Senator Mel Martinez (my senator, but I didn't vote for him) gave a speech at the Americas Conference last week in Coral Gables and warned the attendees of the dangers of "Populism" in Venezuela. He went on about how the U.S. needs to be "proactive" and "engaged" to prevent Hugo Chavez from spreading his political philosophy throughout Latin America--what, is he afraid that the government will fall into the hands of "the people?"
Martinez is an immigrant from Cuba. I believe that, on the whole, immigration is great for America, but what I've seen of Cuban immigrants in Miami has convinced me that their understanding of democracy is based more on what they hate about Fidel Castro than on any positive love for the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law. For example, time after time, cultural exchange programs have been halted because Cuban-Americans threaten violence or disruptive demonstrations in protest of Cuban citizens' being allowed to perform in the United States. These protesters don't really believe in freedom; at least, not for other people. Martinez' remarks have to be taken in that context. After decrying "populism," he has the nerve to quote Lincoln's phrase, "of the people, by the people, for the people"--that is populism! What Martinez hates most about President Chavez is that he is friendly with Fidel Castro, and that he is critical of U.S. imperialism. I am appalled that the word "populism" is going the way of "liberal"--what will be left to us?
Populism has a glorious history in the United States. After the Gilded Age, when the diparity between rich and poor reached an untenable level, a level not seen in the U.S. before or since (until now) it was populism that pulled us out of the spiral and set us back on a more reasonable track, with government regulations to curb the excesses of big business. Populism can be right wing, too--Pat Buchanon and Ross Perot, for instance, are sometimes cited as examples of populist politicians, and white supremicists have appropriated the term for their purposes in recent years. However, historically, populism in the U.S. is associated with farmers, with true "grass roots" politics, and with the defeat of a powerful elite through democratic action. I object to the vilification of the term. It seems to me that in the face of U.S. imperialism and indifference to international law, a little populism is highly appropriate.