Entry from October 1, 2002

Politics as Reality TV: Part III

A desire to find something familiar in the new (I think) leads Michael Kazin, a former SDS leader and Weatherman and now a historian at Georgetown University, to compare “American Candidate,” the proposed Fox reality show designed to pick a presidential candidate, with “a noble political tradition” in America of going outside conventional politics in order “to pressure the major parties or to circumvent them entirely.” Writing in the New York Times, he claims that the result of such circumventions has been an enlargement of the sphere of civic activity and an inclusion in the political process of new people and new classes of people as “their efforts often brought new groups of voters to the polls and always invigorated the civic debate.” In short, “American Candidate” is the latest manifestation of populism — a recurrent tendency in American political life of which Professor Kazin has written an account called The Populist Persuasion: An American History.

This is an argument that needs to be taken seriously, particularly by those of us inclined to laugh at the idea of such a show. In essence, Kazin’s point is that Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs, Fannie Lou Hamer, George Wallace, and Jessie Ventura — these are the populist names he mentions — are the same kind of political phenomena as the Mr or Ms X to be chosen by Fox as a possible candidate in the 2004 presidential race on their TV show. Yet there is at least one significant difference that cannot go unremarked. It is that each of these people sought political office as spokesman for a pre-existing political tendency, a significant body of people who, rightly or wrongly, supposed themselves unheard and unheeded in the halls of government dominated by the two political parties. Fox proposes to pick a candidate first and see if some political tendency, some following with an agenda to be taken up by the candidate, happens subsequently.

It’s not, one feels, an unimportant variation on the populist theme. Indeed, if any political preference depends on the existence of the followers in advance of the leaders, it would seem to be populism, whose very name celebrates its grass-roots origin. Kazin’s point gains such plausibility as it has from the inclusion of Jesse Ventura among the other populists of American history. Yet, four years on from his election who could say what grass roots agenda is associated with the name of Jesse Ventura? Who, ten years on, could say what grass roots agenda is associated with the name of Ross Perot — a curious omission, one might have thought, from Kazin’s list of populists? He seems not to have noticed that populism since George Wallace is not very much like the populism of the 1820s or the 1880s or even the 1960s.

For people like Perot and Ventura, though they share with the old-time populists certain rhetorical tropes, such as a need to “clean up the mess in Washington,” do not appeal to the little guy anymore. Such little guys as there are don’t look to politics for salvation these days — perhaps because so many of them are illegal immigrants. Instead, the would-be populists appeal to a solidly middle and upper-middle class constituency — you can look up the exit-poll data — that is essentially apolitical but has learned to demand of its political leaders that they flatter their intellectual vanity in return for their votes. The Democrats are at times inclined to indulge this vanity, though nowadays they are more likely to vie with Republicans for the stupid-vote. But the Democrats remain a party and the intellectual bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians” of David Brooks’s memorable formulation, are people who fancy themselves as independent thinkers.

So they affect disgust not at anything that the main political parties are doing so much as the idea of party itself. It smacks of intellectual coercion, of being told what to think, and the huge numbers of college-educated voters in America, a “herd of independent minds” if there ever was one, don’t like to think of themselves that way. That’s why neither Perot nor Ventura ever offered a coherent political program, and why no leaderless following survives their departure from the national stage. They were never anything but a refuge for those whom the last populist, Mr Wallace, called “pseudo-intellectuals.” Genuine populists, like Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader, both of whom also go unmentioned by Mr. Kazin, get one per cent of the vote these days.

One supposes that the mass of Americans are too fat and happy to be genuine populists anymore, though of course academic lefties like Professor Kazin would rather believe anything than believe that. Hence the desperate and rather comical attempt to find salvation for the populist tendency in Mr. Murdoch’s TV show. The prof may even be right in foreseeing for it, if that’s what he does foresee, a big success. For Perotites or Venturistas the winner of a TV “Reality” show contest will do just as well as a billionaire or an ex-wrestler to pin their hopes on. Clearly populism, if by a courtesy to Professor Kazin, we continue to call it that, no longer requires the populus. Indeed, the attractively postmodern statement which our sophisticated lumpen-intelligentsia would see themselves as making by voting for such a person could make a Perot-sized constituency. But should he or she win, I doubt that even the professor would see much similarity to populism in the resulting government.

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