Much has been made of the GOP presidential field’s newfound interest in populist appeals—especially on the heels of Mitt Romney’s declaration that he “likes to be able to fire people.” Cue the predictable coverage: Will this make Romney seem out of touch with ordinary Americans struggling in a tough economy?
Romney’s opponents—especially Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—have been touting their “ordinary guy” credentials. Gingrich’s making sure that everyone knows that he’s an “Army brat,” while Santorum is giving his coal-mining grandfather more airtime than he’s giving himself.
Keep an eye on Santorum’s rhetoric in particular. He’s tried to push his famous focus on social issues to the side to talk about revitalizing American manufacturing. On occasion, he’s even synthesized the two: Americans who do the good, honest work of making things are better, more virtuous citizens (and parents, and neighbors, etc).
In his The Populist Persuasion, historian Michael Kazin (who I’ve referenced a number of times before. He’s brilliant) reminds us that “producerist” populism is nothing new. American populist leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson to the Greenbackers to the People’s Party to the Knights of Labor to the CIO defined the true “American people” as the community of citizens who worked for a living and produced wealth—in contrast to the bankers who lived off this wealth. While the definition of the “productive classes” shifted over the years from Jeffersonian “yeoman farmers” to patriotic industrial workers backing the U.S. war effort, the core obsession is the same. Americans believe deeply in the purifying value of actual labor. As Kazin puts it, by the end of the 19th century, populists claimed that American producers made up “a moral community of self-governing citizens, not a conflict of economic classes.”
This kind of rhetoric seems to be getting legs once again today, even if Santorum’s candidacy doesn’t. Just ask one of the Indiana workers fired by Romney’s Bain Capital:
These people that have never produced one thing in their lives, other than shuffle one pile of money into the next pile of money…What do they know about reality?
Venture capitalists don’t make anything. They don’t produce anything. Coal miners do. Steelworkers do. They also happen to make up a large part of the electorate in a number of critical swing states in this year’s presidential election. Stay tuned.