America’s Populism Problem

Populism is a muddle – a political, economic, and moral dog’s breakfast.

April 20, 2021 • Commentary
This article appeared in American Consequences on April 20, 2021.

We have a populism problem in America…

One big, honking populist has just been shooed out of the White House. And his replacement — while more of an old political hack and Washington establishmentarian than a populist per se — is coming in trailing strong fumes of populism from his own political party.

Populism isn’t a Right‐​wing or Left‐​wing ideology. Populism isn’t an ideology at all…It’s about feelings, not ideas. Populism isn’t conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic. But it is both MAGA and BLM, both QAnon and Antifa — AOC in a Boogaloo Boys Hawaiian shirt.

A reasonably good definition of Populism can be found in an unsigned article from the April 17, 1972, issue of Time magazine cited by the Oxford English Dictionary:

Populism is a label that covers disparate policies and passions: among many others, New Deal reforms, consumer rage against business, ethnic belligerence. Often it is merely a catch phrase. Yet it describes something real: the politics of the little guy against the big guy — the classic struggle of the haves against the have‐​nots or the have‐​not‐​enoughs.

The only thing dated about that Time paragraph from almost half a century ago is “New Deal reforms.” An invasion of the Capitol building by ardent New Dealers would have required many more wheelchair ramps than the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates, and New Deal disturbances in city business districts would have been limited to the occasional whacking of police riot shields with canes and the looting of Depends.

Otherwise, Time puts it neatly. Populism is a muddle. This muddle may be “classic” in the sense that “disparate policies and passions” date to the beginnings of governance. But, in America, the type of muddle that’s currently on display began to manifest itself in 1874 with the founding of the “Greenback Party.”

The main concern of the Greenback Party was inflation — they were for it. They felt that America’s post‐​Civil War return to the gold standard and a “sound dollar” gave too much power to big business and banking. They opposed deflation, believing lower prices were bad for “the little guy.” They wanted the government to print more money — because that way…everybody would have more money. Today, we would call them some sort of pinko flake advocates of Modern Monetary Theory.

But the Greenback constituency was primarily rural with support from labor, especially in mining and heavy industry. So really they’d be like some kind of reactionary nut supporters of Trump Forever.

The Greenback Party won control of a number of municipal governments in what would later become the Rust Belt, and it elected 20‐​some members of Congress. But Greenback influence faded as American economic growth recommenced after the depression of 1873 to 1877. (Could that growth have had anything to do with a sound dollar?)

Shifts in economic reality often have a way of dispersing the mists of populism. Widespread flirtations with Marxism among intellectuals in the 1930s (a sort of “highbrow populism”) disappeared into the capitalist war‐​making machinery of the 1940s. The populist “youth culture” social upheavals of the 1960s ended in the 1970s with thousands of hippies saying, “Oh wow, man, we’re broke.” And where did the occupiers of Occupy Wall Street go? Probably to Reddit and WallStreetBets, to day trade GameStop stock.

However, another financial panic in the early 1890s gave fresh impetus to Greenback‐​style populism. A new political party was started in 1892, officially named the People’s Party, but popularly — as it were — called the Populist Party. (According to the OED, the word “populist” seems to have been coined that year by the Columbus Dispatch to describe the party.)

The Populist platform called for an inflationary monetary policy. It also called for women’s suffrage, labor union collective bargaining rights, an eight‐​hour workday, a graduated income tax, direct election of U.S. Senators by voters instead of state legislators, price supports for farmers, and federal regulation of railroad monopoly shipping rates.

If you’re a well‐​meaning liberal (and, conservative though I am, I have no objection to your being so), this all sounds so attractive, and so politically advanced – such policies being proposed more than 120 years ago! But before you get too excited about this Populist movement of yore, you should know that there was, among the Populists, an element of another kind of populism that isn’t so popular with you.

Wikipedia is not the most precise or accurate research tool. But the crowdsourced nature of the free online encyclopedia does give us a rough survey of “what is commonly thought and known” about a subject. The Wikipedia article “People’s Party (United States)” is, in general, favorably disposed to the Populists.

