DES MOINESThere has been a lot of talk over the past couple of weeks about the degree to which populism and populist candidates have stolen the show here in Iowa. To be sure, three of the front-running candidatesDemocrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican Mitt Romneycould hardly be called populists, though Clinton in particular has begun adopting some of those themes in the closing days here and last night’s winner, Sen. Obama, dabbles in them. But the insurgent candidaciesJohn Edwards among the Democrats and Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul in the GOPhave hammered hard on class warfare and seem to be resonating with a significant number of voters. And since Huckabee pulled off a stunning, convincing victory, and Edwards bested the better-funded Clinton, it’s worth thinking about the appeal of such ideas.

Edwards’ populism is the most fully formed and detailed. Speaking at an event in Ames on Tuesday, he thundered away at “moneyed interests” in a compact 23-minute fire and brimstone speech. He has dubbed his campaign a “marathon for the middle class” and decried the hijacking of our political system by interests committed to “glorification of corporate profit.” The once-centrist Democrat slammed out-of-control private contractors from Blackwater, no bid contracts for Halliburton and unaccountable multi-national corporations. In language straight out of the late 19th century, Edwards told the crowd that “the sovereign power in this democracy rests with you, the people.” Edwards sounds as if he is itching for a brawl. In fact, he said, we’re in for an “epic fight,” vowed never to negotiate with the above-named interests and told the crowd that his daddy taught him never to back down from a tussle. Indeed, while Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” played on the PA prior to the start of the event, a more appropriate theme song for the campaign might well be Springsteen’s “No Retreat, No Surrender.”

In fact, Edwards’ populism seemed to be reflected in the composition of his caucuses last night, at least in the two precincts I observed. While Obama’s supporters were an eclectic mixyoung and old, black and whiteand Clinton seemed to be drawing disproportionately from older voters, Edwards’ supporters appeared to embody the working middle class, right down to the postal worker who organized the head count in Des Moines Precinct 9.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a Democrat would subject wealthy interests to such a rhetorical pounding, though it’s still jarring to hear in an era in which the party of FDR has, many progressives would argue, capitulated to those same interests. More noteworthy is what’s happening on the other side. That echoes of populism are emanating from the Republicans is more surprising. Writing two weeks ago in the American Prospect, veteran political reporter Walter Shapiro called attention to the populist angle of the Huckabee surge:

“The miracle birth of the Republican candidate with the four-word nameMike Huckabee Iowa Front-runnerhas as much to do with social class as religion. There is nothing subtle about Huckabee’s celebration of his humble roots: He gleefully told 150 supporters (some more accurately described as acolytes) in Marshalltown Thursday morning that a ‘Republican muckety-muck’ had recently declared that Huckabee was unelectable because he had a ‘hick last name.’”

And, in one of the best lines of the campaign, the freewheeling former Baptist minister took this shot at the square-jawed, buttoned-up Mitt Romney: “I often say that for my family, summer was never a verb. We summered in hay fields and chicken yards and all kinds of stuff.” In fact, at a private house party for Romney in Pleasant Hill, just outside of Des Moines, even his supporters told me they thought of him as “blow-dried, distant and above-it-all.”

And, echoing Edwards’ repeated attacks on entrenched moneyed interests, Huckabee has said: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president who doesn’t find himself wholly owned and completely tied to the biggest corporations in the country?” In the ultimate sop to populist rhetoric, Huckabee told an energized crowd of 1,200 two nights ago at the Val Air Ballroom that “you are the ruling class.”

Huckabee isn’t the only Republican test-driving such ideas. The bizarre sort-of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul, speaking to an enthusiastic crowd at a veterans rally night here, attacked our loose monetary policy and profligate spending by saying the first beneficiaries of such reckless “welfarist and socialist” government are the “bankers, the military industrial complex and the medical-industrial complex.” Though Paul finished a distant fifth in the polls last night, his surprising fund-raising successeshe raised money neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in the fourth quarter of 2007suggest a groundswell of support for a candidate who, like Huckabee, draws more derision than support from opinion leaders in his own party. Paul’s event was as motley a crowd I had seen: bristling with military veterans convinced there are still American POWs in “Soviet” prisons, assorted John Birchers and Minutemenstraight out of right-wing populist central casting. (There were also lots of younger voters, several of whom said they liked Paul because of his opposition to the war. This concoction of support is perhaps the most unusual of all the candidates.)

So, what’s going on here? One obvious explanation is the growing squeeze on the middle class and concentrations of wealth and attendant levels of inequality not seen since the early years of the 20th century, when populism last was a major force in American politics. It’s probably also not a coincidence that such candidates would strike a chord in an era when union membership has receded to levels not seen in nearly a century. Lacking the safe haven, fellowship and political clout that unions carry, many American workers are increasingly left to fend for themselves. Populism was most prominent before the union movement emerged as a powerful and pervasive force in American life. More specifically, on the Republican side, perhaps Tom Frank’s argument from What’s the Matter With Kansas? is at play here: after listening to decades of faux anti-elitism from Republican Brahmins pretending to be ordinary guys, more and more Republican voters feel betrayed, and are drawn to candidates who give voice to their growing embitterment and resentment. Or, perhaps this is a function of Iowa itselfonly in an intimate political setting could such an intense, one-note tune gain traction.

Of course, not all populisms are created equal. One common variant, the right-wing kind, has long been characterized by an ugly xenophobia and racism. From Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman to George Wallace, Southerners are well acquainted with the type. In 2007, no candidate dares play the race card in that way, but both Huckabee and Paul have walked a xenophobic line, in the process playing on a variant of dog-whistle politics ( Huckabee does it when he says, about our dependence on Arab oil: “We don’t need your oil any more than we need your sand.” Paul puts repeated emphasis on our debt to “foreigners,” a tricky word that, while perhaps benign, evokes a nefarious “other” in a way that the somewhat more neutral and de-personified “foreign debt” does not. And Chuck Norris, in the same rally at the Val Air Ballroom, fired up the Huckabee faithful by criticizing the tax code. Exhibit A for Norris: That “Arab Sheiks” come “over here,” buy luxury goods, pay no taxes on them and go back home.

Edwards, echoing a left-wing version of the phenomenon, mostly steers clear of demonizing groups of people; instead, institutions are the target of his ire. But, in a somewhat disturbing note, Edwards has pushed an English-only line in his discussion of illegal immigration (a problem that, in general, he does not view in simple-minded terms).

I mention this dimension of populism because the phenomenon itself is the purist form of us vs. them politics. And, those politicsto which I confess considerable sympathy (the Edwards variant, at least)carry with them a danger. There is a fine line between evoking faraway institutions responsible for people’s increasingly desperate plight and conjuring images that engage the darker reaches of our imaginations. This populist moment is likely confined to rhetoric and will ultimately be politically inerteven an Edwards presidency would, I have no doubt, be bounded by institutions and interests that would thwart most of his more ambitious plans, and any Republican nominee, including Huckabee, will be a wholly owned subsidiary of major corporate interests. But the rhetorical appeal, in different forms but on both sides of the aisle, is perhaps the most interesting story at the start of this unusually wide-open political season, seemingly reflecting the growing sense among a significant group of Americans that the final American frontierthe American dream itselfseems to be closing, and there ought to be hell to pay for it.