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© Frank

interviews

Playing Populist

by Thomas Frank
February 12, 2021

This interview with Thomas Frank, author of "Listen, Liberal" and "The People, No.", was conducted and condensed by franknews

Thomas | My name is Thomas Frank. I'm the author of The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. It's about people who hate populism.

frank | Who hates populism?

These days I'd have to say liberals, unfortunately, and ironically. I say “ironically” because Populism, real Populism with a capital P, started as a liberal movement. Nowadays, liberals are profoundly mistrustful of ordinary Americans and of mass movements of working-class people. They reiterate this all the time. You see it expressed in a hundred different ways: from Hillary Clinton talking about the deplorables, to the people on Twitter speaking with an assumption that white working-class people are basically scoundrels. 

Populism began with The Populists – the party — around 1890. Can you talk about the origins a bit more?

We talk about populism all the time nowadays, but unless you understand where the word comes from, you're going to be really, really confused about what people are using it to mean. The word does not come from Latin. The word is not from ancient Greek. The word was made up by a bunch of people on a train between Kansas City and Topeka in the year 1891 in order to describe a brand new third-party movement that had just started up in Kansas. This was a left-wing, third-party movement. It was largely made of farmers, but it also included union workers and other working-class types. The Populists wanted federal programs for farmers, they wanted to nationalize the railroads, they wanted to crack down on monopolies, and they wanted to take America off the gold standard. They pushed for political reforms that would have made it easier to vote. Essentially, they wanted to make the voice of the people heard more effectively in Washington. That's what they stood for. That's what Populism was all about.

Until it wasn't.

Yeah. It was immediately redefined by the people who hated all of those things. The Populist platform, the things I just described, were extremely controversial, though they sound like common sense today. In 1891, the leading newspapers of Kansas and of America more broadly attacked Populism with severe language. They described it as a movement of losers from the bottom rungs of society. They said that because these people have the right to vote, they think that they can demand to run things that they have no business running. 

They didn't say deplorables back then, but they said similar things: hayseeds, riff-raff, ne'er do wells. They said that these were the worst people in society.

They said Populism was mob rule. They said it was anarchy. They said it was a form of mental illness.

There were a lot of armchair psychologists at the time that would speculate about what made people sign up with the Populist movement, and it was always that there was something wrong in their brains. 

That attack on populism survives to this day. This redefinition that was thrown at the Populists as a political attack has stuck. And, I should say, was thrown at them by what would today be considered the extreme right-wing, though at the time they would have been described as respectable gentlemen of New York and Boston or something like that.

Was there any prioritization of race during the early days of The Populist party? And I guess, if so, to what extent?

So the Populists did something that was very innovative in the 1890s, which was to reach out to Black voters in the South, where most Black people lived at the time. In a lot of Southern States, Black people could still vote in the 1890s, they hadn't been fully disenfranchised yet.

In the south, the ruling political philosophy of that era was white solidarity. The idea that white people's interests as whites was paramount to everything else. Whether you're a rich white or poor white didn't matter, you had to vote for the party of the white man, which was, of course, the Democratic Party. At the time, they were the monopoly party in the South.

The Populists came into the South with a different proposition.

They said that your interests as poor Black farmers are the same as the interests of poor white farmers.

Your class interest is actually more important than your racial interests. They openly appealed to Black and white voters on this basis.

The tactic seemed to succeed at first, but then, the masters of the South came down on these guys like a ton of bricks and absolutely destroyed the Populist movement. They did so by unleashing an incredible campaign of racial hysteria directed against Black people, using every sort of ugly racist trope that you can imagine to beat Populism down. And when they were done, in a lot of states they disenfranchised Black voters. Many Southern states went around and took the vote away from African-Americans through various forms of legislation.  They enforced literacy tests. They implemented poll taxes. In doing so, they wound up taking the vote away from a lot of poor whites as well. And they did all this to make sure that something like populism never happened again.

