Words have meaning, but the Beltway press is in the process of stripping "populism" of its descriptive value as pundits and reporters continue to misuse the word in connection with the right-wing movement that obsessively opposes President Obama. Far from being a populist surge, the movement, led by talkers like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh who pollute the airwaves through smears and innuendos, remains completely divorced from the traditional sense of what "populism" has stood for in American politics. Yet the press keeps reaching for the wrong phrase.
Rallying people around a sweeping -- and at times uncontrollable -- hatred of the president, and trying to demonize him at every turn? That's not "populism." And relentlessly painting the federal government as being an intrinsic evil that must be beaten back with physical violence if necessary? Sorry, folks, but that's insurrectionism.
And besides, since when do so-called populists claim the president's a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred of white people," and who wants to put a spike in the heads of babies? Since when do populists call for a military coup to overthrow the White House, constantly compare the president to a Nazi, denounce him as a "small, petty and spoiled man," and pull their kids out of school in order to make sure they're not "indoctrinated" by the president?
And since when do populists warn that expanded health care coverage will mean the "end of America as you know it," and fearmonger about how "martial law" and "tyranny" may be looming under the news president?
During the 1990s, the black helicopter/militia crowd spread all kinds of similar hate smears and anti-government conspiracy theories about the Clinton administration (i.e. the New World Order). But the Beltway press didn't anoint those crazies as "populists." So why should today's right-wing radicals, and their media rabble-rousers, get to bask in the feel-good "populist" glow?
They get to because the press keeps making the phony claim. For instance, Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib recently assured readers that Tea Party activists -- whom he described as tapping into a "populist vein" -- were just like the independent voters who rallied around folksy billionaire Ross Perot during the 1990s.
Really? Perot supporters in 1996 spent an entire summer month forming wide-eyed mini-mobs in order to make sure that Americans could not discuss the day's important topics at town hall forums? They showed up at rallies with loaded handguns? They routinely compared the president to Adolf Hitler and paraded around with swastika posters? They formed angry crowds around members of Congress and followed them to their cars in parking lots, and hung politicians in effigy? They cheered media personalities who denigrated the president as a communist, and a socialist and a fascist, and attacked the president as a "dangerous" man? The Perot movement was built around incessant and hateful name-calling?
Seib must have watched a different history unfold during the 1990s. Either that, or he's completely whitewashing current events.
Aside from today's rampant partisan hatred, which has no connection with "populism," there's the inconvenient fact that conservative activists today pretty much worship big business. After all, members stormed town hall forums this summer and raised holy hell, freaked out at the prospect of private insurance giants having to face public competition. It's a movement that literally protested -- and spread lies about proposed health care reform -- at the behest of insurance companies.
Power to the people that ain't. (i.e. "Populism: A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.) Except, apparently, inside the New York Times newsroom:
The renewed potency of populist conservatism has been on display since the summer, when health care town hall meetings became a forum for frustrated voters, angry at President Obama and Congressional Democrats over the issue of government expansion.
Giving the radical conservative movement a pass by blanketing it with the appealing "populism" tag is just another way that the press takes the edge off today's irresponsible far-right movement; a movement that has embraced the kind of wildly divisive and name-calling rhetoric not seen in mainstream American politics in generations.
It's easy to understand why partisan conservatives are anxious to grab the "populist" mantle for purely marketing purposes, since the GOP remains a bruised and damaged brand. But why is the traditional press playing along? Most Beltway reporters and pundits won't even use the slightly more accurate "right-wing populism" phrase to describe today's political landscape. Instead, scribes opt for the friendlier "populism." As in, there's a grassroots movement sticking up for working Joes. Why the more pleasing "populism"? Because right-wingers don't like being called right-wingers, so the press almost never does.
The New York Times this year has routinely referred to far-right demagogues as "populists." Last spring the newspaper singled out Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as "talk-show populists," even though their radio programs literally worship at the altar of big business (not to mention the Chamber of Commerce) and look to corporate America for inspiration for all that is true and righteous. (And yes, alleged "populist" Rush Limbaugh's current radio contract is valued at $400 million.)
