Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare

Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.  [Google Dictionary]

A good bit is being written nowadays about the alleged threat of populism.  The word is usually taken to mean an uprising of ignorant and intolerant masses against knowledgeable and responsible powers that be.  Donald Trump is called a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders.

Frank set the record straight in his new book, THE PEOPLE, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, which is just out.  He begins with the original Populists, members of a radical farmer-labor party in the 1890s that briefly threatened the rule of bankers, railroad barons and grain and cotton merchants..

Naturally the plutocrats feared and hated the Populists, Frank wrote.  They said Populism was mob rule, the second coming of the French Revolution.  They said Populism was hatred by the failures and losers of the successful and capable, who deserved to be on top.  In the end, through the power of money, they won.

The core of the opposition to populism was opposition to democracy itself—what Frank called the “democracy scare.”  In The People, No, he traced the history of this opposition.

Frank wrote an excellent book.  It is short, it is easy to read and it covers a lot of ground.  What he wrote is true, important and largely ignored.  He also had a few blind spots and omissions, which I’ll get to.

Right now the USA is on the brink of an economic crisis as great as the ones in the 1890s and 1930s, and today’s economic, political and intellectual elites are failing just as badly as their predecessors did.

There is just as great a need now as there was then for a movement of the common people to take back control of the political and economic system, and just as much of fear of democracy.

The world “populist” is Latin for “of the people.”  The Constitution, the USA’s founding document, begins with the words “We, the people…”   President Abraham Lincoln said the USA stood for “government of the people, for the people and by the people.”  So why does the word “populism” have such a bad name?

A view of Populism in 1896.  Click to enlarge.

Populism began in the 1880s, an era called the Gilded Age, when corporate monopoly and political corruption knew no bounds.  A majority of Americans were farmers and most of them were desperately poor.

In the South, they had to borrow against future crops in order to buy food and necessities, and the lenders not only rigged things so they never would get out of debt, but dictated what to grow and how to grow it.  In the West, they were subject to railroad monopolies and commodity speculators.  The cotton and grain they grew sold for good prices, but they received less and less.

In order to cope, they formed a Farmers Alliance, which grew to millions of members.  They studied issues and began to take positions on political issues of the day—regulation of railroads, government loans to farmers, currency reform, better public schools and also votes for women, secret ballots and free trade.

In the South, the movement was inter-racial, though segregated.  There was a Colored Farmers Alliance with more than a million members, which worked hand-in-hand with the white Farmers Alliance—much to the consternation of the rich white planters and merchants.

One big issue was the gold standard, the economic orthodoxy of the day, which held that currency should be redeemable for a fixed and unchanging amount of gold.

The problem was that the amount of gold in Fort Knox did not keep up with the growth of the U.S. economy, which meant that dollars kept getting scarcer and more valuable.

If you were a debtor, which most farmers were, it meant that you had to repay your loans with dollars that were worth more in terms of goods that services than the dollars you borrowed.  The Farmers Alliance demanded the government issue enough paper money to keep up with the growth in the economy.

Most economists and educated people thought this was crazy, but we now have paper money, just as the Populists advocated, and disaster did not ensue.  This hasn’t changed their reputation as a bunch of cranks.

1892 Presidential Election

In the 1880s and 1890s, the South was under the one-party rule of Democrats and much of the North was under the one-party rule of Republicans.

The Farmers Alliance started running their own candidates under the banner of the People’s Party, whose members called themselves Populists.

In the West, they did elect some governors in alliance with Democrats.  In the South, fusion tickets were less successful, but a Populist-Republican alliance did win in North Carolina.

James B. Weaver, the People’s Party presidential candidate, carried four western states and won electoral votes in two more.

1896 Presidential Election

Some Populists got the idea that coining silver, which was more plentiful than gold, would solve their problem.  In 1896, insurgent Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan on a free-silver platform.  Populists, even in the South, decided to support the Democratic ticket.

But the manufacturers, the press and the Republican party lined up unanimously behind William McKinley, outspending Bryan 20 or 30 to one, and the Republicans won in a landslide.

The People’s Party never recovered.  In North Carolina and other parts of the South, its leaders, especially black leaders, were blacklisted, driven out and murdered.  The Jim Crow laws were enacted in that era, for the purpose of preventing poor white and black people from combining.

Some 20th century historians, notably Richard Hofstadter, depicted the Populists as racist, anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual.  All these things were common in the late 19th century USA on all levels of society, but much less so among the Populists than among the upper classes.

