Studies in American Political Development

The Rise and Decline of Presidential Populism

Terri Bimes a1 and Quinn Mulroy a2
a1 Harvard University
a2 Columbia University

At a Democratic Leadership Council meeting in the summer of 2002, centrist leaders of the Democratic Party took Al Gore to task for his use of populist rhetoric during the 2000 presidential campaign. Ed Rendell, the current governor of Pennsylvania and the former Democratic National Committee Chairman, bemoaned: “We wish Al had refined the message and not used the ‘poor people versus the rich’.” Striking a similar note, Joseph Lieberman charged that Gore's populist language made it difficult for the Democratic ticket to gain the support of middle-class, independent voters who did not see America as “us versus them,” and that these verbal attacks were to blame for Gore's failure to win the popular vote by a more convincing margin. The apparent backlash against Gore's use of populism is the latest manifestation of a transformation that has characterized presidential rhetoric over the past several decades. Put simply, the language of 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. This trend contrasts with the striking, though limited, embrace of populism by such Republicans as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.