I was watching MLK’s speech at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery. He talks about Populism as a way to awake the masses and as a uniting face in a segregated society. 

I'm glad you brought that up. This Martin Luther King speech in 1965 is one of my favorite moments. He is on the steps of the Capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. He's at the very end of this era of disenfranchisement. They're just about to pass the Voting Rights Act, Black civil rights are about to be restored, and they are going to be voting again. This long nightmare chapter of history is finally ending. As he is standing at the tail end of it, King looks back and asks, how did this terrible system get started in the first place? He says it was started as a way of beating down the Populist movement, which is, in fact, correct.

Now, I don't want to romanticize it too much because the Populists were not racial liberals in a modern sense. They did not understand the issues the way that we do today. The official Populist party doctrine was that they were going to reach out to Black voters in the South, but in truth, they weren't very systematic about it, and they didn't do a very good job of it. I mean, they were a third party, so they never really got very far with their project. It ended in incredible disaster, as Martin Luther King points out in his speech. 

But even so, historians used to look back to Populism as a bright spot in Southern history, because it was the only time before the Civil Rights era that poor whites and poor Blacks had tried to get together based on their shared interests.

This is the holy grail in left-wing politics. The day that strategy succeeds is the day you actually have a real functioning left in America.

And, so far we don't have that.

Screen Shot 2021 02 11 at 11.02.28 PM

There’s a fear of a truly mobilized electorate – but mobilizing through class over other issues is difficult. It seems like it should be what the Democratic party should be about, and yet, there's a real rejection of it. 

I didn't really plan on asking, but I'm curious how you see the media in this. How do you think media propels an anti-Populist narrative through criticism, many times using the same language populist critics were using a hundred years ago?

Yeah. A lot of these criticisms of Populism began on the extreme right, and now those criticisms are, word for word, enunciated by liberals. That is largely because liberalism has changed. The Democratic party today is not the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt or of Martin Luther King. It's a party that is overwhelmingly concerned with the fortunes of highly educated, affluent white-collar workers, and not working-class people. If you look at who donates to the Democratic Party, and who supports the Democratic Party, you see that it tends to be people from the knowledge industries, industries where your position is based on credentialed expertise. Wall Street is a huge supporter of the Democratic party. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are as well. Various academia, of course, too. And the Democratic Party does extraordinary favors for these industries and for these people. 

They don't understand themselves as the voice of the working-class. That went out of style in the 1970s. By and large liberals today have taken up the positions of conservatives of yesterday in a lot of ways; they occupy the cultural position that conservatives did a hundred years ago. Liberals understand themselves as the best element of society, and they look down upon the riffraff. They've taken over where the conservatives of the 1890s left off. 

I heard a criticism of Al Gore that I hadn't thought about, which was Al Gore was a specific kind of southerner – one who left the South, abandoned his accent, attended an Ivy League school, and then presented as elite. This was from a southerner. And it really got under his skin. Whereas Bush was – real or not –

Well, they were both elites.

Yes, but Bush was at least pretending not to be.

Pretending to be for the people, yeah. 

Bush's dad was even worse. George Bush, Sr. was probably the preppiest man in America. He comes from extreme wealth that goes back generations. You can trace their ancestry back to like colonial Massachusetts. Then, when he's running for president against Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush does this phony populist act in the most outrageous way. He goes around the country, eating pork rinds all the time, hanging around with country and Western singers, and touring flag factories.

Why flag factories? Because the entire campaign was about the culture war. They found some instances where Dukakis had said something along the lines of you don't have to say the pledge of allegiance in school, and they made this into a national issue. It's ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous.

You had this American aristocrat going around the country pretending to be a man of the people, and the Democrats walked right into the buzzsaw.

They always do. They walk right into it and they nominate this guy, Michael Dukakis who says it's not about ideology, it's about competence. He is, of course, the most competent of the competent. His white collar has a white collar. He's like the ultimate technocrat. 

