Saturday, February 14, 2009


There's a word that, in the lyrics of a musical jingle from a TV commercial for cigarettes (back in the bad old days when there were such ads) means "different things to different people". Similar to "progressive", as I noted here.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich embraced the "populist" label in an interview published in The Daily Beast.

Gingrich has maintained a higher profile recently, apparently aiming to fill the leadership gap in his Republican Party, now that the leaders of the executive and legislative branches are Democrats. Among other activities, he maintains a website with a sort of latter-day Contract with America.

I don't know whether he intends to run for office again, or will be content with offering ideas from the sidelines. Count me as one Republican vote for the latter.

The word "populist" has been applied to politicians of both the right and the left. Here is Merriam-Webster's definition, which emphasizes identification with the "common people", which, of course, begs the question, who are they?

Members of the People's Party were called Populist with a capital "P". That party was gaining force in the midwest in the 1890s. But, in what in retrospect was probably a strategic blunder, in 1896 they nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. Bryan was the Democratic nominee and, by taking this "me too" step, the Populists raised questions about their viability as a separate entity.

But, while that formal party structure did not last, the "populist" label was a staple of 20th century political rhetoric. One politician with whom that word was strongly associated was Huey Long, governor of, and senator from, Louisiana.

With the Republican Party currently at low ebb (at least, we hope things go no lower), the question becomes: What platform should the party adopt going forward, in order to return to power?

If the answer is to be some variation on the populist concept, that would probably bode well for Sarah Palin, who has espoused a right-wing version of the populist approach. Not my first choice, but the tea leaves currently indicate that the party might be heading further in that direction. Perhaps Joe the Plumber gets more than 15 minutes of fame.

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