Populism: the Last 50 Years

Frank Cannon at The American Spectator has some thoughts about the assassination of Robert Kennedy 50 years ago this month. Yeah, 1968 was quite the year, a major watershed, seemed like it then and it has proved so.

His impact has resonated well beyond 1968, however. As my late friend Jeff Bell argued in his book, Populism and Elitism, Robert Kennedy’s short-lived campaign drew strongly on populist impulses — that is, an optimism about the ability of people to make decisions about their own lives, rather than relying on elites to do it for them. This approach seemed to be giving Kennedy the momentum in the race, until that fateful moment on June 5th:

Kennedy’s assassination on the night of the California primary put a halt to that effort, not just for 1968 but (in large part) for the decades since. No subsequent liberal leader has made an effective effort to develop a form of left populism… Subsequent polling in 1968 found many white Kennedy voters lining up for Richard Nixon and George Wallace, although, with great difficulty, [Hubert] Humphrey got some of them back by the November election. But no Democratic presidential nominee has ever done as well as Humphrey with these voters in the five elections since. In short, the effort to keep the Democrats’ majority coalition together with a more populist appeal began and ended in the three months of Robert Kennedy’s campaign.

That is, I think beyond question. Many of Kennedy’s policies didn’t appeal to me, even then, but he did, then and now. In truth, of the brothers, with what we know now, he is the only one who does.

In addition, it strikes me that perhaps this is where the traditional liberalism was mortally wounded, as misguided as much of it was, in my view, it was honest and really did want to help people. What we have now merely uses people in an attempt to take and keep power.

In 1964, with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party had taken its first tentative steps towards a conservative populism. Since the 1950s, it had been defined by such leaders as Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, who could best be described as conservative elitists. However, beginning with the tumultuous election campaign of 1968, this ground quickly began to shift. Richard Nixon and his “silent majority” powered a counter-conservative Republican populism, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan a decade later. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party came to be dominated by elite progressives, who had begun to gradually take over vast swaths of the culture and American institutions.

Since then, this state of affairs has come to predominate, though not without a few twists along the way. After Reagan, the conservatives who had found success with him during his presidency formed their own elite establishment, best represented by institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce, which dominated conservative policymaking, elevating business-friendly policies to the detriment of more populist issues — at least until 2016.

And then came Trump, the heir of both Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The author makes the point that Trump is different still again. Rather than conservative, he is anti-progressive (and a lot of that is conservative in nature). But it also owes a fair amount to Teddy Roosevelt, and his love for “The Strenuous Life”.

And in some ways, I suspect it is a very specifically American thing. We really are different, rowdier, prouder, and more passionate about our system, than pretty much anybody in the world. That doesn’t (and never has) precluded us from cooperating with other organizations who have similar goals or opposing those who would overly compromise freedom in any place or time. The main difference really, is that it is the almost unfiltered views of the American people. And the ‘elites’, left and right, don’t like that one bit, but that is how you get more Trump, longer.

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18 Responses to Populism: the Last 50 Years

  1. Scoop says:

    The Kennedy eras (starting with JFK) were a very complex issue in the historical context. I saw it differently than you, perhaps because I was a bit older, a son of a career military officer, and yet connected somewhat to the counter-culture of those days.

    When I think of the brothers, RFK seemed to me to be the first ‘actor’ who played to the counter-culture and I saw him as a phony personality with no ideas other than what he thought might escalate him to the presidency.

    Perhaps that is because I was aware of the network of the Kennedy’s that stretched back and into the future with the mob bosses of this country. They were all dirty to that extent and the mob felt betrayed when RFK, who used to gamble and use their prostitutes etc. for his enjoyment and enrichment, betrayed them to gain a bit of credibility with the law and order strata of middle America which still existed in rather impressive numbers.

    In some manner of thinking I think that the deaths of both JFK and RFK were linked by their betrayal of the mob bosses, having chased them out (or attempting to chase them out) of Chicago, NYC, Miami, Las Vegas and yes, Havana, Cuba which was a haven for mob gambling casinos before Castro. When JFK did not back the overthrow of Fidel and give full support to the expatriated soldiers who were being trained for that mission, he lost favor and when RFK followed up with his war on the mob then things heated up. I still think that Teddy (of the infamous waitress sandwich) never ran because he knew that he would be hit had he tried.

    We’ll never know but I still suspect mob involvement with both deaths. And my suspicions only doubled after reading the book recently about the investigation into the (probable) murder of my uncle and his boss (Ray Ryan of Evansville, IL) who was blown up in his car by the mob. He was connected to the mob, to the Kennedys and to Hollywood in many numerous ways and it gave me an look at how they all played together. An interesting read. If you want to read it the book is titled: Mob Murder of America’s Greatest Gambler.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      I was trying hard to be fair here, because I saw him much the same as you, but one doesn’t build something that resonates like that without something. The mob thing, I think entirely possible, although we’ll never know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Scoop says:

        True. And LBJ was also mentioned in the connections with the mob and the Kennedys. The following video on the LBJ involvement may not be accurate but I must say that the Mob book I read does mention his involvement with the oil and mob bosses of the era as well. This is interesting:

        https://www.c-span.org/video/?316819-1/the-man-killed-kennedy

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Wouldn’t bet against it.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Scoop says:

          Me neither.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. the unit says:

    Well, who done it? I’ll never forget that day JFK killed. Was in microbiology class instructed by Dr. Michaelson. His student assistant came in with the news. Dr’s comment…” G-D Southerners!”

    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Yeah, I was in 2d/3d grade. First time ever we watched current news, relayed by Indiana airplane broadcast to the schools. Never will forget it, started my political interest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • the unit says:

        I know you know I was pointing at the finger pointing, you know. 🙂
        Is 2d/3d grade …third grade twice? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          No, it means I’m so old, I can’t remember which! Mrs Klein or Mrs, Menne! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • the unit says:

          I’m so old I can’t remember if the medicine went down each day…and just barely what I called the sugar when I could remember. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          I hear that, although not well! 🙂

          Like

        • the unit says:

          Eh, you said? I read there is a medicine called anti-Viagra. Might try it and see if it will soften my hard of hearing. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          🙂

          Like

  3. Don’t want to make you feel old, but in high school I studied 1968 as a ‘pivotal year’ in modern history, whether in the States or around the world (Prague Spring, Paris, etc.). An absolutely fascinating time – I would have loved to have seen it personally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      I understand, but then I would have liked to have witnessed the American Civil War. Thing is, you saw your neighborhood, I remember the American stuff, but most of what happened in Europe never registered. That’s one improvement that is marked.

      It was, but it is much too current to be in history, usually the cut off was 100 years, when I was in school. There’s good reasons for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree! Our school was going through a phase of teaching history that was ‘relevant’ (which basically means as modern as possible because it was easier for the teachers 😉 ). Honestly, if I hadn’t already been massively interested in history as a kid, all I would have known from school was a few elements of the 20th century.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Which makes a fine base for running down Britain, BTW. I pretty much always opposed to anything (other than maybe well applied technology) that makes teacher;s lives easy. Usually it also make for incompetence.

          Like

  4. Reblogged this on Boudica2015.

    Like

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