A Historical Perspective on Right-Wing Populism

By Mike Dorf

One of the fascinations of studying history is the discovery that what one regards as fixed constellations of policy positions were previously aligned very differently.  For example, modern-day liberals like myself have a hard time figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in the political fight at the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries between Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. On one hand, Jefferson's party (and later Andrew Jackson's) was clearly the small-d democratic force, as against the elitism of Adams and the Federalists. On the other hand, the Jeffersonians were based in the South and their states' rights positions were tied to the preservation of slavery. Jeffersonian/Jacksonian populism was the populism of white men.

To be sure, one might try to see the past as it appeared to the the people of the time, without viewing it through the lens of contemporary concerns. But it is hardly clear that this is even possible. Moreover, ideas have lineages, and so tracing modern debates to their predecessors may shed light on our current circumstances.

Consider William Jennings Bryan. He was a populist who articulated the interests of the sorts of people who, two generations earlier, would have supported Andrew Jackson. In attacking the gold standard (for example, in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech), Bryan argued that by artificially restraining the money supply, it favored the interests of creditors over debtors. Looser money (as would arise from permitting the minting of silver as well as gold) would be expansionary, but would also pose a risk of inflation, which would favor debtors. The "little guys" who supported Bryan were more likely to be debtors than creditors, in part because they were more likely to be farmers than urbanites. (The Cross of Gold speech invoked both Jefferson and Jackson.)

Bryan attacked the banks and gilded-age industrialists. His populism was mostly continuous, although not completely co-extensive, with progressivism of roughly the same era, as most famously explained in Richard Hofstadter's classic, The Age of Reform. But whereas thinkers on the contemporary liberal/left side of American policy debate can look back fondly at progressives like Robert La Follette, Bryan is routinely held at arms' length because of his opposition to evolution (most famously in the Scopes "Monkey Trial") and the association of Bryan's band of populism with racism and nativism. Whereas La Follette was way ahead of his time on race, Bryan's populism appealed especially strongly to the remnants of the racist, nativist, and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.

Seen in historical perspective, the modern conservative movement is an amalgam of, on one hand, the reactionary social conservatism of past populism (now expressed as anti-immigration, anti-gay, and still anti-evolution, with efforts to minimize public statements that are overtly racist), and, on the other hand, traditional economic conservatism. It combines the worst elements of Bryan's social legacy with the anti-regulatory attitudes of those who opposed Bryan.

The picture is complicated by the somewhat hostile attitude of the populist right towards the financial industry. Recall that the Tea Party began partly in reaction against the Bush/Obama bank bailouts of 2008/2009. Moreover, in recent months we have seen open political conflict between the Tea Party and traditional, read pro-business, Republicans--especially over the government shutdown and the question of whether and how to use the debt ceiling as leverage in fiscal negotiations. These conflicts might give the appearance that the contemporary populist right is more closely aligned with Bryan-style opposition to the banks than I have indicated.

But I think that would be a mistaken inference. For one thing, the rift that has opened between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans is largely over tactics, not goals. Both wings (the far right and the extremely far right) of the GOP favor fiscal austerity, but the establishment wing includes more pragmatists who are willing to compromise on principles in order to stay in power and thus to prevent otherwise winnable seats from going to Democrats who will be more pro-regulatory and less fiscally conservative.

Still, there may also be substantive divisions here. The Tea Party types tend to be more ideological than establishment Republicans. Put differently, the Tea Partiers oppose "crony capitalism" on principled grounds.

But it would be a mistake to code the Tea Party as anything but conservative as a result. The mugwumps--who were rightly regarded as fiscal conservatives in their day for their opposition to Bryan on the money question--also took shots at crony capitalism and gilded age bankers.

Finally, I want to be clear that in seeing the Tea Party as combining the worst views of past populists and past conservatives, I don't mean to be making any sort of claim about everyone who identifies with the Tea Party. Part of the Tea Party's early success resulted from its ability to deemphasize social issues, and thus to appeal to across-the-board libertarians, and I don't doubt that many across-the-board libertarians still support the Tea Party. But overall, the Tea Party is socially conservative as well as extremely conservative on fiscal policy.