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Published on Thursday, December 14, 2000 in the Financial Times
America's Sucker-in-Chief
by Thomas Frank
After a decade choked with fake populisms - presidents munching Big Macs, national leaders emoting at town hall meetings, chief executives listening to focus groups and online chat rooms, and every billionaire the object of his own grass-roots movement - it finally came down to this: an election in which the power and righteousness of the common people were everywhere celebrated and in which only the power and righteousness and almighty millions of the corporation mattered.

Formally, of course, there were important differences in the way the two candidates tried to talk the language of the working class. Al Gore made a half-hearted effort to summon up the blue-collar fire that was once the Democrats' most reliable weapon. His efforts, though, were compromised both by his obvious unfamiliarity with the concerns of working families and, more glaringly, by his own record.

Bill Clinton had used the same workerist language back in 1992; within three years his administration had joined in the Republican war on the New Deal, deregulating here, privatising there, abolishing welfare and allowing antitrust enforcement to go so slack that the greatest wave of mergers and conglomerations in the nation's history was soon under way. Mr Gore's sheepish, late-blooming populism was, in other words, more than a little hamstrung by his lengthy and conspicuous service on behalf of the nation's financial elite.

George W. Bush's populism, meanwhile, suffered from no such contradictions. An utterly unrepentant son of privilege, he embraced a novel and purely American vision of the class struggle, a market populism according to which it is one's attunement to the needs of business that signals one's sympathy for the working man.

Market populism is an idea that one encounters everywhere in the US these days. In understanding markets as democracies far more vital than our formal electoral system, market populism hails internet billionaires as hierarchy-smashing revolutionaries; it portrays stock markets as parliaments and small investors as militant sans-culottes; it understands corporate raiders as activists and chief executives as tribunes of the people; it interprets every hit film, every popular TV show, every best-seller as a transparent expression of the general will.

For George W. Bush, the charmingly illiterate offspring of the oil industry, market populism is an idea so natural that it requires little explanation. Completely untroubled in his faith that the perspective of his class is also the perspective of the common people, he instinctively believes that capitalists stand united with workers in righteous battle against a mutual enemy, the taxing, regulating, profit- reducing know-it-alls of what he reviles, simply, as "government".

Market populism is not primarily a product of political thought. It is, rather, a populism constructed largely by business itself - through advertising, management theory, the literature of the bull market - and this is why Mr Bush's campaign so frequently sounded like a advertisement for an investment company or the latest best-selling demand that the Dow Jones ascend immediately to 36,000.

But this was an election decided on issues of attitude and personal bearing and that was where Mr Bush's market populism was at its most effective. Americans were encouraged to support the Bush heir's claim to the throne not so much because of his specific policies but because of his "humility", because his struggle was said to be identical with that of the nobodies in their battle with the intellectual elites - the people who obnoxiously try to bend the world to their will without going through the good offices of the market.

Stop to think about Mr Bush's market populism for more than a few seconds and you realise it is delusional stuff, a deliberate effort to humanise the real masters of the world we live in. These are the same truly arrogant corporations that have polarised the distribution of US wealth to a degree unknown in our lifetimes, that would pay workers nothing and dump toxic sludge freely if they could get away with it and that also happen to have bankrolled both candidates' campaigns.

In this climate of pervasive dishonesty, what seems to have made the difference was sincerity. Mr Gore mouthed the honest language of workerist populism when he had no right to do so; Mr Bush spoke a degraded language of corporate populism that he seemed to believe without hesitation.

There is something about the man that makes him a perfect specimen of the age. While Al Gore was a technocrat, everyone knows that the real credit for the great bull market goes to simple, uncomplicated believers like Mr Bush, the ones who faithfully swallowed the TV commercials, who bought at the top, who gaped at the internet just as they were told to do. This is an age of faith in the US - the more guileless the better - and in George W. Bush, America has found itself a sucker-in-chief.

The writer is editor of The Baffler magazine

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2000


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