By Dennis Myers
University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor Jake Highton is a real stickler for proper use of the language. One of the things that pushes his buttons is misuse of the term “populism,” which is usually used incorrectly by journalists and politicians.
Journalists tend to use it either as a synonym for “popular,” to reference opponents of incumbents, or to describe those who claim they are on the side of the average Joe and Jill while supporting power and money. None of these are accurate. Following their example are many politicians who seem not to understand the term.
On February 15 in the Pahrump Valley Times, Mark Waite reported that U.S. Sen. Dean Heller urged upon a Pahrump Republican Women’s Club Lincoln Day Dinner that the party “get back to stressing populist themes” in campaigns and governance.
It’s difficult to know how the party could get “back” to themes it has always rejected. Theodore Roosevelt once said that populists should “be suppressed, as the Commune of Paris was suppressed, by taking ten or a dozen of its leaders out, standing… them against a wall, and shooting them dead.” Quite an endearing Republican espousal of populism.
What is more interesting is Heller’s use of the term “populist” to describe anti-populist themes. Heller to the dinner group: “Low taxes is a great populist theme. Less government is a great populist theme.” These may be great themes, but they’re not populist. The two sentences are contradictions in terms. Populism by definition is pro-taxation and pro-government.
Let’s set aside the fact that government, which Heller so disdains, has provided him a good living for 18 straight years.
Populists believe in using the power of government to curb the power of money. In the early 1890s, farmers, laborers, and others who were hard pressed by corporate money and power and two corrupted political parties started a political party called the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party. Populism was a broad social movement, a response to the growth of corporate power after the Civil War amid hard times that oppressed ordinary people. In Nevada, that particularly meant the railroads, which slammed the state with harsh, senseless rates not charged to Californians. Cargo that originated in the east and was off-loaded when it reached Reno cost the rate for shipment to San Francisco and then back to Reno. Corporate/government coziness caused the gap between rich and poor to widen into a canyon. It was, in other words, very much like now.
The elites of the Gilded Age sneered at the working class/rural base of the People’s Party, but it was one of the most successful third parties in U.S. history. In 1892, Populist presidential nominee James Weaver swept Nevada, winning almost twice as many votes as Democrat Grover Cleveland, Republican Benjamin Harrison and Prohibitionist Joe Bidwell combined. Nye County residents were particularly enthusiastic, giving Weaver more than 90 percent of their votes.
On taxes, the populists successfully demanded a progressive income tax to put the burden of government revenue on those at the top. When the income tax first began, it was paid by only those taxpayers earning more than $4,000 a year, or $91,517.25 a year in 2012 dollars. Unfortunately, by the time the income tax was created, the populists were no longer a force and could not protect it from manipulation, so the anti-populist lobbyists went to work with deductions, indexing, exemptions, and so on.
On government, the populists embraced regulation to crack down on corporate abuses committed by mammoth and centralized companies. Many of them supported a government takeover of the railroads and banks.
Republicans, naturally, like to pose as populists, which has prompted the use of terms like “faux populism.”
“There’s a lot of faux populism,” University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith said in 2005, describing California initiative measures. “You look at the moneyed interests behind [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger’s] measures, behind the [prescription drug initiatives], and you realize this is not just the citizens’ voice.”
In Connecticut, Sen. Gary LeBeau once said of Republicans, “There’s a lot of faux populism in there: ‘We’re in favor of the small guy’.”
So Sen. Heller is a populist. He is funded by ATT, NV Energy, the American Bankers Association, the kind of entities populism was created to control. Heller is funded by the oil and gas, insurance, securities and investment, mining, real estate and health care industries, with seven out of every ten dollars he receives coming from out of state.
The term “populist” is in danger of losing its meaning.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.