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Jeffrey Bell
Jeffrey Bell
Populism and Elitism
ISBN: 0895265176
Populism and Elitism
Mr. Bell talked about his book Populism & Elitism. He discussed the end of communism and the spread of democracy and said that 'populist vs. elitist' has replaced 'liberal vs. conservative.' Bell was a campaign strategist for Ronald Reagan.
Populism and Elitism
Program Air Date: July 12, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jeffrey Bell, author of "Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality." Define those two terms.
JEFFREY BELL, AUTHOR, "POPULISM AND ELITISM: POLITICS IN THE AGE OF EQUALITY" Populism I see as optimism about people's competence to handle their own affairs. Elitism I see as optimism about an elite's ability to handle the affairs of the people, always in comparison. In other words, you might not be that optimistic about the people at a given time, but you'd be more optimistic if you were a populist than you would be about the elite's ability to handle their problems for them.
LAMB: "Politics in the Age of Equality." Explain that.
BELL: I think the end of ruling monarchy in World War I was a greatly underrated event in its importance. I think in 1918, 1920, around that time, when the last big ruling monarchies vanished from the face of the globe -- Turkey, Austria, Germany, Russia, all those monarchies disappeared at once -- the world was plunged fully into the age that de Tocqueville foresaw a century earlier, and we started working out the implications of what political equality -- that nobody owns anybody else in a country -- was really all about.
LAMB: You also mention Mao and the Gang of Four as their deaths being significant. Why?
BELL: That ended a certain kind of experiment with equality. As Tocqueville understood, once you have political equality, the idea is so powerful that it extends into other areas. And the end of Maoism in 1976, when Mao died and the Gang of Four was jailed, marked the end of the radical Marxist experiment with equality of economic result.
LAMB: Is it...
BELL: And once that was out the window, it was all downhill for communism from there, in my opinion.
LAMB: Why did you write the book?
BELL: I was puzzled, in my own life in politics and other things, by the inability to explain certain things by the traditional liberal-conservative categories. I don't say those terms are meaningless; I'm a conservative, always have been, going back to being a teen-ager for Barry Goldwater in the '60s. But I found myself agreeing with liberals on certain things more than I did my fellow conservatives. And, in particular, I was interested in the spread of democracy in the '70s, when I was making a Senate race in New Jersey. And right after I lost that race to Bill Bradley, I got interested in writing a book about the spread of democracy. And it was the reaction of the people I took that idea to that really struck me.
LAMB: Who do you expect to read this book?
BELL: I don't know. The book kind of defies categorization, and my publisher is very puzzled about who might read it. And I don't know who might read it. I did want to appeal to thoughtful people, liberals as well as conservatives, who are dissatisfied with the categories that we have.
LAMB: You say you're a conservative. Are you a populist or an elitist?
BELL: I think I'm a populist. The book tries to be analytical, and there are things to be said on behalf of the elitist point of view, and I tried to make that argument clear. But I myself, as I found in going around the people and the idea of writing a book about democracy, I found not hostility to the idea of the spread of democracy, but just a kind of indifference to it among elites of both the left and the right. And it struck me that when people would come to me and say, “Yeah, I think you're probably right. I think democracy might have a better future than people think” -- remember, this was the late 1970s, when there weren't that many democracies in the world. There weren't that many people under democracy as a share of world population. And yet, people would say, “Yeah, I think it might spread. I think you might be right about that, but it won't really change much if it does spread.” There was a pessimism about people's ability to handle democracy from both the left, right and center that really struck me.
LAMB: Let me ask you about three men. George Bush. What is he?
BELL: A mixture. He's from a blue-blood background. His foreign policy has an elitist tinge to it because he believes in stability as his ultimate goal in getting together with political elites to arrange things. There's very little mention of the new world order -- or rather, of democracy in the new world order or of the people's ability to rule themselves. On the other hand, on social issues -- values issues, as I call them -- he is much more populist than his opposition, either Democratic or Mr. Perot. He believes in the ability of the people to set their own community standards rather than having standards imposed by some other elite, whether it's a judicial elite or Supreme Court or whatever, or Congress coming in and saying, “You can't make any laws on abortion; we're going to tell you what to do.”
LAMB: Bill Clinton.
BELL: Bill Clinton is more populist than Bush on foreign policy and more elitist than Bush on values issues.
LAMB: Ross Perot.
BELL: Ross Perot -- and this is interesting -- in my opinion, he's an elitist. He's an elitist across the board in his attitudes. Some of his views about industrial policy, picking winners and losers, that's very elitist as an economic policy. But the thing that strikes me as especially elitist about Perot is the way he talks about how he's going to make decisions. This thing of -- when he's asked about health care, he says, “We're going to call the best people into a room and we're all going to talk about it and come out with the answer.” And then the people will presumably ratify it on a call-in show. And that is the essence of elitist argumentation. It doesn't involve the people in the decision-making process; it defers to experts, the expertise in a given area at any one time, and really trusts those elites to handle things on their own.

