Posts Tagged ‘Populism’

Populism is not mob rule

September 22, 2020

Thomas Frank

Paul Jay did a good three-part interview on theAnalysis.news with Thomas Frank on The People, No, his new book about populism and anti-populism.

  1. Populism Is Not Mob Rule.
  2. Corporate Democrats Idolize FDR, But Hate His Policies and the Populists That Spported Them.
  3. Liberal Elites Will Create Conditions for Another Trump.

Some forgotten history of Midwest radicalism

September 22, 2020

A review of The People, No! by Jonathan Larson on the Real Economics blog adds historical background to Thomas Frank’s book.

His focus is on Minnesota rather than Kansas, and he provides a lot of interesting information about Scandinavian-American cooperatives,, the thought of Thorstein Veblen and the rise and fall of the Farmer-Labor Party.

This history should not be forgotten.  Click on this to read the review.

More about Thomas Frank’s new populism book

September 21, 2020

Democracy Scares, from the Destruction of Bryan to the Abdication of Bernie: Why America Desperately Needs a Second Populist Movement, But Ain’t Gonna Get One by John Siman for Naked Capitalism.

 

Populism and the medical profession

August 1, 2020

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank wrote a good article on universal health care as an example of the battle between populists and professionals.

In both the United States and Canada, the organized medical profession bitterly opposed all attempts by the public to take control of the administration of health care, either through government or voluntary co-operative organization.

But in Canada, the province of Saskatchewan in 1962, led by populist Premier Tommy Douglas, instituted Medicare for all.  The province’s medical profession responded with a general strike, which failed.

In the end, many Canadian physicians admitted they were wrong. Evidently they were motivated by mistaken opinions, not greed.  The system was rolled out nationwide in steps in 1966.  Some polls indicate that Tommy Douglas is the most admired Canadian.

President Truman proposed a universal health care system in 1948, but his plan was defeated.  So was every universal health care proposal since then.  The task force appointed by Joe Biden, this year’s presumed Democratic candidate, rejected Medicare for all.

The American Medical Association no longer wields power.  Control of medical practice has been taken over by bureaucracies, just as physicians feared.  But they are controlled not by patients or the general public, but by health insurance companies and health maintenance organizations, who are the anti-populists of today.

Frank emphasized that the original Populists and their successors in fact valued education and knowledge.  The question was and is who benefits from education and knowledge.

It is interesting that Frank’s writings do not appear on the Op Ed pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, although they deserve to be.   Frank used to be published regularly in The Guardian, but his most recent two articles appeared in the English edition of Le Monde diplomatique.  I’m not sure of the significance of that.

LINK

It’s the health care system, stupid, by Thomas Frank for Le Monde diplomatique.

Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare

July 21, 2020

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?

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Populism, immigration and white majorities

February 20, 2019

2.1 children per woman is the replacement rate.  Click to enlarge.

I recently read WHITESHIFT: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufmann (2018, 2019)

It’s about the response of white people in North America, western Europe and Australasia to the fact that their birth rates are below the replacement rate, and that the likely sources of immigration are all from non-white countries with higher birth rates.

Kaufmann, a professor of political science at the University of London, said white fears of immigration are the driving force behind the election of Donald Trump, the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Community and the rise of right-wing populist parties throughout western Europe.

He sees four white responses to population shifts:

  • Fight.  Reduce or eliminate immigration from non-white countries.
  • Repress.  Avoid thinking about the issue and suppress discussion in the name of anti-racism.
  • Flee.  Retreat to white enclaves and avoid diverse neighborhoods, schools and social networks.
  • Join.   Assimilate and inter-marry with non-whites to form a new beige majority.

I wrote about the fourth possibility in a 2012 blog post.  I noted how, in the USA, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority evolved into a white majority that includes Catholics and Jews.  I speculated on the possibility of a further evolution into a new “non-black” majority including white Hispanics, mixed-race people who identify as white and possibly Asian-Americans.

