What is populism and why are Democrats afraid of it?

by: John Emerson

Sat Oct 10, 2009 at 14:30



Michael Moore's latest film and Alan Grayson's "die quickly" speech in the House have revived interest in an old question: What is populism, and why is the Democratic Party so afraid of it?

Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of  the common folk. It takes both left wing and right wing forms and sometimes degenerates into bigotry and attacks on minorities. Populism can be faked, and that is being done right now - e.g., Limbaugh and Beck. Populist appeals can be made by spokesmen for special interests who have no intention of fulfilling their democratic promises, but who are just opportunistically faking populism as part of an attack on some enemy. (As I never get tired of saying: Republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real).

Since the Fifties the Democratic Party, whose populist wing was critically important during the New Deal, has avoided and repressed populism. Individual populists such as Paul Wellstone have occasionally been elected, often in defiance of the party machine, but they have never had much influence in the party. The Democratic strategy has been cooperation with big business, and their slogan has been "a rising tide lifts all boats" -- "win-win" solutions where everyone wins and nobody loses. This worked pretty well until about 1970, when business started to pull away from the deal, and since that time it's been mostly downhill for the Democrats, for labor, and for the average American.

When they made their deal with big business, the Democrats became a wonky party of technocrats and expert administrators who balanced all the various interests and came up with the answer which was best for everyone, and they distanced themselves from their earlier party-of-the-common-man pretensions. Rather than to represent the majority of the electorate, they increasingly defined their constituency as a hodgepodge of special interest. Political parties inevitably do represent plural interests, as the Democrats certainly had done ever since the Civil War, but the post-Fifties Democrats made a fractionated constituency a deliberate goal and did everything they could to avoid majoritarian appeals and to marginalize majoritarianism within the party.

As part of this transformation of the party, the Democrats needed to misrepresent populism. Since then there's been an almost unmixed stream of slanders coming from both parties, until by now anyone counts as a populist as long as they're abusive, ignorant, racist, and dishonest. (The Nazi David Duke sometimes calls himself a Populist, and he was allowed to get away with it). Almost everyone comes out of Pol Sci 100 knowing that the Populists were bad guys, and the Pol Sci 101 attitude is pervasive among party leaders, wonk staffers, and a big chunk of the Democratic electorate.

However, during most of the period since the Civil War, however, progressive energy in this country has mostly come from movements of the Populist typeworking outside the parties or against the party leadership:  Greenbackers, Progressives (three kinds), Socialists, Farmer-Laborites, Nonpartisan-Leaguers, and independents -- to say nothing of unions, farm organizations, and civil rights groups. (Martin Luther King's movement was essentially populism, albeit minority populism).

Below I will sketch the history of the Democratic Party in its relations with the Populist Party, small-p populism, and the various sorts of progressivism during the period from about 1890 to the middle of the 1950s, and suggest that many of the problems the Democrats have now can be traced back to the redefinition of the Democratic Party that took place at the end of this period.

John Emerson :: What is populism and why are Democrats afraid of it?
THE POPULISTS

The Populist Party was a national party only from 1890 to 1896; when they endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, in return for very small concessions - this  basically destroyed the party. At that time both the Democratic and the Republican parties were dominated by big business, so that the workers and small farmers who made up 70%+ of the population were effectively unrepresented. (Democratic President Grover Cleveland was perhaps the most anti-labor President of the era). The Populists were strongest among farmers and in the South and West, but they were affiliated with the Knights of Labor, and in 1894 the Populist Frank McBride was elected President of the AFL (Gompers' only defeat).

Altogether the Populists elected ten governors, six Senators, and about forty Congressmen. In 1892 the Populist candidate got 8.5% of the vote for President and carried four states and parts of two others; Cleveland's margin of victory in that election was only 3%, so the Populists were a real factor. In 1896 the dissident Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who had some Populist sympathies, got the Democratic nomination. The Populists supported him, but he lost worth 45.8% of the vote and a smaller percentage of the electoral vote, all from the South and West. Bryan ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat two more times, but the Populists never were a factor in a Presidential election again.

Presidential third parties seldom come close to winning, and the populists are no exception. Furthermore, as often as not the third party doesn't survive the election, and that was essentially the case with the Populists. But the Populists had enormous significance -- by bringing poor farmers and labor, and their issues, into the electoral equation for the first time, by stealing voters from some of the Democratic and Republican constituencies, and above all, by disrupting the other two parties' strategies.  