As for the TV show idea, I think there is really an elitist element about that, too, because of the type of audience that public affairs programming will tend to draw, particularly those who are asked to dial a 900 number or an 800 number, if Mr. Perot's in a generous mood.
LAMB: Meaning, he'll pay for it.
BELL: Yeah, meaning he'll pay for it. I think the type of people who will watch PBS will watch that show. And so elite opinion, rather than a popular opinion stream, is more likely to be mobilized. It's interesting Mr. Perot never mentions initiative and referendum, which Ronald Reagan, who is a populist, often talked favorably about. Initiative and referendum is the ultimate populist political reformist. It forces the people into deciding, on a date certain, about an issue, whether it's the common market or Proposition 13 in California. Maybe some of them don't vote, but that's their decision. They have a right to vote and an ability to vote. Initiative and referendum, which -- I talked to a reporter who's covered Perot from the beginning, and this person said he hadn't heard Perot ever mention initiative and referendum.
LAMB: What would be your guess as to who's on the other side of that lens out there watching this program? What kind of people are sitting here listening to you talk about populism and elitism?
BELL: I hope it's people who are interested in politics in general. I think that approximates your audience. But I hope ...
LAMB: We're told that, by the way, more than 90 percent of our audience votes, so that'll give you one hint.
BELL: That gives me an idea. Within that group of the many people who are interested in politics in your audience, it's the people who are dissatisfied with the political elites as they are. Some of them may be interested in voting for Perot -- a lot of them probably are -- but people who are dissatisfied with the way we think about politics and wonder whether the old categories have lost a lot of their meaning.
LAMB: When did you write the last word for this book?
BELL: Aside from minor changes that, like, mention the dissolution of the Soviet Union and things like that, 1990.
LAMB: The reason why I asked -- because on page 108, you write the following “An incumbent administration that fails to provide an answer to a valance issue -- that is, a public evil widely acknowledged as such--is certain to grow in unpopularity.” Did you envision what has happened in the country?
BELL: The fact ...
LAMB: Were you talking about the Bush administration?
BELL: No, I wasn't thinking of them. It was a general comment. But it's true that if I had known in 1990 that the Bush administration would have produced so little economic growth, it would have been fairly predictable that Bush would be in trouble politically, because economic growth is a valance issue, one where both sides of the argument agree on the end but disagree as to the means of getting there.
LAMB: Then, a couple pages later, you say, “In fact, in its elevation of candidates, the popular opinion stream frequently goes outside of trained political elites when public evils appear to be mounting.” Is that Ross Perot?
BELL: Sure.
LAMB: Did you anticipate him?
BELL: No, I didn't anticipate him in 1990, but, sure, that's exactly right. It applies to people like Eisenhower, who come from outside of politics, even if they go through the regular party structure. Reagan, too, to some extent; he was an actor; he was from outside of politics. And, yeah, when the reigning political elite seem to be gridlocked or frustrated, then very often, the electorate gets interested in somebody totally outside the system.
LAMB: How does someone become an elite?
BELL: I think it's a combination of things: education, your status, the status of the profession that you're in, things like that.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
BELL: Columbia.
LAMB: Now is that an elitist school?
BELL: Sure. It's...
LAMB: You say you're a populist, though.
BELL: Yeah. That's the easiest thing to misunderstand in what I'm saying, which is that a member of an elite can be either a populist or an elitist. I don't think that populism and elitism are means of identifying your social class. I think they are world views. I think they actually are views of the world based on your understanding of people and how they operate. And somebody from any social class could be either a populist or an elitist.
LAMB: What was Ronald Reagan?
BELL: He was a populist -- totally, across the board, no reservations, in my opinion. He was populist in every area. I write that he was the most populistic president that we've had since Andrew Jackson. I think he just had those instincts. I worked for him for several years, starting in the 1970s, and as a member of the political elite, I was always frustrated with Reagan -- this was at the time -- because he was totally uninterested in dealing with other political elites or journalistic elites. He would do it. If you told him he had to go to a meeting with Ward Boss X or journalist Y, he would do that because that was part of his political life, but his great interest was in replying to his personal mail, was in keeping in touch with the grass roots by that means. And he meticulously read his mail from the public and answered as many letters as he possibly could. And people around him on his team were baffled by that. We didn't get it. We thought it was a misuse of his time. If he wanted to become president, that--why isn't he talking about political opportunities, political maneuvering? Why isn't he spending more time with journalists?
LAMB: When did you work for him?
BELL: I went to work for him in his last year as governor in 1974 out in Sacramento. And I wasn't brought in to join his administration; I was brought in to start forming the political operation that could lead -- he was undecided at that time -- could lead toward a race in 1976. And, of course, it did lead to the race against Ford, and I stayed with him through the convention in '76. I then had a different role in his 1980 race.
LAMB: What was that?
BELL: I wasn't a full-time member of the campaign. I was active in New Jersey politics and I didn't want to get involved full time, but I was called in fairly late in the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary phase to redo his television commercials. And I did them very cheaply with the guy who had done some of my commercials when I was running for the Senate. And we put those commercials on, and I think they helped to win the early primaries.
LAMB: Jimmy Carter.
BELL: Jimmy Carter ran as a quasi-populist. He ran with a populistic kind of message in 1976, particularly in the primaries. He contrasted with the Birch Bayhs and the other candidates who were running that year. He sounded like he wanted to be in touch with the people. When he said he wanted a government that was as good as the American people, he acted like someone who wanted a populistic version of government. I think as he got the nomination, picked Walter Mondale, moved into the general election and then into his administration, his attitudes became more and more elitist.
LAMB: How about Gerry Ford?
BELL: Gerry Ford was the only Republican candidate for president since the '60s who really didn't have that much of a populist element in his appeal. Nixon used elements of populism; Reagan, as I said, I think, was a populist; Bush, in 1988, who people don't think of as a populist and, in a lot of ways isn't, used social populist themes to turn the polls in 1988 and beat Michael Dukakis. So every successful presidential race that we've had by a Republican in the last 24 years when the GOP has dominated the White House have had a populist element, except the Ford race in 1976. That one didn't.
LAMB: George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams. What were they?
BELL: George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who founded the Federalist Party, were elitists. They were egalitarians. You can believe in political equality, that people are entitled; they have a right to -- one man, one vote and all the rest. George Washington rejected the kingship of the United States repeatedly because he didn't believe in monarchy, but he was very pessimistic about the American people's ability to govern themselves, always. Hamilton was, too. The least pessimistic he was the time he was collaborating with Madison on the writing of the Federalist Papers.

