ESSAY, by Sen. Russell Feingold

Who you callin' a Populist, buddy?

About a month ago, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was on the air, talking about Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.

Limbaugh was criticizing Buchanan's protectionist ideas on foreign trade, when, according to press reports, he said, "That's why I've said Buchanan has abandoned conservatism on this issue and has become a populist, manipulating the fears of the people who think that this is the solution to the problem.''

Apparently, calling Pat Buchanan "a populist'' ignited a firestorm of protest from Limbaugh's audience. The telephone lines to Limbaugh's program started running hot as callers denounced Limbaugh's remark. One woman reportedly went so far as to call the talk show host "a hypocrite.''

What, one could well ask, is going on here? What, in particular, has become of populism?

In its broadest sense, populism is a set of political values that strongly identify with the needs and concerns of the average citizen. It's obvious that a lot of different interpretations can fit under so large an umbrella, which is probably why people as disparate as David Duke and Jesse Jackson have been referred to as "populists.''

The populist tradition has deep American roots, some of which are entwined with the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Progressives, in a sense, took their cue from the mandate of our Constitution to create a better society by establishing justice and promoting the general welfare. The fight then was against the concentration of political and economic power in big business, the existence of corrupt political machines and the disenfranchisement of farmers and industrial workers. Of course, Senator Robert M. LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin was a leading figure among progressives, and I am part of his progressive legacy.

Part of that legacy is "the Wisconsin idea,'' the marshaling of the resources of government, business, academia and citizens' groups to come up with solutions to social and economic challenges.

Progressive populism offers optimism and reform. A bedrock progressive belief is that people have the capacity to make change.

They would reject the concept that economic hardships or social ills are immutable conditions of a world that is incurably unfair. Ideas like an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, pure food laws, workers' compensation, direct elections and improved public education were widely disseminated through the progressive vision.

The essential difference between progressive populism and the alternative offered by some on the Right is, I think, the difference between optimism and pessimism. What you might call regressive populists work the furrows of fear and anger. Their message is one of alarm, a cry that the barbarians are at the gates, come to steal jobs, property, money, a way of life. The progressive populist, on the other hand, presents a positive vision of a just society that is ours to create. It is inclusive, compassionate and practical.

Let me outline some of the elements I believe are fundamental to a modern progressive political agenda:
Populism has both bright and dark sides. People can be stirred to seek justice or merely revenge. It is the responsibility of progressives to take the initiative by offering hope, not through mere promises but through practical action.

We should be mindful of an observation Bobby Kennedy made during the 1968 presidential campaign. "We all share each other's fortunes,'' he said. "Where one of us prospers, all of us prosper; and where one of us falters, so do we all. The task of any new leadership will be to rally the diverse forces within America to the common effort all of us require.''

U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin.

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