It was the Populists and their allies in the labor movement—the Knights of Labor, the International Workers of the World and the socialist Eugene V. Debs—who believed in equal rights for all workers, whatever their color or nationality.  Far from being anti-intellectual, they strove mightily to educate themselves on economic and political issues.

What gave them a bad name was that they opposed the conventional wisdom of their day.  But the conventional wisdom was wrong, and the so-called cranks were right.

A view of William Jennings Bryan in 1896

The defeat of the Populists was followed by what historians call the Progressive Era, which was dominated not by Populists but by civic-minded members of the middle classes.  I’ll call them do-gooders.  Unlike the Populists, they were inspired by righteous indignation at corruption and injustice, not personal hardship.  They did not have skin in the game.

But they enacted a good bit of the former Populist agenda.  Constitutional amendments allowing an income tax and requiring direct election of Senators were enacted in 1913; a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing votes for women in 1920.

States and municipalities enacted laws forbidding child labor, limiting working hours, creating municipally-owned public utilities and expanding democracy through primary elections, citizen initiative and referendums on state laws and recall of public officials.  Some business monopolies were broken up; others were subject to regulation.

The importance of this era is that it shows that the struggle for justice in American history is not just a war between plutocrats and populists.  It is a complicated interplay of plutocrats, populists and do-gooders.  The periods of constructive reform is when populists and do-gooders joined forces.

Thomas Frank did not go into any of this.  He skipped over the Progressive Era and went right to the New Deal, which he rightly called “peak populism.”

Mural of unemployed California workmen (1934)

When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the unemployment rate was 25 percent.  The Dow-Jones Industrial Average was down 90 percent from its peak.  Banactory workers and unemployed veterans were up in arms.  Many wondered whether American democracy could survive.

FDR never called himself a populist, but his administration took the dollar off the gold standard, bailed out the farmers and started the biggest public works problem in U.S. history.

Labor unions were guaranteed the right to organize.  Farmers got access to electricity.  Small business owners got protection from monopoly competition.  The elderly got Social Security.

The CIO – originally Committee for Industrial Organization, later the Congress of Industrial Organizations – made organized labor as powerful a force as it ever has been, before or since.  The core of the CIO was the United Mine Workers which, as Frank pointed out, was one of the main supporters of the old People’s Party.

The popular culture of the 1930s was populist, multicultural and patriotic.   Frank gave many examples, ranging from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, published in 1936, to the movies of Frank Capra and the murals on public buildings paid for by the Works Progress Administration.

Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again, published in 1935, speaks for “the poor white, fooled, and pushed apart,” “the Negro bearing slavery’s scars,” “the red man driven from the land” and “the immigrant clutching the hope I seek,” and swears that although American had never yet lived up to its promise for any of them, “America shall be.”

The cantata, Ballad for Americansperformed by the great African-American singer Paul Robeson, a great hit in 1939.  The song is a 10-minute rendering of U.S. history, which Robeson singing the part of the people.  The elites are the bad guys the “everybody who knows anybody” who have doubted democracy down through history.  Robeson represents the “everybody who’s nobody,” which is the “nobody who’s everybody.”

As in the 1890s, the manufacturers, the press and the Republican Party went all out to fight the new movement, which they thought was revolutionary and un-American.  Unlike in the earlier era, they failed miserably at the polls.

Now, the New Deal was not all that it was cracked up to be.  Southern segregationists were part of FDR’s governing coalition.  African-Americans did not get all they should have got of New Deal housing and job programs, but what they did get was night-and-day better than what they had before.  That’s why a majority of black American citizens started voting Democratic and still do.

By the 1950s, the New Deal was no longer revolutionary.  It was a status quo to be defended.  I remember a song from the 1952 Democratic Presidential campaign.  They’ll promise you the stars / They’ll promise you the earth / But what’s a Re-pub-li-can promise worth? / Don’t let them take it, don’t let them take it, don’t let them take it away.  “It” was the New Deal programs.

Some do-gooder Democrats stopped worrying about the plutocracy. which seemed to have been vanquished, and started worrying about demagogues such as Senator Joe McCarthy and their attacks on civil liberties and intellectual freedom.