Jefferson was an out-and-out populist. He believed in the people. He thought the people should rule. He thought political elites were the problem, but Jefferson didn't assume that political elites were automatically evil. He founded the University of Virginia in part to try to educate a new generation of political elites who would be responsive to the people, but Jefferson's own thinking was completely populist. Madison was somewhere in between, but I would say leaning populist.
LAMB: Can you be born into a populist family but become an elite?
BELL: Absolutely.
LAMB: Can you elect to be a populist or an elitist?
BELL: Yeah. It just depends on what you think about people's ability.
LAMB: Can the head of a labor union be an elitist?
BELL: Yeah. Often is.
LAMB: Why?
BELL: Because in a lot of trade unionism, there's an assumption among labor elites that the rank and file are weak, that the rank and file are unable to fend for themselves, that they are not good decision-makers. I mean, it's understandable that this comes up, because the job of the labor elite is to bargain for the little guy, bargain for the rank and file. But it often evolves from that into a denial of the right of the rank and file to participate in union decisions.
LAMB: What is Senator Bill Bradley?
BELL: Bill Bradley, who defeated me in my Senate race and who I've come to know and like, both then and since then, is closer to a populist view than most established Democratic leaders. He's not completely that way, but I think his leadership in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was a profoundly populist move on his part.
LAMB: He's a Rhodes scholar?
BELL: He's a Rhodes scholar. And there's nothing about -- you can be a Rhodes scholar and be or become a populist. You can be a corporate CEO; you can be a billionaire and be a populist. I don't think Ross Perot is an elitist because he's a billionaire; I think he's an elitist for the reasons I mention, which have to do with his world view. But Bradley comes from an elite background in Missouri, went to Princeton, became a Rhodes scholar, became a millionaire at an early age in basketball and, I think, for whatever combination of reasons that form his lifestyle, he has some populist tendencies.
LAMB: How many times have you run for office?
BELL: Twice.
LAMB: What were they?
BELL: The US Senate both times.
LAMB: Who did you run against?
BELL: I beat a US senator in the Republican primary in 1978 -- a sitting US senator, Clifford Case, thinking that, well, if I did that, then I'd probably win the general election, because the Democrats usually picked weak candidates to run against Case. He was unbeatable in the general election because of his labor support, etc. And that was the year they picked Bill Bradley to run, so I lost that race. Then, in '82, I lost in the primary for the Senate to Millicent Fenwick, and she was extremely popular. There had just been a big feature on "60 Minutes" about her and she had great name recognition. But I don't think that's the main reason I lost. I lost because I was seen as an architect of the Reagan economic policies, and they were working horribly then. There was a terrible recession: 10 percent unemployment, huge interest rates. And being an architect of Reaganomics at that point, in 1982, was nothing to write home about.
LAMB: What was Clifford Case?
BELL: He was a liberal Republican. He was a down-the-line liberal Republican of the type that we don't see as much anymore.
LAMB: Make him an elitist?
BELL: I think he basically had that view. He fit into what a lot of Democrats, like Walter Mondale, still fit into: interest-group elitism. He tended to vote with labor, vote with the civil rights movement. Whatever the policy elites were among liberals in Washington, he tended to vote down the line with them.
LAMB: What is Millicent Fenwick?
BELL: She is more elitist, I'd say. I wouldn't say she had a down-the-line liberal voting record, but I think her mentality was more elitist, of the aristocratic type.
LAMB: Are you ever going to run for office again?
BELL: I might. But I don't have any immediate plans to do that.
LAMB: If you say you're a populist, and a lot of the people you ran against were --both sides -- is there a time for a populist and a time for an elitist to run for office? And what are the signals?
BELL: A populist can do well when people think that they are out of touch, that they just can't penetrate into the political decision-making. There are other times when the problem seems to be with the elites exclusively -- when the elites seem to be corrupt and -- or tired, like 1952, when Eisenhower won after the Democrats had been in power for 20 years -- an elitist who was going to come in and fix things. It wasn't that people thought things were horrible in 1952; they just thought that the Democratic establishment, the New Deal cycle, was tired in 1952. And the fact that Eisenhower was more elitist than populist, I don't think, particularly bothered people; they just wanted a change.
LAMB: If you ran again, what would be the reason, besides winning?
BELL: I'd like to -- if I ran again, I'd probably try to do more than the book does to flush out what the implications of populist thought would be in policy -- you know, an issue-by-issue policy basis.
LAMB: Did you learn anything from doing this book that you would apply to another race?
BELL: I think that a lot of the book came out of my races and a lot of it -- once I was able to fully clarify my thought, clarify my discontent about the categories, I think maturing that would give me a more orderly approach to how I operated. The difference between the popular and the elite opinion streams and how hard it is to go up against the elite opinion stream, even when you know the people are with you -- I think that's something that's most applicable to candidates from the book -- the idea that if you have a populist view on something, you have to brave the disapproval of a lot of elites on the issues that -- where you're out of the elite mainstream. A lot of candidates are very affected by the people they see every day. It isn't a matter so much of reading polls. The polls might tell you one thing, but then your peers -- the other people in Congress, say, or the press or the opinion leaders back in your district or your state -- will have enormous disapproval if you take up certain issues, even if you know for a fact that those issues are popular.
LAMB: Let me ask you some of the things around this book. The book sells for $21.95, if you pay retail. It's published by Regnery Gateway. We've had a number of Regnery Gateway books recently. Is this publisher starting to publish more? Or do they take better -- you know, more chances -- is it known as a conservative book publisher?
BELL: It is. It's got a great conservative background. They originally published "The Conservative Mind" by Russell Kerr; "God & Man at Yale" by William Buckley in the '50s. And Al Regnery, the present president of Regnery Gateway, is an entrepreneur of ideas. He likes to take some risks, get a lot of ideas out there. As I mentioned in the beginning of the show, the book doesn't fit into any category. There's no way to tell whether there's a market for it or what kind of market that might be. But he just liked it. He just liked it. He thought the populist-elitist thing clarified a lot of things he had been struggling with in his own thinking over the years. And he just wanted to go with it. He really didn't demand very many changes at all.
LAMB: Two hundred and two pages, including the index. It's short.
BELL: It's short. And it could have been a lot longer, because I had enormous numbers of 3x5 cards that cover a lot of specific aspects of this, but I realized at some point that I'm just not a professional writer -- I've got other career things I have to pursue, and also that -- maybe this is a rationalization -- but having a lot of detail, making it a 500-page, intense narrative of everything that's been going on would bog it down, that it'd be less likely to get an audience given the fact that the ideas themselves are some of them are kind of counterintuitive and complex.
LAMB: I want to ask you about that. For the generalist who's not a philosopher or a historian or a political scientist, you've got to work at this book. I mean, I think it was Mortimer Adler said in that book he wrote, "How to Read a Book," always read something above your intelligence level so you have to struggle at it. And this is tough on a generalist. I'm very much a generalist, and I read a lot of philosophy; a lot of terms. Did you have to study to put this together? Or is that stuff you learned earlier in your life?
BELL: I either read a lot of books or I had a research assistant who went into a lot of books with ideas in mind, with ideas that I was looking for, and he knew. He did a very good job in finding the things that I was most interested in a lot of books of philosophy and history that I didn't have time to read myself. I am a layman; I have no advanced degree; I don't claim to be a professional historian. I know that some of the sections on history will come under criticism because I don't have the professional credentials.

