As a former government teacher, I used to try to get my students to be able to took at the economic and political history of America and see the actions and reactions to various sets of circumstances, from wars and rumors of wars to depressions and times of economic prosperity.  I had a professor who was fond of saying, “it all comes out in the wash.” 

And so it does.  The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  As far as it goes, that’s still true.

So why is the latest wave of American “populism,” which is credited this time around for electing a Democratic party majority in both houses along with an election majority that mandated the Obama administration, drawing the kind of attention that makes it seem like it is the most unusual thing we have ever seen? 

First, it’s just been a long time since there has been a wave of populism which swept across the country and changed the political spectrum as much as this has done.  It was a war, Vietnam, rather than an economic crisis that triggered it.  The youngest veterans of that war are now in their mid-50’s, and two whole generations have been born since then.  If you haven’t figured out yet that what is new to the younger generation is considered “new” to the media, you will eventually.  That’s the product of a culture that worships youth. 

Second, for true economic and political conservatives, the Bush years were a disaster in every way.  The shortsightedness of its economic policy, which basically resulted in the kind of government spending and debt producing that would horrify a Reagan (or Goldwater) Republican appeared to be designed to keep the economic growth moving along just long enough to guarantee a second term to take away the sting that many administration members felt when Clinton denied Bush I a second term.  Apparently, many in the corporate world read W’s laissez-faire economic attitude as an opportunity to grab and stuff, like kids at a party with all the cake and ice cream they can eat.  And so along comes AIG, Sachs Goldman, J.P.Morgan and a host of others.  ( see  We had an eight year economic free-for-all in the corporate sector with the stock market soaring to 13,000.  Ponzi schemes, and all kinds of devious ways to hide debt, inflate assets and turn gigantic profits came about.  Tax loopholes were exploited to the point where, in spite of the massive size of the profits that some companies were raking in, the government was losing out.  And in squeezing every possible dollar out of the economy, during a period that showed in the stock market and among the investor class as prosperity, the middle class and working class saw their employee benefits cut, their wages decline, and the prices of the goods and services they purchased inflated.  The cost of credit was particularly disastrous for many working people.  Frustration mounted, because this segment of the electorate essentially did not have a voice during the Bush Administration.

True conservative capitalism strikes a balance between the ability of a business to earn a reasonable, fair profit and the wages and benefits its employees receive to compensate them for their work which helps to produce the product that earns the profit.  It also strikes a balance between the cost of goods and services and a fair, reasonable profit from their sale.  But all of the shenanigans in the corporate, banking and insurance world of the past eight years threw that balance off.  The end result was that consumer spending fell, especially in the sale of “big ticket” items like housing and automobiles, and the cost of all of those investment and banking shortcuts to profit came home to roost. 

Probably no other single event triggered today’s populism like the price of gasoline.  Inflated not because of shortages in supply, or even increased demand, but because of speculation in the futures market, gas soared to over $4.00 a gallon in some places, at a rate of inflation over a short period of time that boggles the mind.  This hits people in their pocketbook as directly as any economic circumstance.  The perception that President Bush was himself a former oil executive, combined with profits virtually unseen on the face of the planet in business created a rising storm of anger that Americans handled in typical fashion.  While some may disagree, I think that two or three percentage points of the popular vote were probably affected by the “great gasoline inflation,” though by election time the price had dropped, and perhaps one or two red states turned blue as a result. 

And so, here we are.  We have, as we always do, turned to our government and said, “fix this for us.”  That is the expectation of populism.  And as it always does, populism allows for the crossing of new thresholds and the breaking of old rules and traditions.  The response to that, initially, is loud, shrill, and generally futile.  Down the road, those things become part of our culture.  Those of us who are now a little bit older, and (I don’t mind bragging) perhaps a little bit wiser offer words of caution that seem to fall on deaf ears.  It is what the young people think that matters. 

They will be the ones who pay the bills in the future.  I hope they know what they are doing.


