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Episode 39: Populisms New Popularity on the Right and Left

The words “populist” and” populism” have been ubiquitous on cable news talk shows and in the political press for the past couple of months.  This makes us at DecodeDC cranky.  The words, it seems to us, are being used in silly, nonsensical ways, sullying the great tradition of American populism.

One person’s populism is another’s demagoguery; there’s right-wing populists, centrist populists, libertarian populists and unpopular populists. As we covered earlier this week, it’s an etymological mess.

After House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to Tea Party underdog David Brat, The Week warned “The peril of America's populist confusion.”

A few weeks earlier a headline in The New York Times  read “Obama’s Budget Is Populist Wish List and Election Blueprint.”

Populist Wish List? Obama’s budget, really?  How so, exactly?

The Times headline used “populist” as a synonym for liberal or progressive. There were some items in the budget to help the poor and middle class and there were some tax hikes for the one per cent crowd. Got it, but that isn’t populism.  It is liberalism. Indeed it is fairly moderate liberalism. But the Tea Party is also called populist.

So what exactly is populism?  Well, that is tougher to answer. 

In this week’s podcast, we search for a better understanding of the history of populism and its uses and abuses today.

For wisdom, we turned to Michael Kazin, one of our great historians of populism.  He wrote a book called The Populist Persuasion first published in 1995.  He also has written a biography of the founding father of American populism, William Jennings Bryan.

Kazin suggests understanding populism not as a specific political movement – or a series of movements. Rather, think of populism as a style of politics and rhetoric. It is a style that has been adapted over and over again over the last century by the right and by the left.

That original Populist movement – with a capital P – came in the late 1800s.  It coalesced around the People’s Party, primarily a movement of farmers crusading against bankers, railroads and the moneyed elite that became known as the Populists.  In 1896, the People’s Party embraced the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan.  The People’s party faded away. But Bryan and Populism played big on the big national stage for a long time, fueling Progressive Era reforms of the early 1990s, policies such as trust-busting and the progressive income tax.

Kazin maintains that Populism and later populisms share common elements. First, there’s a core belief in the idea of America and a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”  Populism is not radical or revolutionary; it doesn’t seek to overthrow the Constitution or the government.  The next element is belief in the virtue of “the people.  Finally, there’s the notion  “the people” are oppressed by a powerful elite.

Populism has been associated with movements on the left and right.  Today, more people probably think of populism in a liberal or progressive context.  During the Cold War, it would have been more common to see populism as a right-wing force.

The details of “populisms”  are changeable but the word – populism – still has power and romance in American politics.

What populism does not have any more is a precise definition or proper usage.

Indeed, populism is often a buzzword that should alert the savvy political consumer to malarkey coming ahead. It is more often a term of spin, not straightening out.

When a headline writer at The New York Times thinks it would be biased to label the administration’s budget liberal, he calls it “populist.”  When a conservative pundit wants to accuse a Democrat of being of being too hard on the rich but doesn’t want come out and say so, “populist” becomes the word of choice. When liberals want to attack the Tea Party for being irresponsible and intolerant, they call them populists.

 So when you hear the word, alert the language police.

Episode 38: Why hardball tactics have led to the most polarized Congress ever

Pop Quiz: Which was the most polarized time in American history?

The Civil War? Prohibition? The Civil Rights Movement?

Nope, no, and nyet. Well, if you gauge by the House and Senate, that is.

Political Science professor Sean Theriault tells us that, though the American public has been extremely divided at times over the course of the nation’s history, today’s Congress is more polarized than any before it. Despite the fact that the public is much less so.

Theriault teaches and conducts his research at the University of Texas at Austin, and says that unlike in the past, the current polarization in the House and Senate has little to do with big societal issues, or sea-changes in American culture. The fighting is about something much smaller, more arcane, and frankly, boring: congressional procedure.

The fight, says Theriault, has become “not about the issues but about the war.”

This week on DecodeDC’s podcast, Theriault explains why procedure, and not big issues, are dividing Congress. It’s because of the permanent campaign, he says, bringing hard-ball politics into an institution that used to rely on a basic level of compromise to conduct the day-in, day-out operations of the House and Senate. This is the biggest driver, he says, of the years of gridlock Americans have seen in Washington.

If that makes you angry, says Theriault, don’t blame Congress. Why? Because we elected them.