The great danger, as I saw it,  is that the new majority would be as much, or maybe even more, prejudiced against black people as the old majority..

Kaufmann, who grew up in Vancouver, hopes for a more benign evolution—a inclusive majority based not on ancestry, color or facial features, but on loyalty to the nations’ original European cultural roots, but also tolerant of minorities who reject that culture.

He’s an example of what he advocates.  He is by ancestry one-fourth Latino and one-fourth Chinese, but identifies as white.  (The fact that he “identifies” rather than “passes” as white shows progress that has occurred in my lifetime.)

I have long believed that American patriotism should be based not on race, religion or national origin, but on loyalty to the Constitution and the ideals of equal rights contained in the Declaration of Independence.

Kaufmann thinks such civic ideals are too thin to command strong loyalty.  A nation can and should have principles of good citizenship, but real national identity requires a sense of being part of a community with a shared history, whether defined by language, religion, ancestry or culture and customs.

∞∞∞

The politics of the USA, the UK and many other countries are defined by a revolt of an anti-immigration Populist Right  against what Kaufmann calls a Left-Modernist cultural and political elite, which defines opposition to immigration as racist.

Exceptions include the English-speaking parts of Canada, where no Populist Right has emerged, and nationalistic countries of Eastern Europe, where Left Modernism has never gained a foothold.  In Quebec and Scotland also, the cultural elite is on the side of French Canadian and Scottish ethnic nationalism.

Left-Modernism, as Kaufmann sees it, originated among bohemian intellectuals of a century or so ago, who rejected the conventions of the conformist middle-class majority.  In the USA, this was a revolt against the Puritan heritage and an embrace of everything anti-Puritan, from sexual freedom to  jazz music.

Over time these values came to dominate academia, the news and entertainment media and the political elite.  Along the way, though, the Left Modernists ceased to value radical individualism and self-expression and developed a kind of reverse Puritanism, based on conformity and guilt.  Nowadays it is the Populist Right that is transgressive and provocative.

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2016 and all that

November 3, 2018

Populism is the expression of the righteous anger of the common people against injustice or perceived injustice.

Right-wing populism is the re-direction by the holders of wealth and power away from themselves and toward scapegoats.

The great political scientist Thomas Ferguson and his team of researchers recently published new studies of how right-wing populism operated in the 2016 national elections.

Several studies assert that supporters of Donald Trump are motivated primarily by racial anxiety and not be economic anxiety.  The conclusion they draw is that the Democratic Party does not have to become more populist in order to win elections.

Ferguson’s team says the truth is more complicated.  Racial anxiety and economic anxiety are not all that separate, they wrote.

Donald Trump told his supporters that their economic woes were due to immigration and foreign trade, and promised to fix both.  These are legitimate economic issues.

Many working people feel, for understandable reasons, that competition with foreign workers—both workers in foreign sweatshops and unauthorized immigrants in the USA—is driving down thrown wages.  I have to say that, as President, Trump has tried to keep his promises to try to restrict immigration and imports.  He has acted in a crude and counterproductive way, but he has acted.  These issues can no longer be ignored and will have to be rethought.

That’s not to deny that Trump also has tried to stir up animosity against African-Americans, Mexicans and Muslims.  But he also promised to launch a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, protect Social Security and Medicare and replace Obamacare with something better.

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The big thing that Thomas Frank overlooks

July 31, 2018

Thomas Frank is one of my favorite writers.  I like his books.  I like his magazine articles.  I enjoy watching videos of his speeches and interviews.  But there is one thing he doesn’t quite get.

His basic idea is that the Democratic Party is losing because it has abandoned the American working class and the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.   The leaves them vulnerable to the fake populism of Donald Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party.

Democrats rely on African-Americans, Hispanics and educated professionals of all races reacting against President Trump’s appeal to prejudice against African-Americans and immigrants.