The parties' response was savage and multifaceted. The Eastern Democrats ran their own candidate in 1896 and boycotted Bryan every time other time he ran. The Spanish American War was fought in part to distract the voters from domestic issues and weaken the Populists, and this distraction was quite effective. And last and worst, because Populists in the South sometimes went into coalition with the Republicans, forcing the Democrats to campaign for the black vote and also threatening the Democratic Solid South, the two established parties made a back-room agreement to disenfranchise Southern blacks. During this period the two parties were in collusion, with very similar principles and goals, and if the South had been thrown into contention the resulting confusion would have threatened both the Republican and the Democratic bosses. (The willingness of the Republicans to sacrifice their own Southern supporters is one of the remarkable facts of American history).

SMALL-P POPULISM AFTER 1896

After the collapse of the Populist Party the attitude of the Democratic Party toward small-p populism was ambiguous. Many of the Populist issues were kept alive by progressives working mostly at the state level -- the national campaign organizations in 1912 and 1924 were ad hoc and short-lived. The Democratic leadership was as stodgy and business-dominated as ever, but) if they ever wanted to win they still needed to get as many votes as possible from ex-Populists and their Progressive successors. They mostly resolved this dilemma by not winning, but in 1912 Woodrow Wilson -- like Cleveland an honest, independent Democrat who was able to work with the machine -- was elected President with the semi-Populist Bryan as his running mate. Wilson had been pretty conservative before his election, but in his first term he signed many populist / progressive bills and paid at least lip service to Bryan's anti-war principles.

By 1932 the Populist Party itself was a distant memory, but between 1932 and 1938 (Roosevelt's most progressive period) Roosevelt and the Democrats relied heavily on support from populist / progressive Senators and Representatives - some from third parties, and some from dissident factions of the two major parties. The progressive-populist faction pushed Roosevelt steadily to the left in domestic policy, though it had to contend with stubborn resistance from the much more conservative machine Democrats and Southern Bourbons (and also, of course, orthodox Republicans).

In 1938, however, the approaching war broke up the progressive / Democrat coalition, and many of the progressives, who were often isolationists, deserted Roosevelt. From this point on Roosevelt increasingly governed with regular Democratic support, which he was able to do because the Democratic majorities were huge, and progress on domestic policy slowed (thought the Keynesian effects of war spending had a positive effect). Winning the war became the primary goal, and the Democratic Party became a technocratic / machine party.

ANTI-POPULISM AFTER WWII

By 1945 American society had been transformed by the war effort, and the Democratic Party was dominated by its technocratic wing, Because of the religious appeals, moralism, and majoritarianism of the Populists (and many Progressives), from WWI on the technocratic New Republic liberals held Populists and Progressives in very low regard despite their many valid proposals, and liberal-technocratic social engineers played a role in the New Deal right from the start. Furthermore, after WWII, America's future course in foreign policy was uncertain, with options ranging from war against the USSR to peaceful coexistence, and the technocrats favored a policy of Realpolitik which was abhorrent both to right and left populists. The Cold War compromise solution pleased no one, since it involved switching from a holy war against Fascism (allied to Communism) to a holy war against Communism allied to the surviving Fascists.

In 1948 the Democrats purged its left, much of which had populist roots, and the right populists mostly ended in the Republican Party. Truman's purge wasn't thorough enough for the right, and an anti-elitist McCarthyism strain emerged which survives to this day, (for example with the teabaggers). Meanwhile, Democratic intellectuals, partly following the leftist German refugee Adorno, developed a theory holding that all populism is ultimately totalitarian, either Fascist or Communist.

The liberals described McCarthy as a populist and  hinted that he was a Fascist. This was actually a very peculiar move. First, while McCarthy was anti-elitist and demagogic and appealed to the common man, he also was a fairly standard conservative Republican whose support did not come mostly from populists or progressives. Second, calling McCarthy a populist did not hurt him with anyone who had not read Adorno and who still admired the Populists. And finally, by the time these criticisms of McCarthy came out, McCarthy had been censured and had died in disgrace.