Earlier this week, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor’s historic primary election loss -- the first and only time in America’s history a top GOP leader has lost his primary to a challenger -- provided a perfect example of how divisive hard-ball politics have become. In recent years Cantor had been a major player in those tactics.

Unfortunately for him, another Republican in his district picked them up too -- and used them against him.

Amarra Ghanni contributed to this post.

Episode 37: Cracking open the government: On the front lines of making Washington transparent

There’s a quiet movement afoot in Washington; one you won’t hear about on cable news or flashy political blogs.

It is the 21st century iteration of a classic American ideal: radical transparency in government.

The modern pursuers of this goal include non-profits and business titans, hobbyists and hackers. They have formed a kind of nerd-corps of cyber-civics - designers, computer programmers, hackers and political activists - all working to build technology that makes government more accessible to people.

Every year, a non-partisan, open-government group called The Sunlight Foundation hosts a kind of conference for this nerd-corps, it’s called Transparency Camp, or T-Camp among its faithful.

Sound obscure? You might be surprised to hear that T-Camp is sponsored by the likes of Google and Microsoft.

Many of the attendees are rock stars in their fields, with experience developing some of the most lucrative sites and apps of recent years. They’re now turning their significant brains toward a less sexy, but in many ways much more challenging problem: Putting every citizen’s government right on their phone.

DecodeDC visited this year’s Transparency Camp to bring you stories from the front lines of the fight to crack open government.

Episode 36: Can Spelling Bee kids spell better than members of Congress? A-B-S-O-L-U-T-E-L-Y

"Can you spell logorrhea?" 

That's what DecodeDC asked Members of Congress and their constituents -- specifically those whiz-kid spellers who are in the nation's capital for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

Turns out, the answer is N-O; just about every US Representative we spoke with had no idea what logorrhea means (excessive wordiness), and not a single one spelled it correctly. Most admitted to relying heavily on spell check and their smartphone to pick the right word at the right time.

Contrast that with this fact: when we spoke with dozens of kids in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, we had trouble finding one who couldn't spell logorrhea. Most correctly identified the word's roots (from the Greek word 'logos' meaning 'words' and 'rhea,' meaning 'to flow') and even knew its meaning. 

Ironic, you wonder, that a bunch of pre-teens in Washington could show-up their Representatives with a word that means, 'to spew words from the mouth'? We thought so too. 

Of course, there are plenty of big-brained lawmakers as well -- not that they'd challenge the super-spellers. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told us, "I am smart enough to know that I would be whooped in a moment!”

Episode 35: Young, Bright Conservatives; But Who To Look Up To?

Rooster Jacobson doesn’t fit neatly into a box – and not just because of his spiky, rainbow mohawk. That, plus wide-gauge earrings make people “automatically assume I’m going to be a liberal, based solely on the way I look, which is also patently false,” he says.

Rooster Jacobson with Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX

No, Rooster, aka Ian, is a hard-core conservative; so much so, that we caught up with him at Washington’s veritable Republican prom, the Conservative Political Action Conference. But ask him about social issues -- gay marriage? abortion rights? -- and you’ll get this response: “not my cup of tea.”

Rooster’s passions are tax reform, peeling away small business regulations, and promoting personal and economic freedom. And he’s not alone.

“A lot of the younger members of the party coming up – they are very similar to me in that mindset where the federal government needs to back the hell off … I mean …  we’re kind of a more libertarian leaning group,” he says.

Some data is bearing this out. A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows that Millennials, that’s Americans born since 1980, have an independent streak a mile wide. Fully half of them, when asked for their political affiliation, called themselves independents. When they do choose a party, they’re much more likely to choose the Democrats. A tiny sliver of Millennials -- 17% -- identify themselves as Republicans.

Thursday, on the weekly DecodeDC podcast, we talk to young conservatives about what attracts them to their party, and what the GOP needs to do to attract more young people to its ranks. We listen to recent, unsettling statements from some Republican leaders, House Speaker John Boehnerformer GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum, and Iowa Congressman Steve King, and ask the question, ‘are conservative leaders out of step with their younger rank-and-file?’

For young conservatives it’s a critical question. Because people like Rooster – you can follow him @kickassrooster--see a lot of what the Republican Party is doing these days as being “completely superfluous.”


Special thanks to Chris Mandra and Telesma for music in this episode.