But the “Women and African Americans” section of the article (to which I’ve made addenda in brackets) reports that…

…racism did not evade the People’s Party. Prominent Populist Party leaders…at least partially demonstrated a dedication to the cause of white supremacy, and there appears to have been some support for this viewpoint in the party’s rank‐​and‐​file membership. After 1900 [Thomas E.] Watson [the Populist presidential candidate in 1904] himself became an outspoken white supremacist.

From what I can learn about Watson, this is true. A Georgia politician and rabble‐​rousing publisher, Watson started out urging poor whites and poor blacks to unite against “elites.” But as time went by, he changed his mind about which rabble he was rousing. He first embraced racial bigotry and by the time he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920, he had added nativism, anti‐​Semitism, and anti‐​Catholicism to his gross prejudices. In his Senate career, he distinguished himself by dying after 16 months in office.

Further material from the Wikipedia article…

Historian Hasia Diner [professor of American Jewish History at New York University] says: Some Populists believed that Jews made up a class of international financiers whose policies had ruined small family farms…owned the banks and promoted the gold standard, the chief sources of their impoverishment.

And…

[Charles] Postel [history professor at San Francisco State University and author of The Populist Vision, where, overall, he views the Populists in a positive light] notes…White Populists embraced social‐​Darwinist notions of racial improvement, Chinese exclusion and separate‐​but‐​equal.

And…

[Political scientist, former aide to President Gerald Ford, and Senior Fellow at the (liberal leaning) Brookings Institute, A. James] Reichley (1992) sees the Populist Party primarily as a reaction to the decline of the political hegemony of white Protestant farmers…Reichley argues that, while the Populist Party was founded in reaction to economic hardship, by the mid‐​1890s it was “reacting not simply against the money power but against the whole world of cities and alien customs and loose living they felt was challenging the agrarian way of life.”

(And, P.S., consulting other historical sources, it’s also clear that the Populists often worked in tandem with the Prohibition Party.)

As someone who’s fond of loose living, charmed by alien customs, and having grandparents who, with alacrity, moved from the farm to the big city to escape the toilsome dullness of the agrarian way of life, I feel no affinity for the roots of populism or for any of the Donald Bernie Trump Sanders underbrush that has sprouted from its 19th century stump.

Populism is a muddle — a political, economic, and moral dog’s breakfast.

Which brings us back to that quote from Time, “…the politics of the little guy against the big guy — the classic struggle of the haves against the have‐​nots or the have‐​not‐​enoughs.”

Populism is a lie and a logical sophistry. The very idea of the “struggle of the haves against the have‐​nots” presupposes the zero‐​sum fallacy that only a fixed amount of good things exist in the world, and I can only have more good things if I take them from you.

It’s the old “pizza delusion,” which you’ve probably heard explained before, but I’ll have it delivered again. To think of economics in terms of haves versus have‐​nots is to look at the economy like a pizza — if you hog too many slices, I’ll have to eat the Domino’s box.

As hundreds of years of economic development — and the expansion of Domino’s from one store in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960 to more than 17,000 franchises today — proves, the answer is to make more pizza.

Populism is also not American. There is no “little guy” in this country. Every American citizen stands with the same height and strength, equal before the law to a degree remarkable by any world or world history standard.

We each have our disadvantages — economic, social, and circumstantial. But few of our ancestors landed here in circumstances such as arrival by Gulfstream private jet. America is a monument to what the disadvantaged can do.

And none of us face the disadvantage — if his portrayal in The Social Network is anything to go by — of being as big an a‐​hole as Mark Zuckerberg.

As to the “politics of the little guy,” there is no other kind in America. The OED’s definition of (small “p”) populist is “One who seeks to represent the views of the mass of common people.”

There’s something sneaky and faintly sinister in that “seeks to,” as if there are secrets to be disclosed. Get out of here, you populist. In America, the views of the mass of common people are on view! In fact, it’s impossible not to see them. And, in the matter of “represent the views,” they’re already represented. It’s called the House of Representatives (and the Senate too). These representative bodies may be full of nincompoops, but the mass of common people is free to exchange them for other nincompoops at every election.

A populist is somebody offering democracy to a democracy, somebody saying, “I’ll give you a dollar for four quarters.” When you hear a proposition like that, you know something’s up, some con is being played.

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