So one of the people who helped me in giving a grant to the book--a man named Nicholas Rizopoulos, who's now at the Council of Foreign Relations, convinced me not to try to do some kind of scholarly history. He said that what you really have to do is an essay that draws on history and political philosophy but doesn't claim any expertise. It kind of -- think of it as an essay on these things. And I had to go through a lot of books and research a lot of books to have some of the raw material for writing about these things, but I'm too much of a layman to withstand the kind of scholarly scrutiny that I would have had if I had tried to have a hugely footnoted, long, detailed book about the history of politics.
LAMB: How many people saw this book and read it to help you make sure that you didn't do that at the end? I mean, did you have a lot of friends that looked it over--looked over the manuscript?
BELL: Yeah. Quite a few. Some of them didn't like certain sections of it, but others liked the same sections. So it turned out to be kind of a wash. I wrote it--I'm a very slow writer, and I keep revising as I go along, so I guess you could say I wrote it in one draft, but the draft took the better part of seven or eight years from beginning to end. It took me a long time. And the whole concept of the book changed from a book on democracy--the spread of democracy to a book on the ideas that influenced the spread of democracy and that still remain important once a democracy is established in any given country.
LAMB: You write, “Jude Wanniski first persuaded me to write a book about politics, and Irving Kristol built my confidence in moving ahead with the framework established in the early chapters. Robert Novak provided important ideas and structural suggestions.” I can go on. Those are three names that a lot of people know. It's reported that Jude Wanniski is for Perot. You still in contact with him? Is he? Irving Kristol -- I don't know that he's announced who he's for. Robert Novak has often written -- they've written in their column about Jack Kemp. Are people being fragmented that helped you get into this, on who they're supporting now?
BELL: Looks like it. I haven't talked to Jude specifically about his support of Perot, which is of fairly recent origin, but I don't think you can support Perot on a populist basis. I don't think that you can say that this is a man who trusts the people, who really wants the people to have a big role in decision-making. He thinks they own the country; that's what political equality is all about. But as I mentioned earlier, plenty of people who are committed to political equality are not populist in their basic thought.
LAMB: Does anybody have to be a populist for you to support them?
BELL: No. I think that you have to take the best alternative in a given situation. There are very talented elitists who the country needs at given times, but I would tend to look for somebody who had a basic populist cast in mind in looking for a candidate to be for.
LAMB: Let me ask you about -- you're president of the Lehrman Bell -- Muller or Mueller? ...
BELL: Mueller.
LAMB: ... Cannon Incorporated. What is that?
BELL: That's an economic forecasting firm that also does political forecasting. I handle a lot of the political end. Two of my partners, Lew Lehrman and John Mueller, have developed a new way of looking at the world economy that gives very good forecasts on inflation, particularly, and also growth and markets. And we started this kind of economic analysis, at least bringing it public, in 1988. Right prior to that, I was with Jack Kemp. I was his national campaign coordinator in 1988, and we started the firm after Kemp lost in the early primaries.
LAMB: Who's Cannon?
BELL: Cannon is a guy who used to be a chief of staff on the Hill -- used to be chief of staff for Congressman Duncan Hunter and he was also in the Kemp campaign.
LAMB: And who's John Mueller?
BELL: He was Kemp's chief economist and speechwriter for 10 years. He originally worked in my campaign in '78, and I recommended him -- and Jude Wanniski, who gave him to me, recommended him to me -- recommended him to Jack Kemp. And he came down here after my defeat and worked for Kemp for 10 years until we started the firm.
LAMB: Up front, you say, “Among those providing generous support were The Lehrman Institute, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Allen-Bradley Foundation, the W.H. Brady Foundation, Richard and Virginia Gilder” -- I can go on; there are a lot of their names. But Lehrman is a part of your group now, and the Lehrman Institute supported you. Who is Lew Lehrman?