The target was not McCarthy at all. McCarthy had had a lot of Democratic support, including the Kennedys, but in any case he had been defeated. Tthe technocratic Cold War liberals had won - they controlled the Democratic Party and expected to win the Presidency in 1960. The real goal of these attacks was to preclude the re-emergence of a populist wing within the Democratic Party, so that the Democrats could redefine themselves as a neutral, non-majoritarian elite of experts. While in office, Democrats conduct a realistic, militaristic foreign policy while domestically dividing the goodies between the nation's many and varied interest groups without identifying with any one of them -- and above all without responding to majoritarian anti-business or anti-war popular movements.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

My main conclusion is that the Democrats have crippled themselves by renouncing populist and majoritarian appeals while presenting themselves as expert administrators and effectively allowing the Republican Party to cash in on fake populism. This strategy hasn't worked since 1968, and it has crippled the Democrats by making them incapable of counterattacking against blatantly dishonest fake-populist appeals by the Republicans. At the level of the high-level party pros and a lot of elected officials, this isn't a problem at all - they are business Democrats on the take from the plutocratic malefactors, and they do very well for themselves even when the Democrats lose.

But the elitist strategy is disastrous in its effects at the lower levels - the sincere, wonkish party workers who have been indoctrinated with anti-populism in Pol Sci 101, and even more so the enormous contingent of Democratic voters who have also taken Pol Sci 101 and think of themselves as wonks. On the internet and elsewhere, far too often rank and file Democratic discussions of politics, rather than concentrating on the reasons why the Democratic position is the right one (in the cases when it really is), end up with wonky discussions about process, and these discussions always seem to end with a lesser-evil slide to the center. And while this is exactly what the Democratic leadership wants, this is usually not what rank and file Democrats, Democratic volunteers, and idealistic low-level workers want.

It's noticeable that racial issues and foreign wars repeatedly derailed past populist initiatives, and this is the main problem we have to battle against. The fake populists of today (militaristic little-government goldbugs) are, in fact, the very opposite of the populists of history, and almost identical to the McKinley Republicans who defeated populism. All they share with the Populists is angry rhetoric and the racism of which the Populists have been rather unfairly accused. (Many Populists were racists, especially in the South, but it's hard to show that the Populists were more racist than the other two parties, and considering that the Democratic Party was the segregationist party right up until 1965, this isn't really a criticism that Democrats should so easily make).

We also have to remember that, while the Populist Party had a lot of labor support and was not exclusively agrarian, the majority of its supporters were dirt farmers, who at that time constituted 50% or so of the population. The demographics have changed enormously since then, and farmers by now are less than 5% of the population, and even factory workers are a rather small demographic. Obviously populist appeals in our time  have to define the majority in some other way, without agrarian or proletarian nostalgia.

And finally, the institutional Democratic Party is not anti-populist by accident. In order to change its direction, we will have to take it over from the bottom up and bounce the present leadership. To do this will be labor-intensive, involving a lot of face to face contact and a lot of time in meetings, and it will also require money. It's my impression that fake Republican populists, driven by a sense of religious duty, are more devoted to the cause than most liberals are; in part, this may in fact be a function of elite complacency (Republicans are stupid, uneducated, velveeta-cheese-eating trailer trash, right?)

But imagine a million (or ten million) Democrats donating $50 a year each (not really a lot) and volunteering 5 hours a week to a dissident progressive group. This would be a substantial force. With a genuine populist appeal, you could form such a group. It would steal support from the Democratic machine, and you'd also have people switching away from single-issue groups whose goals are unattainable under Republicans or conservative Democrats.

But in order to do this, you'd have to define, find and persuade an actual majority.

(This piece is part of a longer piece which mushroomed out of control. A follow-up piece will defend the Populists of the Populist Party against the criticisms from 1950s liberals, and will include an annotated bibliography.)

Populism Bibliography.

"Democrats, Populism and Insurgent Populists": a response to this thread


Tags: , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

The way we were, they way we are, the way we ever more shall be.... (4.00 / 8)
A bountiful clarity, this. It's always a pleasure to read a defense of democracy which isn't a) sentimental and disingenuous, or b) confused about what the word actually means.

Democracy could use more defenders like you. There hasn't been one in a while who knew his ass from next Thursday. Thanks for helping to make my weekend.


Sry, William, but imho the story is a bit short in clarity. (0.00 / 0)
John sees everything from a progressive angle, totally understandable at this progressive blog, but imho this comes at the expense of clarifying which kind of progressivism actually serves the goals of the Dem party, or the left wing in general. Especially when it comes to more recent developments. What about the Naderites, certainly a populist, even progressive movement? Is this "real" populism? Is this helpful for advancing the progressive agenda? There have been heated discussions about that, and there's no commonly accepted answer yet. And what about Obamaism? That's a populist movement that is also a personality cult. Does this really help progressives? I guess it's much too early to answer this yet, but there sure already are huge concerns about this...

