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A Populist Panacea?

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

I’ll admit it. I love populism. In my youth I was always drawn to populist candidates. For over eight months I’ve been predicting that 2010 would be the Year of the Populist, and this prediction has come true. Populism is the only approach that makes sense in this angry, miserable time full of resentful voters. A sincere populist identifies with, and advocates for, the needs of ordinary powerless people, who believe they are being screwed by big, impersonal institutions and elites. By the way, people usually believe this because they ARE being screwed.

Populism can be a political vehicle for both Republicans and Democrats. The classic populist’s slogan is, "Keep the Big Boys Honest." Big Boys can be defined as Big Government (waste, fraud, and excessive spending, taxation, and debt) from a GOP perspective or Big Business (greedy bankers, Wall Street money-changers, and corporate crooks of all varieties) from a Democratic perspective. Either approach can be successful.

Whether from the Right or the Left, the populist politician must honestly suspect that there’s more going around in the dark than Santa Claus, and hanky-panky—designed to rip off the little guy—is its name.

Establishment politicians of both parties who are the favorites of the Georgetown cocktail party circuit can never be credible populists. The less "Beltway" and Ivy League the pol, the better chance he or she has to be a real populist. Limousine liberals and dress-for-dinner conservatives need not apply. If you actually enjoy hob-nobbing at the White House Correspondents Dinner, you are definitely not a populist.

Never look to the Establishment's Washington Post or New York Times to explain populism. Their reporters cover populism as though they were urbane travelers in Bulgaria, and their editorial response is always "tsk, tsk."

Populism has had its dark side in American political history. Racists and rabble-rousers have whipped up the resentments of average people and channeled them destructively. But in 2010 populism can be a force for good in the eternal struggle between the elitist haves and the downtrodden have-nots.

Let the torchlight parade of brooms and pitchforks continue!

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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