In an article titled The Pessimistic Style in American Politics appearing in the May 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine (subscription required), Thomas Frank looks at the origins of the word ‘populism’ and how it went from being used to describe a movement that embraced progressive and egalitarian goals to being deliberately distorted by the elites to make it represent the views of anarchic and reactionary views, and how that revised meaning of the term was used to stop the Bernie Sanders campaign and other reform movements, by arguing that populism unleashes the basest impulses of the mass of people. (The article is excerpted from a new book by Frank titled The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.)
Government of the people? When we open the door to ordinary people—let them actually influence what goes on—they insist we make bigotry and persecution into our great national causes.
Government by the people? When we let the people have their say—unmanaged, uncurated—they choose the biggest blowhard on TV to be our leader. Then they cheer for him as he destroys the environment and cracks down on immigrant families.
Heed the voice of the plain people and all the levees of taste and learning will immediately be swamped. Half of them will demand that minorities be consigned to the back of the bus; the other half will try to confiscate the hard-won wealth of society’s greatest innovators.
So goes the wail of the American leadership class as they endure another year of panic. They know on some level that what has happened in Washington isn’t due to majority rule at all, but to money and gerrymandering and the Electoral College and decades of TV programming decisions. But the anxiety cannot be dislodged; it is beyond the reach of reason. The people are out of control.
“Populism” is the word that comes to the lips of the respectable and the highly educated when they perceive the global system going haywire. Populism is the name they give to the avalanche crashing down on the Alpine wonderland of Davos. Populism is what they call the mutiny that may well turn the supercarrier America into a foundering wreck. Populism, for them, is a one-word evocation of the logic of the mob: it is the people as a great rampaging beast.
There’s something peculiar about all this. The English language provides a great many solid choices for someone wishing to describe a leader who plays on mob psychology or racial intolerance. “Demagogue” is an obvious one, but there are others—“nationalist,” “nativist,” “racist,” or “fascist,” to name a few. They are serviceable words, all of them. In the feverish climate of the Democracy Scare, however, none of those will work: “populist” is the word we are instructed to use. “Populists” are the ones we must suppress.
Frank says that one day in May 1891 somewhere on a train traveling through Kansas the word populism was invented to describe a movement represented by the newly formed People’s Party and was “intended to christen a movement that was brave and noble and fair—that would stand up to the narrow-minded and the intolerant.”
The People’s Party was the official moniker of the organization these men nicknamed, and it was one of America’s first great economic-political uprisings, a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans learned to think of the country’s inequitable economic system as a thing they might change by common effort. The party offered a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, could react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements was no longer tolerable.
At the time, America was still largely an agricultural nation, and in many places farmers made up overwhelming majorities of the population. In the South, they tended to be desperately poor and heavily reliant on bankers, landowners, and shopkeepers. In the West, farmers found themselves at the mercy of a different set of middlemen—local railroad monopolies and far-off commodity speculators.
In the 1880s, these farmers started signing up by the millions for a cooperative movement called the Farmers’ Alliance. To such people the Alliance made a simple proposition: let’s find out why we are being ruined, and then let’s get together and do something about it.
Along the way, something profound took place. The farmers—men and women of society’s commonest rank—figured out that being exploited was not the natural order of things. So they began taking matters into their own hands. In Kansas and a few other Western states, members of the group went into politics directly, and the People’s Party was born.
One thing the insurgent party did not have, however, was a catchy word to describe its adherents, and so, on that fateful train ride—and in conversation with a local Democrat who knew some Latin—they came up with one: “populist,” derived from populus, meaning “the people.”
He says that from the beginning, a campaign was waged by the ruling classes to make the words ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ into derogatory terms.
The specific reforms for which the People’s Party campaigned are largely forgotten today, but the insults and accusations with which Populism was received in 1891 are alive and well. You can read them in best-selling books, watch them flashed on PowerPoints at prestigious foundation conferences, hear the long-ago denunciations of the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Daily Capital echoed by people who have never heard of Topeka: Populist movements, they will tell you, are mob actions; reformers are bigots; their leaders are blatherskites; their followers are mentally ill, or ignorant, or uncouth at the very least. They are cranks; they are troublemakers; they are deplorables. And, yes, they still have hayseed in their hair.
The name I give to this disdainful reaction is “anti-populism,” and when you investigate its history, you find its adherents using the same rhetoric over and over again. Whether defending the gold standard in 1896 or NAFTA in 2016, anti-populism mobilizes the same sentiments and draws on the same stereotypes; it sometimes even speaks to us from the same prestigious institutions. Its most toxic ingredient—a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans—is as virulent today as it was in the Victorian era.
The first item in anti-populism’s bill of charges is that populism is nostalgic or backward-looking in a way that is both futile and unhealthy. Among the many public figures who have seconded this familiar accusation is none other than Barack Obama, who in 2016 criticized unnamed politicians for having “embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore.”
Obama’s understanding of “populism” as a politics of pointless pining for bygone glories—exemplified by Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”—is unremarkable, but as a description of the agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century it would be largely without foundation. As modern historians remind us, the Populists believed in progress and modernity as emphatically as did any big-city architect or engineer of their day.
So it goes time and again with our contemporary anti-populists: when their denunciations are compared with the ideas of the people who invented the P-word, the stereotype of populists in general collapses. It does not describe historical reality. The Pops did not fear government, as we are often told populists do; they wanted it to grow big and strong. The Pops did not hate ideas; they meant to spread knowledge to the farthest corners of the land. The Pops were not socially regressive; they were unique among the major parties of their time in boasting numerous female leaders. Again and again, upon investigation, the hateful tendencies that we are told make up this frightful worldview are either absent from historical Populism or are the opposite of what it stood and stands for, or else far more accurately describe the people who hated Populism and who have opposed it ever since the 1890s.
Frank says that those who criticize Trump by calling him a populist are contributing to the misuse of the word.
To be clear, I believe that President Trump richly deserves nearly any criticism he gets. He is not really a populist, and I have no intention of building sympathy for him. But the danger of anti-populism is that it goes far beyond objecting to one vile politician. This was demonstrated in March as the anti-populist establishment came together to pummel the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Whatever its target, anti-populism is always a brief for elite and even aristocratic power, an attack on the democratic tradition itself. That is ultimately what’s in the crosshairs when commentators tell us that populism is a “threat to liberal democracy”; when they announce that populism “is almost inherently antidemocratic”; when they declare that “all people of goodwill must come together to defend liberal democracy from the populist threat.”
The larger message of anti-populism, regardless of where it comes from on the political spectrum, is always one of complacency. Elites rule us because elites should rule us. They are in charge because they are the best.
And so we come to understand the real task before us today: to rescue from the enormous condescension of the comfortable the one political tradition that has a chance of reversing our decades-long turn to the right.
Reclaiming the word populism is not going to be easy because the original ideas that gave rise to the term are viewed as subversive and dangerous by the political, business, and media establishments because it threatens their interests.