All in all, what I miss, as I stated in my other comments, is the clear statement that populism is just a method of concentrating political power, and that the important question is, how is it used.


[ Parent ]
Nader was a false start, Obama was a charismatic centrist (4.00 / 3)
The problem I see with Nader is that he refused to do politics at all. He had the extremest version of the progressive anti-party stance, and seemed to have some kind of idea that people would just naturally flock to him if he deigned to run. The Nader Green experience is also exhibit one  in my argument that you don't start at the top (the Presidency). Furthermore Nader's anti-politics derived in considerable part from his wonkish, expert-administrator attitude toward politics. So I'd regard Nader and the Greens as a sort of false start.

I don't see any populism in Obama. He campaigned on his personality, to some degree outside normal channels, but he was a centrist who promised peace, love, and bipartisanship and was cagy and evasive on all issues.  


[ Parent ]
I have to disagree on Nader... (0.00 / 0)
...he reluctantly began running because he saw that Democrats were no longer running candidates who would take on multi-national corporations, they had in fact joined with them.  He saw Obama for what he was very early on in the process, and in fact would not have run if a progressive Democrat such as Edwards or Kucinich had been nominated.

Nader always knew he would not be President, he was just filling a gap because there was no alternative.  Now, he is basically hoping that an enlightened billionaire will come to our aid at this point.

Regards,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred. - FDR


[ Parent ]
"...serves the goals of the Dem party..." (0.00 / 0)
Says it all.

[ Parent ]
Yeah (4.00 / 3)
I didn't pick up on it when I read the comment, but one of my main points all along has been that the Democratic Party is not us. It's a powerful institution we have to deal with, and often enough it's an impediment. Even if we decide to work within the party, we have to be sure to maintain our distance.

As always: first you talk about goals, and then you talk about strategy and tactics. Putting a W in the Democratic column is not the goal. At best, it's a strategy.  


[ Parent ]
"the Democratic Party is not us" Excuse me pls, but who put that title above your story? (0.00 / 1)
Doesn't it say "What is populism and why are Democrats afraid of it?" Democrats, with a  big "D", right? Sorry, when you know say that isn't the topic here, or we shouldn't care, then why did you misleadingly name your story that way? More clarity, pls!

[ Parent ]
I am talking about the Democrats because they affect our lives.... (0.00 / 0)
and because they have significant control of citizen access to the political system. I don't have to say how populism actually serves the goals of the Dem party, because I'm not trying to serve the goals of the Democratic Party at all, I'm trying to serve my own goals, preferably be working through the Democratic Party (and against its present leadership), but otherwise through statewide third parties.

There was really no conceptual difficulty. You're just angry. Non-Democrats and ex-Democrats and semi=Democrats and anti-Democrats can talk about the Democratic Party.


[ Parent ]
And I am referring to the Dem party, because you raised that issue. (0.00 / 1)
So, sry, but I'm angry because I can't understand the criticism of my comment upthread at all. If you don't want to talk about "how populism actually serves the goals of the Dem party", this will severely limit your ability to answer the question why Dem party leaders see populism in a negative light. Really, sry, John, but your comments even add less clarity to the issue. Your logic totally escapes me.  

[ Parent ]
Populism will NOT serve the goals of the Democrat ic Party.... (0.00 / 0)
.... under its present leadership.  That's why they're anti-populist. On the other hand, in the American two-party system the two parties have an effective duopoly on citizen access to the political process, or almost, so there are reasons to work through the Democratic Party and against its leaders. In the past statewide third parties have been effective, and Working Families might be now, but in my opinion they're not a good choice. I might change my mind.

[ Parent ]
Sry, John, but soehow we're talking past each other. (0.00 / 0)
May be my fault, I dunno. Let's leave it at that. I'd rather watch Oceans 13 on TV now than spending a long time with discussion when the chances of finding common ground are so low. G'night.

[ Parent ]
Populism will NOT serve the goals of the Democrat ic Party.... (0.00 / 0)
.... under its present leadership.  That's why they're anti-populist. On the other hand, in the American two-party system the two parties have an effective duopoly on citizen access to the political process, or almost, so there are reasons to work through the Democratic Party and against its leaders. In the past statewide third parties have been effective, and Working Families might be now, but in my opinion they're not a good choice. I might change my mind.