BELL: Lew Lehrman is the man who built Rite Aid, the big drugstore chain. He was president of Rite Aid, and he built it along with one other top executive in the 1970s, primarily. He resigned from that to pursue public policy interests of long standing, and eventually ran for governor of New York in 1982. He was defeated very narrowly by Mario Cuomo in that year. He hasn't run for public office since, but he's remained very active in public policy. He started Citizens for America, a pro-Reagan lobbying group. I worked with Lew Lehrman on that. And after -- he became operating head of Morgan Stanley Asset Management for a couple of years. And he helped us start our firm, and eventually he joined our firm as its chairman.
LAMB: These names: Wanniski, Kristol, Novak, Lehrman -- are they populists or...
BELL: Mostly. Mostly they have a populist orientation. Irving Kristol wrote a column back in 1970s in The Wall Street Journal called "Blame the People!"--exclamation point. And it was during the height of the Carter malaise period. And he analyzed how elites in Washington and elsewhere were blaming the people -- the people's desire to consume, the people's laziness, the people's this, the people's that --for everything that was going wrong with government. And that really hit a chord with me, because I thought that approximated to what I was seeing. And he's understood this thesis from the beginning.
LAMB: You wanted to thank the Reader's Digest Foundation, which sponsors the DeWitt Wallace Chair, which you occupied for more than a year at AEI. What is all of that? I mean, who's DeWitt Wallace and what's AEI?
BELL: DeWitt Wallace founded the most populist medium of print journalism, the Reader's Digest, back in the 1920s. And he started a foundation which the Reader's Digest is involved with, and they do a lot of public policy grants. They have a DeWitt Wallace Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, which is a well-known conservative think tank in Washington.
LAMB: Let me ask you one more question, at least about this area of the book in your acknowledgement section. You say that you were heavily involved in ballots for the tax cut of 1981 and the Tax Reform Act of '86, in the latter working closely with Congressman Jack Kemp, Senators Bill Bradley and Bob Packwood. You ran against Bill Bradley, but yet, there you are, working with him today. Is he the kind of guy you could support now?
BELL: I'm a partisan Republican. I have the Republican outlook and the Republican position on a lot of things. I think Bill Bradley would be very good for the Democrats, if they got hold of him, and also if he wanted to run, because, after all, he hasn't presented himself to the Democratic primary voters in a presidential race. But I think the Democratic Party -- maybe I shouldn't, as a Republican, give them this advice, but I think they could do a lot worse.
LAMB: What kind of clients does Lehrman Bell Mueller and Cannon Incorporated have?
BELL: Very elite investment houses, big banks, mutual funds, people who want to have our perspective on the economy. They don't necessarily buy everything we say, but they pay for a lot of different viewpoints on how the economy works.
LAMB: You mention Greg Fossedal, and he's chairman of the Alex de Tocqueville Institution. You mentioned Tocqueville earlier in the program. Who was he and what is this foundation? And who's Gregory Fossedal?
BELL: Gregory wrote a very interesting book on the spread of democracy that may be something that's quite close to the book that I felt I wanted to write. That was published in 1987. And around the same time, or maybe a little before, he started the Tocqueville Institution to spread the ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville, who was the great founder of the analysis of equality, of political equality, in the world. He saw so many of the implications of equality; predicted -- virtually predicted the Cold War between America and Russia 150 years in advance -- things like that. And Tocqueville was the greatest political writer that we've had in the age of equality, and he saw the implications of its spread. He did not live to see the idea of political equality spread completely over the globe the way it has in the 20th century, but he anticipated a lot of the tensions, a lot of the effects that the end of monarchy and the displacement of monarchy by democracy would have in the world.
LAMB: The media: populist or elitist?
BELL: The media is an interesting case. It's changed, and part of the reason it's changed over the last 40 years is that it went way up in status. In the 1950s, newspaper reporting was kind of a blue-collar field; they were mostly union members. They were heavy smokers and drinkers, hard livers, and they were kind of lower-middle-class, blue-collar workers. Many of them did not have a college degree. And it had a populist tinge to it, the rank and file of journalism in those days.

