Populism In a Nutshell, Again


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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37 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Out of curiosity:

    What do you think marks the difference between a true believer and huckster?

    Is it possible to be both? I think a person can believe in what they say and also know how to make good money at it.

    It should be also noted that Raedel portrays himself as a bro and has also registered a bunch of porn-esque domain names with a now defunct company.


    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      If true, I find Trey Radel’s comparatively nuanced views on the War on Drugs (suggested it’s futile, opposes mandatory minimums) to be more remarkable than his opposition to decriminalization of pot (a pretty common view among electeds of both parties, especially his).Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      For the purposes of answering your question, allow me to oversimplify somewhat and give you a breakdown of the three kinds of politicians I have noticed over the years.

      The Professionals: For most of my adult life, these people have dominated both major parties. The leadership in each party has been (up until recently) almost exclusively made up of this group. They are people who see being a politician as a job, and are very upfront (and proud) about their life in public service. Though it is now popular to malign the Professionals, they are able to get s**t done, and perhaps more importantly, actually have a good working knowledge of the system, how it works, and why things are in the places they are. They are, in short, professionals. Notable members in this group are every major-party presidential candidate, speaker of the house, and Senate majority leader in my lifetime — and really, most public officials.

      The True Believers: These are the people who believe that we are a fallen country due to a lack of ideological purity, and that they are the Harbinger of truth. For most of my adult life, they almost never won elections and were shunned by the professionals. These are people that even when elected can’t get anything done because any compromise is considered unholy. Though most voters say in a knee jerk way that they want people to believe in the cause, they really don’t. Past true believers in my lifetime have included Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson.

      The Hucksters: The hucksters can’t really work with the professionals, because: A., the professionals have been around and can spot them too easily, and B., hucksters want to score big right now and don’t want to earn leadership responsibilities through normal channels. Hucksters tend to pretend to be True Believers, because true believers are generally a pretty gullible group. (You don;t become a rabid Patrick Buchanan follower by dwelling in nuance.) Either due to irony or due to their own personal knowledge set of vice, they tend to try to run against straw men that share their vices. So for example, Sarah Palin came to power being anti-corruption and someone who eschewed the celebrity lifestyle national pols seek; Elliot Spitzer went after pols who succumbed to their vices in public office: Richard Curtis runs his campaign largely on being anti-gay; Sheriff Joe Arpaio is… well, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

      People of these stripes almost never really overlap in significant ways, I have found, because the first two find the other two do distasteful, and the third won’t put in the work to be the first and doesn’t have the belief to be the second.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        At the risk of being a bit of Sorkin-esque West Wing idealist, I think a lot of professionals can do have a true believer streak and also get things done.

        I’m thinking of people like Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey and Fiorello LaGaurdia even President Obama and Clinton. Bella Azburg, etc.

        Elliot Spitzer for all his faults did strike me as being as much a true believer as Elizabeth Warren on the problems with the finance industry. Ralph Nader was a good consumer advocate before going off the deep end. Anthony Weiner on the other hand only existed to promote Anthony Weiner.

        I think I have to respectfully dissent on your categories or you are going to need to elaborate on what separates a Hubert Humphrey or Paul Wellstone from the True Believers. Hubert Humphrey started gaining fame as a progressive mayor in Minneapolis who combated racism and anti-Semitism in the police force and city as a whole. He gained national attention from a 1948 speech at the Democratic Convention that urged the Democratic Party to step out of the shadow of states’ rights and into the sunlight of human rights (paraphrase). This famously caused Strom Thurmond to walk out and form the Dixiecrats.

        I agree that there are people who are more concerned with being “holier than thou” in politics but this does not mean that the professionals are without ideals.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        The fact that almost every single congress critter manages to enrich themselves by orders of magnitude (assuming they didn’t come into politics personally wealthy) would tend to taint the “professionals” a bit I think. Unless “getting the job done” also comes with a perk of getting rich.

