A Populist Prairie Fire From the Right?

A Populist Prairie Fire From the Right?

By Rod Dreher - January 12, 2009

Every few generations in America, we go through a "creedal passion period," the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington taught. Like the Great Awakening of the 1740s and the 1960s cultural revolution, these are times of great unrest when the morally outraged masses react against a perceived violation of the American "creed."

"Power is now seen as corporate. So the next outburst of creedal passion may be against hegemonic corporate capitalism," the professor prophesied in 2001.

Don't be surprised if 2009 is the year that the creedal-passion dam gives way and a new populism arises to wash away many conventional assumptions about American politics - and come the 2010 elections, many conventional politicians.

It's time. A December CNN poll found that three out of four Americans believe mega-fraudster Bernie Madoff is the ethical standard for Wall Street. With the recession forecast to deepen throughout this year, we are going to learn more about how crooked, or at least unethical, corporate and financial bigs drove this country to near-ruin with their reckless avarice. Because of this crisis, President-elect Barack Obama warned last week that the nation faces "trillion-dollar deficits for years to come."

As Michael Lewis and David Einhorn recently explained in a New York Times column, we got to this terrible place through a political system that served the Wall Street elite at the expense of ordinary people.

"And here's the most incredible thing of all," they wrote. "Eighteen months into the most spectacular man-made financial calamity in modern experience, nothing has been done to change that or any of the other bad incentives that led us here in the first place."

Just you wait. We are soon going to see some sort of populist movement stirring at the grassroots. Ironically, it's more likely to emerge from the right than the left. After all, the Democrats have a status quo to protect, and few conservatives have much faith in the current Republican leadership.

What would a healthy conservative populism look like? Not like Sarah Palin's saccharine shtick, which candy-coated conventional Republican ideas with a bright red culture-war gloss. Palinism co-opts and deflects legitimate populist anger by allowing its adherents to hate elites without really challenging the system. A true conservative populism would not tolerate an arrangement in which the few profit at the expense of the many - which, no matter how many flags she waves or hockey games she attends, is all Palin offers.

It's easy to find conservative populists in the blogosphere but a lot harder to find them doing the hard work of running for office. Caleb Stegall, a 37-year old small-town Kansas lawyer, is a man to watch.

Last year, Stegall, a conservative of strong agrarian sympathies, got so fed up with the Republican machine that he ran for Jefferson County district attorney. He won and will be sworn in tomorrow. Today, amid the wreck of conservatism nationally, he sees America as ripe for a populist revolt.

"There is a widespread angst that crosses all political lines that we are losing those things we have loved most, that we are powerless in the face of this loss, and that those with the power are far away and don't care very much about what we are losing," he tells me.

A time like this is also ripe for a populist demagogue, a fact of which Stegall is keenly aware. This is partly why he warns conservative populists not to make the same mistake that the Prairie Populists made in the 1890s and believe that ceding more power to the state is any solution.

"My message would be a simple one," he says. "Stand up! Stand up on your own two feet. Stand on your own ground, with your own family and culture to love and care for. And if anyone comes to take that away, you give them hell!"

Stegall believes a conservative populist agenda should focus on decentralizing power and boosting local authority. He thinks America ought to keep its nose out of other countries' business. He believes that the tax code ought to be restructured to favor families and companies that stay put instead of moving offshore. But most of all, he says, neo-populists of the right have to fight the concentration of both corporate and government power.

The man from Kansas is not your usual Republican. But what sounds radical today is going to be common sense tomorrow. The GOP grassroots are primed for some prairie fire come 2010. But who will strike the match?

Says Stegall: "There are a lot of theorists who are writing a lot of smart articles and books about this stuff, but until some of us start getting off the sidelines and into the game, it's mostly just talk."

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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