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June, 1990

Populism in the Age of Celebrity

by Kirk Scharfenberg


In 1969, Kevin Phillips sagely analyzed the backlash against permissiveness, the breaking of the shackles tying southerners to the Democratic Party, and the result of these two developments an "emerging Republican majority," which has dominated national politics for more than twenty years. In his new book he espies the rise of a new populist spirit in the land in the "Reagan aftermath." He offers a high-velocity account of the "math"--the politics and policies that made greed a 1980s art form--but little on the shape or texture of the "after."

Phillips identifies the Reagan years as the nation's third period of "heyday capitalism," following the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. He finds a score of parallels between those periods and the decade just past. As reformist movements followed those earlier eras of excess, so, he believes, the nineties may see a new populist spirit.

But the political logic underlying what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has called "the cycles of American history," the alternations of periods of reaction with periods of reform, has lost its old social and cultural bases. Anyone waiting for a new populist revolt in contemporary America is kidding himself. The forces in the popular culture which tend to dampen our resentment of accumulations of wealth are probably stronger now than at any time in our history. We are wedded to the life-styles of the rich and famous. We may despise Leona Helmsley today and Donald Trump tomorrow, but we remain a society transfixed by celebrity. Earlier generations loved to hate Jay Gould and Samuel Insull, but it would have been substantially harder to abhor them had they been humanized on the covers of People magazine. Once upon a time men got rich by developing a product or a service that someone wanted to buy. Now, more than ever before, wealth itself is a product, used to enhance stature and profitability. Lee Iacocca is famous not for rescuing Chrysler but for being Lee Iacocca, and because he's famous maybe we'll buy his car. High-style fashions may be sold to the rich and famous, but the marketing of high-style fashion is now aimed at us. Hardly a month passes that a new magazine does not hit the racks whose dominant content is fashion advertising. Smart, L.A. Style, Egg, Details, Interview. Pick your perfume. Can Trump be far behind? We pay money to see what the rich pay money to buy. How can we resent them for buying what we ourselves pay just to look at?

If Phillips were right and there were latent resentment over the increasing accumulations and concentrations of wealth--which are largely the result not of nature but of government policy, as Phillips amply demonstrates--how would the word get out, and how would we organize to take the collective action necessary to reverse the tide? Our politicians and the television news are themselves largely in the thrall of the very forces of glitz that such a reformist insurgency would undermine. American politics is a form of entertainment in which a good line--"Read my lips"--is about all we can recall from a presidential campaign. It is not that we just don't remember those thoughtful speeches that George Bush and Michael Dukakis made in 1988 about Soviet-American relations in the age of Gorbachev; they never made them. Raised on Sesame Street and now MTV--a celebration of commercials between rock videos that are themselves merely commercials for celebrities--we demand production values, not social values, in our politics. Kiku Adatto, a fellow at the Shorenstein Barone Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard University, reported in The New York Times that from 1968 to 1988 the average sound bite in television newscasts fell from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. Docudramas and re-creations make better politics than politics itself. For the President to declare war on drugs is not enough, his advisers decide. We need a drug buy in Lafayette Park the night before to give the President a dramatic prop and his speech sufficient entertainment value to grab our attention. Charts on changing income distribution? Boring!

More troubling yet, even if we had the information on which to act, we lack the means to take reasoned collective political action. The national political parties, which once had the ability to formulate comprehensive, coherent agendas and to bind their candidates to them, are moribund; the Democrats, who presumably would spur a reformist move, have passed beyond death to ashes. Candidates themselves run as celebrity free-lancers. It may be that no incumbent is a hero to his valet, but most--judging by the success rate of incumbents--are beloved by their constituents. Many, like Hollywood stars, beckon us into their personal lives and encourage us to "share" their personal struggles. Prurience, not politics, seems the art of the possible.

As political structures have collapsed, social institutions that might provide forums for the development of collective political action--or at least the building of political wisdom--have faltered and lost credibility. The Catholic Church cannot sell its message on abortion, let alone on the necessity for social action, to its members; unions, struggling to survive, have all but abandoned political activity More and more, we practice our politics alone.

It was not always thus. Lawrence Goodwyn, a historian of the Populist movement, describes a meeting, in Winfield, Kansas, on July 4, 1890.

"The farmers had assembled in their wagons at their suballiances [chapters] and the trains of wagons from different suballiances merged at the county line enroute to Winfield. As they neared the city, these trains fell in with similar ones from other county alliances. The caravan entering Cowley County from one direction alone stretched for miles. One can well imagine what this spectacle must have brought home to the participants. The Alliance was the people. And the people were together."

We have come a long way in a hundred years.

More and more, the dwindling numbers of us that bother to vote leave our political decisions to an elite--an elite that is itself a beneficiary of trickle-up politics, that leans on the super-rich to finance its campaigns, and that yearns for the support of celebrities to give its activities some visibility. We get most of our political news alone, staring at the tube after dinner or before we go to bed. Much of what we hear or see from our political leaders, appearing at staged events and speaking in sound bites neatly crafted by consultants, is a playback of what we ourselves told them as we sat alone just nights earlier talking on the phone to a researcher for a public opinion pollster. (As others have noted, such surveys might better be called private-opinion polls.) Even those of us who take an "active" interest in politics most often do so by sending our $70 annual membership fee to a national organization that rarely, if ever, holds membership meetings and whose policies are crafted and compromised by an elite in state capitals or in Washington.