[ Parent ]
Nader wasn't populist. (4.00 / 1)
He was a technocratic elitist.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Where does it say a "technocratic elitist" can't lead a populist movement? (0.00 / 0)
Sry, Sadie, but I really wonder where so many here got the extremely narrow view of populism from? This certainly isn't the commonly accepted definition! Of course, Nader is at the helm of a populist movement! The "common folks" there are those who are angry about the Dem party being so removed from the base, and the elite that tey are fighting is Dem leadership. I don't see any reason not to call this a populist group.

[ Parent ]
Great Piece (4.00 / 9)
Since the Fifties the Democratic Party, whose populist wing was critically important during the New Deal, has avoided and repressed populism.

Aside from the dynamic of within the party as a whole (which I think you captured well), the other dynamic is that the New Democrats captured the party in the 1980s-90s. Populism strengthens the populists and weakens the corporatists (neoliberals) with the party. They don't want to strengthen the party at the expense of their control over it.  Too often discussions over Democratic strategy leave this intra-party conflict out.

But the elitist strategy is disastrous in its effects at the lower levels - the sincere, wonkish party workers who have been indoctrinated with anti-populism in Pol Sci 101, and even more so the enormous contingent of Democratic voters who have also taken Pol Sci 101 and think of themselves as wonks. On the internet and elsewhere, far too often rank and file Democratic discussions of politics, rather than concentrating on the reasons why the Democratic position is the right one (in the cases when it really is), end up with wonky discussions about process, and these discussions always seem to end with a lesser-evil slide to the center. And while this is exactly what the Democratic leadership wants, this is usually not what rank and file Democrats, Democratic volunteers, and idealistic low-level workers want.

Very true, and it's also the standard perspective for the corporate media, that since the 70s has focused on politics as a game, with coverage of questions of substance seen as too political for journalists to engage in.  I would note that this is doubly problematic when it occurs at the lower levels (i.e. in the netroots) because those levels are uniquely suited to articulating a progressive world view and its relationship to policy. (See Jane Hamsher's latest work on health care.)  This is, incidentally, the thing progressive activists have most under their control to change.

And finally, the institutional Democratic Party is not anti-populist by accident. In order to change its direction, we will have to take it over from the bottom up and bounce the present leadership.

That's how movement conservatives captured the Republican Party (as Rick Perlstein showed), and it's the only way progressives can do it.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


I'm assuming the zero rating was a mistake, Mizner? (nt) (0.00 / 0)


Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]
A fine piece (4.00 / 6)
Although you didn't really answer the second part of it: why are Dems afraid of it?  The three leading factors I'd say are:

1. elitism (fearing the rabble, especially the rabble's anger).
2. miscalculation that populism isn't, in fact, effective (internalized corporate-sponsored conventional wisdom.
3. fear of losing corporate money to the GOP.

Number 3, I think, is often underestimated. Clinton-Rubin-McCauliffe chose to give corporate power the keys to the party and Dems like Rahm are terrified of losing their money.

Here Nicholas Lemann combines 1 and 2 in this abominable passage:

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/...

Populism is not necessarily liberal, anyway. In Europe, more than here, the recession is already having a political and social effect-protests serious enough to threaten or topple governments have taken place in Greece, Hungary, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. Most of the unrest entails workers contesting job losses and cuts in government benefits, but some, like that in Hungary, has a right-wing, ultranationalist character. In the United States, populism has been associated not just with calls for economic equality but also with nativism and racial violence. That may be one reason that President Obama, to judge by his manner, if not his words, sees the virtues of calm, rather than anger, so clearly.

He doesn't understand that the best--if not the only--weapon against conservative cultural populism is economic populism. He thinks populism is the One Big Bad Thing that needs to kept under lock.

At the Holocaust Museum not too long ago I watched a documentary about the rise of the Nazis and it was amazing how, well, contemporary many of the issues were. The Nazis, who gained power largely through democratic means, simply exploited people's economic pain and humiliation created by Versailles.



Very True (4.00 / 4)
The Nazis, who gained power largely through democratic means, simply exploited people's economic pain and humiliation created by Versailles.

This point is often forgotten in discussions of WWII, and the relative power of peace versus violence. Force may have been necessary to defeat the Nazis once they rose to power, but it was the post-war force of a punitive peace that helped them rise to power, thereby making the war necessary.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
And Nazis reached that point by pushing a populist agenda... (0.00 / 0)
..even though that was only a manipulation, designed to disguise their other, not so popular political goals. But the definition of populism doesn't make such distinctions, nowhere does it say that the interests of the leaders and the interests of the followers have to be identical. So, the NSDAP with all its sidekicks sure was a populist movement (even though the party never reached a majority in an election). Only one example that should make us hesitate before blindly embracing populism. Do we really know the true interests of the leaders of an allegedly "progressive" movement?