Why do the Democrats keep nominating these guys? Someone once described Jimmy Carter as a passionless technocrat. The description works just as well for Dukakis. The Democrats keep choosing these guys: Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton. Even Barack Obama to a certain degree is one. They keep choosing them and then getting beat by fake populists.

That story is absurd, but it's like, at least they have the good sense to pretend.

Screen Shot 2021 02 11 at 11.07.57 AM

These guys — the Republicans — are extremely good at the game. They come out of the business world. They're endlessly dynamic. They will say anything. They will do anything. They will try anything. They're incredibly innovative. If one thing doesn't work, they drop it and they try another. They'll contradict themselves. Whatever it takes to win, they will do it.

I believe it. I so, so believe it. When I first heard that criticism of Gore, I rolled my eyes, because you think of the difference in presidencies between him and Bush.

Dukakis would have been a better president. There's no doubt about it. 

You just think I don't really want to hang out with you at all. How far does that go in terms of getting people elected?

Well, take Trump versus Hillary. There's no question that she would have been a better president than Donald Trump, but Donald Trump is the epitome of phony populism. Here's a guy that seems to speak to the public outrage of the moment in a really emotional way. He's everything that the media is telling us we need in politics: he's out there, he's open, he says whatever he thinks, he would be fun to have a beer with. He becomes president. I just have to say, I am glad we are at the end of this. I'm so relieved that he's done. 

I mean, there was a very good chance that this guy was going to get reelected up until COVID. The economy was booming. You had real wage growth in this country, which we haven't seen in a very long time, because the labor market was so tight. If COVID never happened or had he shown just the slightest bit of leadership during the pandemic, he probably would have been reelected. But what a dumbshit. He shows no leadership at all. His narcissism cancels everything else out.

You would think that would shake the Democratic party. 

No, no, no. The leadership clique of the Democratic Party are all geared towards mentally or culturally staving off challenges to themselves. Like you think about the people that ran Hillary Clinton's campaign, they all came right back. They all have high places in the party or in academia or the DC thinktanks. There is no accountability with these people. At least with the Republicans, you see shreds of accountability. When somebody screws up really badly, they're done. With Democrats, once you're in the club, there's very little accountability. This is a problem across the board. Look at Obama and the Wall Street banks. There was a complete failure to hold these people accountable. 

Could you imagine a successful new wave of populism from the left happening?

It's something that should happen. Lord knows we could use it. America as a great middle-class society has been deteriorating for decades. It's in shreds. Unfortunately, we came to a point where a reckoning had to happen urgently, in the financial crisis in 2009. People like me thought that reckoning was about to take place, but in fact it never happened. There was a time when the public anger at Wall Street was volcanic and effective. It elected Barack Obama.

But Obama failed and the Democratic Party has yet to reckon with Obama's failure. As a president that was faced with an urgent historical task, he failed. You can blame the Republicans for that if you want, because they were obstructionists. They wanted him to fail. But still, there is a whole lot more he could have done about the anger towards the financial crisis and the larger public anger, the disappearance of the American way of life. His heart was not in that fight.

I'm referring not only to the fact that he didn't prosecute these Wall Street guys, but he never made it clear what the financial crisis was about and how we were going to make sure it never happened again. Not only that, but he also rationalized what was happening to people by saying people need to be educated or have an advanced degree to survive. All these Democrats do that. Actually, Joe Biden doesn't, but he’s the exception. I was just watching CNN yesterday, and this guy came on and said that Trump supporters have no one to blame for their bad situation, but themselves, because they didn't get advanced degrees. Are you serious?

That's liberalism today. We blame working-class people for their own desperate situation, rather than trying to do something to fix it.

That is nuts. 

I always think enthusiasm about your alma mater, rather than some embarrassment you were able to attend, means you have worms for brains.

Really? Wow. I live in Bethesda, Maryland, this very affluent place. Every high school student, every elementary school student here has internalized the hierarchy of universities. Everybody knows which university is higher than which other ones. Everybody wants to know where everybody else went to college so that they can place them on this hierarchy. Everybody does this here. It's part of who we are. I kind of admire you for being revolted by that. And I mean, to close the loop, this is an extremely liberal area. These are all Democrats that I’m talking about.

