Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Money "Built" a Populist "Tea Party"

The Globe and Mail newspaper has a good article by Jeet Heer on how Dave and Charles Koch, two brothers whose personal fortune, rooted in the oil industry and manufacturing, puts them in the same league as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have bought themselves a "populist" right wing party in the US, the Tea Party.

For me, the best part of the article was the walk down memory lane of how right wing "populism" has been manufactured previously in the US:
The original plutocratic populist was William Randolph Hearst, the great pioneer of tabloid journalism whose newspapers were once a byword for sensationalism.

In his youth at the end of the 19th century, Mr. Hearst was a full-throttle supporter of left-wing populism. Amid lurid accounts of murder and sex scandals, his newspapers championed the labour movement and small farmers while sharply attacking big business. He wrote in an 1897 editorial that he believed that “the multitude that are individually helpless against the rapacity of the few could be armed against their despoilers.”

Mr. Hearst's politics went through a startling flip-flop in the mid-1930s, partly in response to what he saw as the radicalism of the New Deal, but also because he started to feel financially threatened for the first time in his life. Hard hit by the Depression, he came close to losing his newspaper empire.

Suddenly he saw himself not as the champion of the common people fighting against big business, but as a hard-working property owner who needed to defend his interests against a rapacious government that was overtaxing him.

In moving from left to right, Mr. Hearst held on to the language of populism, simply changing the names of the villains. John Q. Public, the grandfather of Joe the Plumber, was no longer the victim of greedy bankers and gouging corporate monopolists, but rather of the liberal elite, consisting of egg-headed professors, corrupt union bosses and tax-happy demagogues.

Looking back on the Hearst newspapers of the 1930s as well as like-thinking peers such as the Chicago Tribune and Reader's Digest, it is interesting to notice how often they focus on the stories of supposedly persecuted millionaires, rich men whom they portrayed as the victims of a malicious state. In The New Republic in 1934, journalist Richard Neuberger, who would go on to become a U.S. senator, complained about “the current crusade to create martyrs out of millionaires.”

These stories of harassed and beleaguered millionaires were echoed in popular culture. In the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, billionaire Daddy Warbucks didn't just have watch over the pupil-less waif, he also had to fend off attacks from envious politicians and malicious do-gooders. Although not published until 1957, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged grew out of the ideological debates of the 1930s and survives as one of the most influential stories of the ill treatment of the overclass.
Take a gander at the Globe and Mail article. It is an example of how Canadians do a good job of understanding the elephant that resides next door to the Canadian mouse.

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