[ Parent ]
What did I write? (4.00 / 4)
Who is this person who proposed blindly embracing populism?In my first paragraph I recognized the negative possibilities of populism. I didn't say that any and all populism is good. What I said was that I opposed blindly rejecting populism, especially when corruption and back-room deals goes along with the anti-populism. And I also proposed not identifying populism with its absolute worst manifestations, which is the knee-jerk reaction of all Democratic pros and wonks.

What I said is that since the 50s the Democratic Party and its leading intellectuals have suppressed and excluded every trace of populism in the party. This means no mass movement, no antagonism to big business or finance, no populist rhetoric. For example, when Gore started making quasi-populist speeches, his advisers made him stop even though it helped him in the polls.

The Democrats have also tied themselves to complete dependency on big money to spend on big media, and they've really placed a wall between the rather discouraged rank and file and the wonky, corrupt pros.


[ Parent ]
My problem is, you didn't go into the depth of the negative side, ... (0.00 / 1)
..and especially not into the negative image of populism, people get who dispise manipulators like Limbaugh or Gingrich, and which certainly is part of th reason why Dem party leaders condemn the very idea. That is a big part of the answer you don't cover at all. "For example, when Gore started making quasi-populist speeches, his advisers made him stop even though it helped him in the polls." Yes, but why? And why didn't team Obama shy away from that, too? I don't find a compelling answer in your story.  

[ Parent ]
Limbaugh and Beck didn't make it happen (4.00 / 3)
Even the 1988 New Dems didn't make it happen.This goes back to the fifties.

What are the chances that Gore would have turned into a Limbaugh? That's science fiction alien posession territory. Nobody was worried about that. They were worried that Gore would lose money for the party, which for the party pros was a much worse outcome than just losing the election.  


[ Parent ]
Pretending to support something (4.00 / 1)
while you seek to undermine that thing is not the same as supporting that thing.

If these two things were the same, then all political stances should be rejected because the elites who support it might have other things in mind. (We can never know what the "true interests" of any set of elites are.) Unless one wants a different standard for populism than for all other political stances.  


Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Right? But so, what? It's still "populism". (0.00 / 0)
Check the definitions. Contrary to what John wants to make us believe, there is not much disagreement about what the word means. And nowhere does it say that populist leaders have to believe the stuff they are spreading. It would be quite hard to make any such distinctions, because, as you rightly point out, how do you get evidence for the "true interests" of populists? And if you don't have that evidence, how to distinguish between "real" and "fake" populism? John doesn't even try fidning facts supporting this, his concept of "fake populism" boils down to "populism that John Emerson doesn't like". And that's a bit lame as a definition, imho.

(and I'm a bit surprised that nobody else here seems to be able to see my point)


[ Parent ]
Actually there were some very strong socialistic strains in Nazism... (4.00 / 1)
...in fact Ernst Rohm one of the power brokers within the party and who was in charge of the SA was decrying that the party was veering away from socialism at the time he was murdered by his fellow Nazis.

Regards,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred. - FDR


[ Parent ]
That seems to say that the socialism was fake (0.00 / 0)
The SA brownshirts were purged and their leaders killed in 1934, but they'd lost their key role as Hitler's bodyguard to the SS by 1930. The inner circle did not want to contend with a large populist-socialist group which felt the right to make demands. That's why I call it fake populism.

Both Hitler and Mussolini borrowed propaganda themes, slogans, promises, and practices from various leftwing groups without any intention of living up to them.


[ Parent ]
No it wasn't fake socialism... (4.00 / 1)
...it was just a violent strain of socialism that was held by many in the Nazi movement, but of course not by all.  The SA membership contained a lot of ex-communists and former members of the varied socialist parties.

Regards,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred. - FDR


[ Parent ]
Hitler's socialism was fake (0.00 / 0)
Not Roehm's.  Roehm was killed not long after Hitler took power, and the demotion of the Brownshirts meant it had been planned for awhile.

[ Parent ]
Yes. But so, what? Do you think Obama's call for "change" was real? (0.00 / 0)
It's still populism, even if you don't like it. And afaics nobody else came up with your idea of trying to make a difference between "real" and "fake" populism. This isn't a black/white world, after all (lots of shades of gray! :D), and human experience tells us that nobody is perfectly honest about his intentions all of the time. So, where to draw the limit? Looks like a useless endeavor to me.