        Maybe it’s “the system” that caused Trey to fall? Lots of “true belivers” and others come to congress the first time and end up corrupted by the institution.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        Hubert Humphrey died with a very modest, middle-class estate and never grew wealthy. Harry Truman also left the White House without much wealth. Though these could be exceptions that prove the rule. I don’t think Paul Wellstone was very wealthy either when he died in the plane crash.Report

    • Avatar Notme says:

      What do you think marks the difference between a true believer and huckster?

      This is too easy, Dems are true believers and Rebups are hucksters. Right, Tod? Because once again this shows what hypocrites Repubs are. I guess Dems just expect their folks to be drug abusers like say, Marion Barry?Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Do you thing that Left Populism falls into the same trap as Right Populism or a different trap? Left Populism doesn’t have quite the same power as Right Populism does at an official level. Occupy Wall Street was an example of attempted Left Populism but fizzled out before it could achieve much. Most of the blame could be put on Occupy Wall Street for this.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      I’m not sure I agrees Withthe premise of the question. I think of populism being a thing that gloss onto anything I can stick to, and so I don’t know that I see an inherent difference between right and left populism.

      Individual happenings, yes. For example, I think the facts at occupy fizzled while the Tea Party had success is due to one being able to align itself with people in power and the other not so much. (Also: drum circles) But it don’t think that’s a right or a left thing. Had Cheney run and won in 2008 I think we’d have a Tea Party-like movement that would have eventually aligned with the left.Report

      • Avatar morat20 says:


        Conservatives are pretty good at that, and while astroturfing isn’t populism per se, it aims to mimic it, to make a movement look bigger than it is — or change the goals of an existing movement.

        Astroturfing can extend, support, alter, or otherwise maneuver populist movements — it can form a framework to support a populist movement — with the caveat that generally that framework, that base, is used to shift the movement around to meet the money man’s own motivations.

        Not that the left doesn’t try at astroturfing, but it’s just one of those things that either conservatives have simply been more successful at — or the left is so good at it that it’s pretty much invisible.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      There are plenty of hucksters on the Left but they are somewhat more marginal and tend not to hold elected office or even try to run.

      Reverend Billy comes to mind. Roseanne Barr.Report

  3. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Tod wrote:
    But I do wonder what it is about populist movements that they so consistently fall so hard for hucksters promising that they are the Christ-like embodiment of the movement itself.

    And then he wrote:
    Hucksters tend to pretend to be True Believers, because true believers are generally a pretty gullible group.

    The answer is there. True Believers are gullible, so inclined to believe anyone who acts like another True Believer. Hucksters have a competitive advantage over other True Believers because they can convincingly act like one but lack any moral constraints that True Believers will sometimes have. So in a population that cannot distinguish between them–there is no green beard–they can outcompete true True Believers.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I guess the blind rage behind many populist movements also cause them to fail pretty hard for hucksters. You can’t really think that well if your consumed by blind, incoherent rage.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      I think that’s a good point.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      I also think it’s true that populist movements are most appealing to shallow thinkers. Populust movements often have a very simple creed and generally lack the nuance that, for example, the professionals deal with.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC says:

      I think that’s the reason that the right falls prey to hucksters more than the left. The fringe right tends to be driven by anger more than the fringe left.

      Actually, maybe not. Maybe the problem is the fringe left’s concerned are usually justified, whereas the fringe right tends to have complete nonsense as concerns. So hucksterism is required _to start with_ on the right, to _create_ populism.

      Or, maybe that’s not exactly it either. Populism is an organic entity create by disaffected people, eventually angry people. Left alone, it would be directed at the people who have actually caused problems in those people lives, which is, very rarely, the government(1). It’s usually their bank, and their job, and all sorts of entity, and, if left alone, would create leftism populism.

      So it takes some sort of hucksterism to direct the anger from leftwards purposes to rightward. Usually by making up completely nonsensical things to be angry about. (Everyone remembers the Tea Party stood for ‘taxed enough already’, right? And everyone remembers that _taxes had not gone up_, right?)

      1) This is not to say that _no_ populism can naturally be directed in the other direction, in an anti-government sense. The government can, indeed, screw up. I’m just saying, statistically speaking, the government is rarely the cause, and in the cases it is, it’s not for the nonsensical things that right populism has been created around. Poor unemployed people don’t care about the taxes they aren’t paying, or the government regulations that don’t affect them. They care about things like random searches on the street and laying off teachers.Report

  5. Avatar aaron david says:

    You Know Tod, I might buy this if you ever mentioned someone from the other side of the coin. But as it stands…Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      You might buy what? That hucksters prey on populist movements?