The transition started in the 1960s. A lot of things changed in the 1960s; I'm sure you would be the first to say that a lot of this book pivots on the 1960s in terms of the recent changes that we've had. And one of the things that changed in that decade was journalism. And it kept changing into the 1970s. And in a period of 20 years, it went from being a blue-collar profession to a profession that had an elite status, very high in our society; that it was right up there with lawyers and doctors -- maybe higher, for at least a few years.

And having a great growth in elite status will tend to -- not necessarily, but it will tend to bring elitism -- the idea that elites can better help the people than the people can help themselves -- bring elitism along with it, and I think that's one of the big reasons why journalism has changed.
LAMB: This network is 13 years old -- a little bit older than that. What kind of a network is this?
BELL: Completely populist.
LAMB: Why?
BELL: When you started this, you decided that you were optimistic about people's ability to process information for themselves. You had to be, because you weren't going to put on any commentators or interpretation. You were basically going to say, “Look, here it is. Here's public life. Look at it for yourself; draw your own conclusions” I don't think you would have been likely to set up the network that way, in a way that nobody else was talking about, if you hadn't been basically optimistic about people's ability to make decisions.
LAMB: What's likely to happen as -- based on history, with communications? We've got -- you know, you have 55 channels to choose from; people's viewing habits are changing; the votership is at 50 percent. What's going to happen with all this? George Gilder writes about the future and -- what's your prediction?
BELL: I think the technology is ... I agree with George Gilder that the technology is making the media somewhat more populist because of the greater choice available to people in what they can tune to. I think the decline in dominance of the networks in viewership is, on the whole, a good thing. I'm one of those who follows the, “Well, the viewership went from 90 percent in the '70s and the '80s; 70, 60.” I think, on balance, that it's not a bad thing; the lower that arrow goes, it's not a bad thing to me. I don't say that the alternatives across the cable networks, across the channels, are everything I would like to see them be, but I think we're getting there.
LAMB: What if people don't watch politics at all?
BELL: It's not a good sign. I disagree with some of my fellow conservatives who see the decline in voting as -- maybe it's even a sign of health, that, well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And it is true that Switzerland, the most populist of all countries, that lets the people overrule their political elites on anything--they do have voting that's quite low. Part of the reason is, they have a lot more elections than other people, than other countries, and it's not a big thing. If you're in a parliamentary -- an elitist parliamentary system in Europe and you can only have some input every five years, you're more likely to vote in that one election.

But on the whole, having said all that, I do think that the decline in voting is related to other things that involve cooperation -- the decline in other forms of cooperation, like law-abidingness. I think that it's an unfortunate trend.
LAMB: You write a lot about Switzerland and Great Britain. Would you compare the two countries -- the Parliament with the Swiss way of referendum. And why do they elect a new president every year?
BELL: It just rotates among a board.
LAMB: They don't have to vote?
BELL: No. The people don't have to vote. There's a seven-man board and it rotates into a different person every year.
LAMB: In Switzerland.
BELL: Yeah. The presidency of Switzerland is no big thing.
LAMB: Is that president the chief executive officer of the country?
BELL: Kind of, but what they think of as a chief executive is somebody who's basically a caretaker. The political elites have very little status in Switzerland. The have parties, but the party balance rarely changes because the political elites of Switzerland know that anytime they do something that's out of line with what popular opinion is, they can be overruled. There will be an initiative and there'll be a referendum and the thing will be overthrown, and it often happens. And so the political elites in Switzerland have probably less status than political elites have in any other country.
LAMB: But the per-capita income in Switzerland is one of the highest in the world.
BELL: Exactly. In other words, it works. When you put the people in charge, it really does work. The one reservation I have about that is the issue of foreign policy. Electorates will tend, when foreign policy is important to them, they'll tend to put somebody strong in charge and kind of delegate the foreign policy to them. They don't want to necessarily vote on every detail of external relations. So I do think it's no accident that Switzerland is one of the few countries that really has tried not to have a foreign policy. They tried not to join NATO, not to join the common market. Until recently, they didn't even join the UN. And so I think a country that populist, that democratic -- it’s no accident that they don't have a foreign policy.
LAMB: Could this country operate that way?
BELL: No, because we need a foreign policy. You do need a president who is commander in chief and has some discretion to act in the world.
LAMB: Great Britain -- Parliament: elitist, populist?
BELL: Britain's system is not as elitist as some of the ones on the continent. I think the most elitist conceivable system is a parliamentary system that has proportional representation. Britain, at least, has what they call “first past the post.” The winner in each district wins the seat, even if he only gets 30 percent in a four-way race. I think that's healthy -- is to let there be a winner-take-all situation. And so Britain occasionally has a hung Parliament -- they last had one in '74 -- but they don't have one very often. And that part is healthy.

The rest of it isn't as healthy from a populist point of view. The fact that political elites can decide the timing of the election is a great plus for political elites. The fact that it's centralized means that local government isn't nearly as important in Britain. And I think that accounts for some of the feeling they have in Scotland and elsewhere that they want independence, is that they don't have anything like our state system. There's very little decentralization in Britain. And also, another thing that's elitist is the merger of the legislative and the executive; the fact that the executive is exclusively picked from the legislative and there's no independence. The people have only one shot at determining the elites; they can't separate out the legislative from the executive.

