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Populist Pat Toomey Blurs Ideological Lines

November 9, 2010

Pat Toomey, the Republican Senator-elect from Pennsylvania, isn’t exactly your stereotypical anti-establishment populist. For one thing, as we Pennsylvanians were reminded of repeatedly throughout the campaign by like every news source ever, the guy was a finance whiz, entrepreneur, and (if you listen to his detractors) mogul of Scrooge McDuck Money Bin-type proportions before entering politics. He’s also got pretty high marks from a number of fiscally conservative watchdog groups.

But Toomey received a lot of public support throughout his campaign from the Tea Party—a movement that has gained momentum in part through using the historically anti-establishment rhetoric of populism (particularly Revolutionary War era populism) to advance some really conservative positions. And despite some efforts to keep the Tea Party at arm’s length during the general election, Toomey’s acceptance speech last Tuesday fits in with their rhetoric; it uses populist tropes, but it makes reference to a number of conservative agenda items.

Toomey begins his speech with an attack on Washington elites, saying “Today we send a simple clear message to the establishment in Washington. We are tired of what has been going on down there.” You tell ’em, Howard Beale.

Despite this example of straight up anti-establishment sentiment, the rest of Toomey’s speech is a little less fervent, peppered with references to the by-now-ideologically-neutral-but-still-vaguely-working-class-sounding political trope of “creating jobs.”

It’s at the conclusion of his speech, though, where things start to get really weird with Toomey’s populist rhetoric. Toomey drops not one, but two allusions to historic texts touting the superiority and solidarity of the American citizenry—he says “I still believe as I always have that America is still that shining city on a hill and the 21st century can be another great American Century.” This quote references publisher Henry Luce’s “The American Century” essay, which touted America’s dominant role in the world in the 20th century, and alludes to John Winthrop’s famous “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon, which encouraged Massachusetts Puritans (and, in later allusions by public figures like prototypical populist-sounding conservative Ronald Regan, all American citizens) to consider themselves models for the rest of the world. Heady stuff here, this historical bit, but it’s still populist in flavor in that it places the locus of America’s superiority on the American people, who, according to Toomey, “continue to inspire the rest of the world with our commitment to freedom.”

So we see Toomey blending a populist focus on the American people with more conservative-sounding ideas like American exceptionalism—an idea often used to justify things like “spreading democracy” or, more cynically, “policing the globe.” Elsewhere in his speech, Toomey strays even farther from his rallying call of an anti-establishment opening and into straight up classic conservative territory, dropping buzz-phrases like “voluntary exchange of free people in a free society” and “we can’t borrow and spend our way to prosperity.” In fact, the only policy suggestion Toomey explicitly makes in the entire speech is that “we ought to make the 2003 tax cuts permanent for everyone,” a position that is at the very least often associated with more conservative American politicians. But still, Toomey frames it in terms of communal benefit—we need to keep the tax cuts “for everyone.”

As I hinted earlier, Toomey isn’t the first politician to blend anti-establishment and conservative positions. The Tea Party has been at it for a few years now, and they weren’t the first either. It’s just that they’re particularly good at it. And, of course, though I’ve been focusing on the Toomey example, this sort of thing happens on the left side of the aisle, too—Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote address paints a picture of a unified America, in part through explicit reference to conservative ideas about religion and nation, for example. And liberal linguistic advice guru George Lakoff urges leftists to argue from their “values,” a conservative god-word if there ever was one. What all this means is that when it comes to American political rhetoric these days, if it looks and sounds like a duck, or a revolutionary, or a libertarian, or a capitalist, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is one. Quack, quack.

If you want to know more:

  • My discussion here about the blending of rhetoric associated with multiple conflicting ideologies draws heavily on Norman Fairclough’s analyses of Margaret Thatcher’s language,  in “Discourse and Social Change” and elsewhere.
  • You can find a transcript of Toomey’s speech here, without all the “thank yous” and whatnot. Or, as the folks behind the transcript put it, you only get the “meat.” Yum.
  • Joe Sestak, Toomey’s opponent, gave a concession speech that’s worth checking out as well, if only because I’ve never seen a political candidate look so downright ebullent about narrowly losing a hard-fought race. Plus his daughter is nagging the crap out of him throughout the entire thing, and that’s sort of funny, too.
  • If you don’t believe me that American exceptionalism is a more conservative-type philosophy, the late leftist historian Howard Zinn wrote extensively on the ramifications of the idea. You can read some of his writing here.
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