The recent death of veteran legislative leader Martin Nesbitt was accompanied by a number of remembrances from friends and former colleagues, nearly every one of them describing him as a “populist” or “mountain populist.”
With Nesbitt, the description was like a reflex. I think that is because you know a populist when you see one, even if you are not quite sure what really makes one a populist.
You also know one because it’s a political strain, in today’s world, that stands out, that’s different.
Nesbitt, a bear of a man who could be seriously scolding fellow legislators one minute and wearing a mischievous grin the next, definitely stood out.
He died earlier this month after a brief battle with stomach cancer.
In a legislative career that spanned more than three decades, Nesbitt rose to become the chief budget writer in the House and later the Democratic leader in the Senate. He possessed both the acumen of a lawyer and the sensibilities of a mechanic. He spent weekends working for his son’s racing car pit crew.
But a politician’s hobbies don’t make him or her a populist.
Nesbitt’s death caused me to think about what does constitute a populist and why his particular brand of politics seemed fairly unique and whether that is a good thing or not. (In my nearly two decades covering the legislature, only two other legislators consistently made appeals that tapped into the same political core: former Senate leader Marc Basnight and former state Rep. Ronnie Sutton.)
Dictionary definitions of the term focus on favoring the common people over elites or business.
Those definitions wouldn’t do Nesbitt’s beliefs justice.
On any number of occasions, Nesbitt, railing against this idea or that, would end his speeches by telling his legislative colleagues: “The people just aren’t going to stand for it. I know my people back in the mountains won’t.”
Coming from some politicians, that kind of language might be dismissed as pandering.
Nesbitt believed it. He believed that the political will of average people, in most cases, would eventually win out, that politicians who tried to thwart that will too often would eventually suffer, that the collective wisdom of the people was usually superior to that of the political class.
That general belief in the wisdom of the masses can get a bit tangled up though.
What happens when those people support an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage, something that you don’t want to see made into the supreme law of the state? When lawmakers were considering the measure, Nesbitt protested the divisiveness, but it was still an appeal to all. “We’re better than this,” he said.
These days, the term “populist appeal” is often used pejoratively, as if politicians can turn to the masses for support only as part of some cynical maneuver.
The truth, I suppose, is that politics needs populists and statesmen and that too often we get neither.
With word and deed, North Carolina politics got the former from Martin Nesbitt.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.