[ Parent ]
Nobody likes populism (4.00 / 1)
Everyone's happy to misrepresent it. Marxists hold it in contempt. Liberals hold it in contempt. Sometimes you catch ex-Marxist liberals like Hofstadter using Marxist lines against populists -- populists didn't have a precise class analysis, you see, and many were bourgeois!  

[ Parent ]
Obama's call for "change" had no content (4.00 / 1)
It was like Gary Hart's new ideas. Hart had no specific ideas, he just believed that ideas should be new.

Obama was also a machine Democrat, like Rahm Emmanuel.  


[ Parent ]
My piece was shortened (4.00 / 2)
In a later piece I'll have more detail about the 50s transition (Heilbroner, Daniel Bell, and many others including the elder Kristol). This will explain the motives better.

By and large I think that the 1950 transition is at least as important as the "New Democrat" transition. And the anti-populist faction was already there in force during WWI.

The word "populist" is loosely used and sometimes just means anyone ignorant, foulmouthed, and anti-establishment. Gellner edited an anthology on world populism which made it pretty clear that "populism" isn't a well-defined scientific term.  


[ Parent ]
The non-populists Dems have 2.44 out of 3 (4.00 / 2)
branches of government.

The non-populists of all parties have all branches of government.

Why would they want that to change?

The history of progress is the history of taking power away from the elites, not their manumission of power.

The question is how do we take power away from non-progressive elites AND how do we create new progressive power outside of the current power structure.

The answer to both lies in the engagement of our fellow citizens and our fellow human beings in a new way.


[ Parent ]
2.44?? (0.00 / 0)


sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.

[ Parent ]
Actually, He Meant To Write "2.444444444......." (0.00 / 0)
infinite decimals can be quite troublesome....

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
:-) ? (0.00 / 0)
Ok two and four ninths?  I don't get that either.  What am I missing unless it's the smiley?

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.

[ Parent ]
Not Sure (0.00 / 0)
on his side.

But on mine, if you have to look for it, you'll never find it!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
4 out of 9 Supreme Court justices? (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
Pls remove the unwarranted Troll ratings, Randall. (4.00 / 1)
This isn't DKos here. At OpenLeft, we don't use TRs for expressing mere disagreement with comments. And there's nothing TR-worthy in my posts.  

[ Parent ]
I will second that (0.00 / 0)
I have not been happy with Gray's comments, but they're not trollish.  

[ Parent ]
Thx John, very fair of you! (0.00 / 0)
I appreciate this.

[ Parent ]
As I see it, John didn't correctly answer the first part, too. (0.00 / 0)
After giving a common definition of populism, he almost directly makes a fraudulent distinction between "real" and "fake" populism, and I think this leads the story on a wrong track, despite the interesting discourse about populism in the history of the Democratic party. I mean, isn't it evident that "populism" is simply a political tool which isn't good or evil per se? It all depends on who uses populism to advance a political agenda, and for what purposes it is used.

As I see it, "fake populism" is something totally different from what John wants to make us believe. I guess the phrase  can be used to describe astroturfs, alleged popular movements which really only consist of a few "members", often lobbyists. The Teap Party movement, for instance, is real populism, there can't be much disagreement about the followers believing they are "the common folks" which protest the actions of "the elite", the Obama administration. Of course, those protestors are simply pawns who are manipulated by powerful players behind the scenes, but the movement nonetheless fits the definition. Imho this shows that populism is a powerful, but dangerous weapon, and the question should be, should the Dem party use that tool (imho, yes), and how to implement safeguards to prevent it from being hijacked by the leaders for their own purposes, which can easily be different from the real interest of the majority (this is something that should be discussed)?    


[ Parent ]
"Just" and "simply" are always red flags. (4.00 / 2)
I mean, isn't it evident that "populism" is simply a political tool which isn't good or evil per se?

No.

All in all, what I miss, as I stated in my other comments, is the clear statement that populism is just a method of concentrating political power,

You're not going to get it.

You have the ingrained anti-populist view, characteristic of Pol Sci 101, if you believe that the teabaggers are populists even though they're corporate funded astroturf -- because they're "sincere". So what you think that I'm proposing is that the Democrats do populist astroturf too.