They read books by the historian Richard Hofstadter, the critic of populism, about anti-intellectualism and the paranoid style in American history.  Frank’s response to Hofstadter was question why you could call people like McCarthy, or Donald Trump, populists, a word that means champions of the people.  Rather, he wrote, call them demagogues or nationalists or pseudo-populists or  pre-fascists, he wrote.

There was a great deal of turbulence and discontent in the 1960s, but of a new kind.  In the 1930s, the question was why the economic and political system had failed a majority of the people.  In the 1960s, the question was why, in an affluent society, there were to many people left behind—African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, reservation Indians, tenant farmers, migrant farm workers, the unemployed in Appalachia, the aged and so on.

The radical movements of the 1960s were of two kinds.  One group of movements championed the marginalized.  There was an African-American civil rights movement, a farm workers movement, a welfare rights movement, the beginnings of a new feminist movement and, as the Vietnam Conflict escalated, an anti-draft movement.

Many, especially college students, sought to meet higher-level needs than just material subsistence.  Some sought meaning in communal living, in off-beat mysticism, in mind-expanding drugs.  Others identified with a world-wide liberation struggle, led by Vietnamese and Cuban revolutionaries.

Some of the movements contained the seeds of populism.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was strongly supported by the United Auto Workers and other liberal labor unions.  At the time of his murder, Dr. King was working on a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—jobs for everybody that needed them, not just black people.

The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society talked about economic democracy.  The seeds of a new populism were there, but they never sprouted.  Radicals blamed the complacency of “the white working class”—the Archie Bunkers who feared change and cared only about keeping what they had.

All these attitudes linger on, although conditions have changed.  Prosperity is no longer widely shared.  Starting in the late 1970s, the USA has drifted backwards to the kinds of inequality that existed in the 1880s or 1920s. The widely shared prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s no longer exists.

Yet leading do-gooders think only in terms of marginalized groups and still see wage-earners as the obstacle to change.

In the last two chapters, Frank told how the plutocrats re-invented themselves as pseudo-populists.  Starting with Ronald Reagan, they adopted the rhetoric of Populism, but directed it against supposed cultural elites—college professors, Hollywood producers, newspaper reporters—who allegedly despised the virtuous common people.

Frank had reported on this in his previous book, Listen, Liberal!, so he jumped ahead from Reagan to Donald Trump, who was the ultimate pseudo-populist.  He was absolutely opposed to everything the old Populists stood for.

But the do-gooders act as if Trump was a real populists and they represented an elite of merit and education.  They took to scolding the masses for their moral shortcomings and supposed privileges.  This was, as Frank noted, just what Trump would have wanted them to do.

Rev. Barber

Writing, I assume, in 2019, Frank saw two real populist movements on the horizon.  One was the Presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders.  The other was the movement led by the Rev. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister who is building a new version of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, bringing together poor people of every race and background.

I imagine Frank was as astonished as I was at how the Black Lives Matter movement has swept the nation almost overnight, leaving behind the movements Sanders and Rev. Barber worked so many years to build.  The George Floyd protests have a larger following, more activity and greater acceptance than anything I can remember or have read about in American history.

The main point about Black Lives Matter is that, although its goals are right and just, it is not a populist movement.  Its very name, and its rejection of the phrase “all lives matter,” express the idea that African-Americans are an oppressed race, like the Irish under British rule or the Poles under Russian rule, and they have to prioritize their own needs rather than fight for universalist goals.

But maybe there is a possibility it could broaden into a populist movement.  Many unions have organized sympathy strikes in support of Black Lives Matter, saying there can be no economic justice without racial justice.  Maybe Black Lives Matter’s leaders will take up the cause of economic justice.  Maybe they will move from defunding the police and dismantling white supremacy to defunding the Pentagon and CIA and dismantling Wall Street.

Or maybe the coming crisis—political, economic, medical, environmental and also moral—will bring about a rejuvenation of populism, as the 1880s and 1930s crises did.


Thomas Frank home page.

What Was Populism? by Thomas Frank for the American Empire Project.  An excerpt from the book.

US in the spring of the pandemic by Thomas Frank for Le Monde diplomatique.

The People, No by Thomas Frank for The Baffler (2018)

Forget Trump – populism is the cure, not the disease by Thomas Frank for The Guardian (2018)

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2 Responses to “Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I found this article very interesting. Whatever Bernie Sanders has achieved or might have achieved, I see no sign of a significant progressive movement around him or anyone else. BLM may win concessions from the government we have, but is unlikely to make it into a better one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. фирма матраса лучшая Says:

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