Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
US Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain arrives to address the 'Defending The American Dream Summit' organized by the conservative Americans For Prosperity (AFP) foundation in Washington on Nov. 4, 2011.
Michael Signer is the author of Demagogue and an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech.
The conditions haven't been this ripe for populism for decades. From coast to coast, left to right, an authentic grassroots resentment of our current economic instability is roiling the country. But whether it's the Tea Party on the right or the Occupy Wall Street protests on the left, we have yet to see the most predictable symptom of such movements—a recognizable populist leader. Last year, the Tea Party auditioned both Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin for this role, but they both sputtered. Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street is dogmatically horizontal, even cellular, with membership actively (and anarchically, in the truest sense) fighting any sort of hierarchy.
What we have instead is Herman Cain, who has risen to become a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. In some ways, it is extraordinary that someone who has no electoral experience has gained so much traction, but much of Cain's success can be attributed to the way in which he has channeled the public's discontent. "There is a force at work here that is much greater than those who would try to destroy me," he told an audience of business leaders in Virginia last week as he was facing accusations of sexual harassment, "and that force is called the voice of the people."
But, however much he casts himself as a classical populist, there is something new in Cain's style. He is outrageous, not angry; opportunistic, not dogmatic. His agitation is a form of entertainment, rather than the other way around. It's a new kind of populism that Cain is offering, one tailored for an era where sound bites, Fox News, and the imagined specter of Barack Obama have conspired to create a uniquely warped echo chamber on the right.
LOOKING AT POPULISTS from America's past will help put Cain's political style into sharper relief. Take three eras in particular: the 1930s, the 1950s, and the early 1990s, where populists all took advantage of widespread fear or outrage to rise politically.
In the first period, following the stock market crash of 1929, the social and economic upheaval of the decade that followed gave birth to populists from Louisiana governor Huey Long, to the insanely popular Detroit "radio priest" Father Coughlin, to an early advocate for the elderly poor, Doctor Frances Everett Townsend. All of these figures were enabled by popular rage, and they all promised to end the Depression. But the moment was short-lived: With the exception of Huey Long, whose political arc was cut short by assassination, each of these figures failed to translate their populist support into electoral reality.
The next period of unrest came in the 1950s, when the Soviet Communist threat stoked fears among ordinary Americans, whose paranoia about an internal Communist threat served as tinder ready for a match. Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited the opportunity, brazenly enjoying a three-year parabola of fame. But he collapsed as quickly as he rose, with the Senate belatedly recognizing the violent absurdity of his appeal and censuring him. McCarthy died less than three years later, in ignominious alcoholism.
The most recent (and least likely) period of populism came in the 1990s, when agita about the deficit, the two-party system, and multiculturalism gave rise to Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. Perot launched a wild, self-funded challenge to the major parties, capitalizing on his outsider persona and penchant to say virtually anything. Fueled by independent and conservative white men, Pat Buchanan—who called for pitchforks—offered a similar challenge, but in a more demagogic style. Yet both men collapsed—Perot the victim of his own weird conspiracy theories, Buchanan's nativism and jingoism ultimately pulling him too far to the right of the general public.
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