That’s not enough, Frank writes.  Democrats need to stand up for working people of all races—provide free college tuition and Medicare for all, enforce the anti-trust laws and renegotiate NAFTA and other pro-corporate trade treaties.

All this is true and important.

Frank’s mistake is to think that the reason top Democrats are pro-corporate is that they fail to understand their situation.

Shortly after the 36th minute in the video above. he says that the reason the Clintons and their allies have abandoned American labor is that the signature achievement of their generation was to their successful revolt against the New Deal, and nobody will disavow their generation’s signature achievement.

If they really don’t understand, it is because, as Upton Sinclair once put it, “it is hard to make a man understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The wealth and power of the Clintons, like that of the Obamas, is based on their allegiance to Wall Street and the corporate elite.  If they had advocated breaking up the “too big to fail” banks or prosecuting financial fraud, they wouldn’t get six-figure lecture fees from bankers and hedge fund managers.

On a lower levels of government, there is the revolving door between Congress and regulatory agencies on the one hand and Washington lobbyists, law firms and regulated industries on the others.  Neil Barofsky, whose job was oversight of the TARP bailout program, was warned that if he did his job too zealously, he would lose the chance of a good post-government job.  He’s not the only one.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee supports a whole ecology of fund-raisers, pollsters, media specialists and campaign consultants who depend on a system whereby candidates concentrate on raising money and spending it on designated funds.

So it’s not just a matter of waking up to what’s really going on.  It’s a matter of people knowing which side their bread is buttered on.  Or, as the Japanese might say, nobody willingly lets their rice bowl be broken.

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A clash of elites: the 0.1% vs. the 9.9%

May 29, 2018

The United States has two elites—an elite of great wealth, embracing about 0.1 percent of the population, and an elite of educational credentials, based on the next 9.9 percent.

A writer named Matthew Stewart wrote a good article in The Atlantic about the 9.9 percent, of which he considers himself a member.  If you go to an elite school, you’re on track for a job in medicine, law, finance or management consulting.

How you do in those jobs is up to you, but you’ve got a permanent, lifelong advantage over somebody who is a high school graduate or somebody who attended a non-elite school.

We Americans like to talk about how equality of result doesn’t matter, only equality of opportunity matters.  But the whole point of being in a higher social or economic class is to lock in advantages for your children.

Thomas Frank has written about how American politics has been changed by the fact that liberal reformers in the 9.9 percent no longer identify with the 90 percent.  Instead their goal is a multi-racial, gender-neutral aristocracy based (supposedly) on merit.

This has been exploited by Donald Trump, who speaks the language of the populists of old, but represents the interests of the plutocracy.   And the liberal professional class confuses Trump with real populism, and fears the masses more than they do the power elite.

These are sweeping, over-simplified generalizations, but I think they are a broadly accurate picture of what’s going on.

LINKS

The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy by Matthew Stewart for The Atlantic.

Forget Trump—populism is the cure, not the disease by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

The revolt of the ‘places that don’t matter’

February 21, 2018

The basic political split, not just in the USA but across the Western world, is between the regions that are thriving under globalization and those that aren’t, according to a new a study.

The thriving areas embrace what I call neoliberalism.  The left-behind areas embrace what Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, the author of the study, calls populism.

In his view, the split between rich regions and poor regions is more politically significant that the differences between rich and poor individuals within these regions.

The split is cultural as well as economic.  The rich regions reflect the culture of what Chris Arnade calls “the front-row kids,” who value education, cosmopolitanism and upward mobility, and the “back-row kids,” who put greater value on family, religion and community.

Rodríguez-Pose uses the word populism to mean any kind of revolt against the economic and political elite, whether in the form of right-wing nationalism or left-wing radicalism.   From his standpoint, they’re both bad.   His solution is wiser economic policies by the political and economic elite.

A populist is one who is on the side of the people against the elite, or claims to be.  The all-important question is how you define “the people”.   Right-wing populists define “the people” in terms of race, ethnicity and heritage.  Left-wing populists define “the people” as the working people.   I think that, in the long run, the only alternative to right-wing populism will be left-wing populism.