And finally, the most important thing that they lack is the equivalent of a primary. You can't become the leader of a party in Britain unless you get the approval of the political elites of that party. You can't come in the way Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan did and upset the political elites in primaries.
LAMB: Israel's proportional. Is that an elitist society, then?
BELL: It's elitist, and I think...
LAMB: Or government.
BELL: Yeah, I think so. And I think it's an elitist form of democracy, and I think they're thinking of changing it. And I don't blame them, because it makes for gridlock and really arcane maneuvering by political elites whenever you have proportional representation.
LAMB: What would you do in this country if you had the system that you think would be the best? Would you change anything?
BELL: I'd have more scope for initiative and referendum. About 20-some states have initiative and referendum now. I'd like to see that in all 50. My fellow New Jersey Republicans are trying to get that in New Jersey now, and I think that a lot of--in the Progressive period, which was a populist era in the political realm, initiative and referendum spread in -- but mostly in the West and Midwest, and I think that would be a good thing.

I'm very open to the idea of a national initiative and referendum in certain areas. I do think you need a president for foreign policy, but that doesn't mean certain questions of foreign policy couldn't be settled. Initiative and referendum work very well on a one-shot basis on the common market, in places like Britain and Spain, where people thought that they were going to be against it, but then the debate developed and people joined the common market -- they voted to join it.
LAMB: Off the subject. You said something interesting on page 103 about gaffes, and you referred to a gaffe as a misstatement or a lapse in taste by a candidate. In the elite opinion strain, gaffes are taken seriously, and a series of gaffes can even disqualify a candidate in the minds of many elite voters. Can you give us an example of what you were talking about there?
BELL: Well, Reagan had a lot of gaffes. And when he said that trees do all the polluting, then elites said, “This man is an idiot,” and they assumed that he was headed for a disaster. But the popular opinion stream really doesn't care about that type of thing; they are much more focused on issues, whereas the elite opinion stream, which is very careerist, is fascinated by who's up, who's down. That's why they ask all these horse-race questions when they get a chance to grill the candidates. And when you have a call-in show, almost all the questions are on issues.
LAMB: Explain, then, the President Bush, Governor Clinton and Ross Perot phenomenon, where you say Ross Perot is an elitist, but -- you wouldn't call them gaffes, but every time he says something, the media goes back and works it over with a fine-tooth comb. What's going on there?
BELL: Some of them are gaffes and won't do him much harm, but other things that involve contradictions, I think, are laying the seeds for problems for him later on. For example, when he takes a shot at Vice President Quayle for attacking the "Murphy Brown" show, probably the single most high-profile issue that we've had in the campaign this year, and then you find out that he was attacking another TV show called "Doogie Howser" a few months earlier, that--to me, that goes beyond a gaffe. That begins to raise questions about veracity.
LAMB: Do elites like elites? And do populists like populists?
BELL: Could you rephrase that one?
LAMB: Well, if you say that Ross Perot is an elitist, if people out there in the country are elitist, do they automatically like an elitist vs. -- you mentioned that Bill Clinton is part populist and George Bush is part populist. I guess -- do people tend to like their same kind?
BELL: Yeah. I think there's ... Perot is, in my opinion, an elitist who is benefiting from an enormous populist impulse in the country, so there's a contradiction there. But more often, what you suggest is true. Elites and elitists tended to like Jimmy Carter and his way of analyzing issues: the fact that he would work long hours, that he had a meticulous grasp of the details of issues, that he could cite from his reading accurately and at great length just about anything, the fact that he was an incrementalist -- that he moved very slowly in policy areas and didn't want to take big steps. All of these things impressed elites. It was more the elite, the careerist-type lifestyle.

Whereas Reagan, with a nine to five style, who delegated a lot of detailed analysis to his aides but stayed focused on the big picture and came out with radical solutions that he said the average person could understand--that was not liked among elites. That kind -- that whole style -- quite apart from the substance of Reagan's positions.
LAMB: When was this country the most elitist in its politics and the most populist?
BELL: I would say the most populist period that we've had was the Jacksonian period, Andrew Jackson, the 1820s and the 1830s, and he jerked it away. Andrew Jackson and his allies jerked the system away from a very elitist system in the Era of Good Feeling, which was called that because the elites were all together in the same party. The Congress was controlling the presidential nominations at that time, which few people remember. The whole thing was consolidated into an elite in the old Democratic-Republican Jeffersonian party. And James Monroe won his last re-election unopposed in 1820.

Then the election of 1824, which a lot of people have been remembering lately because it went into the House, blew everything up. Jackson finished first and eventually, four years later, won the presidency. And he was a thoroughgoing populist. The bank controversy was a populist-elitist battle over how the country's money would be invested: whether it would be invested from the center or whether people would be allowed to incorporate businesses and make their own economic decisions. The victory of the Jacksonians, which took until the 1840s to fully achieve, was the most populist period in American history.