And the right is able to capitalize on it.

Right. The Tea Party movement managed to get themselves in front of the anger towards the financial crisis. They made themselves the face of public anger and captured it. They succeeded in stealing that momentum. They built a fake populist movement out of thin air and they were very good at this, but they were able to do it because the Democrats and Barack Obama failed. He never put any of those executives on trial. The public never really understood what had happened. A mass movement on the left never got going. Occupy Wall Street was too late and too little; it didn't come up until 2011 and it never really became a mass movement in the way that it needed to. The left was not able to generate that kind of populist feeling when we needed it most. And that had terrible consequences for us, the terrible consequences being the right’s capture of dissatisfaction and subsequently the election of Donald Trump.

Everybody knows the middle-class society is in pieces, but only one party is willing to talk about that, admittedly, in an upside-down way. Democrats deny anything is wrong. That is a recipe for disaster. 

The theme that runs through everything I've written is the question of what happens to a middle-class society when the party of the left isn't interested in being a party of the left anymore. The Democrats, whatever you want to say about them, are our party of the left.

However, they've made it absolutely clear over the last 30 years that they don't want to be a traditional left party. They do not want to be a party of organized labor.

They don't want to be a party that cares about the economic condition of working-class people. That's not what they're interested in. They're absolutely crystal clear about that. What happens when that's the case? Well, two things happen. One is this kind of incredible inequality that we're in right now where some people do extremely well, and are some of the richest people in the history of the world, and there's no hope for everybody else. And you have politics that constantly veers further and further to the right. That's where we are. And I don't see that changing anytime soon until the day the Democrats rediscover their original purpose.

Did you think Bernie had a chance at being that champion? 

I did think he had a chance. He came very close in Iowa in 2020. He won in New Hampshire. He looked like he was on a roll. He was clearly the front runner at one point. I thought it was possible.

He does represent that older tradition in the Democratic Party that's focused on economic well-being of working-class people. And I think that's one of the reasons that the Democratic Party hates him.

There's a generational aspect to this. The Democratic Party’s move to the right was a product of that sixties generation. The Bill Clintons, the Gary Harts, the Al Gores, those who called themselves the New Democrats. 

A “new kind of Democrat”...

Yeah. They called themselves the New Democrats. They framed their version of the Democratic Party as a rising up against their parents, the New Deal generation, the World War II generation. They said, out in the open, that they were going to take the Democratic Party away from that Franklin D. Roosevelt orientation. Bernie Sanders is the opposite of that. Bernie Sanders represents the repudiation of that generational project. That's why he's totally unacceptable. He's a throwback to what the Democratic Party used to be before Bill Clinton came along. That’s why he can’t be spoken about in polite company or whatever.

In the end, though, Bernie didn’t have the votes. I’m sure there were contributing factors that were political, but he didn’t reach broad swaths of the working-class, especially those who consider themselves ‘conservative’. Do you think there will come someone who can cross over?

There has to be such a person. I mean, this can't go on. 

As soon as I say that, I take it back. 

This can go on. An increasingly radicalized Republican party versus this increasingly passionless, technocratic, Democratic Party? Yes. That can go on. That can go on for a really long time without delivering anything to anybody, as long as you have some way of blowing off their steam. We're coming up with ways to do that.

If people continue to feel like their legitimate concerns are not being heard, it's not healthy. This is not a healthy society right now, and it is going to become less healthy. And I don't see an answer on the horizon right now. 

It's certainly not coming from the Lincoln Project, it's certainly not from the Democratic Party and it's certainly not from the Trump Republicans — the Ted Cruzes and Marco Rubios who will likely make a comeback after Joe Biden crashes and burns.

What a nightmare.

Well, hey, let's, let's be optimistic, Joe Biden might also succeed. The 78 year old stepping up to the plate might hit a home run.