You may have heard that Al Gore has turned to populism to rescue his failing campaign. Alas, this confuses more than it clarifies, because “populism” has so many versions and so many meanings. William Jennings Bryan was a populist, as was FDR, as was Joe McCarthy, as was George Wallace, as was Ronald Reagan, as is Dick Gephardt, as was Ross Perot. The only really necessary ingredient of populism is championing the interests of a mass of people against those of an elite of some kind. And, in fact, there are two subspecies of populism currently contending for Al Gore’s allegiance. Gore’s media adviser and speechwriter Robert Shrum represents one. His new pollster, Stanley Greenberg, argues for another.
Shrum’s version of populism will be familiar to anyone who heard Gore’s speech at the Democratic convention. It’s traditional economic populism, which posits a clash of interests between working people on the one hand and rich people and corporations on the other. Shrum believes fervently in this meat-and-potatoes Democratic politics: It was at the heart of the “Dream Will Never Die” speech he wrote for Ted Kennedy at the 1980 convention and was the basis for the presidential campaign he put together for Gephardt in 1988. You know Shrum is somewhere in the room when you hear Gore proclaim, “I want to fight for you!” And you knew he was there when Gore used the term “working families” eight times and the words “work,” “working,” and “hard-working” repeatedly. By contrast, Gore used the phrase “middle class” only thrice.
The speech was widely judged to be a big hit for Gore, the factor that put him in the lead in many polls. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to disaggregate the various elements of Gore’s surge in a way that would definitively answer the question of whether Shrum’s populism was responsible for the bounce. Did the boost result from Gore decrying the “powerful forces and powerful interests [that] stand in your way … even as you do what’s right for you and your family”? Or did it derive from Gore’s specificity about policies? Or was it exceeding the low expectations people had for him as an orator? We may never know.
What we do know is that since the speech Gore has taken a distinct turn away from Shrum-pop. Not away from populism itself, but toward a more attenuated variant of populism, the kind advocated by his new pollster, Stanley Greenberg. Greenberg’s populism doesn’t differ from Shrum’s in an obvious way in terms of policies. Because the two are united against the more centrist, New Democratic views represented by Elaine Kamarck, many people assume Shrum’s and Greenberg’s views to be identical. But the two differ in terms of the rhetoric they recommend to the candidate, and how they come to it.
Greenberg’s populism tends to emphasize the “middle class” rather than the “working class” (though neither term is ever quite defined). It focuses on values as well as economic issues. And it is less obsessed with those oppressive “powerful forces.” Indeed, Greenberg’s populism has to struggle to come up with a compelling villain and ends up settling for corporate malefactors like tobacco companies, pharmaceutical firms, big oil, and HMOs. For this reason, it’s a legitimate question whether Greenberg’s populism is really populism at all, as opposed to a poll-derived lexicon for pandering to the vast majority of voters who say they aren’t poor and aren’t rich.
Where Shrum’s populism emerges out of his past efforts to develop campaign rhetoric for liberal candidates, Greenberg’s derives from academic research. A political scientist, Greenberg made a famous study of voting patterns in Macomb County, Mich., the homeland of the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” In his 1995 book Middle Class Dreams, he presented his analysis of why these voters deserted the Democratic Party beginning in the late 1960s: They believed the party had become the advocate of poor people, particularly poor black people. Though Greenberg fancies himself an advocate of poor black people, he argued in his book that the party had to win back the votes of white racists. Democrats had to portray themselves as strong fighters of crime, opponents of welfare, and advocates of “universal” programs that benefited the middle class and not just the poor. In the 1992 campaign, Greenberg put these ideas to work for Bill Clinton. Whenever you heard a reference to “families who work hard and play by the rules,” you knew Greenberg was in the room.
Politically, Greenberg’s brand of populism is subtler and shrewder than Shrum’s. Substantively, it is more contrived and less sincere. Shrum believes in the great tradition of Democrats fighting on behalf of blue-collar workers, even if there aren’t enough blue-collar workers left in the country to elect the Democrats. Greenberg’s alternative is a destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it argument: If we stop helping the poor and minorities, we’ll get back the middle class, which will enable us to help the poor and minorities again some day.
In recent years, Greenberg’s views have also lost much of their justification. In 1992, one could make a plausible case that the lower middle class had a legitimate grievance. Incomes of working people were declining in real terms. Today the middle class is thriving. Although there’s evidence that the rising economic tide isn’t lifting all boats at the same rate, it is raising them all impressively. Still, the middle class likes to think of itself as “besieged,” and truckling to this sentiment may be a winning electoral strategy.
Where Gore will be making a big mistake is if he gets elected and then takes Greenberg’s advice about governing. That’s where Bill Clinton got into trouble. After Greenberg helped elect him in 1992, Clinton supported the kind of universal health coverage Greenberg said would bring back the Reagan Democrats and guarantee the party a natural majority for a generation. Clinton took Greenberg’s advice not to compromise with Republicans on his health plan, which led to its failure, which led to all the trends that Greenberg deplored resuming with a vengeance in 1994. Only when Clinton fired Greenberg and abandoned his brand of pseudo-populism for genuine centrism on social and fiscal issues did his presidency revive. In the election of 1996, Clinton finally recovered Macomb County for the Democrats, with the help of a different pollster.