are jumping the gun. The first primary vote is months away, and even with the newly energized populists, the number of folks eyeing the GOP field is a sliver of the electorate.

    Most of the “broader electorate” won’t start paying close attention until mid-2012. That leaves months for the candidates to compete and one to develop a message that does connect, perhaps strongly.

    I also think your sense that conservative populists can’t agree on means to a smaller, more effective government may prove faulty. Until January, Democrats ran Congress for four years, and they’ve run the White House for nearly three. Meanwhile, during debates on health care, financial reform, and other issues, the self-righteous media have been as thoroughly uninterested as Dems in ideas from the right side of the aisle.

    Republicans have controlled the House for not quite three-quarters of a year. Now the media are interested only in the ’12 horse race. Meaning most rightwing populists (me included) still haven’t had much chance to hear about the rightwing policy proposals percolating on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

    Until we hear details of those proposals and hear them debated, we can’t sift and come to agree on those means to a smaller, more effective government. I believe fiery debate is a good thing. I think it’s fine to wait 14 months to see who has control of what in DC and then start debate.

    Who said politics is the art of the possible? Only in Jan. ’12 will we have a good sense of what legislative and executive changes may be possible. Plenty of time to sift and reach agreement.

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