I Was Once A Populist
Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.
I grew up on a small farm in northern Indiana next to the Eel River. I have written that we never had any money, but we were not poor. Yes, we were. We lived week to week with a small dairy herd, vegetable garden and fruit orchard. We had little money, but we had the means to live.
Growing up, I never thought much about politics. My parents were Roosevelt Democrats who struggled economically through most of their marriage. I knew they supported Adlai Stevenson. My father used to carry a one hundred dollar bill in his wallet just feel what that was like. As the years rolled by, my parents became Republicans. I do not recall politics discussed around the supper table, and it certainly was not preached from the pulpit in our church. The shift probably began when JFK ran for president in 1960. My father was anti-Catholic. I was never sure whether my mother shared my dad’s anti-Catholic views, but I am certain she eventually voted Republican — buying into the tripe that Republicans were more likely to be Christian — she being quite devout.
As the youngest of four children, I became the only one who remained a Democrat. I cast my first vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. My three siblings not only became Republicans, they became conservative Republicans. We all grew up in the same agrarian environment, yet chose a different political worldview. All three voted for Trump in 2016, two in 2020, but only because one brother died.
As the youngest, I lived in that farm the longest of my siblings — sixteen years.
As I have looked back and thought about politics — I am a life-long Democrat — and a proud liberal. But I believe I was first a Populist, knowing little of what Populism meant at the time. To my knowledge, Populism has never been a political party in the United States.
A Populist would say:
· I should not have to file bankruptcy over a serious health issue for anyone in my family.
· I should be able to support my family with a skill and a full time job.
· I should be able to afford college for my children if they want to go to college.
· I should be able to afford basic health, dental and vision care.
· I should be paid a living wage.
· I should be able to afford a house.
· I should not have to live week to week.
· Populists distrust large corporations and the rich, but they will play the lottery, dreaming of riches.
· Populists are private about their faith, and will cringe when their pastor asks them to lead a prayer in church.
· Populists will give the shirt off their back to a neighbor in need.
· Populists speak plainly and are a bit suspicious of those who do not.
· Populists are conservationists and friends of the earth.
· Populists will answer the call to serve their country.
· Populists do not like attention brought upon them.
· Populists do not believe they have a voice.
· Populists believe the decks are stacked against them.
Sadly, Populists can also be racists, homophobes or misogynists. Too many are at least one of these. Populists tend to be less educated, and less exposed to other forms of governments or religions.
They do not travel much, mostly because they cannot afford it. But they tend not to be curious. They are not likely to speak another language. They do not move much. They dislike handouts (what they deem as handouts) and those who accept them, but will gladly make use of Social Security and Medicare when the time comes.
Populists can be easily manipulated, partly because they are less likely to have a college degree. A proselytizing preacher, a preying politician or a haranguing demagogue often feasts on them. They can be easy prey for autocrats. They too easily believe that one person can make their life easier. Remember Trump saying, “Only I can fix it.”
I escaped that, left Indiana in 1966, embraced the world and found other countries, races and religions fascinating and stimulating. I cannot trace this to any particular modeling by my parents or my schooling.
I have been to another country (more than once) where I did not speak the language and 99% of the people were of a different color. Everyone should have that uncomfortable experience.
Today, our family has three cars, one leased and two owned. The two owned are a 1997 Saturn and a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. I have never owned a pickup truck. Some days I feel like driving the Saturn to nearby upscale Newport Beach just to bring down the average price per car. That’s a bit of the populist in me.
I have paid for first class air once in my life, but back in the early 80s when I did not have to take out a second mortgage. Otherwise, 99.9% of my flights have been packed in cargo.
My wife and I led successful professional careers and are comfortable in retirement, settling at around the 90th income percentile, economically a “fer piece” from that Indiana farm.
I no longer consider myself a populist, though I am still a champion of the little guy, the poor, the hungry, the food-challenged, and minorities. I am passionate about climate change, equal opportunity, equality and equity. My writings and donations reflect this.
I am no longer a capitalist. Capitalism created the massive chasm of rich and poor in the United States. Rich is too lame of a term. Call it “My Shit Don’t Stink” or “Have You Seen My Second Yacht” wealth. Capitalism pushes millions of out at the bottom. And with few exceptions, puts a knee on those necks and keeps them there.
I am not a person who is easily duped or pines for a “savior.” I am not a racist, homophobe, misogynist or anti-immigrant. I could never support autocratic one-party rule in this country. I would leave.
The mainstream media often lazily uses Populism to define the Trumpistas. Even they do not define themselves that way, though there are similarities with racists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-immigrants and a fondness for autocrats. The primary difference is that the average Trumpista makes more money than most of those who could be defined as Populists. A 2016 survey showed that the average Trump voter made $20,000 more than the average Clinton voter. The January 6th insurrectionists’ ranks were replete with well-educated professionals, based on charges and prosecutions to date.
I wish those who would qualify as Populists understood that the party which owns their blind allegiance is primarily responsible for the huge gap in equity in this country, and continues to pick their pockets — four massive tax cuts in forty years for the wealthy and the corporations. See also the Rand Study in my previous blogs: Not Slashing My Wrists, and Corpo-Pluto-Fascism. The gap between CEO salaries and workers is off the charts. I could go on.
I wish their innate fear of the “other” would stop driving them to vote against their own self-interest, even as they believe they are voting in their own self-interest. I wish they had more exposure to the “other” and learned, like me, that the “other” is the same as everyone.
I am now a social democrat. Social Democracy works well in most countries that use it. Our daughter has lived in France for twenty years. She now has a dual citizenship. We have visited her enough and experienced Europe enough to see some of the benefits of Social Democracy.
Two stark comparisons, one educational and one medical — our daughter is married to a Frenchman, and finished her higher education at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. As an undergrad and a masters’ degree candidate, she paid $1,000 a year, plus books. As a PhD candidate, she paid $65 per semester. On the medical front, my wife and I have needed to avail us of medical services, twice while in France, and once while in Mexico. In all three instances we never paid more than $150 for seeing a doctor, plus medications, which were many — five prescriptions, twice in France. In contrast, once when my daughter and husband were in California visiting, their ears became infected. Their cost of visits (just to see an RN) plus medications: $600. They got off easy.
Furthermore, in France there are three months of parental leave for moms and dads (20 weeks in Switzerland), paid sick leave, and five weeks of paid vacation. Depending on income there is a stipend for each child to help pay for daycare.
When most United States residents hear the words Social Democracy, they immediately think Socialism. They are ignorant. A simple Google search would make that clear. Private businesses and private corporations thrive in Social Democracies.
My daughter and husband pay a bit more in taxes but I have yet to hear them complain.
The United States should become a Social Democracy. Ironically, the Populists and the Trumpistas would benefit.