On the issues that were being fought over there, the Jacksonians -- as soon as they won, they disintegrated, because on the big new values issue that was coming down the pike, they were anything but populist, and that, of course, was slavery. And they fell apart almost immediately as soon as they had achieved their economic and their expansionary aims.
LAMB: What about elitists? What other period in this country when the--been the most elitist?
BELL: I would say right after the Civil War. The Republican Party -- although it was populistic on slavery, it was a free-soil party in its origin, which, of course, is very populist in a lot of its implications. But the Republican Party was very elitist on the economic and governmental issues that arose right after the slavery issue was settled. They were protectionists; they were for softer money; they were against immigration--they were more against immigration, anyway, than the Democrats; and they were very corrupt. They had a machine at the state level and at the national level that operated out of pelf, and it took a kind of populist reformer who came out of nowhere, Grover Cleveland, in 1884 to begin to break up that post-Civil War system.
LAMB: You mention that Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson and FDR were great crisis leaders who respected public opinion. If they did respect it, what good did it do for them?
BELL: For the most part, these types of leaders were war leaders. And having a respect for the people and for democracy, if that's what your war is about--and it essentially was, I think, in a lot of those cases, starting way back, even earlier than that, with Pericles during the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was the leading democracy in the Greek world. It helps if you respect the people's decision-making ability, if you have a populist tendency to believe in the war or to mobilize support for that war. But a populist leadership can be very important in non-warlike situations, too. For example, I think the most successful populist in the age of equality--that is, since the 19th century--was William Gladstone, the British statesman. And he was not primarily a war leader; he was primarily a domestic reformer.
LAMB: Who's your favorite leader in history?
BELL: I would say I like a lot of people--this is going to be kind of a boring answer--but I really like Lincoln a lot. I think he did just about everything right that mattered--on the issues that mattered when he was a politician and a president.
LAMB: Who do you think's done the worst job in recent--I don't--you know, pick your time.
BELL: No problem on that one. That was Hoover. Hoover did everything wrong. He just was a terrible elitist. He was the most elitist president that I think we've ever had, and he just--his whole attitude was to help corporations, not to help the people directly. In that context, the Keynesians were very populist because they wanted to get money directly into the hands of the people during the Depression, but Hoover's whole instinct was to keep faltering corporations and institutions alive. That was what the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was all about. And he would raise taxes on the average American to do that. That was his whole instinct, and it made the Depression worse and it delayed the recovery.
LAMB: Slavery, civil rights--how has this country dealt with that?
BELL: Lincoln dealt with it, to some degree, without having a populist attitude toward blacks. It's very well-known that although Lincoln had a burning belief in political equality and detested slavery that he wasn't all that optimistic about how blacks were going to handle their political freedom after the Civil War. I think he had a populist turn of mind, in general. He was a great admirer of Jefferson. He was the first member of the Whigs or the Republicans ever to really push the Jefferson image in the conservative party--the more conservative party.

But because people were not particularly optimistic about blacks, the post-Civil War period turned out to be a disaster, because both sides of the debate, whether it was the segregationists or the reconstructionist Republicans, had very little optimism about blacks, and so the blacks were given very little empowerment in the post-Civil War period. And I think that's why the black crisis got so prolonged beyond the victory in the Civil War.

Later, I think, in the early 1960s, the Democratic Party had one of its greatest triumphs that--it turned to ashes immediately afterward because it turned into a debate on political equality that the Democrats couldn't handle. But I think, finally, it helped that we gained more optimism about blacks' ability, not just a feeling that blacks were entitled to the equality.
LAMB: How would you rate equality in the United States today?
BELL: This is, in many ways, I think, the most egalitarian country in the world. We were the first to really experiment with it, starting in the 18th century, and our whole import pulse is toward political equality, toward not having a nobility, not having a king, not having an automatic inherited status for people. Now I also add--and this is something that's fairly easy to misunderstand--elites are a healthy thing. Elites are a part of having political equality. The more political equality you have, the more people gain in income and status, the more people gain elite status. So elites are a necessary and healthy part of any country that's advanced along the road of political equality.
LAMB: Ten years from now, when we look back on this period right now, what do you think we'll be saying about it -- right now, '92, in the next 10 years?
BELL: I think it's one in a lot of cases you can find where a great success breeds chaos and breeds a crisis for a political elite. So if you had to pick one thing that the Reagan-Bush administration can point with pride to, it's the end of the Cold War, isn't it? I mean, it's the victory in the Cold War. What a phenomenal thing. Who, in 1980, with the Russians in Afghanistan and expanding all over Africa and Asia, thought that within 11 years, the Soviet Union wouldn't even exist and the Cold War would be over and the West's ideas, democracy, would have won?

And yet, Bush was at 70 percent in August of 1991, at the time the Soviet coup happened. So in a sense, I would argue that what's been happening since is that the greatest success that the Republican Party has had, or could have had, is turning to ashes, because voters are very future-oriented. They want to know what's next. They want to know whether things that they were willing to put aside when there was a threat of nuclear war -- how those things are going to be resolved. So I think people will just see -- they won't see Bush as inept, the way a lot of us do now. They won't see him as inept in retrospect because he'll be seen as very competent on the thing that almost everybody will talk about when they talk about the Bush years, which is the end of the Cold War and the breakup of communism. And yet, they will also see, as was the case of Winston Churchill after he won World War II, that he didn't seem to have a good idea on how to handle the subsequent issue cluster that took the place of the Cold War.
LAMB: Will this next 10 years be known as a populist period or an elitist period?
BELL: I see a lot of signs that populism is going to be the keynote. People are very--have very little patience with elites and elitism, with people telling them exactly what they ought to be doing.
LAMB: I asked you this earlier, but if you run again for an office, what would be the impetus to do it? What has to happen?
BELL: I'd say a vacuum, the feeling that the needs of the electorate were not being filled by the people who were coming forward at the moment. And I think, obviously, part of that has to be a populist thrust.
LAMB: Jeffrey Bell is our guest. And this is the book, "Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality." Thank you for joining us.
BELL: Thank you, Brian.
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