What Elizabeth Warren, Rand Paul, and Erick Erickson Have in Common

Rant against “marionettes” and “gravy trains” in Thad Cochran’s race rings familiar to all sorts of populists.

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Elizabeth Warren takes the stage for her acceptance after beating incumbent U.S. Senator Scott Bown at the Copley Fairmont November 6, 2012 Boston, Massachusetts. The campaign was highly contested and closely watched and went down to the wire.
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Ron Fournier
June 25, 2014, 5:32 a.m.

You can feel Er­ick Er­ick­son’s pain. You don’t need to be a firebrand con­ser­vat­ive to em­path­ize with Er­ick­son’s screed against the GOP es­tab­lish­ment and its Mis­sis­sippi “ma­ri­on­ette” — Sen. Thad Co­chran. You could be a lib­er­al, a liber­tari­an, or polit­ic­ally dis­en­gaged and still identi­fy with Er­ick­son’s es­say.

It’s an Us-versus-Elites lament fa­mil­i­ar to pop­u­lists of all stripes.

Shortly after Co­chran de­feated a tea-party chal­lenger with the help of the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, out-of-state money, and re­cruited Demo­crat­ic voters, Er­ick­son wrote that the race “does crys­tal­lize for me the de­sires of many to start a third party.”

The prob­lem for those who call them­selves Re­pub­lic­ans is that it is harder and harder to say ex­actly what a Re­pub­lic­an is these days. The great les­son from Mis­sis­sippi is that Re­pub­lic­an means, more or less, that if elec­ted the party will re­ward its ma­jor donors, who are just dif­fer­ent than the Demo­crats’ ma­jor donors. Policy dif­fer­ences are about dif­fer­ent donors, not an ac­tu­al agenda to shift the coun­try in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion.

Sub­sti­tute the word “Re­pub­lic­an” in that first sen­tence for “Demo­crat,” and you’ve got the 2004 stump speech of Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Howard Dean, who claimed to hail from the “Demo­crat­ic wing of the Demo­crat­ic Party.” De­lete “Mis­sis­sippi” and you might mis­take Er­ick­son’s rant for a pas­sage in Eliza­beth War­ren’s auto­bi­o­graphy.

Er­ick­son con­tin­ued:    

The Re­pub­lic­ans have be­come the party of lob­by­ists, most of whom were on twit­ter cel­eb­rat­ing their pur­chase “¦ Co­chran is, for all in­tents and pur­poses, a ma­ri­on­ette. His strings are pulled by staffers and lob­by­ists. They drop him onto the stage of the Sen­ate and pull up a string to raise his hand. These pup­pet­eers are so in­ves­ted in keep­ing their gravy train go­ing that they will, while claim­ing to be Re­pub­lic­ans, flood a Re­pub­lic­an primary with Obama voters to en­sure their gravy train con­tin­ues.

This is clas­sic pop­u­list lan­guage, with echoes of Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an, Huey Long and Theodore Roosevelt — politi­cians who ex­ploited the pub­lic’s frus­tra­tion with shad­owy spe­cial in­terests and their en­a­blers in the polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment.  “When they call the roll in the Sen­ate,” Roosevelt once said, “the Sen­at­ors do not know wheth­er to an­swer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.’”

In an era, like ours, marked by wrench­ing eco­nom­ic change and polit­ic­al dys­func­tion, Roosevelt railed against pup­pet­eers and gravy trains: “The death-knell of the re­pub­lic had rung as soon as the act­ive power be­came lodged in the hands of those who sought, not to do justice to all cit­izens, rich and poor alike, but to stand for one spe­cial class and for its in­terests as op­posed to the in­terests of oth­ers,” he said.

More from Er­ick­son:

I con­tin­ue to op­pose a third party. I’m just not sure what the Re­pub­lic­an Party really stands for any more oth­er than telling Obama no and telling our own cor­por­ate in­terests yes. That’s not much of a plat­form.

He sounds here like a very dif­fer­ent pop­u­list: liber­tari­an-lean­ing Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, who is try­ing to broaden the GOP base. “The Re­pub­lic­an Party,” Paul said re­cently, “will ad­apt, evolve or die.”

Er­ick­son wrote that Co­chran won fairly and with­in the rules.

But this be­comes a longer term prob­lem for the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Its core act­iv­ists hate its lead­er­ship more and more. But its lead­er­ship are de­pend­ent more and more on large check writers to keep their power. Those large check writers are fur­ther and fur­ther re­moved from the in­terests of both the base of the party and Main Street. So to keep power, the GOP fo­cuses more and more on a smal­ler and smal­ler band of pup­pet­eers to keep their ma­ri­on­ettes up­right. At some point there will be more people with knives out to cut the strings than there will be pup­pet­eers with check­books. And at some point those people with knives be­come more in­tent on cut­ting the strings than tak­ing the place of the ma­ri­on­ettes.

It is a sys­tem that can­not per­petu­ate it­self.

That pas­sage re­minded me of the people I met while work­ing on a story about emer­ging strands of pop­u­lism across the polit­ic­al spec­trum. Here are six para­graphs from that story, “Elites Be­ware: Eric Can­tor’s De­feat May Sig­nal a Pop­u­list Re­volu­tion:”

“Amer­ica is for the greedy, for those who’ve made their buck or grabbed their power. It’s not for us,” said Helen Con­over of Ox­ford, Pa. She was eat­ing with two oth­er Chester County em­ploy­ees, Jen­nifer Guy and Kim Kerch­er, at the Penn’s Table diner. Con­over was the table’s op­tim­ist.

“This coun­try’s doomed,” Guy said. Kerch­er nod­ded her head and told me that she’s close to los­ing her house to a mort­gage com­pany and can’t get help from Wash­ing­ton. For years, their county salar­ies haven’t kept pace with the cost of liv­ing. “The rich get rich­er. The poor get be­ne­fits. The middle class pays for it all,” Kerch­er said.

Guy said she’s an in­de­pend­ent voter. Con­over and Kerch­er are re­gistered Re­pub­lic­ans. All three voted for Obama in 2008, hop­ing that he could start chan­ging the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton. Now, they con­sider the pres­id­ent in­ef­fect­ive, if only partly to blame for his fail­ure.

“He hit a brick wall,” Con­over said. “The Re­pub­lic­an Party is not go­ing to let him change any­thing.”

I replied, “But it’s your party.”

“No,” Con­over bristled, “it’s not my party. I don’t have a party.” She paused, took a small bite of her sand­wich and ad­ded, “An Amer­ic­an Party is what I have.”

An Amer­ic­an Party — what does that mean? Per­haps Con­over sees her­self as one of those people Er­ick­son talked about — wield­ing knives at the strings of ma­ri­on­ettes. The es­tab­lish­ment won Tues­day night and will win again, but un­less the two parties ad­just to the times and im­prove the qual­ity of life and polit­ics in Amer­ica, the fu­ture may be­long to angry pop­u­lists.


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