When you think of America’s populist leaders, who comes first to mind? You might think of William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Huey Long, Martin Luther King, George Wallace, or Ronald Reagan. More recently you might think of Sarah Palin. These leaders vary a great deal in their styles, their origins, and their policy prescriptions. One thing they hold in common is an appeal to people’s resentment of established public authority – the way it ignores their problems, their needs, and their aspirations.
That brings us to Sarah Palin’s reference to real Americans. Remember how quickly race came into the argument after Sarah Palin used that phrase at the Republican convention in 2008? Nothing about those words had a racial overtone: not the context of meaning within her speech, not the setting or the audience for the speech itself, not Sarah Palin’s background or intentions, not anything. Yet the moment she uttered those words, partisan attackers announced: these are code words for white Americans. In Sarah Palin’s world, they said, blacks and other minorities aren’t welcome. She’s speaking to all the racists out there, and this is how racists speak to each other: in code. That’s the conservative agenda – to preserve America for real Americans.
Let’s think of an alternate way to understand these words. Legislators and leaders in Washington fall out of touch with the people they serve. They live in a bubble that shields them from common concerns, such as finding work, paying bills and taxes, raising families in safe communities with good schools, and so on. Real Americans are people who face these problems every day.
Their leaders, well-intentioned or not, seem bent on acting against the interests of people they serve. They don’t understand what real Americans need, because they don’t actually listen and they don’t seem to care about giving people with these sorts of problems a voice. Real Americans are people without a voice. Sarah Palin is popular because she gives them a voice.
Some populist leaders have been racist, just as historically, some populist resentments have derived from racist sentiments. But we’ve had many populist leaders who were not racist, and people experience many resentments disconnected from race. Similarly, racists may or may not follow populist leaders. Populism and racism have no natural affinity, no necessary connection at all.
Martin Luther King was a populist leader whose appeal went to members of all races. John C. Calhoun was a racist leader who appealed to a narrow base of resentful people who could hardly be called populist. Labor unions and other populist workers’ movements welcomed people of all races. The Ku Klux Klan and other segregationist organizations exemplified racist movements that were certainly not populist.
Let Sarah Palin talk about the concerns of people who feel left out. Let’s give everyone a voice. Especially, let’s not tar populist leaders as racists who speak in code. It’s a type of dishonesty we don’t need in this age of propaganda.