Just Plain Folks

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In 1971 United States Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, not yet withdrawn from the Presidential race, was announcing that he would campaign “populist style.” Formerly chairman of the Democratic National Committee, anything but a George Wallace racist, and a politician of considerable urbanity, Harris caught what he called the “populist frustration” of middle America when he went on to say: “Ordinary people feel just so left out. They feel their world is going under and they fumble to do something about it, but decisions are being made which affect their whole lives that they don’t seem to have any control over. …”

Richard M. Nixon, so decorous, coming to the Presidency from Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander, & Mitchell of New York City, and from years of identification with the conservative wing of the conservative Republican Party—Richard Nixon, a man of certain populist tendencies? At first thought the proposition seems ludicrous. Yet both he and his wife grew up part of a troubled, yearning middle or lower middle class in small-town California, with sharply developed feelings against what Mrs. Nixon, in her only outburst in almost three decades of public life, called “the snobs. ... I never had time to think about things like that—who I wanted to be, or who I admired, or to have ideas. . . . I had to work. I’m not like ... all those people who had it easy.” Recalling his years at Duke University Law School, Richard Nixon has remarked on various occasions that he was “not as slick or as well up on things as the eastern men” but that he had “staying power,” a readiness to “work, really work,” and a “sound sense of values—what really counts.” Battling hard up the political line, he found only skittish support and frequent hostility in the “Eastern Establishment” of the Republican Party. Since his first years in Congress Nixon had been a cherished target of intellectuals throughout the country, and most particularly in the Ivy League universities.

His coming to the Presidency has coincided with the populist-minded disquietude of the middle classes, and —granted the convolutions of an intensely political politician—he has been in considerable measure its spokesman. If the 1968 Republican campaign had one dominant theme, it was that Nixon stood for the “forgotten man,” for the middle classes. As Chief Executive, his actions and attitudes have been closely attuned to their economic, social, and psychological urges, whether expressed as the White House standoffishness toward the black revolution, Presidential vetoes of federal funds for the disadvantaged of varied types, or the celebrated administration attacks on the “effete snobs” of the “Eastern” communications industry and universities.

A White House touched by middle-class populism can also express itself by a general atmosphere of a revolt against revolts and by what President Nixon calls “the daily living of the good, regular life.” The tone is there in the Sunday services at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Julie’s heads-up declaration that she and her husband are “squares,” in the phone calls that keep going out from the President of the United States to the football coach, the bowler, the golfer who wins.

In her old age, retired if not subdued in Brooklyn, Mary Elizabeth Lease declared: “The party we fought for is just a memory. Our spirit marches on.” It has and it will. In the American democracy the attitudes and the emotions of populism are a permanent part of the national life, whatever forms they take.

And their long-running influence—for good or for bad? With its inherent tendencies, populism has been a persistent source of setting off one “people” against another; of snappish and unproductive provincialism; of denigration of a democracy’s supreme resource, the marshalling of facts and the thoughtful analysis of them; of a kind of crabbed distaste for talent, imagination, the reach to the richer nuances of living. In foreign affairs populism’s thrust has frequently been decidedly unfortunate. The world simply will not march to the self-righteous “common sense” of irritated farmers, rabid McCarthyites, or self-appointed savants of the new suburbs.

Yet the obverse of the coin is important. The Populist Party of the 1890’s became a herald of future decades because it expressed genuine needs for change if the United States was to go on preserving and expanding economic and social opportunities. The needs are always there, always shifting, always requiring the assertion of a new “people”; the middle classes of the 1970’s do have very real problems requiring very real solutions. If the foreign policies urged by the populist-minded have been something less than sagacious, they must be measured against the deficiencies of the actual international stance adopted by the United States during most of the twentieth century—in large part the creation of upper-educated, upper-income men. The populist-minded pressure for a “people’s” foreign policy has often amounted to a call for more control over international affairs by the Congress rather than the White House. An America with its present foreign woes, after years of post-World War n foreign policy making almost exclusively by Presidents, can scarcely be too sniffish about such an argument.