Populism booms in banking and beyond

Are the populists taking over the world?

One rabble-rouser, Arianna Huffington, has concocted a remarkable stunt, which she calls the Move Your Money Project, to rally consumers to transfer their deposits from big banks to small community banks across the U.S. Alas, there’s no run yet on Citigroup , JPMorgan Chase , Bank of America , or Wells Fargo . But the Move your Money campaign–which the blog queen dreamed up with her pals at a holiday dinner–now has more fans on Facebook than any of those money-center banks.

That’s 8,000+ Facebook fans. MoveYourMoney.info, the campaign’s website, has attracted 3.9 million page views.

Right now, there’s an opportunity–a bona-fide business opportunity–to hit consumers where they hurt (their pocketbooks). And grab them by their hearts, from which fear and anger brew. Have you seen those ads for Ally Bank? They’re everywhere. And they project an image of a small, friendly place to deposit your savings. Ally, in case you don’t know, is owned by GMAC, the auto and home lender once owned by General Motors that has been propped up three times by U.S. taxpayer dollars. GMAC’s CEO is Mike Carpenter, one of Sandy Weill’s lieutenants at Citigroup in the ’90s.

Meanwhile, in England, there’s Richard Branson, who has already shaken up the status quo in industry after industry, from music to telecom to airlines and beyond. Now he’s honing in on retail banking in the UK, where the old-line institutions have had their reputations scuffed just as in the U.S.. Through his start-up, Virgin Money, Branson just agreed to buy a regional lender called Church House Trust. And he reportedly plans to use the acquisition as a platform to build a retail banking network.

Beyond banking, where do the populists thrive? Politics. On Tuesday, the New York Times‘ David Brooks wrote an op-ed, “The Tea Party Teens,” about Americans’ anxiety about the future and our fleeting faith in institutions. We  know about the tea party movement–which Brooks calls the “flamboyant fringe” of conservatives who are anti-big business, anti-big government, and anti-pretty much everything else that concentrates power.

But did you realize how mighty this movement is? A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 41% of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement–vs. 35% positive view of Democrats and 28% positive view of Republicans. Long live the populists. At least in 2010.

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