American history is so remarkably continuous, like American institutions, that sometimes it’s scarcely necessary to consult the history books to find out what some past political cause was like. We need only observe a current one.
Consider Ron Paul. The man is this year’s perfect historical artifact. He’s running for president in 2008, but he could have stepped right out of 1888, or 1898, when populism was all the rage, literally. It was Mary Ellen Lease, one of the great populist fire-eaters of the time, who urged restive Kansas farmers to raise less corn and more hell.
The populist impulse remains strong in American politics. So long as there are uncertain times and people looking for simple answers to questions that are anything but simple, there will be Ron Pauls to channel our dissatisfactions and direct our anger and frustrations onto some nebulous villain, like The System.
Ron Paul himself does not seem angry, which is a great advantage in a presidential debate, but you can sense the old populist rage, suspicion and arcane ire coursing through his fan base.
A lot of historical work has been done on American populism by now, notably by the late, incisive Richard Hoftstadter, who explored the dark side of that movement. After him, it was impossible for later generations to swallow the standard, uncritical, textbook-bland view of populism as just another successful reform movement in a long succession of them in American history.
Professor Hofstadter exploded that myth by exploring populist literature, rhetoric and general paranoia. His “Age of Reform” was an almost encyclopedic recital of populist conspiracy theories, which featured the usual cast of suspects — Wall Street tycoons, British bankers, shadowy Illuminati and, inevitably, the Jews. (What would any halfway decent conspiracy theory be without us? It’s a Western tradition, and not just a Western one — as a brief survey of Islamic jihadism will illustrate.)
There is no longer a Populist Party that I know of, but populism itself is alive and deliriously well. One can hear its old delusions whenever Ron Paul speaks: The Constitution is being undermined by a self-serving elite. A once pure Republic existing in splendid isolation (talk about an ahistorical view of the American past!) has become mired in imperialist intrigues. We are being drawn into endless wars in order to further the ends of a small cabal of power-hungry plotters. And, of course, the whole American financial system is a fraud and swindle foisted on the American people by some deep, dark conspiracy.