Richard Reeves

The New Populism of Al Gore

NEW YORK -- Class warfare is in the eye and heart of the beholder. George W. Bush and the Republicans clearly believe that they can cast a winning issue by beating up Al Gore on his "people vs. power" speechmaking in Los Angeles.

Americans, unlike some Europeans, do not go around smashing the windows and scratching the paint of expensive cars to show their displeasure with those rich enough to buy fancy things. Usually Americans are trying to figure out how to get one for themselves. The rich, usually best represented by Republicans, do not like talk of class war because they have already won. Besides, American history, at least as interpreted by the winners, indicates that populism only works in hard times -- "The Grapes of Wrath" and all that.

But populism, the American version of European class war, is an equal opportunity political tool. That was demonstrated most recently by Ronald Reagan who, quite brilliantly, stood the idea and the American experience on its head in the 1980s. If you define populism as the idea that someone very big is screwing the little guy, Reagan's genius was switching the villain from "big business" to "big government." The man from California, traveling from west to east, made a lot of Americans believe that it was not the greed of Wall Street, or big banks and corporations, or investors and speculators that was doing them in; it was all those politicians and bureaucrats back in Washington.

Reagan's new populism swept all before it, including Bill Clinton, who was forced to govern in Reagan's shadow. He may be remembered as the boy with his finger in the dyke, holding back the anti-government flood that was Reaganism and that evolved into the mud puddles of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay and the other Republicans now running Congress as if it were at war with itself and the rest of the government.

Now, Gore must believe that the pendulum is swinging back toward a new old populism. The Democratic candidate, whose populism went largely undetected at Harvard or in the Congress, obviously believes that many secure-looking Americans are not mad as hell as much as they are scared as hell.

The fundamental reason for fear, I would guess, is the tearing up of the last pages of the old social contract between American business and American workers. The front end of that contract -- benevolent lifetime employment and pension security provided by one company -- was shredded at least 25 years ago. The back pages -- allowing employees to move from job to job with reasonable working conditions and rules, decent health care and pension benefits and a shared purpose with each company -- are now going, too, if not already gone.

So who can you trust? Where do you turn as your parents get older, particularly if they have expensive health problems? What if one of your children needs special care or attention? Is anyone on salary protected anymore? Certainly few hourly employees are protected against anything at all anymore. Even with money in the bank, which few Americans have, and generous credit, which most everyone can get, there must be millions of families that could be wiped out very quickly if the fickle finger of fate points their way.

It's scary -- or so Gore seems to think. His message is we're all in this together. He will try to show that the Republican message is every man for himself, with compassion for all. Take Dick Cheney: There's a man who worked hard and ended up with a $20 million bonus leaving the job early to pursue other interests. He's not asking the government for help now. Why should you?

So it seems that the issue this time, as it has been so often, going back to the Constitutional Convention, is the role of government in a free society. Al Gore has chosen to try to persuade the nation that for most of the people, government is their friend most of the time -- or at least it is their last resort in bad times and good.

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