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We Must Learn to Embrace Populism

Thomas Frank’s brilliant new book The People, No focuses on the long elite tradition of anti-populism. But it is really an urgent plea to liberals and radicals alike to embrace a left populism and universalism — or keep on losing.

Members of the Populist Party in the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka, Kansas, in February 1893.

From some segments of the Left, you hear a persistent griping about the need to “reckon” with populism. Populism is taboo now, the term imbued with a foul, nativist odor. For both the technocratic elite and the Democratic party rank and file, left populists and right populists are just two sides of the same coin, chaotic nihilists conspiring to undermine the wise order of experts.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, aka AMLO, is a “nationalist,” a “populist,” and “Mexico’s Trump.” Jeremy Corbyn was a rabid antisemite. Bernie Sanders was “left-wing Trump.” Populism is a smear. Those that embrace it do so at their own peril.

“Today, seemingly every well-educated person in America and Europe knows that populism is the name we give to mass movements that are bigoted and irrational that threaten democracy’s norms,” as Thomas Frank writes in The People, No, his grand new history of American anti-populism.

The intra-elite debates over populism rage on. The delusion is thinking that anyone cares. Most people in the world go quietly about their lives. They hold their own views and judgments. But when it comes to the political process today, they mostly keep to themselves. Like an iceberg, the great mass remains hidden under the water, watching from the sidelines, declining to get involved. Only the most committed fraction take the leap from spectators to participants.

We do know elites are hated and resented beyond what they could even imagine. But it’s not just the political and economic elites. It’s anyone who has positioned themselves as “cultural elites,” whether or not they even have an elite background.

Thomas Frank’s new book is a call for the Left to reclaim its populist birthright. As Frank sees it, the Left is the rightful heir of the Populist tradition. And populism wins. It wins at the ballot box — see the astroturfed populism of the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns — but also in the long war for ideas, such as Bernie fundamentally shifting the terrain of American politics. “The impulse to identify your goals with the elite — with any elite, even a moral one — is a kind of political death wish,” Frank writes. “The candidate who captures this refusal of deference is, more often than not, the candidate who wins.” In the long run, it’s anti-elitism that gets the goods.

The problem for the American left is that it has not yet figured out how to appear convincingly anti-elitist. When it comes to the Democratic Party, we are locked in a terrible marriage — neither faction able to abandon the other. Many commentators have puzzled over a solution, but there are no easy answers. In the end, the Left is always expected to shore up the elite consensus.

And worse, a growing socialist left risks becoming associated with elitism, thanks to its “professional class” base. This widespread impression is not by any means fair or consistently true from a class or policy standpoint. But many people perceive those that have the luxury to bicker over whether or not an endorsement from Joe Rogan is acceptable as a privileged caste.

And, in many respects, the Left is happy to play into this: Trump voters, for many on the liberal left, are unreasonable, irredeemable racists. They simply don’t know what’s best for them or the country — but we do. If they do or say the wrong thing, it’s from lack of education or consciousness. “Let the people decide, and they will disappoint you every time,” Frank writes acidly. “Where populism is optimistic about rank-and-file voters,” purity liberalism “regards them with a combination of suspicion and disgust.” Unfortunately for anti-populists on the Left, voters can sniff out distaste for normal, average people.

Before the pandemic hit, on every episode of his podcast, Steve Bannon made a direct appeal to disaffected Bernie supporters. It usually went something like this: To all you Bernie bros — The DNC has been so totally unfair and disrespectful to you. We respect you. We may have policy differences, but we respect the energy, and you’re welcome here anytime. Trump himself has continued openly courting Bernie voters on Twitter. Bannon is widely dismissed as a fraud and a loser these days, but it must be remembered that his political instincts helped get Donald Trump elected. And he never misses the chance to flatter the populist constituency he has built. He and his cohosts claim that their best ideas come directly from the audience. In pursuit of their reactionary politics, they are going to the people.

All of this stuff is, of course, disingenuous pandering. But the fact is that the Left is getting poached and still refuses to poach back.

Any attempts to organize on the basis of popular crossover issues — such as health care, corruption, and insider trading by senior Republican and Democrat politicians — have been largely bypassed in favor of a maximalist policy program all but guaranteed to alienate anyone beyond the already converted.

This is not to say Bernie should have watered himself down or compromised to win — but compromises could have been made in the impression and the presentation.

Frank’s book is a manual for a left that wants to become truly popular. The book is great for those mulling over what could have gone better for the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns. In fact, every person involved in shaping the direction and tone of those campaigns should read this book — an ode to the forgotten “normie” voter. “A grand alliance of the ordinary is not just the only way left to us; it’s the only way, period,” Frank writes.

Frank’s narrative starts in the Populist 1890s, cuts straight to the New Deal and the postwar class compromise, to the culture warriors of the twenty-first century — the new youth movement who, just like the 1960s generation, wanted to be the radical vanguard despite their perpetual disappointment in “the people.”

The book is mostly history, not polemic, but the message that comes through is clear: until the subcultural embrace is ended, electoral success will be limited. For a winning political formula, Frank turns to Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of American populism: connect with people as and where they are, and win them over to a shared progressive politics, and “against a politics of ‘individual righteousness,’ a tendency toward ‘celebrating the purity’ of one’s so-called radicalism.” Tough but necessary words for our times.

