By Alan Pell Crawford
Rick Santorum has “suspended” his presidential campaign, but his candidacy, for a moment, made a lot of people who’d given the nomination to Mitt Romney months ago question themselves. Good. And the key to his appeal, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza points out, has gone largely unrecognized. Santorum’s boomlet, Cillizza writes, “was built, in no small part, on a populist economic pitch centered on his upbringing in western Pennsylvania.” Santorum’s mentioning that his grandfather was a coalminer was “the best stump material of the year,” a Republican consultant named Rob Stutzman told Cillizza. When Santorum talked about jobs, he did well. When he brought up birth control, he bombed.
“We are in a populist time,” Cillizza concludes, “when distrust of institutions—banks, Congress—is at an all-time high, and the chasm between the haves and have-nots is growing wider. People believe the system is rigged—and they are angry.”
A second expert witness Cillizza calls to the stand is Dave Beattie, identified as a Democratic pollster. “A common threat that reflects this populism is anger at out-of-control big government echoed by the tea party and the anger at an out-of-control big-business echoed by the Occupy movement,” Beattie says. “The commonality of ‘anti-big’ ties both together.”
But this populism—which Cillizza does not mention—seems unlike any we’ve seen before. Populism in America (and elsewhere) has for the most part shown its force through support for a supposedly heroic figure—Andrew Jackson, Huey Long, FDR—whom the masses expect to singlehandedly “clean up the mess in Washington.”
Today’s populists ask no such thing. They appear to understand that too much power is already exercised by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government and seek to diffuse power rather than concentrate it further. This looks like something new and altogether promising.