Fox News' Glenn Beck, who not long ago freaked out over the idea of business owners having to grant their employees paid sick days, now routinely gets tagged as a "populist" by the press. Politico recently toasted the "populist conservative movement" Beck helped spawn this year. New York magazine cheered him on as "America's top populist in its hour of need." And Time dubbed Beck "The new populist superstar of Fox News."
- "Mr. Beck, an early-evening host on the Fox News Channel, is suddenly one of the most powerful media voices for the nation's conservative populist anger."
- "[A]n increasing number of writers have discovered a new champion: Glenn Beck, the outspoken media darling of populist conservatism."
It's interesting, though, that Beck himself appears to not even know what "populist" means. Note this comment while appearing on The O'Reilly Factor:
The second thing is, is that -- you know, I was called -- who was it that called me today "a populist"? I'm not a populist. I've been saying this stuff when it was unpopular. I've got news for you: It's still pretty unpopular!
Note to Beck: "Populism" is not a political philosophy built around what's popular. It's built around the idea of empowering the people.
It makes perfect sense, though, that Beck doesn't even know what populism is since it was Beck who sprang into action last spring when politicians and voters alike voiced outrage over the lavish, $200 million bonuses that were handed out to AIG financial executives, even though just months earlier AIG had been given $170 billion taxpayer lifeline. Beck demanded that AIG executives be allowed to keep their seven-figure bonuses.
Behold as "populist" Beck practically tried to run Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal off Glenn Beck, after Blumenthal expressed interest in trying to retrieve the tainted bonuses:
BECK: So then why were you going after them?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, we're not going after them.
BECK: No, you were.
BLUMENTHAL: We're going after the bonuses.
BECK: It's their bonuses.
BLUMENTHAL: We were never going after the --
BECK: No, it -- their bonuses, sir. They are their bonuses. They earned that money. What right, what law did they break that gave you the ability in Connecticut to go after those bonuses?
You could almost see the spittle spraying off Beck's lips as he was barely able to control his rage at the idea of AIG execs having to give back bonuses. And yes, at the same time, Limbaugh loudly proclaimed he was "all for the AIG bonuses." Yet Beck and Limbaugh are populists? They're leading a grassroots revolt on behalf of ordinary citizens against society's out-of-touch elites? (Have I mentioned that Limbaugh worships big business elites?)
The truth is, last year Glenn Beck favored the federal government's unprecedented decision, under President Bush, to bail out failed Wall Street fat cats last year (i.e. "I think the bailout is the right thing do"). In fact, in 2008, Beck stressed the government's $700 billion handout to bankers wasn't enough and that more taxpayer money needed to thrown Wall Street's way. That, in and of itself, should disqualify any journalist from ever again describing Beck as a "populist."
As blogger Brad Reed recently wrote:
The irony is that Beck is only really opposed to big government when Republicans aren't controlling it. For instance, he has no issues with allowing the government to torture prisoners and is supportive of police brutality. And those big government bailouts of the financial industry that Beck rails against on a regular basis? Back when George W. Bush was president, Beck actually chided Congress for not giving more money to rescue the banks. So Beck isn't against big government. Rather, he's opposed to government action that helps the poor at the expense of the rich.
In other words, Beck wants to protect the elites. He wants to protect insurance companies, and he wants to protect failed Wall Street institutions.
Honestly, how many anti-elitist populists do you know who go to bat for overpaid Wall Street executives? So if Beck doesn't even know what populism means, and if he clearly doesn't preach the people-first philosophy, why on earth does the press continue to pin that rather flattering label on the Fox News host's chest?
Is it because journalists are too nervous to use the "D" word -- demagogue?
There is no "populist" movement sweeping America today. But there is a radically partisan one bent on destroying the Obama presidency. So why won't the press say so?