Elizabeth Warren Is No 'Populist'

Elizabeth Warren Is No 'Populist'

By Salena Zito - December 28, 2014

Democrat Elizabeth Warren's claim to being a Main Street populist is an abuse of the American populist narrative, not unlike the hijacking of the tea party following the 2010 elections.

Yet that hasn't stopped the freshman U.S. senator from Massachusetts (or Washington's political class) from anointing her as a populist heroine and an antidote to establishment Washington.

Populism does not start at the top and work its way down to people; it works from the people up. And it is rarely embodied by the far left, which typically turns populist sentiment into demagoguery.

Being anti-Big Business, which is Warren's thing, is not the core of populism, although it can be a component. But it is the core of progressive economics, which is socialism.

We are in the midst of a record wealth gap between America's rich and middle class, according to the Pew Research Centers. That has fueled the populist opposition to Washington among Main Street Americans on both sides of the political line — and Warren is trying to cash in on it.

That's fine; that's what we do in America. But it isn't populism, as will be seen when people do not rise up.
Populism is an ideology extolling the virtues of the people against the depravities of elites — such as Harvard Law professors like Warren, according to Baylor University political science professor Curt Nichols.

Her “well-established Harvard faculty progressivism fits oddly with the classic left-of-center populism she is … attempting to espouse,” said Nichols, an expert on populist movements.

Populist movements of the left, right and center have existed throughout American history; politicians as diverse as red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Republican, Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot, and segregationist Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat, have emphasized populist themes.

The anti-establishment philosophy of the early grassroots-inspired tea party movement was genuinely populist in tone; the Occupy Wall Street movement sought to advance its radical agenda with a classic populist theme, the distrust of banks.

Populism and progressivism, however, normally have been at odds.

“Indeed, throughout most of the 20th century, progressives equated populism with narrow-mindedness, provincialism, and a tendency toward demagoguery,” Nichols explained.

That was so, not only because American populism has been practiced mostly by conservatives of one stripe or another, but because the progressive movement came about at the very time that left-leaning populists of the 1890s — members of the short-lived People's Party — challenged the political establishment to champion “the little guy,” Nichols said.

“Early populists and progressives thus fought each other to represent the anti-corporate side of the political spectrum,” he said.

Besides a shared distrust of banks and corporate elites, the early left-wing populist and progressive movements had little in common.

And they still don't.

The left-leaning Populist Party of the 1890s, as it is sometimes known, was strongest in the South and Great Plains — exactly where progressivism was and still is weakest — and appealed to poor white farmers hard-pressed by the economics of the Gilded Age.

Even more than being anti-corporate (in today's lingo), left-wing American populism has been agrarian in orientation and generally hostile to urban workers and lifestyles.

Or, as William Jennings Bryan, the most famous 1890s populist, once put it: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

As a result of sentiments like this and the competition to control the left side of the political spectrum, populism was vehemently attacked by early progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Lafollette and a certain Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson. They felt that populism was the antithesis of urban, modernizing progressivism, with its reliance on expert (or elite) management of remote, centralized bureaucracies.

The inventors of the progressive movement were absolutely right about that.

Besides sharing a distrust of big corporations and big banks, Elizabeth Warren's Harvard-elite progressive-populism has very little in common with Main Street America's viewpoint.

Her authenticity as a progressive is solid. But — not unlike her past claims of Native American ancestry — she appears to be only about 1⁄32nd populist in heritage.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at
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Salena Zito

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