“Power is in the hands of the powerless, and those hands have handed it to me.”

Jonathan Duggan

That’s what Willie Stark, the colorful populist governor of Louisiana, declares in the recently released film “All the King’s Men.” But unless you’ve seen the film, read the classic novel by Robert Penn Warren or know something of the real-life stylings of former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long (on whose life Warren based Stark), you’ll need a clarification on the full meaning of that quote. Allow me to complete the quote with what it implies: “. and so I can do with it what I please.”

And that captures the complicated dilemma of balancing the spirit of populism and democracy. Strictly speaking, not all populist leaders are democratically elected, but they do at some point enjoy popular support. In a way, populism – roughly, the political inclination that appeals to the masses by accusing society’s elites of taking advantage of them – is the purest form of democracy. It is the epitome of “a government of the people, for the people, by the people.” Its highest goal, it would seem, is a world where average people have access to their leaders and everything that government does is for the benefit of everyone.

Sure, that sounds unrealistic, but that’s hardly the biggest problem. When people see a man, pale and sweaty from his grueling campaign schedule, mount the stage at the county fair, curse every politician that ever screwed them and promise to “nail ’em up,” something happens: They believe him.

They believed Huey Long. He became governor of Louisiana and built thousands of miles of roads, numerous bridges, hospitals and schools. He provided free textbooks to schoolchildren, worked to eliminate poll taxes and then, as senator, crafted the “Share Our Wealth” program – which made even President Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms appear moderate.

But that’s not all he did. Nepotism, bribery and even blackmail were nothing out of the ordinary for the man who came to be known as “The Kingfish.” He was a man of the people – to a fault. His desire to do good for the common folk was so strong that its implementation justified even the most ruthless of means. Many came to see Long as a dictator, and the state Legislature even attempted to impeach him.

But if absolute power corrupted Huey Long absolutely, we can at least sympathize with his reasons; he never lost sight of the poor man that he was fighting for. The evil found in some practitioners of the populist persuasion, however, was even more glaring in the late 1930s in Germany. When an Austrian living in Munich began his rumblings against all those that threatened the prestige of Germany, people listened. When he promised to cut unemployment, build dams and roads and restore Germany to economic and social superiority, Great Depression-starved masses listened and supported him.

And then they watched as Adolf Hitler oversaw the slaughter of nine million people.

Though he came to power by way of a coup, Uganda’s Idi Amin espoused tinges of populism and briefly enjoyed popular support – right up until about the time he started eating his enemies. (See the upcoming film “The Last King of Scotland” for that sad embodiment of populist maneuvering. At least that’s what I think you’d call it; one can never tell for sure because Amin was, first and foremost, insane.)

Even in democracies, when power is in the hands of the people, they’ll hand it to the guy who promises to serve them best. You can’t blame them for that – after all, it’s what we ask of them. But once that guy has that power, there’s no telling what he’ll do.

You can put in all the checks and balances you want, but the bottom line is that the perfect outcome of pure democracy – seeing the will of the people implemented – sometimes entails many of the evils of dictatorship. America has never been a pure democracy, and perhaps that’s a good thing, because desperate people make desperate choices.

And now that desperation lives in the Middle East. It has brought us demagogues like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and the populist Hamas government in Palestine. We can denounce them, we can bomb them, but the populist rises from among the people, and if you kill him, another will replace him. Their roots lie in destitution and we can only truly eliminate them when we eliminate the factors that sustain them.

After all, would Willie Stark have had a chance in hell if all those bridges, roads and schools already existed?

Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *