Echoes of Discontent: Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and the Resurgence of Populism
by allen d. hertzke
cq press, 293 pages, $29.95
In a recent book about the 1992 elections, two veteran political correspondents describe an electorate in a nasty mood, “as mad as hell.” The fact of the matter, however, is that Americans have always been peeved about their politicians and their politics. In short, discontent is an American political tradition, as American as apple pie.
More often than not popular discontent has centered on a specific grievance and the inability, or unwillingness, of the political status quo to address it. When such a situation arises, the instinct of the aggrieved is to look outside the political establishment and form a new political movement. Indeed, American history is littered with short-lived third parties, each meant to defend a principle or attack an ill perpetuated or ignored by the political powers that be. Some of the more notable of these expressions of discontent include the American [Know Nothing] Party, founded in the decade before the Civil War to counter the influence of immigrants; the Prohibition Party, founded after the Civil War to rid America of the scourge of demon rum; the Populist Party of the 1890s, which sought to remedy the lot of debtor farmers; and, in this century, the pro-segregation States’ Rights Party of 1948.
Each of these bursts of indignation is part of a larger populist tradition that is as old as the Republic itself. Populism has no political agenda per se. It is more a disposition: specifically, a distaste for existing patterns of power and privilege. In its simplest guise, populist politics is about the concerns, interests, and values of the little guy, the common man.
Though populist impulses go as far back as the colonial era, the contemporary tradition was born with the fiery rhetoric of William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s. Since Bryan, populist movements have often reflected a blend of economic progressivism and moral traditionalism. “The great political questions,” Bryan insisted, “are in the final analysis great moral questions.”
To the chagrin of the disciples of secularism, religiously informed values continue to influence the politics of the common man in America. This reality is the subject of Allen Hertzke’s recent study of the populist politics of Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson, Echoes of Discontent.
To be sure, Jackson and Robertson are not the only populist voices on the American political landscape today—witness Ross Perot—but over the past decade both have tapped into a wellspring of discontent among those threatened by what Hertzke perceptively refers to as the “corrosive” and “exploitive” individualism championed by America’s cultural elites. The unfettered individualism and moral relativism that characterizes modern America has outraged millions today who have witnessed an ongoing assault against traditional boundaries of belief and behavior.
In discussing the resurgence of populist politics associated with Jackson and Robertson, Hertzke, a University of Oklahoma political scientist, maintains that to focus on the ideological discord between these two preachers is to miss their common crusade against “the moral hollowness and atomizing tendencies of liberal culture and politics.” The bulk of Echoes of Discontent is devoted to developing this thesis.
Hertzke’s analysis is divided into seven chapters. The book’s first two chapters examine the populist legacy, with a special focus on the relationship between religion and populism. Subsequent chapters look at the worldview of Jackson and Robertson, the role of their respective church affiliates in the 1988 campaign, the relationship between their activists and the major parties, and an opinion survey of their respective followers. Hertzke concludes with a summary chapter in which he addresses the stresses and challenges of contemporary liberalism.
Although much of the author’s biographical information on Jackson and Robertson will be familiar to readers, his discussion is often thought provoking. For example, Hertzke suggests that Jesse Jackson’s self-identification with the dispossessed finds its roots in Jackson’s own painful childhood as the illegitimate son of an unmarried teenage girl. Hertzke also highlights the impact of Jackson’s pervasively religious upbringing on his later political thinking.
Hertzke points out that because of the world in which Jackson was raised—religious, rural, Southern, and black—it is not surprising that his thinking has exhibited “a strong element of culturally conservative themes,” including a critique of “boundless liberalism” and pleas for America’s underclass to recover a “moral center.” To support this contention, Hertzke quotes Jackson as saying that “people who respect their creator . . . behave differently.”
If these themes reflect Jackson’s upbringing and were once a part of his rhetorical repertoire, they are certainly infrequently heard from him today. The reason for this Hertzke locates in Jackson’s ambitions. Put bluntly, Jackson has sold his political soul to the left wing of the Democratic party, and, enthusiastically embraced by the left, he has been “transformed by it.”
Though he tries to reconcile his religiously grounded vision with his embrace of the cultural agenda of the left, there is a transparent tension in Jackson’s politics that surely accounts for his limited electoral success outside of the black community. In this regard, Hertzke notes one of the great paradoxes of American politics today, namely, that blacks—among the most traditionally religious communities within American society—continue to identify with an increasingly secular and culturally liberal Democratic party. Hertzke acknowledges that Jackson’s sympathy for the left’s agenda on the family, gay rights, and abortion has generated tensions among culturally conservative black church leaders, but he argues that racial pride has proved a more potent appeal among Jackson’s black constituents.
Not surprisingly, Hertzke demonstrates that Pat Robertson, alone among Republican Party presidential aspirants, has made significant inroads in gaining support from black Americans. Nearly 20 percent of Robertson’s backers come from the black community, a figure that is more than double the support of any other Republican. And while more than 90 percent of black voters supported Jackson in recent primaries, Hertzke notes that “many of these same black voters register remarkable sympathy for Robertson...”
Robertson’s appeal among blacks is correctly attributed to religious and cultural attitudes. His jeremiads against the collapse of moral absolutes resonates with many black Americans who have experienced firsthand the despair and destruction wrought by the collapse of shared public norms. Even more significant, in terms of America’s culture wars, is the fact that large numbers of blacks share Pat Robertson’s religious commitments. On any given Sunday a large majority of black Americans attend church. Sixty-five percent of black Americans identify themselves as fundamentalists, compared with less than 30 percent of the white population. On nearly all religious indicators, including intensity of religious commitment and belief in the Bible, black Americans are more conservative than are whites.
The implications of this fact for American politics and its culture wars are enormous. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, these truths have been all but ignored by most in the media and the academy. For this reason alone, Echoes of Discontent is an important corrective to the dominant culture’s bias against religion and religiously grounded explanations of social life.
Echoes of Discontent is also a good primer for those wishing to broaden their understanding of two popular preachers and the populist movements with which they are associated. This much of the book is interesting and frequently enlightening. What is less satisfying, however, is the author’s overly sympathetic treatment of his subjects. Hertzke is correct to place Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson in the tradition of American populist protest. Likewise, his broader theoretical conclusion—namely, that democracy is only as strong as the religiously informed values, beliefs, and habits that sustain it—is sound. But Hertzke is less convincing in proving his thesis that Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson represent a similar “communitarian response” to excessive individualism. This is arguably true of Pat Robertson, and perhaps the early Jesse Jackson. However, it is not true of the recent Jesse Jackson, the Jackson too often beholden to a cultural agenda destructive of moral absolutes and, ultimately, of democratic community itself.
Dean C. Curry is Chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. He is the author of A World Without Tyranny: Christian Faith and International Politics.