The New Populism

May 3, 1972

Report Outline
Revival of Interest in Populism
Achievements of the Old Populism
Elements of New Populist Program
Special Focus

Revival of Interest in Populism

Sudden Emergence of Populism in 1972 Campaign

POPULISM, a venerable but unstable political movement, is making a comeback after an absence of more than three decades from the American scene. The populist constituency consists of the disadvantaged and the discontented—that silent majority from Middle America that sings the blue-collar blues. If populism is broadly defined as a political program designed to benefit the underdog, it can be said to have produced such disparate leaders as Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin D.Roosevelt, and Huey Long.

The two foremost exponents of populism in its current reincarnation are Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, candidates for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. Both represent states that were strongholds of populism in its classic period, 1892–96. McGovern, however, is identified with the Democratic party's left wing and Wallace with the right wing. The fact that both are perceived as populists testifies to the breadth and potential strength of the movement. At the same time, it points up a possibly fatal weakness. Populists of all political persuasions find it easy to define deep-seated grievances, but they tend to disagree on how best to alleviate them.

Thus, there is some question whether the new populism will prove any more durable than the old. In the past, populism thrived in times of general economic distress and faded away with the return of prosperity. Moreover, the established parties often adopted populist policies as their own and hence lessened the chance that an independent populist party could establish itself. Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield, co-authors of A Populist Manifesto, are aware that a similar fate may befall the new populism:

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