Welcoming their hatred: class populism in Democratic rhetoric in American presidential campaigns, 1932-2012.

Author:Rhodes, Jesse H.

Three days before the 1936 presidential election, Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic candidate for president, addressed a packed house at Madison Square Garden in New York City. In his address, Roosevelt rejected the legacy of "hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing [Republican] Government" that had looked with indifference upon the suffering inflicted by the Great Depression and promised that under Democratic leadership government officials would "keep our sleeves rolled up" to sustain the economic recovery and provide work for needy Americans (Roosevelt 1936a). Having made this pledge, Roosevelt proceeded to the climax of his address, the content of which rendered the speech one of the most famous in the history of American presidential campaigns. Reminding listeners that his administration had constantly "struggle[d] with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, [and] war profiteering," he declared:

We now know that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred. (Roosevelt 1936a, emphasis added)

The crowd of twenty thousand supporters, which had repeatedly interrupted the address with wild applause, "exploded in delirious enthusiasm. Their thunder rolled around the hall" (Brands 2008, 454).

Roosevelt's remarks at Madison Square Garden capped an election campaign characterized by repeated attacks on "economic royalists" and "privileged princes" (Milkis and Nelson 2005, 277; Brands 2008, 453). And his 1936 campaign has been remembered as a high-water mark of Democratic rhetorical antagonism toward wealthy opponents of vigorous federal efforts to regulate the economy and provide working Americans with security against the risks of unemployment and old age (Skowronek 1997, 303). In fact, the predominant view among scholars of presidential politics is that the populist antagonism toward the rich embodied in Democratic rhetoric during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and epitomized in Roosevelt's 1936 campaign increasingly gave way from the 1940s onward to more consensual rhetoric emphasizing the unity of interests between economic classes (Gerring 1997; 1998; Bimes and Mulroy 2004). The assertion that the Democrats have abandoned populist themes in favor of speech more accommodating to the wealthy has also become the conventional wisdom among contemporary journalists and pundits. Speaking about the "New Liberalism" of the Democratic Party, New Yorker essayist George Packer reminded listeners of Roosevelt's fervent rhetorical attacks on the well-to-do, concluding that "[i]t's hard to imagine [Democratic President Barack] Obama saying anything close to that" (Packer 2009; see also Westen 2011).

Have Democrats in fact abandoned class populism, becoming more accommodating in their address toward the affluent over time? In an age of high and rising economic inequality, this is not an idle question. Indeed, it points to an important debate about the soul of the contemporary Democratic Party. Critics of contemporary Democratic politics charge that the party's abandonment of class populism has resulted in an insipid, technocratic mode of address that effectively enshrines the interests and values of the well-to-do (Hacker and Pierson 2010; Bonica et al. 2013). If Democrats have in fact abandoned populism in favor of a passionless consensus rhetoric that resonates with the interests of the wealthy, then the case for their subservience to the powerful would be strong indeed. Additionally, such findings would suggest that one of the most effective rhetorical techniques for discussing economic inequities has been lost from mainstream American political discourse, at least for the time being. The impoverishment of class rhetoric in presidential campaigns would seem to preclude frank and accessible discussion about why economic inequality has increased, how this development has been tied to political (as well as economic) decisions, and in what ways this problem might be addressed in the political arena.

However, if Democrats have retained a commitment to class populism in their campaign rhetoric, then the situation is more complex, and arguably more hopeful as well. The finding that Democrats have continued to make extensive use of class populist appeals would raise serious questions about the accuracy of claims that the party has embraced a bland, consensus-oriented philosophy that is blind to the increasing concentration of economic benefits among members of the wealthy elite. Indeed, it would suggest the continuing availability in presidential campaigns of a class-conscious mode of address capable both of speaking to the causes and consequences of rising economic inequality and of proposing political action capable of producing more equitable economic outcomes.

