Why "Fake Populism" Sells

Noam Scheiber makes an interesting argument:

Liberals ... assume that what most Americans want from politics is a modest improvement in their lives: Affordable health care, retirement security, good schools for their children. Under this paradigm, voters should prefer a politician whose life experience has taught him how difficult it can be to get by without such staples. The fake populist is maddening because he professes to understand their concerns but has zero life experience (or at least recent life experience) that would make such understanding possible.

But suppose most working-class voters want something entirely different from what liberals assume. Suppose they don't want to be slightly better off than they are today. Suppose they want to be rich. And the way they evaluate candidates, who are frequently rich themselves, is by wondering: Is this the kind of rich person I'd like to be? Now ask yourself: If you were a working-class voter in Middle America, what kind of rich person would you want to be? Would you want to be the kind of rich person who eats at pricey French restaurants, plays classical guitar, and vacations among the cognescenti in Sun Valley, Idaho? Or would you want to be the kind of rich person who noshes on peanut butter and jelly, reads Sports Illustrated, and kicks back at a ranch in the middle of nowhere? The difference between you and the first kind of rich person is a vast cultural chasm.

... that's more or less what Fred Thompson and George W. Bush are suggesting when they throw on the shit-kickers and turn up the drawl. Sure, they're phonies. But if you were rich, you'd want to be the same kind of phony, not a John Kerry kind of phony. (Though, come to think of it, Kerry's actually pretty authentic as a rich guy.) Liberals see richness and hominess as contradictory. But, for many working-class voters, they're complements. They like their rich people homey, and their homey people rich.

This is a sharp analysis, but I think it overstates the extent to which fake populism's appeal is a matter of Americans wanting to be rich themselves - though of course they do - when it's really just a matter of the enduring American tendency to prize cultural equality far more than economic equality. (Or "civic equality" more than "money equality," to borrow Mickey Kaus's terms.) We like our rich people just fine, in other words, so long as they don't put on airs, summer on Nantucket, or marry Teresa Heinz. This doesn't mean that being from a working-class background doesn't give an American politician a certain edge - Bill Clinton, for instance, used his childhood in Hope, Arkansas to pretty good effect - but in a race between two rich Ivy Leaguers, which is what the last couple Presidential elections have been and the next one may turn out to be, you're much more in tune with the democratic zeitgeist if you're faking populism than if you're being true to your inner millionaire.

Though come to think of it, what's necessarily "authentic" about Kerry's kind of millionaire lifestyle, and what's so "fake" about a rich person who wears cowboy boots, drinks beer and reads SI? It's only "fake" if you're pretending, and while Fred Thompson may be putting on an act, I'm pretty sure that George W. Bush really likes all the accoutrements of Crawford living, and that he'd be wearing cowboy books and talking with a twang even if he'd never run for office. In his famous piece on Bush-hatred, Jon Chait called the President a "pampered frat boy masquerading as [a rough-hewn Texan], with his pickup truck and blue jeans serving as the perfect props to disguise his plutocratic nature." Pampered he certainly is, but I don't think the jeans and truck are really "props" in any meaningful sense. His father faked being jes' folks, but Bush the younger, for all his blue-blood ancestry, isn't putting on an act; he is what he is, a rich guy with democratic tastes. Call him a "fake populist," if you want, but the label only fits because his policies aren't populist; his populist personality is real enough.