In times like these, who wouldn't at least identify with the general sentiments of populist thinking? While populism generally centers around income and anger from the middle class, working class, and the working poor, there's more than one shade of populism. The two dominant forms these days is Tea Party Populism and Occupy Wall Street Populism.
The Tea Party sees the Federal Government as the primary reason for the nation’s economic distress. They see a government that's over spent, taxes too much, is too intrusive into personal lives, assaulting individual liberties, redistributing hard earned personal wealth to those that they perceive shouldn’t be helped, and regards anyone that uses or is dependent on social welfare as part of the unemployment problem.
On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street movement has a much stronger connection to the turn of the century Trust Busting of “Teddy” Roosevelt, the Women’s Suffrage movement, the rise of Organized Labor during the Great Depression, the FDR New Deal social programs that are the sacred cows of many of today’s fiscal debates.
Occupy Wall Street sees big financial firms, banks, and massive corporations as the problem. They look at how lawmakers in Washington, D.C. were influenced to loosen regulations on their respective industries which allowed them to take on huge financial risks that were fueled by pure speculation and greed. They see a corporate financial sector that gets bailed out with taxpayer money, receives preferential treatment through corporate tax deductions and loopholes, and acts as if they are entitled to all these benefits and don’t have to be accountable for the money they have received from the American Taxpayer.
They also pull a great deal from the 1960s Civil Right Era and tendencies towards inclusivity and strength through diversity. Occupy Wall Street sees social and economic inequity as the driver of the nation’s economic distress, brought on by corporate greed and capitalism run amuck. Occupy Wall Street also reflects some of the outgrowth of protests against globalization across the globe, many of which are marked by violence and hooliganism.
Both forms of Populism have their roots in early American political thought, but they are more a collection of different periods rather than being tied to one definitive historical event. The Tea Party can trace their theoretical justification all the way back to the Anti-Federalists, like James Madison, Patrick Henry, James Winthrop, and even to some degree Thomas Jefferson. These were people that advocated for a small Federal Government and significant local control. They also championed low taxes, especially as they related to the Federal Government, and advocated for states rights over Federal control.
The Tea Party also reflects a strong religious fundamentalist streak that harkens of Puritanical influences and hard line socially conservative policies. There are strong tendencies toward regionalism, nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and islolationism. There is also a fear and paranoia element to the Tea Party that flashes back to Senator Eugene McCarthy and the “Red Scare”.
Regardless of which side of Populism you stand, both parties are using the nation's economic distress as political fodder for the November elections and are totally ignoring the realities of poverty than over 15% of our fellow Americans have fallen into. According to Washington Post opinion writer, Michael Gerson,
"GOP candidates seldom mention the problems of the poor, for fear of being viewed as ideological weaklings. Elected Democrats are advised by their pollsters to focus on the challenges of the voter-rich middle class. No President - indluding Barack Obama - is naturally inclined to talk about conditions that have grown worse on his watch."
The Roanoke Times is featuring a series called "Making it". These are stories about the new reality for many that were in the Middle Class, or at least the Working Class. This past Sunday's story focused on Piper Lane and Paul Davis who are "Learning to live without." It's a very powerful story of how people that were working hard and playing by the rules are living on the edge. My hat goes off to them. If I were in their shoes, I'd be angry and wanting to blame someone, but these folks are doing something about it. They're making it, but just barely.
For all intents and purposes, they're the example of those that were solid middle class, small business owerns, who have seen the work dry up and have bills piling up - not from living beyond their means, but from the basics of trying to live and having little to no work. They aren't just sitting around feeling sorry for themselves, but scratching and clawing together anything they can, and they're also getting politically involved. So watch out! This is the reality of poverty today, regardless of how inflamed Populism gets or how much either political party tries to leverage it to their advantage.