LINKS

How the ‘Places That Don’t Matter’ Fueled Populism by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg.

The revenge of the places that don’t matter, but Andrés Rodríguez-Pose for VoxEU, the policy portal of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Suicide Rate Highest in Decades, but Highest in Rural America by Mark Maciag for Governing.

Thomas Frank on Trump’s nationalist populism

May 24, 2017

Nobody alive has a better grasp of American politics than Thomas Frank.

Above is a video I came across of a talk he gave in April at the Kansas City Public Library.   It’s a bit long, especially to watch on a computer screen, but Frank is an entertaining speaker, as he is a writer, and I recommend listening to him if you have time.  His talk ends a little short of an hour and a question-and-answer period runs for about 30 minutes.

Frank sees Donald Trump as the latest of a line of Republican nationalist populists—his predecessors being Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and the leaders of the Tea Party.

A populist is someone who claims to speak in the name of the people against the elite.   The old Populist Party, which dominated Kansas politics in the 1890s, represented farmers and laborers and fought against bankers and railroad CEOs.

The Democratic Party used to be this kind of populist party, Frank said, but it no longer is.   Instead it represents a professional class defined by educational credentials.

In the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Democrats spoke in the name of the common people against greedy Wall Street bankers and power-hungry corporate CEOs.   But the present generation of Democratic leaders regards bankers and CEOs as classmates—members of the same college classes and same social class.

This has given an opening to nationalist populists who claim to speak for the common people against meddling bureaucrats, unpatriotic intellectuals and out-of-touch journalists.

The vast majority of Americans are either treading water economically or going under.   They are justifiably angry, and right-wing talk radio tells them a story that explains their plight and channels their anger.

The Republican populists offer no real solution, but Democrats no longer offer an alternative story.  That’s why they’ve been in decline for 50 years.  They will have a hard time coming back, Frank said, even if Donald Trump self-destructs.

I found Frank’s whole talk interesting.  Maybe you will, too.

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The hollow populism of Steve Bannon

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon, the chief adviser to President Donald Trump, is probably the most influential person in the Trump administration besides Trump himself.

But I find it hard to get a handle on Bannon’s thinking, since he shuns the limelight, and hasn’t written any books or magazine articles I could get hold of,

His 2010 documentary film, Generation Zero, is probably as good a guide to his thinking as anything else.

It is well done and, despite being 90 minutes long, held my interest—at least until the last 10 minutes of so, which consists of restatements of the main points.

Generation Zero is an analysis of the roots and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, which Bannon rightly blames on crony capitalism, the unholy alliance of Wall Street and Washington that began in the 1990s.

But if you look at the film’s action items, what he really does—knowingly or unknowingly—is to protect Wall Street by diverting the public’s attention from what’s really needed, which is criminal prosecution of financial fraud and the break-up of “too big to fail” institutions.

Bannon presents himself as an enemy of corrupt politicians and financiers.  But there is nothing he advocates in the film or otherwise that threatens the power of either.

∞∞∞

Generation Zero draws on a book, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who claim there is a cycle in American politics based on the succession of generations.  Each cycle consists of four turnings—(1) a heroic response to a crisis, (2) a new cultural or religious awakening, (3) an unraveling and (4) a crisis.

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Populists vs. liberals in American history

August 16, 2016

One of the main things I’ve learned from reading American history is that political alignments in the past were very different from what they are now, and that, prior to the New Deal, “populists” and “liberals” were rarely found in the same party.

By “populist,” I mean someone who defends the interests of the majority of the population against a ruling elite.  By “liberal,” I mean someone who takes up for downtrodden and unpopular minorities.

3080664-president-andrew-jackson--20--twenty-dollar-billAndrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was a populist.  He gained fame as the leader of a well-regulated militia, composed of citizens with the right to keep and bear arms, who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans and who fought for white settlers against Indians in what later became the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

He was regarded as a champion of poor workers, farmers and frontier settlers.  In an epic struggle, he broke the stranglehold of the financial elite, as represented by the Second Bank of the United States, on the U.S. economy.   Jacksonians fought for the enfranchisement of property-less white people.