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

6 responses

  1. Ken Coffee says:

    I completely agree with you about the Bush years, and have tried to understand how a conservative like Bush could resort to approving such spending. I think his book will tell us that he had to give in to some congressional people in order for them to support his war efforts, which resulted from 9/11. Populism is a double-edged sword. The same involved populace that elected Obama, might be his undoing. A politician’s greatest fear is an informed constituency. I look at it this way. If it had not been for Jimmy Carter, we might not have had Ronald Reagan. At the rate of ire being elicited by the president, a second term is iffy. Only problem is…there is no Reagan on the horizon. At least not yet.

  2. Colby Evans says:

    Rate of ire? His job approval rating exceeding 60% weekly is higher than Reagan’s ever was, and far higher than any recent president at this point in his first term, an unprecedented approval for a newly elected first termer. Barring a major economic collapse (which we’ve already had and appear to be recovering from) Obama will have a relatively easy win in 2012.

  3. Ken Coffee says:

    Please note the difference in his personal approval rating and his job performance. His job performance has lost 10 points in two weeks and is now just over 50%. All polls show independents, without whom he wo
    ujld never have been elected, are peeling off rapidly. Your history is somewhat revisionist. Even Bush had ratings this good the first couple of months.

  4. Colby Evans says:

    CBS and ABC both have his job performance at 62%, which is down from 67% in March, but to be expected in a first term. USA Today shows his monthly average for March holding firm at 65%. That’s job approval, not personal approval. But talk about job approval at this point in his term is moot with regard to his electability. Whether or not Obama gets a second term will depend on two things. One, how much the economy recovers by 2012, and any recovery at all will get him re-elected. Second is whether the GOP will offer any realistic counter solution. So far, all they are offering are the same policies that led to the economic meltdown in the first place. In my circles, I do not hear very much disapproval of Obama or his policies.

    Bush’s highest job approval ratings came in the wake of 9-11. He didn’t reach the 50% mark until then, and went up quite high for about three weeks following, until people began to realize that his administration was likely responsible for the security breaches that allowed the attack to take place in the first place. He hit 50% just six weeks afterward, hovered in the upper 40% range for most of his first term, and won re-election by a razor thin margin of both popular and electoral votes in 2004, largely due more to his opponent than to his own record. His approval then sunk into the lower 40’s and upper 30’s within a year, and fell below 30% for the last two years of his second term, never to rise above that again.

  5. Lee says:

    Well the whole idea of “populism” is that there is a shift in the “grass roots” voter base of a particular candidate or of a particular party.

    Your perception of Obama’s job approval or popularity is more than likely due to who you are listening to. The right wing media and the GOP leadership still has its head buried in the sand with regard to their loss of Congress in 2006 and their loss of more seats plus the White House in 2008. All they are doing is complaining about what Obama is doing, and throwing out the “socialism” label as a scare tactic, but they are not proposing any workable solutions. In the current populist mood, if the GOP wants to start winning elections again, they will have to do more than just complain and offer more of the same old failures as solutions.

    Going back to a true conservative position might help, but it doesn’t seem that there are many politicians these days who want to do that. The Democrats are very focused on government solutions and the GOP doesn’t want to lift a finger to change the rules and make bankers, insurance executives and corporate giants accountable.

  6. KGray says:

    Obama’s current job approval rating is at 59% (Pew Research) to 61% (Gallup).

    During the same period of Bush’s first term (before 9/11), Bush’s job approval rating was similar, reaching 62% (Gallup) and hovering in the mid-50’s.

    Reagan, Carter and Nixon all had higher job approval ratings than Obama at this point in their first term (Pew Research). Obama’s rating is good considering high dissatisfaction with the economy. He’s losing independents, though.

    IMO Obama’s populist rhetoric was too wide-ranging and inherently conflicting. As a good trial lawyer once said, never overpromise in the opening argument.