The Rise of Populism in America

By Frances Martel

Ah, populism: the pet buzzword of Latin American dictators and shell of an ideology that authoritarian turtles throughout the centuries have preferred to wear. Luckily for us Americans, we know little of this bizarre tropical phenomenon outside of local political heroes in majority-minority regions like Hudson County, NJ and Miami-Dade County, FL. Our presidential elections rarely come down to gender roles, religious practices, social classes or cultural heritage like they have done in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, or Argentina, because, unlike those countries, America actually has governmental policy issues to attend to. All our presidential candidates are wealthy, white, male and career politicians with experience in both the domestic and foreign realms, and we like it that way.

So imagine how livid and concerned Uncle Sam must be now faced with the current crop of presidential hopefuls on the primary ballot. Montezuma’s revenge has taken the form of a political epidemic, and the plague’s main carriers—Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama—have taken the lead in our country’s favorite pastime. They are, at their best, a diverse slice of the great American pie: a woman, an African-American, a Mormon, a previously obese Evangelical, some sort of Catholic heathen, an anglicized Mexican, and the requisite army of senile old white men (the token Jew, Joe Lieberman, decided to take a presidential election season off in ‘08). These Greeks come bearing the gifts of “reform” and “outsider’s charm.” They are men and women of the people, and we’re supposed to figure out what that means and like it.

At their worst, the composite of presidential candidates are what was formerly an exclusive title for the Democratic Party: a mosaic of incompetence.

Thankfully, Uncle Sam’s personal broadcasting apparatus, Fox News Channel, has not taken the bait. This past week, Wall Street pundit Neil Cavuto posed the highly salient question “Is capitalism under attack?” in a segment about the rise of this neo-populist movement, and the obvious answer is yes. Capitalism thrives on competent governance, on elections that bring the nation’s most experienced public officials out of the woodwork and onto the campaign trail, and when these individuals are notably absent from the political sphere, replaced with power-hungry car salesmen types, the nation’s stability is compromised. When the issues on the campaign trail become circumstances beyond the control of the candidates, such as racial, religious, or gender roles, and the challenges waiting to pounce on the new president go unaddressed, the economic and political stability of the nation is put in jeopardy.

If you don’t believe it, just look at the Hugo Chavez’s great populist experiment in Venezuela. Of course American populists—well, some of them— are far from being the Socialist International circus act that Chavez has become, but their promises of what Wonkette most aptly labeled “some sort of vague change” is pure insult to the intelligence of the collective American psyche. Their elementary platforms are simply offensive: they are sick of George W. Bush’s “insider” politics and anti-middle class policies like, uh, tax cuts and public school funding. They want something new, someone fresh. In a time when the US in engaged in both physical and cultural war against an evil empire that is now equipped with a god (and Muhammad is his prophet), they want a president with truly novel ideas on how to quell the insurgent uprisings in the Middle East and the Mexican Reconquista. Their foreign policy initiatives run the gamut from “hope” to “Chuck Norris.” Their credentials are those of the “average man”— you know, your co-worker, not the boss that laid you off. They don’t consult the question “What would Jesus do?” because they know Jesus was too smart to run for public office.

I could write a whole article on witty Huckacisms alone, but then it would be just as empty as Huckabee’s speeches themselves, and Iowans would vote for me for president, too. And find some civil rights issue to exploit in justification of their poor choice, perhaps that I am Catholic or Latin American, just like Huckabee was formerly fat and now a preacher. Citizens are no longer voting for foreign policy experts, experienced executives, or capable legislators; they are voting for women, minorities, and failed trial lawyers. They complain that President Bush was a mentally deficient jingoist, elected by similarly minded dolts that saw a reflection of themselves in him. Then they turn around and vote for John Edwards or Barack Obama because those candidates, regardless of their capacity to run a country, empathize with the plight of the middle class, or because they don’t look like an American president, or because it would be both cute and funny to say “President B. Hussein Obama of the United States.” And it is, in fact, hilarious—in a bat-infested cave somewhere in Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden is laughing his head off.


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