An old and proven game

“What you hear ain’t what you get,” reports Michael Fellman, a historian at Simon Fraser University.

He writes eloquently about the campaigns of Clinton, Obama and McCain. He’s exploring our politics and culture – “Racism, lite”, “Faking a blue collar”, “A nation in denial” – but first he reminds us this is “An old and proven game”.

As I am an American history professor as well as sometimes journalist, let me venture into deep background on pseudo-populism.

In the first three decades of the 19th century, the Jeffersonian party — precursor to the Democrats, broadened the suffrage to include all white males, not just property owners or taxpayers, as in the past. However, most of these men did not vote. Indeed the Jefferson Democrats had basically eliminated their aristocratic Federalist opponents, and they nominated their presidential candidates — all from Virginia as it happened — in their congressional caucus. Few voters bothered to show up at the polls, as there was no real contest.

That changed after the election of 1824, in which Andrew Jackson, a rough-hewn Tennessee slaver-holder and popular Indian-killing war hero, was denied the nomination by the caucus in favour of John Quincy Adams, son of a president and gentlemanly Massachusetts statesman. In 1828, Jackson ran against the eastern establishment, claiming to represent the little people against the effete, out-of-touch snobs. Voter participation swelled dramatically and Jackson won big. In office, he then destroyed the Bank of the United States, the symbol of aristocratic control, running against Chestnut Street (the Philadelphian predecessor to Wall Street). And he did this all in the name of the little guy.

In fact Jackson represented big slaveholders and state and local bankers who chaffed at the control of any central bank. He accomplished the first economic deregulation of the sort that modern Republicans favour, which led to wild inflation and the crash of 1837. The pseudo-populist Jacksonian rhetoric was power to the people and democratic equality. The name of the actual game was rapid wealth accumulation by the rising American economic elites displacing the old-fashioned and more restrained merchant elite.

By 1840, after three years of depression, the opposition gentlemen re-gathered, but they ran their candidate, a Virginia aristocrat named Harrison, as a man born in a log cabin and given to drinking hard cider (the boilermaker of 1840). They mimicked the pseudo-populism of the Jacksonians, thus proving it had become the dominant political discourse.

Pandering elites

American political rhetoric and ideological clarity has never recovered. Pseudo-populism has been the language of political elites ever since. If I were a really tedious political historian I would give you chapter and verse of this dreary history, but I will resist.

Pseudo-populism is dishonest because American politicians feel compelled to pretend to be just folks rather than the elite power holders they are.