Many in that elite were, of course, beneficiaries of the upward redistribution of wealth and income in the 1980s. Phillips writes:

"As the decade closed, the distortion of American wealth raised questions not just about polarization but also about trivialization. Less and less of the nation's wealth was going to people who produced manufactures or commodities. Services were ascendant....The concentration of wealth in the services industries, however, raised another problem. It was one thing for new technologies to reduce demand for farmers, steelworkers and typists, enabling society to concentrate more resources on health, money management and leisure. But the distortion lay in the disproportionate rewards to society's economic, legal and cultural manipulators--from lawyers and investment advisers to advertising executives, merchandisers, consumer finance specialists, fashion designers, communicators, media magnates and entertainment promoters."

It is hardly surprising that such people went along with the Reaganesque policies, detailed by Phillips, that enhanced their advantages and widened the income gulf in the land: whopping tax cuts for the rich, increasing Social Security taxes that fell heavily on middle-class America, rising defense spending that benefited certain segments of the economy and sections of the country, high real rates of interest that accrued to those who held debt, deregulation that proved a boon to certain industries, and decreased social spending that cut the buying power of the poor. Millions of jobs may have been created, but they were by and large at the lower end of the service economy. Billions of dollars were invested, but not so much in economically productive enterprises as in the gigantic crap shoot known as leveraged buyouts. And when it was all over, America found itself a debtor nation, many of whose most important assets were in the hands of the Japanese.

"Accumulation and concentration [of wealth] would be the simultaneous hallmarks of the Nineteen Eighties," Phillips writes, and he provides--in a collection of effective charts and tables--reams of data to buttress his case. The top half of one percent of U.S. households controls more than a quarter of the nation's wealth. During the Reagan era the income share taken by the top 20 percent of the nation's households increased from 41.6 percent to 44 percent, the highest percentage since the Census Bureau began keeping the statistics, and the top one percent got most of it. Phillips cites one study concluding that from 1977 to 1987 the average income of the top one percent of families rose from $174,498 to $303,900. Millionaires, at least as measured by assets, were a commonplace. And President Reagan, given his tilt toward states' rights, was doubtless pleased to find at the end of his tenure that if the geographic spread had worked out, each state and Washington, D.C., could have had its own resident billionaire. These fifty-one billionaires were at the vanguard of the "plutographics" revolution of the 1980s. At the other end of the spectrum, many of the very poor got poorer, as the income supports they needed to subsist were cut. More and more minority members found themselves living in poverty. America may have been back, but 20 percent of its children didn't get the word; they resided in households officially designated impoverished. As to how those in the middle fared during the Reagan presidency, the data are mixed; depending on the precise measurement used, there's a set of statistics for everyone. Yet there can be no doubt that the households whose incomes place them in the middle of our economic order saw, at best, only marginal gains during the Reagan era and nothing approaching the glory days of their better-off countrymen. The situation of this group was well articulated by Frank Levy, a public-policy analyst quoted by Phillips:

"We knew that something was wrong....It was an inequality of prospects in which many people who had attained the middle-class dream could ride out the period while people who aspired to the dream--people who were banking on rising living standards--saw the future shrink."

So the nineties are finally here, and the average American, mad as hell, isn't going to take it any more, right? Well, not so you could tell. Phillips himself acknowledges that there is scant evidence that his populist revolt is brewing. So far, widespread resentment over growing inequality is--a kinder, gentler word--"unfocused." Nor does he suggest in any concrete way what, exactly, we should be expecting. Goodwyn, the historian of the Populist movement, has written that "in its twentieth-century usage, the word 'Populism' has come to imply--simply and inaccurately--a mass popular movement unencumbered by serious intellectual content." Phillips's book will not cause Goodwyn to rethink that definition.

But the data on economic maldistribution that Phillips assembles so adroitly, his discussion of the Reagan-era soak-the-poor policies and our quiescence in the face of them, give us reason to reexamine our political institutions and the social structures that ought to give life to them. Already, invidious comparisons between our malaise and the political vibrancy of Eastern Europe are becoming tiring. We are nodding off to avoid making a clear-eyed assessment of our reality.

As a nation, we have lost the capacity to ponder events, reflect on their meaning, and act. Half of us may show up and vote, but we barely know what we're voting for. We have almost no experience in the richest form of popular governance--deliberative democracy. It is from such collective deliberation, formal and informal, in the temples of power and the taverns of the common people, that the wisest democratic decisions emerge. But that very word "tavern" conjures an idea of community that is alien to most of us. As the sociologist Ray Oldenburg writes in his recent lament for vanishing public spaces, The Great Good Place, our taverns have lost their former "democratic potential." Now the monoculture of the national media reaches into every tavern and bar, the ubiquitous wide-screen TV muffling discussion with its noise. According to Lawrence Goodwyn, the 1890s Populists had to develop a culture apart from the monoculture of the cities to preserve their fragile solidarity and to steel their indignant political perceptions against derision. But the difficulties of sustaining a culture apart from, and to a certain extent against, the environment of TV are all but insuperable today, when nothing is safe from derision.

The ostentatious accumulation of riches in the 1980s, the growing poverty and human suffering, cry out for our attention. In some subliminal fashion our government may get that message, and the pendulum swing that Phillips projects may occur. Already the overheated calls for the dismantling of the welfare state--a commonplace five years ago--have abated. A representative of old money, George Bush has given us the noblesse if not the oblige. But the celebration of privilege seems as firmly rooted in our culture as ever, our capacity to nurture a collective spirit is negligible, and our ability to generate something even vaguely in the tradition of the Populist movement seems poignantly distant.

Thus, the last, sad word to historian Goodwyn:

"Older aspirations--dreams of achieving a civic culture grounded in generous social relations and in a celebration of the vitality of human cooperation and the diversity of human aspiration itself--have come to seem so out of place...that the mere recitation of such longings, however authentic they have always been, now constitutes a social embarrassment."


Copyright © 1990 by Kirk Scharfenberg. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1990; "Populism in the Age of Celebrity"; Volume 265, No. 6; pages 117-119.

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