Ed Quillen: Palin, modern populism and ‘the real America’
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Don’t ask me why Sarah Palin really announced her intention to resign as governor of Alaska later this month.
My first exposure to her came last summer when she spoke at the Republican National Convention, and I thought it was a pretty good speech. She gave a shout-out to Hillary Clinton, she hit on Barack Obama’s thin resume and, refreshingly for a Republican, she referred to “public schools” rather than “government schools.” She walked her talk on abortion.
As the campaign progressed, she showed she was a good sport by going on “Saturday Night Live.” I kept hoping she’d address Colorado’s Republican leaders and explain to them the virtues of taxing the hell out of the oil and gas industry so as to lower the levies on the rest of us. She was good at revving up crowds and, as the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once observed, “Every successful politician needs a dark, kinky streak of Mick Jagger somewhere in his soul.”
But what was she using her talents for? She has been the latest incarnation of modern populism as practiced by the Republican Party – not the economic populism of the 1890s, but the cultural populism perfected by Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.
The old-line populists railed against the trusts and an economic elite that controlled the nation’s commerce, that constricted the money supply to the benefit of creditors and the detriment of borrowers.
The populists wanted to inflate the currency. One way to put more money into circulation was to make silver (which the Mountain West was producing in great quantity) into legal currency, which it had not been since “the crime of 1873.” Thus the farmers of the Midwest and South formed an alliance with the miners of the West, who were ready for armed conflict.
They saw immigration as a tool of Eastern capitalists to increase the labor supply and thereby depress wages. On racial matters, there was Tom Watson of Georgia, who addressed an integrated audience with this: “You are made to hate each other, because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both.”
Watson, the Populist nominee for vice president in 1896, later became as vile a racist as ever disgraced American public life. (I just started reading a biography to find out what went wrong.)
As you can see, the populists of yore were not agitating against arugula, latte-drinkers or Volvo drivers. But some obscure salad ingredient becomes an issue with cultural populism. This is about a dozen kinds of weird when you stop to think about it.
The gay couple across the street? What possible threat could they be to your marriage, job, religion or anything else that really matters to you? Never mind, there’s a “just like the rest of us” Republican like Marilyn Musgrave spoiling to protect you from this non-threat.
The Coastal Media Elite? How strange that most of the attacks on that group come from places like the National Review, headquartered in the coastal city of New York, the Weekly Standard, based in the coastal city of Washington, D.C., and Rush Limbaugh, broadcasting from the coastal enclave of West Palm Beach, Fla.
This could go on indefinitely, but think how much fun it would be if Palin used her ability to rouse crowds for some old-time populism and started wondering why we need to give billions of dollars to the financiers who got us into this economic mess, instead of winking and babbling about “the real America.”
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