America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism. But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness. This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites. Besides, full-throated populism has not won a national election in 178 years, since Andrew Jackson was re-elected in 1832.
After William Jennings Bryan's defeat in 1908, his third as the Democrats' presidential nominee, this prototypical populist said he felt like the man who, thrown out of a bar for a third time, dusted himself off and said, "I'm beginning to think those fellows don't want me in there." In 1992, Ross Perot, an only-in-America phenomenon -- a billionaire populist -- won 19 percent of the popular vote. But because of the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes, he won none of those. In 1976, Jimmy Carter -- peanut farmer; carried his own suitcase, imagine that -- somewhat tapped America's durable but shallow reservoir of populism. By 1980, ordinariness in high office had lost its allure.
In 1968, George Wallace, promising to toss the briefcases of pointy-headed intellectuals into the Potomac, won 46 electoral votes with 13.5 percent of the popular vote. He had the populist's trifecta -- a vivid personality, a regional base and a burning issue. Actually, he had three such issues -- backlash against the civil rights revolution, social disintegration (urban riots, rising crime) and resentment of the progressive projects of Great Society social engineers (e.g., forced busing of other people's children).
Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.
Political nature abhors a vacuum, which is what often exists for a year or two in a party after it loses a presidential election. But today's saturation journalism, mesmerized by presidential politics and ravenous for material, requires a steady stream of political novelties. In that role, Palin is united with the media in a relationship of mutual loathing. This is not her fault. But neither is it her validation.
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