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The uses for populism.

By Denis Boyles.

FOR ONE THING, IT makes revolutions less necessary.

Not quite kefi.

In American politics, the influence of the ‘tea party’ movement, the nation’s latest populist phenomenon, has been on the rise as more and more people gather – and vote – to give voice to their irritation at those who represent one of the most entrenched special interests in the United States of America: The government.

While polls and surveys suggest the tea party movement is broad-based, traditional American media – which itself has become an entrenched special interest – continues to attempt to defend the Establishment by manufacturing outrage against dissenters. Usually, the theme employed by the press is a simple one: Tea Party populists are racists, extremists, poorly educated and homophobic. At the New York Times‘ website, former-reporter-turned-full-time-“Opinionator” Timothy Egan adds another charmless characteristic: They’re all so old.

The Tea Party — that is, the talk-radio-grumpy-old-men wing of the Republican Party — now has some things to answer for, and will have to do more than pose as background for a media narrative on 24-hour cable….This is a good development. For who makes up the Tea Party? At their rallies, you see a lot of people on Medicare and Social Security.

How shocking it must have been to Mr. Egan to realize that people with strong opinions are as old as Frank Rich. Timothy Egan, like Frank Rich and other aging Times pundits, all weave their straw men from worn-out stereotypes, else they’d have nothing to write about. This now-trite convention keeps facile polemicists such as Thomas Frank and Richard Dawkins employed and far from the needs of everyday pensioners like those spotted by the alert Mr. Egan. In fact, according to a survey by the New York Times, ironically, Tea Party types tend to cross party-lines, have better educations than most, and demonstrate civilly, perhaps because they come to the movement without having been steeped in the same marinade that flavors the rhetoric of the Times‘ other “Opinionators” and elderly op-edsters. Even their banner, the old “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag, suggests a certain love of reptiles and concern for their safety.

Mr. Egan’s straw man is borrowed (along with a lot of unapologetic old-Wobbly anger) from the one made that Thomas Frank rich. It’s the dumb-voter thing: Kansans, according to Mr. Frank, are so stupid they vote for conservatives and against their own best interests. Since Kansas is a state that usually has a liberal Democrat as governor and almost never elects a conservative to statewide office (something that may finally change in 2010, with Sam Brownback’s candidacy), Kansans knew Mr. Frank was taking advantage of the rubes in faraway New York and Los Angeles. Besides, what better place to put up a straw man than in the empty, amber fields of Kansas?

But Mr. Egan’s target is the elderly, those who, he thinks, should be happy to see the government spend more than it can afford on Medicare and other similar programs. The fact that the tea party movement was given a huge impetus when President Obama’s health-care plan took money away from Medicare doesn’t seem to register in Mr. Egan’s angry comments. His contention is that those old folks who are out there demonstrating against high taxes and bigger bureaucracies are emblematic of a “fundamental disconnect among people who call themselves Tea Partiers”– much as “tea partiers” might claim a fundamental disconnect between the American people and those who call themselves journalists. (Thomas Frank’s problem with Kansans, by the way, was that they seemed to be unable to make “certain mental connections about the world.” Connectivity is always a problem.)

IN EUROPE, AMERICAN-STYLE populism does not exist. In the U.K., as the recent general election demonstrated, populism – at least in the form of the UKIP party and those who question the wisdom of pouring more taxes into the European Union – has been marginalized by Britain’s ruling-class journalists, those whose work is held in highest esteem by the Tory-Lib-Dem-Labour Establishment.

In the Euro-zone, populism is kept in check by encouraging dependence on the state. That dependence is so deeply entrenched now that not even the French health-care disaster of 2003 could disturb it. When 15,000 mostly elderly citizens perished in a three-week heat wave after government services collapsed, it left utterly unaffected not only the concept of personal responsibility, but also the political establishment – and the journalists who cover and largely support it. Unsurprisingly, the political strategy, outlined here by the Irish Times, is to let the comatose dog of public opinion snooze, even as the Euro crumbles. When even mild gestures toward populism are made by political leaders, such as those last winter in Hungary, cries of “fascism!” fill the state-owned airwaves and the columns of the EU’s papers and websites.

Although European populism is suppressed, there is no general support for adding more layers of government to the states of the EU. In fact, the EU has very little popular support at all, and, in common with many national governments, very little respect. The exception: the praise heaped on it by politicians who benefit from it and an adoring press that condemns what Timothy Egan might call the fundamental disconnect people feel toward Brussels.

Europeans may despise the EU, but as the Lisbon Treaty shows, the EU will go to great lengths to avoid giving them a chance to do anything about it. MEPs vote themselves bigger and bigger salary increases without much press coverage and justify them, as this EUObserver report suggests, by claiming they need to be paid more because the government they’ve been expanding is bigger than it was.

BUT POPULISM FINDS A way, even in Europe. Your grandmother may die of neglect in Paris while you go to the beach and the government dithers, but if you want real populist outrage on a Continent where the government is the biggest employer, try freezing the salaries of state employees or reducing the size of government. When that happens, as it has in Greece and as it no doubt will elsewhere, you get a kind of populism even Timothy Egan may wish to avoid: riots, anarchy and an impending collapse of the currency – even death.

American populism revises the political map on a regular basis. It happened many times in American history – most recently in the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1970s. It’s happening now and change will certainly follow. European “populism” not only revises the political map, it sometimes wipes it clean, leaving failed states in its wake. The establishment press in America may be appalled at the sight of 50-year-old American taxpayers hurling epithets at those who tax them, but it may be a better form of populist discourse than hurling firebombs into banks. Europeans might do well to encourage populism of a more civil variety while such a thing is still possible.

 

Denis Boyles is an editor of this New Series.

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