In his dissection of the 1960s New Left, Frank quotes from a popular countercultural think-book of the time, The Greening of America, which exemplified the ambient disdain for normal people: “Look again at a ‘fascist’—tight-lipped, tense, crew cut, correctly dressed, church-going, an American flag on his car window . . . his life is really quite sad.” Labor organizing was not a big part of student organizing at the time. “What made them a ‘new’ Left was the singular belief that educated people like them, rather than the working class, were now the agents of political progress.”

Students for a Democratic Society chapters eventually tried to organize the unemployed in several northern cities, but the unconscious feeling of ’60s America was that “working class whites were reactionary and authoritarian. The university president in his three-piece suit believed it, in his quiet scholarly way—and so did the long-haired student who had just trashed his office and chugged his sherry: democracy is a system meant for enlightened people like them.”

In an incredible section, Frank presents Easy Rider as a parable for the New Left’s prejudices — in the end, the freedom-loving, cocaine-running countercultural bikers are brutally murdered by toothless rednecks. Terry Southern, one of the movie’s writers, saw it as “an indictment of blue-collar America, the people I thought were responsible for the Vietnam War.” Peter Fonda’s dad, Henry Fonda, had starred in the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s hard not to see Easy Rider as a declaration of war by the 1960s kids on their austere 1930s parents. They were bored with the folksy New Deal populism of the FDR portrait on the wall — they wanted rock and roll and sexual experimentation and unique identity. This attitude trickled down through successive generations of youth movements, into punk rock, into leftist politics, into the culture everywhere — we’re different from them, we’re on the cutting edge of society, we’re special.

The heroes of Frank’s book are the anti-monopoly, proto-socialist midwestern Populist Party of the 1890s. Their program was simple: nationalize the railroads, get rid of the gold standard, and root out political corruption. That was it. No cultural issues. In 1896, much of their platform was appropriated by the Democratic Party, which nominated the fiery populist William Jennings Bryan. The Populists decided to back Bryan anyway. But a massive campaign by pro-business interests organized to strike back. Industrialists threatened a capital strike if Bryan won, and he lost to the Republican William McKinley.

The Populist Party splintered and fragmented to the winds, planting the seeds of Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party. “Moral enthusiasm was to be beaten at every point in the line by a machine-like domination of the actual polling.”

The peak of actually existing American populism was, of course, the New Deal. For all its faults, it’s almost painful to compare what the Democratic Party has become to what FDR built. The New Deal was introduced as a “crusade to restore America to its own people.” That kind of language is the exclusive provenance of anti-immigrant reactionaries like Donald Trump today.

A few years after his landslide victory in 1936, FDR wrote that the liberal party “believed in the wisdom and efficacy of the will of the great majority of the people, as distinguished from the judgment of a small minority of either education or wealth.” Union density tripled between 1933 and 1941. Union leaders, especially Communist ones, embraced “’Americanism,’ a flamboyant identification of their own quest for justice and equality with the national flag, with patriotic tradition, and with the country’s political heroes . . . Americanism helped workers’ organizations to reverse decades of propaganda casting their members as anarchists, aliens, foreigners, subversives, and so on.”

FDR was called a fascist, a dictator, and a communist. The business, media, and political elites banded together to stop his reelection, but he won anyway with a landslide, with what he estimated to be 85 percent of the media against him.

The rest of Frank’s book charts how the Democrats went from being the party of FDR to the party of the “professional managerial class.” This started with the Cold War managerial boom, when “the highly-educated learned to deplore working-class movements for their bigotry, their refusal of modernity, and their borderline madness.” The present-day image of Populism was cemented by none other than Richard Hofstadter — the founding historian of the liberal consensus. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Hofstadter and other liberal thinkers began to equate agrarian populism of the 1890s with the demagogic McCarthyism of the 1950s. The populists were referred to the way Deplorables and Brexiters are discussed today — people angry because they’re slowly going down the toilet, demographically on the way out, left behind by progress and bitter about it.

Christopher Lasch, Hofstadter’s brilliant protégé, thought his mentor’s views stemmed from his prejudices against the lower middle class. In the professional class’s hatred of populism can be seen the meritocracy’s annoyance with outsiders impinging on their turf. Populism “represented the denial of their expertise.” Populism “rejected legitimate hierarchies along with wrongful ones — legitimate hierarchies being, of course, the ones that the intellectuals themselves had climbed.” To embrace populism would mean they had climbed the managerial ladder for nothing.

The heroes in Frank’s narrative are those who were early to recognize the need to pivot to populist universalism, like Michael Harrington, the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the great Martin Luther King Jr. The 1960s New Left failed because “Its members never transcended their essential identity: these were proto-professionals, young people in training . . . they were a charming elite and even an alienated elite, but an elite nevertheless. And they acted like one.”

The book is a cry for universalism, for a left that doesn’t fall into the many traps laid for it by both friends and enemies. Frank takes on the self-righteous and snotty, those well-intentioned people who’ve become so consumed by identity politics that they don’t see how they’ve become a junior partner to the elite, calling instead for an independent, big-hearted politics.

“You can’t really have the . . . war on concentrated economic power without the first part,” as Frank puts it. “A broad-minded acceptance of average people.”