In standing up for the common people, Jackson denied any claims to superiority by reason of education and training.  He defended the spoils system—rewarding his political supporters with government jobs—on the grounds that any American citizen was capable of performing any public function.

Jackson was a slave-owner and a breaker of Indian treaties.  He killed enemies in duels.  He was responsible for the expulsion of Indians in the southeast U.S. in the Trail of Tears.   He was not a respecter of individual rights.   He was not a liberal.

This was opposed by almost all the great New England humanitarian reformers of Jackson’s time and later.  They were educated white people who tried to help African Americans, American Indians, the deaf, the blind, prison inmates and inmates of insane asylums.  Almost of all them were Whigs, and almost all their successors were Republicans.

They were liberals, but not populists.  Like Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law,  they despised illiterate Irish Catholic immigrants in his midst.  Poor Irish people had to look for help to the Jacksonian Democratic political machines.

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Brexit: the revolt of the losers

June 28, 2016

The dominant neoliberal economy sorts people into winners and losers.  Brexit is a revolt of the losers.

The winners are the credentialed professionals, the cosmopolitan, the affluent.  The losers are the uncredentialed, the provincial, the working class.

Losers are revolting across the Western world, from the USA to Poland, and their revolt mostly takes the form of nationalism.

The reason the revolt takes the form of nationalism is that the world’s most important international institutions—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank—are under the control of a global financial elite that does not represent their interests.

17149339-Abstract-word-cloud-for-Neoliberalism-with-related-tags-and-terms-Stock-PhotoI don’t fully understand the decision-making process in the European Union, but looking at its web site, my impression is that public debate is not a part of it.

The only vehicles for exercising democratic control, at the present moment in history, is through democratic national governments.  I am in favor of international cooperation, and I don’t know how I would have voted on Brexit if I had been British, but I certainly can understand Britons who don’t want to be at the mercy of foreign bureaucrats and the London governmental, banking and intellectual elite.

Democratic nationalism is the only form that democracy can take until there is a radical restructuring of international institutions.  Without a strong progressive democratic movement, the only alternative to neo-liberal globalization is right-wing anti-democratic populism as represented by Donald Trump, the United Kingdom Independence Party, Marine le Pen’s National Front in France, Greece’s Golden Dawn and others.

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The return of right-wing populism

February 10, 2016

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people in Europe and North America turned to populist radical and left-wing parties, while many others turned to populist nationalist and racist parties.

The first group blamed their troubles on the wealthy elite and a failed capitalist system.  The second group blamed their troubles on foreigners, minorities and a failed democratic system.

There were exceptions and overlaps, but I think these broad distinctions apply.  Nationalism and racism are a way of diverting public discontent away from bankers and landlords.

We have the same two kinds of populism today.  In Europe, we see Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and, on the other hand, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary.

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Looking back on the Populist era

January 31, 2012

Political issues in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s were very like those of today—business monopoly, the power of banks and Wall Street speculators, declining income for working people, increasing concentration of wealth in the upper 1 percent, and a two-party system in which both parties were captives to corporate wealth.

John D. HIcks’ classic 1931 book, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party, told the story of the political revolt of farmers in the Great Plains and the South against that system.  I read this book in hope that it would offer lessons for reform in the present day.

Unlike today, farmers who worked the land were a large percentage of the American people, and a majority in some states.   They organized politically and eventually formed a third party whose leaders were regarded as both dangerous revolutionaries and ridiculous crackpots.  The populist goal — an agricultural economic based on prosperous small independent farmers — was not achieved.

But over time many of their ideas came to be enacted into law.  The lesson of the Populist era is that political reform is more than the art of the possible.  Sometimes it takes leaders who are able to redefine what is possible.

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