Just Plain Folks


In 1968 and 1972 Presidential candidate George Wallace, from neighboring Alabama, has depended largely on the anti-integrationist theme but placed it within his general declarations of speaking for “us real Americans, down-to-earth Americans, in my state and throughout this great nation of sensible people.” Wallace’s spectacular defiances of civil-rights actions by the federal courts or the White House have the authentic ring of the champion of the plain people against enclosing enemies in the “East,” who are “trying to maneuver their plagues down our throat.” Venturing north, campaigning during his 1968 Presidential effort in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, Wallace was classic. His suit carefully suggestive of Sears Roebuck, his naturally clear and sharp English skillfully mangled, he talked of “all those experts and bureaucrats and professors from Harvard and Princeton and what-have-you, who tell us how to run this country. We did pretty well without them for a long time. Don’t you think we ought to take back the control?” The applause was loud and long.

The anti-Communist splurge of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the i95o’s was a striking instance of the unending flexibility of populism. McCarthy was scarcely a Wasp bespeaking the ancient discontents of the backcountry. He was an Irish Catholic of the Irish Catholics; his appeal was stronger in the cities than in rural areas; his political stamping ground was one undreamed of in the iSgo’s, the Cold War. Different as things might be, McCarthy had the shaggy manner, the one-two-three, all-encompassing issue, communism, and sneers and the shillelagh for “Communists on college faculties and in big skyscrapers, who tell us we are dumb and that Communism and world affairs are so complicated we don’t understand them. I’ll tell you how to understand Communism: Smash it!” With unerring instinct the senator chose as a prime target Secretary of State Dean Acheson, son of a Connecticut Episcopal bishop and of an heiress; Groton, ’11, Yale, ’15, Harvard Law School, ’18; partner in the distinguished Washington law firm Covington and Burling; elegant with his crisp reddish mustache, his London-draped tailoring, and his hundred-acre horse farm, Harewood, outside the capital.

During his rise in national politics, Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas often said that “they” would never permit a Southerner to be the Democratic nominee for President. Once Chief Executive, he was in many ways a broad-based national leader, but he was also still the son of a none-too-successful farmer-realtor-politician in Johnson City, and he had made his way to power against the persistent scorn of the liberal northern wing of the Democratic Party. As President, he retained a thoroughgoing suspicion of “Eastern” publications like the New York Times and Time magazine (“They would never treat F.D.R. and Kennedy like they treat me!”), tried halfheartedly to woo intellectuals and then turned rancorously against them. Aides told him that, functioning in the shadow of John Kennedy, he ought to show more of his own sophistication, which was considerable. Once in a while he did. Mostly, out of pride and out of—to use his words—“my feel for the way to get to the real people,” he went bellowing and sentimentalizing across the nation in traditional just-us-ordinary-fellows style.

In some measure the L.B.J. foreign policy was a product of very eastern “Easterners” feeding facts and arguments to the President. But the ultimate decisions were made and the final tone set in the Oval Office. The lunge into the Dominican Republic and the headlong Vietnam war were both in the spirit of the man who said of the Dominican intervention, “By God, the Marines are coming!” and who went to Asia and proclaimed, “Let’s hang the coonskin on the wall.” When the criticism of his Vietnam policy mounted, Lyndon Johnson remarked again and again, “They’ll never approve of what I do, because I didn’t go to their fancy colleges.”

One of the main reasons for the Populist Party successes in the 1890’s had been the fact that the decade marked a transition in American life from an agrarian to an urban civilization, and such periods of dislocation have always accentuated the populist mood. It is spurred in the 1970’s by a passage from a New Deal to a post-New Deal, an urban to a suburban, a machine to a technological society.

Strenuous efforts to lift the general standard of living have resulted in a massive new middle class, living much better than its parents but continually jabbed, worried, irritated. Daily these newly comfortable are discomfited by the attendant black revolution; by inflation; by a technology become so powerful that it has a good deal to do with determining everything from who goes into political office to what the children eat; by bearded, beaded, and clamorous student dissidents; by intellectuals who tell middle America that they should want Negroes in their schools and neighborhoods; by the mass media, most of whose stellar figures are on the side of onrushing modernity and easily appear to be calling other attitudes cloddish—in short, by a whole world that refuses to settle down into sensible middleclass ways. The definition of “the people” is shifting, but the reaction is familiar. The new “people,” the middle classes caught in a radically changing society, feel condescended to, thwarted, buffeted, beleaguered.