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A Populist Tide
Published on Thursday, December 11, 2003 by
A Populist Tide
by Steven Rosenfeld

On the day that former Vice President Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean's presidential campaign, a Green—City Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzales—garnered 47 percent of the vote in the San Francisco mayor's race, losing to establishment Democrat Gavin Newsome, but still turning heads in a city where only 3 percent of voters were registered as Greens.

Gonzales, who actually won a majority of votes cast on Election Day but could not surpass Newsome's early lead in absentee ballots, did not spawn a last-minute electoral surge because he was a Green. Rather, his candidacy and the campaign he led is part of a wave of aggressive, ideal-clenching populism that is cresting nationally and heading into the 2004 presidential campaign.

San Francisco is a politically liberal city of diverse and competitive constituencies. It is a city where these roots matter, and just as Dean has told Democrats it's time to stand up for their principles, Gonzales ran a race where he pledged to take the city's day-to-day management out of the hands of entrenched insiders and restore a public purpose and sense of integrity to governance.

It's worth noting that Gonzales only entered the mayor's race this fall. In contrast, Mayor-elect Gavin Newsome was the outgoing, term-limited Mayor Willie Brown's hand-picked successor. He had been running for a year and out-spent Gonzales by a ten-to-one margin. Newsome also had the support of the city's establishment Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Diane Feinstein and was endorsed by Al Gore and Bill Clinton. It's no secret Democrats feared losing City Hall in one of their party's last bastion cities and major fund-raising centers.

Considering these all odds and political advantages in Newsome's favor, Gonzales' 47 percent showing—spurred by an incredible level of grassroots mobilization with hundreds of volunteers with no prior experience in electoral politics—is all the more notable.

"My interpretation is that San Francisco is a vanguard city," said Richard DeLeon, a San Francisco State professor of political science and longtime observer of city politics. "It is at leading edge of a major structural political reform movement."

Few East Coast pundits have spent much time dissecting October's ouster of former California Governor Gray Davis. But Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger's victory was also related to this wave of volatile, anti-establishment populism that propelled the Gonzales vote. In both the Davis recall election and Gonzales insurgency, the existing, established, entrenched political order—or insider-chosen successors—was targeted by candidates who said they were closer to "the people's" professed political principles.

What Gonzales, Schwarzenneger and Dean all have in common is they are—or were—promising to realign the established political system so governing institutions would better-reflect populist values about what it means to participate in a democracy.

Professor DeLeon has written extensively about this dynamic in American political history. He draws on a theory promulgated by the conservative political historian, Samuel Huntington in his 1981 book American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony.

Since the country's founding, DeLeon writes the American national identity "has been defined by a consensus on basic political values known as the American Creed.

"The values of the American Creed are liberty, equality, individualism, constitutionalism, and democracy. Despite seeming inconsistencies among these values (e.g., liberty versus equality), they have managed to co-exist for more than 200 years as essential guideposts in the collective American political mind. The many who subscribe to this creed are more fully "American" in their political thinking and sense of national identity than are the few who do not." DeLeon observes that when this gap between these democratic ideals becomes out of synch with the institutions and practices of its elected leaders, historic political change movements arise. DeLeon thinks the 2004 electoral season may be such a time. After decades of voter complacency turning into diminishing public regard and cynicism for governing institution, he says populist figures like Gonzales, Schwarzenneger and Dean emerge and are embraced. DeLeon writes:

"According to Huntington, complacent masses, cynical and hypocritical elites, and routine interest group politics usually combine to create a stable political order. (But) During four periods of American history, however, widespread moralistic fervor became dominant and unleashed movements of "creedal passion" that attacked established power structures, leveled the political playing field, and reformed government institutions.

"Leaders of the American Revolution, the Jacksonian era, the Progressive era, and the years of protest in the 1960s and early 1970s all asserted consensus values in condemning and then reforming the institutions that had betrayed them. Consistent with the dictates of the American Creed, these reforms also drained power from governing institutions and weakened their capacity to mobilize resources and exercise authority." It's no accident that Howard Dean, in a Dec. 9 statement touting Al Gore's endorsement, compared his presidential candidacy to Andrew Jackson's insurgency.

Those on the East Coast in entrenched political circles or in the Washington-based press corps have been quick to dismiss the Dean insurgency and will spend no time looking at Matt Gonzalez's 47 percent showing. They also spent little time mulling over Davis' ouster, because after all, they are not interested in people that are not in power.

But there is something going on in the country's political psyche that is being tapped by these various and seemingly diverse political insurgencies. They are all prompting new and fervent participation in politics—and it is participation driven by a perception that these campaigns will restore governance that's in line with core and defining principles. This is a wave that will continue to rise and crash into the Bush re-election campaign. You can bet Al Gore knows this—and it's part of why he endorsed Dean. After all, he's from Tennessee, the state that gave 19th-century America Andrew Jackson.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior editor for

Copyright 2003


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