How elites distorted the meaning of populism

Douglas Brinkley

THE WASHINGTON POST – If one were to try to pinpoint the birthplace of populism, eastern Kansas – home to the honest-to-God geographical centre of the United States (US)- would be a solid bet, historically and metaphorically.

During the drought-ridden years of the 1880s and 1890s, movements such as the Farmer’s Alliance flourished there, promoting a vision of government that supported the interests of America’s farmers over those of bankers, corporations and railroads. In the city of Winfield, the radical American Nonconformist and Kansas Industrial Liberator newspaper was the first to use the term “populist” in print, referring to the new People’s Party formed in 1891 to push collective bargaining, a graduated income tax and other people-centred policies.

The Nonconformist was firmly in the populists’ corner, but 150 miles to the north, Kansas’ leading Republican newspaper derided the reformers as a gang of disgruntled hayseeds.

Nearly 130 years later, in the decade of Trump, Brexit and Bolsonaro, both of these views are alive and well. And as always, the populist label remains easier to apply than to define.

“From the very beginning, populism had two meanings,” Thomas Frank instructed in his brilliantly written, eye-opening The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. “There was populism as its proponents understood it, meaning a movement in which ordinary citizens demanded democratic economic reforms. And there was populism as its enemies characterised it: a dangerous movement of groundless resentment in which demagogues led the disreputable.”

Frank – a former Harper’s columnist, founding editor of the Baffler and best-selling author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America – is the ideal public intellectual to grapple with this duality. From 1891 to the rise of Trumpism, Frank walks readers through a minefield of assumptions about populism’s nature and history. His reflections on the 1896 presidential election set the narrative’s pace and tone, describing the new alliance between populists and Democrats that delivered the latter party’s nomination to William Jennings Bryan, and the competing alliance of big business and Republicans that ultimately propelled William McKinley to victory and precipitated the populists’ decline.

Stressing populism’s egalitarian roots in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, Frank rails against modern Democratic and GOP elites for a disdainful attitude toward ordinary, hard-working people – an attitude he considers as “poisonous today as it was in the Victorian Era, or in the Great Depression.” Frank calls out TV talking heads for stripping the populist label from Martin Luther King Jr and the AFL-CIO, and instead linking it only to the xenophobia, racism and Twitter rants of the current president. By devaluing populism, he believed, America has abandoned the organic political values that produced the labour and civil rights movements and contributed to decades of broad-based prosperity. What’s left is an almost cartoonishly polarised choice between Beltway elite meritocracy and bigoted, authoritarian Trumpism.

Frank devotes the middle chapters of The People, No to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which fused populism with a smart liberalism. Though it helped millions survive the Great Depression, it also earned endless opposition from Republicans, their Wall Street backers and most of America’s big-city newspapers. Frank documents how the DuPont family and other wealthy industrialists founded and lavishly funded the right-wing American Liberty League to destroy Roosevelt, smearing him as a socialist and a traitor to his class.

Having enacted a flurry of New Deal programmes in his first term, Roosevelt offered a full-throated lambasting of his conservative adversaries when he accepted the Democratic nomination for a second term in 1936. “These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” he thundered. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for.”

For Frank, the lineage is clear between the People’s Party of the 1890s and Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism. Roosevelt succeeded, Frank insists, because he rejected his generation’s accepted wise men of finance and industry and instead sought counsel from progressives like Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes and Frances Perkins – genuine reformers who recognised that the historic moment called not for doubling down on the system but for devising smart new solutions to meet grave new challenges.

“Painful though it may be for liberals to acknowledge nowadays, it was Roosevelt’s willingness to disregard elites that won that war,” Frank concluded.

“These were the reasons the New Deal succeeded and democracy lived. If the heroes of those days were cranks, then thank God for cranks. Thank God for populism.” Given our current historical moment, that’s a lesson Joe Biden would do well to heed.

Among postwar anti-populists, historian Richard Hofstadter receives particular scorn for his influential book The Age of Reform (1955), which valorised professionalism, pluralism and benevolent, administrative capitalism while depicting the People’s Party as low-IQ racists and proto-McCarthyites.

“When reform came from the bottom up, in other words,” Frank complained of Hofstadter, “it was moralistic, demagogic, irrational, bigoted, and futile”.

“When reform was made by practical, business-minded professionals – meaning lobbyists and experts who were comfortable in the company of lobbyists and experts from other groups – prosperity was the result.”

Throughout The People, No, Frank takes pains to look at populism through a broad lens – from Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Fred Harris and Frank Capra to Father Charles Coughlin, Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon. His reflection on how the jeans-clad Jimmy Carter wrapped himself in populism to avoid being tagged as a socialist, liberal or conservative is spot-on.