Throughout our nation’s history, there has been a spirit that has defined our political conversation—populism. Now many fellow conservatives might bristle at this notion. And that is because when we read about Populism as a force in American politics, we think about the precursor to the Progressive Movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Indeed it is true that populism has been a defining part of the liberal movement in America. But what is also evident from American elections in the modern age is that populism has been a common theme of candidates from both sides of the ideological spectrum. And more often than not, it has been a winning theme in American politics. And conservatism, to be a more successful movement, must incorporate populism as a key theme of its message.
What is populism? First, it is not an ideology. It is a message frame defined by a distrust of large institutions and faith in the common person. Defined that way, it is easy to see how much it has colored the themes of successful presidential campaigns, from Jefferson to Jackson to Reagan to Clinton and Bush to Obama.
Thomas Jefferson ran against what he saw to be a nexus between big government and big banks. He ran in opposition to the idea of a national bank. He cast himself as a friend of the yeoman farmer. Andrew Jackson ushered an age of democracy into American politics. Like Jefferson, he was a fierce opponent of a national bank, which he believed would aggrandize power in the hands of big bankers and leave the common, average person out. He was the first to campaign actively among average people to stay in touch with the common man.
Ronald Reagan ran as a populist. He made constant reference to the ordinary American as the one that built this country and ran against big government. Bill Clinton ran as someone who “felt your pain” and wanted to open economic opportunity for everyone. He talked about his small town roots in Arkansas. George W. Bush framed himself as a Washington outsider who was comfortable with the working class men and women he led as Governor of Texas. In 2004, he painted John Kerry as a Massachusetts elitist who was more comfortable in rich, liberal conclaves than in Middle America. Barack Obama framed his campaign around a theme of fighting for the middle class and against the rich and well-connected in 2008. He did the same in 2012, castigating Mitt Romney as a greedy plutocrat who shipped working class jobs overseas and casting himself as someone who wanted everyone to have a fair shot.
Conservatives should not be afraid to incorporate a populist theme into their messaging just because Barack Obama did. For a conservative populist, the message should not be that they favor using more government largesse to help those with less. The message should be that true free enterprise-based policies can and must benefit those who have not yet made it financially just as much as it benefits those who have made it financially. There is a nexus of big government and big business and conservatives should devise a policy agenda that tries to reduce this nexus and stands up for small institutions and average Americans without connections. After all, Americans seem to be united in a distrust of large institutions, from the federal government to Wall Street. The message should be: crony capitalism is not free enterprise and true free enterprise will help you be all you can be.
Kevin Shafer is an aspiring politico with a strong interest in political research, polling, and message strategy. He holds an MA in Political Campaigning from the University of Florida. The views expressed here are his own, and are not necessarily the views of his employer. Jefferson memorial image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.