Obama campaign taps populist political culture

Yesterday, when I looked at a map of Barack Obama’s campaign victories, a striking pattern was apparent: his victories came in states that had strong populist histories and political cultures.

Populism, in its deepest sense, is about civic agency, people developing the awareness and skills to be culture makers and authors of their own lives, not victims or spectators. In the great populist movements of our history––the family farmers cooperative movement of the 1880s and 1890s, the reform movements of the Great Depression, the civil rights movement of the 1960s––people were agents, not passive recipients. They learned to work with others across differences to address common challenges, to build healthy communities, and to create a more democratic society.

Minnesota’s populist history may explain the avalanche of support for Barack Obama in this state.

Although he has not fleshed out his message with policy initiatives to involve people in the work of government, Obama's appeal has definitely been about civic agency. "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to make change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours," is the lead on his web site, backed up by "Yes we can," as his campaign slogan. In his speech after Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, he used the words of a great civil rights song, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Minnesota’s history is full of populism like this. As Ted Kolderie, former director of the Citizens League put it, what is distinctive about the quality of the state is that “this place is made.? Political leaders across the spectrum have embraced civic populism, from Democratic U.S. senators Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone to Al Quie, Republican governor in the 1980s.

As soon as Obama’s message gained sufficient volume to be heard in Minnesota–-and as people began paying attention–-it resonated through the political culture of the state like a deep note vibrating in a base drum. The Humphrey Institute-Minnesota Public Radio poll found Hillary Clinton to be ahead of Obama by seven points in the period from Jan. 20 to 27. But on Feb. 5, when Minnesota Democrats held their caucuses, Obama won 67 delegates to Clinton’s 32––a phenomenal change. Political science professor Lawrence Jacobs, the poll director, believes that the "political culture" may well be the best explanation.

This pattern suggests the return of populism in American politics. It is also a reminder that while candidates may carry the message and become a partner, the message is that “we are the ones.? No political leader can do it for us.


Check out Peter Levine's comments and further analysis, including how Obama's message "We are the ones we've been waiting for" might be interpreted differently in places without a history of populism.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs