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Fatal Attraction

October 11, 1999 |
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The struggle among Patrick Buchanan, Donald Trump, Jesse Ventura, and Ross Perot's lieutenants for control of the Reform Party only looks like the clash of celebrity egos. Actually, the Reform Party is splitting along the fault line between American progressivism and American populism--rival traditions represented most recently by presidential candidates John Anderson (1980) and George Wallace (1968). Natural allies and natural enemies, progressives and populists simultaneously attract and repulse each other. In 1992, and to a lesser extent in 1996, Perot managed to unite both Anderson progressives and Wallace populists, but if history is any guide, nobody will pull off that miracle in this election.

John Anderson's progressive Republicanism belonged to the distinctive political tradition of Greater New England--a territory that arcs from Maine to the Pacific Northwest and was settled by 19th-century Yankee Protestant settlers. The Yankee's secularized Puritanism combines an enthusiasm for social reform--such as abolitionism, Prohibition, women's suffrage, civil rights, eugenics, and the anti-smoking crusade--with an often-priggish moralism and an apocalyptic horror of "corruption." Most third-party movements have originated in Greater New England. The name of one movement launched during World War I tells the whole story: The Nonpartisan League.

The Germans and Scandinavians who settled in western Greater New England reinforced the secular puritan ethos, although they were more likely to be socialists than the Yankees, whose fear of corruption has often made them enemies of big government. And Prohibition divided liquor-hating Northern Protestants from beer-loving Germans. Even so, the Protestant pietism of many Germanic Americans meshed neatly with the Puritan religious culture of New Englanders and their western cousins, while socialist enthusiasms were easily merged with Social Gospel Protestantism in the northern-tier states. It is no coincidence that Anderson, the standard-bearer for the Yankee-Germanic tradition in 1980, is of Swedish descent--nor is it a coincidence that in 1984, Anderson, formerly a Republican, voted for Walter Mondale, a fellow Swedish-American.

Southern populism, which earlier had produced Huey P. Long, Georgia's Tom Watson, and the Southern supporters of William Jennings Bryan, spawned George Wallace. Populism has more often found a home in the Highland South than in the coastal "black belt," which has been dominated since colonial times by the elitist conservatism of ruling-class Bourbon families and their allies. Drawing on the traditions of the Scots-Irish settlers of Appalachia and the Ozarks, Highland Southern populism encourages a tribal approach to politics and rewards leaders who are flamboyant and bellicose. Andrew Jackson was an early example of this type; Patrick J. Buchanan is its latest incarnation.

Perot united Anderson progressives and Wallace populists, but in an unstable pairing. Wallace's supporters were social conservatives who favored activist government, as long as it benefited them and their families, while Anderson's voters were social liberals more concerned with good government than with expensive government. The Wallace voters tended to be white working-class Democrats on their way into the Republican Party; the Anderson voters by contrast were often former liberal Republicans in transit to a new home in the Democratic Party.

In the federal deficit, Perot found an issue that resonated with both progressives and populists. In the minds of the skinflint progressives, spending money one does not have is a form of moral depravity. The deficit issue mobilized Jacksonian populists because it spoke to their fears about a remote government dominated by the rich and powerful. Unlike deficit reduction, the trade issue divided populist protectionists from progressives, many of whom favor free trade.

Thanks to his deficit-reduction coalition, Perot won more votes in 1992 than any third-party presidential candidate since "Bull Moose" Progressive Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Perot's 19 percent of the total bettered Wallace's 13.5 percent in 1968 and Anderson's 7 percent in 1980. The core of Perot's support that year was New England and Greater New England, with his best state--no surprise--Yankee Maine. While his rhetoric was populist, his positions were progressive. The progressives preferred government by experts to mob rule; Perot claimed that "smart people" in Washington already had the plans, all that was lacking was the will to implement them. Progressive reforms such as initiatives and referendums, like Perot's vague notions of direct democracy, tended to bypass legislatures and to concentrate plebiscitary power in allegedly nonpartisan executives--the president, governors, city managers.

