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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Right-Wing Populist Illusions

In a column on the Rick Santelli rant against “losers” on CNBC and the excited reaction it received in conservative circles, Jon Chait offers this key insight about the instant mythology aroused by both Santelli and Joe the Plumber:

The only thing that separated Santelli’s rant from any other similar outburst that could be found on Fox News or talk radio was that it seemed to represent the vox populi. Santelli was not previously known as a right-wing ideologue–mainly because he was not known for much of anything–so he came across as a fed-up investor, just as Wurzelbacher initially cast himself as an undecided voter skeptical of progressive taxation. And Santelli was surrounded by actual people who dug his message, people he described (absurdly) as a representative sample of American opinion. His rant thus appeared like a genuine expression of popular revolt.

Interesting, then, that Santelli has since described himself as an “Ayn Rander.” Whatever else you think that allegiance represents (Chait notes that it certainly makes opposition to any sort of government relief efforts axiomatic), it ain’t “populism,” unless there’s some hitherto unnoticed popular enthusiasm for the ideas of privatizing the sidewalks or denouncing religion as “the mysticism of the mind.”
There does seem to be an interesting pattern here of self-styled conservative “populists” turning out to be people with some pretty marginal political associations. Joe the Plumber was recently registered to vote as a member of the now-defunct Natural Law Party, best known for its advocacy of transcendental meditation. Sarah Palin had a well-established friendly relationship with the Alaska Independence Party, itself affiliated with the far-right theocratic Constitution Party.
Men and Women In the Street may well harbor some strange views on some issues, but by and large they don’t choose to vote for or support tiny extremist parties or ideological movements, which is why they are tiny. Conventional conservatives should probably look a little more closely at their “populist” champions before designating them as representatives of vast undercurrents of public opinion that somehow aren’t reflected in actual elections.

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