In late March, former President George Bush dismissed “populist” sentiments gaining ascendancy in the Republican Party as transitory and meaningless. Or, that is at least what we think he said.
The reason for the doubt is that the word fritter, is a verb, and usually means to waste or incrementally exhaust money or time with little commensurate return. The term usually is not applied to political movements.
He reportedly dismissed the importance of populist power because “these populist movements begin to fritter over time.”
Not too long before that Bush said, “Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country…the American people can have confidence that his election was fundamentally fair…”
Does Bush really believe that Biden is effectively leading, and especially, unifying the country? Or, is he just plain dumb? And given the behavior of the press, Big Tech, and the way dark money was funneled by big tech into key states via nonprofits, if he really believes this past election was normal, he is even dumber.
Biden in fact has proven so far to be far more radical than even many of his critics ever thought he could be. Bush does not seem to notice. Biden has changed cultural and legal norms about men and women through executive action, the nature of sex, pronouns, attempts to purge the military of conservative-leaning members and has run up debt equal to 25% of the nation’s total debt since the Founding. Just a tad extreme, don’t you think George?
George, you endorsed him. Own up to it.
But let’s get back to his main argument, that populist movements have been of little consequence.
Like so many arguments, a failure to define what you mean can lead to confusion. He used the term movements in the plural, suggesting there has been more than one populist upsurge.
When thinking about Populism, the most prominent was largely the agrarian-based movement that preceded Progressivism, which saw its high-water mark in the late 19th century. Hit by drought, low crop prices, what they perceived as unfair railroad freight rates; they had limited success as a political party. But their anti-big business rhetoric, regulatory efforts, their push for monetary inflation, and their desire to remake the political landscape, had a lasting impact.
Their ideas permeated into the Democratic Party and merged with Jim Crow, making the Democrat Party a political powerhouse.
As an example, a look at the Populist Party Platforms of 1892 and 1896 can illustrate that their ideas did not “fritter” even though both the Populist Party and the Peoples Party did fade away.
Populists supported what they called banking reform, an inflationary currency, government regulation and ownership of major industries, the direct election of Senators, the idea of the initiative and the referendum, a graduated income tax, immigration restrictions, and a shorter workweek. You can call this Left-Wing populism because it merged with Progressivism.
In 1914, almost all these goals were achieved by Progressive Democrats with a graduated income tax, the Federal Reserve System, and a change in the way Senators were elected that severely weakened federalism. After World War I, came the immigration restrictions. Other proposals saw success by the time of the New Deal in the 1930s.
So, if Bush meant the Populist Party as a party per se faded, he was correct. If he meant the movement and what it promoted petered out, he is demonstrably wrong.
Conservative populism today shares only a few things with this Left-wing populism. To some extent, modern Left-wing populism was exhibited by Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders resurgence. Sanders got screwed by the Democratic Establishment but yet his ideas are ascendent with the party.
Among those are a suspicion that those in the political power establishment of government and large corporations have lost touch with the people, that government has been hijacked by special interests, and that justice has become two-tiered. The privileged of the establishment are never held to account for their misdeeds.
Democrats are installing a racial spoils system at odds with the concept of fairness under the law. Common to most populist movements is the sense that the “system is not working for me” and that it has become unfair.
But Conservative populists love free enterprise, still yearn for a color-blind society, dislike monopoly-seeking international corporations groveling to China, yearn for fiscal discipline and sound money, and want the Constitution applied as it is written. Today’s populists want a smaller, weaker, central government, less taxation, more a flat income or consumption/sales tax, a return to the gold standard or some variant, and not a halt to immigration, but a halt in illegal and uncontrolled immigration.
You could say this has been developing over the last 50 years. The Conservative revolt under Goldwater called for a smaller, leaner, less expensive, and less intrusive government. Goldwater disliked much of the political power/media establishment, with the Arizona Senator even playfully suggesting the eastern seaboard be cut off and left to float out to sea.
It was not “soft” on communism or socialism at all.
Reagan’s successful two terms could not have happened without the Goldwater revolution and its ignominious defeat. Conservatives rose to take over much of the Republican Party. Reagan defeated international communism but was not terribly successful at shrinking the government.
Ross Perot displayed some of these characteristics of Conservative Populism, especially in regards to budget excesses. Oddly, by splitting the vote, his candidacy helped defeat George Bush’s father and ironically lead to the rise of the Clintons, hardly a minor development.
Clearly, the rise of Trump is another consequence of this Conservative Populism. Trump beat all the party’s established candidates including George Bush’s brother, yet Trump never held office, let alone ever ran for office. Why George, do you think that remarkable event happened?
How did the Republican Party become the party of blue-collar workers and small business and the Democrats become the party of billionaires under the influence of China? It was largely because Conservative Populism remade the political landscape.
Conservative Populism has also had a considerable impact on Great Britain with the Brexit Movement and a desire to maintain the nation-state ranging from Western Europe to particularly eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary.
So, given the fact that the original populists achieved largely what they wanted, and that Conservative ferment from Goldwater to Reagan, to Perot, and on to Trump, has been a major feature of our politics for the last 50 years; it is hard to say the movement has had a meaningless and transitory impact on the country.
Quite the contrary, it has been a powerful movement that has changed our politics and that of the world.
Bush’s comments confirm what many have long feared. He is basically a decent man who is not very observant.
But Bush is likely not alone in wanting to dismiss the Conservative Populist resurgence. Many in the Republican Party feel the same way, and they are likely, just as mistaken.
The Republican Party runs the risk of frittering away its growing support among the middle class by ignoring their frustration with the Establishment of both parties.
Neland D. Nobel is retired after 45 years in financial services and is Editor-at-Large of The Prickly Pear.
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