When Elites Lose The Pulse Of Popular Opinion


Jeffrey Bell

Regnery Gateway 202pp $21.95

"It's weird out there, man," President Bush has taken to exclaiming lately. Given events of the past year, who could blame him? Bush has gone from the highest Presidential popularity ratings ever recorded to running a sorry second in his bid for reelection. His Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton, was dead meat wrapped in tabloid newspaper headlines only four months ago. And in between it all, a pint-sized billionaire almost stole the show.

Now comes a little-noticed book that puts this wild year in a fresh and interesting perspective. Forget the old matches, liberal vs. conservative and Democratic vs. Republican. In Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, author Jeffrey Bell defines American politics as a never-ending clash between populists and elitists.

For Bell, populism is optimism about people's ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making ability of one or more elites, acting on behalf of the rest of us. In politics, the line falls between those who trust popular opinion and those who rely on the opinion of the elites.

Elitists focus on the personalities of leaders. Populists prefer issues. Elitists like parliamentary government. Populists like referendums and direct democracy. Elitists judge candidates on how well they react in crisis. Populists look for strongly held convictions. Populists embraced Ross Perot's notion of electronic town meetings. Elitists snickered.

Frequently, populist opinion follows an influential elitist, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Dwight D. Eisenhower. But when the prevailing populist views--what Bell calls the popular stream--veer sharply away from the views of the governing elite, there's upheaval.

The last great pivotal year in modern politics was 1968, Bell argues. President Lyndon B. Johnson bowed out of the race, having lost the support of both the liberal and conservative elites over the Vietnam War. The death of Robert F. Kennedy snuffed out the last effective populist in the party, he says. After the police violence at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, "Middle America" didn't see what all the fuss was about. The elites were appalled. George Wallace splintered the Democrats further by diverting populist votes. And Richard M. Nixon, stressing the potent populist issue of white suburban Silent Majority values, squeaked into office.

Since then, a "split-level alignment" has prevailed. Republicans control the White House because they reflect the conservative view that gained the upper hand in the popular stream. A moderate liberalism has prevailed among elitists, Bell says, and that's where candidates for state and local office come from.

Why? While populists tend to focus only on Presidential races, elites are plugged into politics all the time, almost for the sport of it. When they reach Congress, these political problem solvers tend to represent the special interests of the elites that fund congressional races.

If you think all politicians sound alike and you can't tell an elitist from a populist, Bell can explain that. Liberal candidates are "being advised to sound more populist to attract popular opinion, and conservative candidates to sound less populist to attract the elites--political, media, and financial--whose support or at least acceptance is important in getting a candidacy off the ground."

Only once or twice does Bell, a prominent supply-side Republican, let his ideology shade his analysis. For example, Democrats tend to be "hard-headed practical pols who excel at bringing home the bacon." The pork barrel, of course, holds more than one brand of bacon, and a defense contract snagged by a conservative senator is no less porcine than a big public-works project lassoed by a liberal.

Naturally, Bell believes Ronald Reagan fit comfortably in the popular stream. From tax cuts to Star Wars, Reagan believed issues were simple and understandable to average voters. Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis all failed, Bell argues, because they were liberal elitists whose experts kept giving "the wrong answers" to the popular stream.

Bell never directly applies his theories to what's happening in 1992. But you can, once you get the hang of seeing through his lens. For example, Bell notes that the popular stream, which has not changed much since 1988, or 1968, for that matter, "frequently goes outside of trained political elites when public evils appear to be mounting." No wonder voters were ripe this year for Ross Perot. Not only was he perceived as an outsider but also as a conservative-populist in the image of Reagan.

Despite his brain trust and Rhodes Scholarship, Clinton has adroitly evaded being defined as an elitist. Bush hasn't. He stressed his resume rather than his plans. Worse, he has misidentified some issues as elitist. Environmentalism, for example, has actually been rooted in the popular stream for some time: The sentiment that led to Earth Day, 1970, soon saw Nixon pushing legislation for clean air and water. Bush has sided with business elites in stifling cleanup efforts that polls show are popular with voters.

Finally, in what would seem to defy the reality of 1992, the author argues that national politics isn't about economics. The real clash, he insists, remains populist opinion vs. the views of the elites. If that's so, Bush's strategy to make 1992 a remake of the 1988 "values" slugfest with Michael S. Dukakis could work. It has been a crazy year. It could get crazier.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.