Ignorant Perot critics called his technocratic approach "fascism," when it was old-fashioned American progressivism. The progressives, like their predecessors among the Mugwumps--the independent-minded Republicans who spurned their party's presidential candidate in 1884--and Liberal Republicans and Whigs and Federalists, have long favored fiscal conservatism. Perot and his Concord Coalition allies, the New Englanders Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman, were as horrified by the federal deficit as the Mugwumps had been appalled by the support of Bryanite populists for bimetallism and as the Liberal Republicans, a generation earlier in the Gilded Age, had been frightened by paper money.

Perot, then, has the mind of a Greater New England progressive but the heart of a Highland Southern populist (his native Texarkana belongs to the western fringe of the Highland South). If Perot's message appealed to Yankee and Nordic progressives in the northern tier, his anti-establishment populism, and no doubt his flamboyant persona, appealed to the kind of voters whose ancestors had cheered on Huey P. Long and "Sockless Jerry" Simpson. Perot did very poorly in the conservative South--but his showing was best in parts of the South that had voted for George Wallace.

With the federal deficit removed as an issue by 1996, Perot's coalition of Snow Belt good-government reformism and give-'em-hell hillbilly populism dissolved. The puritan crusaders of the North and the alienated populists of the South may share common political enemies, but little else. A century ago, Northern progressives such as The Nation's E.L. Godkin viewed populists such as William Jennings Bryan as barbarians, and they returned the favor by viewing Mugwumps as enemies rather than as potential allies.

Then, as now, economic policy divided rather than united the opponents of the two-party system. In the 1890s, Mugwumps such as Godkin crusaded for free trade and against tariff protection for corrupt manufacturers. In the 1990s, northern fiscal conservatives such as Anderson, Tsongas, and Rudman have backed free-trade agreements such as NAFTA. For their part, Highland Southern populists tend to rally around harebrained economic programs, elevating them from an instrument of policy into a symbol of a crusade against their enemies. For the followers of Andrew Jackson, the destruction of the Second Bank of the United States was the panacea; for the disciples of William Jennings Bryan, the panacea was silver coinage; for the followers of Ronald Reagan, supply-side economics was the crackpot quick fix. For Buchanan, the symbolic economic issue is a revival of high tariffs on manufactured imports.

The factional war within the Reform Party, then, represents the decomposition of the movement into its Northern progressive and Southern populist wings. Buchanan can be described as a Southern populist, as can Pat Choate and Ross Perot, whose populist sentiments appear to have triumphed over their progressive principles. Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, who attempted to wrest leadership of the party away from Perot, is a classic Greater New England progressive, as is former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, whose name was circulated as a possible Reform Party nominee. Jesse Ventura is the product of Minnesota political culture, with its mix of Yankee and Germanic reformism and its long history of influential regional third-party movements such as the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor party. And it's not stretching to assign Donald Trump to the Northern progressive camp.

If Perot backs Buchanan, then the capture of the Reform Party by right-wing Southern populists is likely. At that point, the progressives will do what they have always done best: They're never happier than when they are demonstrating their moral, political, and religious purity by heading for the exit and starting their own small but pure church or party. New Englanders, fearing British corruption and tyranny, provoked the American Revolution. A generation later, during the War of 1812, many New Englanders considered seceding from the United States, whose federal government was then dominated by Southern politicians. In the antebellum era, New England-based Conscience Whigs denounced the North's pro-South Cotton Whigs as corrupt. After the Civil War, high-minded liberal Republicans walked out on their partners, the sleazy Stalwarts. In the early 20th century, the Progressive Republicans, led by Robert La Follette and Theodore Roosevelt, stormed out of the GOP to form their own Progressive Party.

So look for the Reform Party's displaced progressives to declare the purity of their principles, denounce the corruption of the populists who have taken over the party machine, and march out--to found a new party, perhaps, from which, in time, they can secede.

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