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THE NATION : POLITICS : Despite His Reputation, Perot's Anything but the 'Great Commoner'

August 13, 1995|Bruce J. Schulman; | Bruce J. Schulman is associate professor of history at Boston University and the author of "From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt" (Duke University Press)

BOSTON — A century ago, Populism emerged in America's southern and western hinterlands. Oppressed by nearly two decades of economic hardship, angered by the haughty tyrannies of robber barons, fed up with the corruption and complacency of the two major parties and their elected officials, dirt farmers and poor wage-earners rebelled. They joined local alliances, formed a third national political party and rallied behind fire-breathing leaders like Tom Watson (who "talked like the thrust of a Bowie knife"), Mary ("Raise More Hell than Corn") Lease and the "Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan.

This weekend in Texas, the onetime hot bed of Populism where the Old South and the Great Plains collide, Ross Perot renews his claim to the populist mantle. All the major Republican presidential hopefuls are expected to visit his Dallas headquarters to show obeisance to the man who captured 19 million votes in 1992. They--and a host of pundits--honor Perot as a repository of the fears, frustrations and aspirations of working Americans, a plain-talking man of the people, a crusader against the status quo and the corrupt elites who defend it.

But Perot is no Populist. Billionaire mogul, real estate speculator, defense contractor, he embodies the blood-sucking plutocrat whom the original Populists most reviled. The People's Party of the 1890s venerated the producers of wealth, not its managers and manipulators. The party's platform endorsed labor unions, decried long work hours and autocratic employers, and championed the graduated income tax as a means of redistributing wealth from business to farmers and laborers. The Populists saw tycoons like Perot as elite enemies, not as heroes with the common touch. "The fruits of the toil of millions," the People's Party declared in 1892, "are boldly stolen to build up the fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind."

Perot identifies not with farmers and wage-earners, but with owners and employers. His company, Electronic Data Systems, became infamous for arbitrarily firing workers and autocratic rules; one analyst described it as more paramilitary operation than business. In fact, Perot claims to speak for the people, not because of his modest upbringing in East Texas, but because he has built a large corporation and an immense fortune. "He's buying the White House for the people," one opponent jibed during Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, "because it's out of our price range."

The original Populists, and many of their 20th-Century descendants from Louisiana's Huey Long, in the 1930s, to Oklahoma's Fred Harris, in the 1970s, remained sharply critical of the unregulated free market. Unlike Perot, who pledges to get democratic government off the back of business, American Populists embraced government regulation to get out from under the evils of unregulated big business, to free themselves from the domination of the "big-money boys." The People's Party platform demanded government ownership of the railroads, telephone and telegraph systems. "We believe that the time has come," the Populists declared in 1892, "when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads." Populists believed that unregulated markets injured working folk, that market values could and must bend to other, loftier concerns.

Populists, then and now, reserved special scorn for corruption and privilege. Unregulated Big Business posed so great a threat because great fortunes could corrupt democracy. Perot shamelessly and hypocritically echoes this fear; he styles himself the slayer of special interests, the rough-bristled broom who will sweep corruption out of Washington. Yet, he built his company, his vast wealth and his political influence entirely on cushy government contracts. No one has been more at home in or has benefited more from the schmoozing and backslapping world of dealing with legislators in return for contracts than Perot. He personifies the plunder of the many by the few that American Populists have derided.

Perot has inherited, however, some of the shadier elements of his Texas Populist heritage. His condescending utterances on race, and his hostility toward foreigners, echo the racism and nativism that ultimately derailed the original Populists. And Perot's irrational outbursts about sinister plots against his family recall the People's Party's overblown accusation that "a vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents and is rapidly taking possession of the world."

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