Reclaiming “Populism”: On Thomas Frank’s “The People, No”
By L. Benjamin RolskySeptember 29, 2020
The People, No by Thomas Frank
In his latest work, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, journalist Thomas Frank takes on such a challenge to rescue the terms “populism” and “populist” from the mouths of those he deems unfit to use them: the anti-populists. Part history, part polemic, the book argues that both terms have been warped by capable interpreters: his fellow critics of American history and culture. In short, Frank seeks linguistic rectification even if it means becoming that which he abhors with a smoldering passion: a cultural snob.
By seeing the ways in which anti-populists have historically misused “populism” and “populist” at different moments in American history, Frank wants us to better understand how pessimism about popular democratic participation has enlivened “the paranoid right.” He begins his analysis by laying out the historical foundations of populism and exploring the 19th-century “Pops” (rhetorical shorthand for the Kansas-based agrarians who challenged the economic elites of the time). The first chapter is his descriptive baseline: the definition of populism that grounds his reclamation project for the book as a whole. “Populists both loved knowledge and rejected professional elites. The reason was because the economic establishment of that age of crisis was overwhelmingly concerned with serving business, not the people.”
There’s no doubting Frank’s research. Populists were historical actors in the 1890s who challenged the economic powers of their day. To Frank, any contemporary or historical usage of “populism” or “populist” that does not reflect such political commitments comes off as anti-populist in intent. But were the populists as politically aware as Frank contends? “With their singular focus on economics,” Frank assures us, “they regarded many of the controversies of the day as traps or distractions.” The historical record supports such claims to a point, but I wonder how socially aware they really were, and to what extent Frank overly romanticizes his historical subjects. “By and large, they stayed away from the culture-war issues of the day,” he says.
As Frank recently admitted in an interview, however, many of the populists of the 1890s were “products of their time” when it came to issues of race and racism. So, which is it? Were populists singularly focused on economics, or were there other issues at hand? It may be tempting to read a particular sociocultural consciousness into the past when it comes to the 1890s’ “Pops” — overly familiar shorthand for populists Frank uses throughout the book — but it ultimately makes for a less convincing argument overall.
Over the course of the remaining chapters, Frank documents varied but similar moments of “Democracy Scare” and subsequent anti-populist sentiment across the 20th century in order to highlight just how wrong “the experts” were when it came to populist demands in a given moment of historical time. “This is the core assumption of what I call the Democracy Scare,” Frank explains. “If the people have lost faith in the ones in charge, it can only be because something has gone wrong with the people themselves.” Regardless of historical context, which includes chapters on the populist undercurrents of the Civil Rights movement, the consensus-driven 1950s, the tumultuous 1970s, and the present-day presidency of Donald Trump, Frank tracks the very same dynamic: a moment in which “elites” were wrong, and “the people” were right.
What is striking about Frank’s historical and social analyses is that they virtually ignore religious social actors, who were irrefutably significant players at various points in time in the longer story of American populism. In his commentary on the populist dimensions of the New Deal, for example, Frank fails to acknowledge the work of historian Matthew Sutton, who has studied extensively the fundamentalist challenges Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal faced. Were these religious social actors a part of the moment’s broader populist challenge to the proverbial elites? Frank leaves us wondering.
Frank also doesn’t mention the fact that Roosevelt’s style of governance arguably unfolded through a form of “rabble-rousing” as sociologist Will Herberg argued in 1954. “Do you remember Mr. Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats?’ What were they but the re-establishment of the relation between demagogue and mob on a national scale through the miracle of modern mass communication?” The role of media in cultivating either populist and/or fascist sentiment in Frank’s story goes largely undertheorized. And as a result, we lose a sense of how individuals in the past mobilized one or the other and to what end: democratic or otherwise.
Historian and anti-populist critic Richard Hofstadter looks especially bad in Frank’s story. “Using the tools Hofstadter provided them, American intellectuals quickly built anti-populism into a towering structure of liberal social theory,” Frank writes. Hofstadter was not only the author of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but he also contributed to The Radical Right (1955), edited by sociologist Daniel Bell. The term “pseudo” was used by Hofstadter at the time to suggest that his subjects were anything but conservative as he understood it, which included the specific term “pseudo-conservative.”
“Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for non-conformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity,” argued Hofstadter. “It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative […] because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions.”
Ironically, Frank takes part in such analysis of “put-upon Americans” when he labels movements in the late 20th century “pseudo-populist” himself. As a result, Frank unconsciously — or maybe consciously — identifies a good populism and a bad populism based on his initial chapter’s definition. In short, Frank succumbs to the very ideology he resents: the searing of uncouth men. “Indeed,” Frank assures us, “it seems that whenever we find someone attacking populism, their underlying purpose is to shore up the legitimacy of whatever system it is that has made them an elite.”
At the end of the day, Frank’s ultimate aim in The People, No seems to be to convince Democratic Party establishment types that they need to reinvest their time and electoral energy in a commitment to labor and the interests of working-class people. This point could arguably be made, however, without lambasting multiple generations of scholars, intellectuals, and commentators dating back to the 1890s. In many respects, the Democratic Party establishment has become neoliberal in both thought and action, resulting in a fundamental dismissal of the very populist sociopolitical options that Frank has worked so hard to identify through his analysis of the anti-populist tradition of American social criticism. In other words, Bernie lost, and that matters to Frank. And he thinks it should matter to us, too.
Instead of going at “anti-populists” for purely ideological reasons, as Frank does here, we should instead recommit ourselves to fighting “unfreedom.” Scholars Alex Gourevitch and Corey Robin argue this in their article “Freedom Now,” writing that we must reimagine the workplace as a “classroom of freedom, a space where we learn the political arts of struggle and emancipation […] in learning to cooperate with others for a shared purpose, we see the possibility of taking a greater responsibility for economic arrangements as a whole.”
Frank’s true enemy, it seems, is not the anti-populist, but rather the ascent of common-sense neoliberalism in American public life since the 1970s. Frank himself identifies the ’70s as the birth moment of anti-populist ascent. A decade largely lost to history between the proverbial ’60s and Reagan’s ’80s, the 1970s may hold the key to reclaiming populism in an unprecedented age of cultural and economic turmoil.
L. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University.
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