Dwight MacDonald, one of our few perceptive political critics in that bleakest of decades, the 1940’s, wrote of the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948: “Populism today is a shell which can be filled with any content, even Stalinism, and hence offers its prophet no guide to behavior. Compare Bryan’s and Wallace’s audiences. Bryan’s favorite platform was the Chautauqua lecture: when he was secretary of state, he was criticized for continuing to appear on the Chautauqua circuit along with Swiss bell ringers and ‘Sears, the Taffy Man.’ The Chautauqua audience was composed of religious-minded, agrarian provincials who hated ‘Wall Street’ and detested the sophisticated, irreligious culture of the eastern seaboard. But Wallace’s audience is drawn from liberals who are well-off and sophisticated. For them, populism is, culturally, a phony way of making a connection with the inarticulate masses (like Josh White’s songs).”

Twenty-five years later, Macdonald added a musical footnote to his essay; he championed Country Joe Mc Donald over the “folkery-fakery” of Pete Seeger. Mr. Seeger is still with us, and ersatz Henry Wallace populism is back with a vengeance. Its latest standard-bearer is another son of Iowa, Senator Tom Harkin—or “Tom William Jennings Harkin,” as the New Republic calls him. (This is supposed to be an insult.) Anyway, Harkin is pure counterfeit: a statist liberal, awash in PAC money, whose wife is a rich lawyer at Akin, Gump—one of Washington’s high-octane firms. Harkin is abrasive and cruel, unlike the daffy idealist Wallace, a decent fool whom Westbrook Pegler dubbed “Old Bubblehead.”

Like Bryan populism, rock and roll rings truest in the accents of the South or small-town Midwest. Yet rock critics, like pundits, are usually of affluent Eastern backgrounds; they prefer the mannered, the self-conscious, the safe. When confronted with the genuine article—George Wallace, Huey Long, Axl Rose—they flee to the illusory high ground of moral indignation.

Axl Rose, in case you don’t know, is an insolent brat from Lafayette, Indiana, who sings for the most popular hard rock band in America, Guns ‘N’ Roses. He acts like any Main Street video arcade loudmouth, meaning he brags about his sexual exploits, calls homosexuals “faggots,” and tells foreigners to “go back to Iran.” Axl’s a typical rowdy white-trash kid—smoking and drinking and not taking his SATs like a good Jason or Jennifer—yet the New York City-based press has demonized him as the smackshooting reincarnation of Joe McCarthy. That he is the most pilloried figure in rock and roll—and, among working- and middle-class kids, the most adulated—suggests the enormous gulf between those who live in America and those who run it.

There’s no chance of hearing Guns ‘N’ Roses at a Tom Harkin rally, but the musical tastes of faux populists have certainly improved since the Wallace campaign of 1948. Harkin’s presidential campaign theme song is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” in which a jobless, womanless Vietnam vet finds himself with “nowhere to run, I got nowhere to go.” Senator Harkin, happily, can run to a partnership with Akin, Gump should the voters desert him.

Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, whilom companion of the flighty actress Debra Winger, stumps to the accompaniment of Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Great song, bad choice: “Baby this town rips the bones from your back / It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap / We gotta get out while we’re young / ‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” The Senator, one gathers, has outgrown Omaha.

No one tried harder, or with less success, to co-opt Middle American rockers than President Reagan’s handlers. In his 1984 campaign, Reagan’s flunkies implored John Mellencamp to loan them use of “Pink Houses,” a bitter, sardonic song by a man who has a healthy contempt for upward mobility. The irony was delicious: Ronald Reagan, paladin of modern conservatism, had spoken of the “sleepy old towns where generation after generation lived. And then the kids in the Midwest left; there was nothing in those towns—Lord, that’s why I left!” John Mellencamp, by contrast, still lives in his hometown of Seymour, Indiana. You tell me who the conservative is.

In its dying weeks, the Dukakis campaign revved up its rallies with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” a wonderfully resentful song. (“Some folks are born silver spoon in hand / Lord don’t they help themselves? / But when the taxman comes to the door / The house looks like a rummage sale / It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son / It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one.”) The fact that Dukakis, his parents, and his running mate were all millionaires vitiated the tune’s effect somewhat.

Plenty of anthemic rock songs await a truly populist movement: Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” the Rainmakers’ “Downstream,” Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free Worid,” and, best of all, the Iron City Houserockers'”Don’t Let Them Push You Around.”

Of course an authentic populist would be an American Firster who took on Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, newspaper chains, and the New York City-Washington-Los Angeles power axis on behalf of the Seymour, Indianas, of this land. A Bryan for the 90’s would be closer to John Mellencamp than to Tom Harkin. Alas, no Democrat in the current lineup fits that bill. Tracy Chapman, the Tufts graduate who is my generation’s folky-fakey Pete Seeger, could—and probably will—sing for the lot of ’em.