The tea party phenomenon is one of the significant puzzles of this year’s politics – exciting to some people and alarming to others. By placing it in the historical context of other populist movements, Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute has helped define it – and the important choice Republicans now face.
In an article in the summer issue of National Affairs and a follow-up interview, Olsen, who worked as a legislative staffer in California before joining three conservative think tanks, briefly reviews the checkered history of American populism.
Until the 1960s, it was mainly a phenomenon of the left – led by such figures as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt.
Conservative populism had an unsuccessful trial run in 1964 under Barry Goldwater but did not flourish until Ronald Reagan took on the Washington establishment in 1980. The differences between them were significant. Goldwater lost his presidential bid because “the tone and ideas of some of his extreme backers were viewed as odd and frightening by most voters, and the candidate’s inability (or unwillingness) to disavow their words allowed (Lyndon) Johnson to paint Goldwater himself as odd and frightening,” Olsen says. “Instead of seeking to help honest folk restore the rights denied them by an adversary, too often Goldwater came across as wanting to lead victims in a violent battle against an implacable enemy.”
Olsen, like many others, finds Reagan as his model. “Throughout his career, he minced no words when describing the threats to freedom and prosperity posed by unlimited, centralized government,” Olsen says, “but when it came to his domestic opponents, Reagan avoided the classical-populist trap of vilifying his political adversaries as outright enemies.”
“The populist spirit is back with a vengeance today,” Olsen adds, fed partly by anger with Wall Street and partly by frustration with Washington. “Those who believe that the aggressive, angry pitch of the tea partiers’ rhetoric will automatically alienate independent voters should think again. … Successful populist movements define adversaries in stark and often abrasive terms.”
But this is not enough, he says, and it can be overdone. Bryan failed in part “because he made a majority afraid. Some libertarian populists, with their rejection of every facet of the modern welfare state, are likely to do the same – because even this center-right nation does not want to see the welfare state dismantled.” Republican Senate candidates in Kentucky and Nevada need to have those words imprinted on their brains.
The need for Republicans, then, is to do what Reagan did – “to propose alternatives that offer a real change of direction without seeming too radical.” He had an advantage that is too often overlooked. As the two-term governor of our most populous state, Reagan could answer those who viewed him as dangerous by pointing to the success he had achieved in managing California.
The new conservative populists, Olsen says, need their own positive vision, one that can “turn an intense but transient public sentiment into an enduring political force.”
When I asked Olsen if the House Republican plan to draft a new version of the 1994 Contract With America met that need, he responded as I would: Let’s see what their ideas are.
The drafters have postponed the moment of truth by conducting a series of grass-roots hearings, soliciting ideas from the voters – and also, it turns out, in private sessions with Washington lobbyists.
Building a majority coalition will require a strong, sensible platform. And a clear separation from the kooks and cranks who sank both Bryan and Goldwater.