Noble Populism

Is populism a good and noble cause that could never be associated with bigotry? NPR host Liane Hansen seems to think so. On NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” she interviewed Christopher Hedge, who composed the music for a PBS documentary on Andrew Jackson. When Hedge called Jackson a populist, Hansen objected. What about his treatment of slaves and Indians? she asked–that doesn’t sound very “populist.”

Oh, dear. What does Hansen think populism is? The term can have many meanings, but it certainly seems to mean the rallying of “us” against “them.” Sometimes that means “the masses” against “the elites”–whether political or economic. But frequently those elites include Jews or Americans or other groups perceived to be more economically successful than they deserve. Eastern Europe’s populist parties these days fulminate against free markets and against Jews, Gypsies, and other ethnic minorities. No one seems to have any doubt that that’s what populists do. A leading American Populist politician, Tom Watson, railed against Catholics, blacks, and Jews as well as against “the corporations” and sound money. So did Pitchfork Ben Tillman, who implemented Jim Crow in South Carolina. Not all American populists were racists; many wanted to organize poor blacks and poor whites to defeat corporate interests. But the combination was common.

As for Andrew Jackson, he was in many ways a great fighter for freedom and democracy. But NPR’s researchers need to do some research on the attitudes of Jackson’s white working-class supporters toward blacks and Indians. You can bet they didn’t think other races were part of “us.”