It occurs to me that the emergence of a genuinely populist candidate would look radically different from Governor Palin’s stage-managed political entrance. Mike Huckabee, for example, was a populist presidential contender who came out of nowhere to challenge the GOP’s political establishment. The hallmarks of the Huckabee campaign – the shoe-string budget, the lack of institutional support, the tide of grassroots enthusiasm – reflect his populist bona fides. And Huckabee’s economic platform was about as far as you can get from conservative political orthodoxy in a Republican presidential primary.
Ron Paul is another recent example of a certifiably populist presidential candidate. Like Huckabee, his views diverged fairly radically from the GOP mainstream, and his institutional support from the conservative establishment was virtually non-existent. Paul’s campaign was fueled entirely by small-donor enthusiasm, though he never managed to gain much traction at the ballot box.
The merits of Paul and Huckabee’s positions are subject to dispute, but both men were genuinely anti-establishment figures. Huckabee’s populist economic rhetoric and socially conservative positions reflect the mood of a country that has accommodated itself to the welfare state but not to the prospect of gay marriage. Although Paul’s political leanings were a bit more fringe, his small government message definitely struck a chord with certain segments of the Republican base.
Palin’s populist credentials, on the other hand, are more akin to a John Edwards than a Mike Huckabee or a Ron Paul. This profile from the New Yorker (via Culture11) suggests that Palin had been tapped by the GOP establishment as an effective surrogate long before the 2008 election season. On the campaign trail, her rhetorical nods to Joe Sixpack and hunting caribou are simply window-dressing for a message that is remarkably indistinct from bog-standard Republican orthodoxy. A compelling biography and down-home charm make Palin an effective messenger, but that’s not the same as embodying real populist frustration with the establishment’s foibles. Incidentally, John Edwards (another pseudo-populist) was thought to be an effective liberal spokesman precisely because he married a conventional progressive outlook with a compelling personal biography. Needless to say, that didn’t work out too well . . .