      What “other side” are you referring to?Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        The other side I am referring to would be the left of the political spectrum in this country. What I might buy is “Principled Pragmatism.”Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        If what it takes for you to believe in principled pragmatism is my saying that both parties today are exactly equal, you best give up now.

        I don’t exactly hide my belief that we currently have one liberal/progressive party, one highly radical party, and zero conservative parties. We have one party that hangs its hat on passing legislation (some of it good, some of it bad, some of it fishing terrible) and one party that hangs its hat on media ratings. Simply put, one party deserves more criticism than the other.

        Look, right now I’m writing about the terrible rollout of the PPACA, which in my mind is utterly inexcusable considering the time they’ve had to prepare, the resources at their disposal, and the microscope they knew they were going to be under. Along with that will be Obama’s “lie,” why I suspect it wasn’t actually a lie, and why that’s actually even worse and more condemnable than a lie would have been.


        Criticizing the execution of policy — or even the wisdom of that policy in the first place — is a charge you level against grown ups. Criticizing a party whose leaders say that the President is secretly implementing Sharia Law, planning on outlawing churches, and bringing in UN forces to take away your guns is a charge you level against people that have no business having a seat at the big kid table.Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        Thank you for the response Tod, much to think about, and much to disagree with. I am heading into work now, so I will try to put something together for later.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        In Tod’s comment above at 7:59 pm, he called out a number of Democrats, and specifically Eliot Spitzer as a huckster. To which we can add Anthony Weiner. There’s that clown from Florida who distinguished himself by saying the Republican health care plan was “don’t get sick, and die quickly if you do.” Not so long ago there was Edwin Edwards from Louisiana, a huckster of the first order. Many would say Al Sharpton is a huckster more interested in stunts and attention whoring than policy making. Bill Clinton sometimes looked like a huckster, especially on the campaign trail, but I must concede that once in office, he was more often than not a consummate professional.

        See, this is not a hard game to play. Rather than accuse Tod of having a political preference (oh noes the man has an opinion!), you can often better establish apparent parity by using the paradigm given.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I’d argue that the Democratic Party is currently composed of liberal/progressive types and the former moderate and liberal faction of the GOP, the Rockefeller Republicans. Its causing more than a little inner-party tension in the Democratic Party.

        The main problem with the GOP isn’t necessarily its radical beliefs but the fact that it kind of operates in a post-policy worldview as noted by Jonathan Bernstein. Many of them simply don’t care about governing as traditionally understood in the small-d democratic sense. They haven’t really offered anything substantive recently besides a variety of tax cuts. They don’t engage in horse trading. Even if they were still radical, our system would function better if they had some policy ideas beyond tax cuts and were willing to horse trade.Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        “and zero conservative parties.”

        I think this is my beef. As a former Dem, I would never say they aren’t liberal, left, or what have you. They have the right to call themselves whatever they want, and I have no right to take that from them. Do I feel that the left should be more liberal on the things I believe in? Of course. But I wouldn’t deny them their voice, and their beliefs.

        There are many on the right who feel that O’care is just a path to single payer, that it was designed to fail. They are wrong, if only from the simple fact that ACA supporters are also Americans, and they really do want the best for all of us. To belive anything else is to fall into the trap that is killing us. That trap is not believing each other.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Fwiw, the folks at Thinkprogress are a little more charitable toward Radel and consider him not so much a drug war warrior.Report

  7. Avatar Marchmaine says:

    I guess I’m confused that your primary target is populism.

    What exactly do we mean by populism? Is it just anti-Professionalism (anti-Establishment)? Are there no examples of Professionals that have fallen prey to the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do rule?

    “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” G. Hart (1987).

    Hucksters, liars, cheats… moths to the flame of Power, to be sure. That’s hardly a heel unique to Achilles. But Populism? Feels like a target you wanted to have and let loose your dart.Report