Predicting Populism

The 2016 presidential election saw two major candidates who used an incredible amount of populist rhetoric during their campaigns— Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In spite of lying on opposite ends of the dualistic American political spectrum, both claimed to come from humble beginnings and to understand the plight of the average American. While Sanders advocated for the “99%”, which included wage earners making up to ~$250,000 per annum (Wage Statistics), he primarily targeted those in lower income brackets— Effectively garnering the support of many minority groups. Trump, while still using populist rhetoric during his campaign, instead targeted a single group, middle-class whites, to make up the bulk of his support. A Face in the Crowd, a auteur political film released in 1957, highlights a number of themes that are particularly relevant today, in light of this political dynamic. In particular, the film attempts to communicate that politics are a corrupting force, and that populist rhetoric should be met with skepticism.

While the amount of literal political content in A Face in the Crowd is fairly small, the plot of the story and the interactions between the characters are all very much political, and the message of the film is one that warns of the pitfalls of populism. In this way, it very clearly contains a political agenda. This message of caution is delivered in a way that is both impactful and disturbing, as the character of “Lonesome” Rhodes is one crafted to be immediately likable. He is introduced in a way that implies to the viewer that he is the protagonist of the story, which makes his eventual turn to a blatant distributor of propaganda that much more surprising and memorable. Not only does this make the film more entertaining, it also gives the political message more “punch.”

The release of this film came at an interesting time in history, as it released shortly after President Eisenhower’s second election. It is unlikely that this was a coincidence, as Eisenhower notably used a great amount of populist rhetoric in his 1952 campaign. A study done by Bart Bonikowski and Noam Gidron of Harvard University found that “[t]he 1952 Eisenhower campaign, the 1996 Dole campaign, and the 1968 Nixon campaign represent peaks in Republican populism” (p. 1604). They concluded this by measuring the percentage of campaign speeches that employed “populist rhetoric” and comparing the results across parties and election cycles between 1952 and 1996.

This study also showed in the results that those without previous political engagement are much more likely candidates for the use of populism. Eisenhower, who fit that demographic, was able to easily stand opposed to what he considered a vulnerable regime, as he had not been an active participant up to that point. By critiquing the decisions made by the previous administration, he capitalized on the public’s frustration and ignorance of political issues. This placed him firmly into what Stephen Skowronek calls “The Politics of Reconstruction”, which Skowronek identified were present under the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who are widely considered very successful presidencies (Skowronek, p. 36). Eisenhower knew that to grab hold of this approach, he would have to bring to attention the questionable decisions made by the Truman administration, and so he focused on three hot-button issues, identified by Bonikowski and Gidron:  “Korea, Communism, and corruption” (1606).

It is very possible that the A Face in the Crowd was pitched as a result of Eisenhower’s approach to the campaign and the presidency. Eisenhower was incredible at maintaining his positive image, and hoped to largely separate himself from politics in the minds of the people. We can see a very tangible relic of this endeavor in the form of the Chief of Staff, as well as some other positions that Eisenhower established as permanent members of the White House staff.  

Because Eisenhower was a master of delegation, the newly-established Chief of Staff position would allow him to hand off tasks that could hurt his public image. He knew how important it was to maintain the image of a down-to-earth man, just as Rhodes did even late into the film. That is not to say, of course, that Eisenhower had the same intentions as Rhodes, but rather to point out that both knew how powerful popular opinion can be. Eisenhower used it to gain favor in a political environment that had put a Democratic congress in place, while Rhodes used it to gain money, fame, and power for himself.

Projecting Politics describes Citizen Kane (1941) in a way that draws a large number of parallels to A Face in the Crowd— A person with humble beginnings slowly loses their grasp on the values that they once held and chooses to use the power of popularity to get involved in politics. Even similarities in the form of the films can be drawn, and Haas, Elizabeth, et al. go on to describe Citizen Kane as “an antielitist, antiauthoritarian reiteration of the axiom that power corrupts” (126).

The shift in character that we see in Rhodes part of the way through the film is accompanied and complimented by a shift in editing and perspective during his scenes. The scenes in general seem to be staged in a way that make Rhodes seem powerful and unreachable, and are often poorly-lit. This is most obvious in the scenes filmed in Rhodes’ apartment, where he is often pictured looking down from his loft. The dark corners of the room feel sinister and occasionally somber, as if the director was lamenting Rhodes’ transition from a jubilant and lively man walking away from the camera in broad daylight to a greedy, power-obsessed monster. This speaks to an underlying darkness that the film is trying to show exists in those involved in politics, and particularly in those who attempt to come off as apolitical.

Works Cited

Bonikowski, Bart, and Noam Gidron. “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Discourse, 1952–1996.” Social Forces, vol. 94, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1593–1621., doi:10.1093/sf/sov120.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group, 2015.

Skowronek, Stephen. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Wage Statistics for 2016. United States Social Security Administration, www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2016.

 

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