Given the high stakes attending resolution of this matter, we believe a new look at the dynamics of class populism in Democratic rhetoric is necessary. In this article we conduct a systematic quantitative and qualitative content analysis of every Democratic presidential candidate utterance referring to the wealthy in general election campaigns from 1932-2012--the very period in which class populism allegedly declined as a feature of Democratic speech--to reevaluate the received view about Democrats' increasing rhetorical complaisance toward the rich. Our findings directly controvert the conventional wisdom that the class populism that once permeated Democratic rhetoric has been replaced by more consensual patterns of discourse. We find that, far from fading from Democratic candidate speeches, rhetorical attention to the wealthy has grown exponentially over the past eight decades. Moreover, Democratic candidates have hardly adopted a warm tone toward the rich: in fact, quantitative and qualitative measures of tone in statements referring to the affluent suggest that negative sentiment has held steady over time.

Democratic candidates have not merely contented themselves with mocking the wealthy, however. They have also used rhetoric to politicize the extreme concentration of wealth, both by repeatedly--and increasingly--criticizing Republicans for coddling the rich and by more frequently vowing to raise taxes on the affluent in order to preserve and extend social programs serving low- and middle-income Americans.

Against the conventional wisdom, our results provide strong evidence that class populism remains a prominent theme in the Democratic rhetorical repertoire. More generally, our findings demonstrate the continuing availability in presidential campaigns of rhetorical themes that facilitate frank and accessible discussion of the phenomenon of rising economic inequality, the evaluation of the political underpinnings of this development, and the consideration of initiatives to redistribute opportunities and resources to the less fortunate. All told, our findings reveal that the contemporary public sphere is, at least from the perspective of presidential campaign rhetoric, far more robust and attentive to matters of economic fairness than prevailing views would lead us to believe.

The Evolution of Democratic Rhetoric Toward the Wealthy

The conventional wisdom--which we reassess in this article--is that rhetoric antagonistic toward the wealthy has declined substantially as a feature of Democratic political speech since its heyday in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supplanted by a new language of inclusiveness, reconciliation between economic classes, and technocratic competence (see especially Gerring 1997; 1998; Bimes and Mulroy 2004). According to Gerring, between 1896 and 1948 "Democrats' political philosophy could be encapsulated in the ideal of majority rule and in the populist narrative in which the people fought for their rights against an economic and political elite" (Gerring 1998, 189). After 1948, however, "the [Democratic] party's agenda was broadened ... to include a host of social groups and political issues that did not fit neatly into the masses-versus classes perspective of the Populist period "(1997, 168-69; see also 1998, 188-89, 232-33). Furthermore, Gerring contends,

Forsaking the shrill polemics of [William Jennings] Bryan, the party now adopted the soothing tones and reassuring demeanor of Adlai Stevenson. A rhetoric of reconciliation replaced one of resentment ... References to illicit business practices died out, to be replaced by a resolutely pro-business perspective. The organizing theme of Democratic ideology changed from an attack against 'special privilege,' to a call for inclusion. (1) This development was attended by the ascendance of a new technocratic rhetoric that, rather than highlighting class inequalities, "focused on [aggregate] outputs--i.e., economic performance--and particularly on the three major indicators of inflation, employment, and growth" (Gerring 1998, 236).

This view is also reflected in Terri Bimes and Quinn Mulroy's (2004) important study of presidential populism. Through an analysis of presidential inaugural and state of the union messages, Bimes and Mulroy (2004, 136) contend that "the language of [class] populism, which in the nineteenth century constituted one of the most formidable rhetorical weapons in the arsenal of Democratic presidents, has faded and been displaced by a more consensual language." (2) Beginning with Andrew Jackson in 1829, "Democratic presidents, conceiving of themselves as tribunes of the people, peppered their addresses and messages with images of the working classes struggling against a monied elite, as well as of workers and farmers battling against manufacturing interests," they write (Bimes and Mulroy 2004, 137). In the twentieth century, however (and...

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