One difference might be that I realize that, even though I'm educated and well informed, I am just one of The People at the moment, in the sense that I know that the ones running the government and the Democratic Party are not going to listen to me. The Democrats' wonk demographic, of which you are apparently one, identifies with the experts on the basis of similar education and reading. But the people in power are different from us, regardless of our educations and mental states, because they have their hands on the controls. And they use their control of the party to feather their nests by running errands for big money people.

A lot of my effort has been to persuade wonk wannabes that they're really just peasants. The wonks in power tell you what you faux wonks what want to hear, the same way they tell all the other peasants what to hear.

Incidentally, I am not advocating that we entrust ourselves to a populist leader the same way that we have been entrusting ourselves to the Democratic party apparat. One thing that distinguishes the populist-type groups I'm talking about is a very high level of citizen involvement and the development of a very elaborate communications network among the populace.

And like anyone else, populists can be corrupted. Supposing we have any success, we'll have to keep an eye on the ones elected.

Incidentally, Godwin's law is almost universally violated in discussions of populism. To a machine Democrat, Hitler, Father Coughlin, Geralnd L.K. Smith, and Tom Watson are the only populists there ever were.  


[ Parent ]
Sry, John, but the arrogance in your answer is totally uncalled for. (0.00 / 1)
"No"
Uh huh. Thx for spending so much time for clarifying this. Of course, this also takes away any rational base on which we could discuss the issue. Saves us much time.

"You're not going to get it."
Oh, yes? I'm totally wrong in saying populism is (mis)used by politicians for andvancing their goals? Excuse me pls for not noting that you, as the world known authority, single handedly changed the definition of populism, and that I forgot that you, and you alone, are right. For instance with calling the Tea Baggers "astroturf", even though it's a group consisting of tens of thousands of people, no matter how manipulated by puppet players they may be. If you call THAT astroturf, then pls make it clear you only write for people who understand your doublespeak.

No further comment, this simply isn't a level on which I discuss. This wouldn't lead anywhere. Just stay in your own bubble, together with your own defintions.


[ Parent ]
Whine, whine (0.00 / 0)
You are just asserting your definition of populism as the only one. And you're assuming top-down elitism. And you asked two questions, and I answered them.

[ Parent ]
Maybe you should have started your story with making YOUR definitions more clear. (0.00 / 1)
You start with "Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of  the common folk", which is a way of describing it that most people can relate too, but then, only two sentences later, you invent an artifical category of "fake populism", without ether explaing why this should be fake if it consists of millions of Limbaugh fans. You seem to use "fake" as just another word for right wing, and why I can understand the despise of Limbaugh, I still think this is intellectually dishonest. There's simply no logic in this.

[ Parent ]
Invent an artificial category of "fake populism" (0.00 / 0)
Well, to me those who talk like populists but are funded  the by moneyed interests they serve are fakes. I've said this three times by now. I don't see how that is an artificial distinction. Likewise, if the distinction between managerialism and populism doesn't to make sense to you, maybe the problem is with you. (Nader's managerialist biases made it almost impossible for him even to campaign.)

I suppose that I might have responded to your comments more patiently, but basically you came in like gang busters with a swarm of objections, methodological, definitional, and substantive, and I just didn't feel like playing. Your objections, too, might have been made a bit more patiently, since some of them were fairly minor.

In the end I just took you as a committed Pol Sci 101 Democrat, rightly or wrongly, and responded to you as such.

To me populism is a kind of political movement whereas for you it's a tactic or a rhetoric. Given this, you're right that it will be hard for us to find common ground, but you're wrong that your definition is the right and only one.  


[ Parent ]
An Admirable Piece (4.00 / 2)
This is very admirable piece overall, John.  There are a few quibbles I have, mostly over timing, nuance and multi-causality.  For example, the post-WWII period seemed to involve a series of anti-Communist waves, and the anti-McCarthy "popu;ist" meme appears to have begun circulating well before his downfall.  I don't really think it was originally designed to attack progressive populists, it's just that it was so well suited to the task once McCarthy burned out.

Anyway, that's really the biggest of my quibbles, so you can tell that I'm far more in agreement than not.

Another example that's worth considering in this panorama is Sinclair Lewis's EPIC campaign, and how the regular Democrats shunned him.  Even FDR kept his distance, despite the fact that a Lewis victory would have provided a good deal of momentum that FDR could have used.  In the choice between momentum and control, FDR chose control.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


Upton Sinclair (4.00 / 3)
Often confused, and Sinclair L. did briefly work for U. Sinclair.

The intensity of the politics 1932-1938 is hard for us to imagine today. FDR was really a mainstream Democrat, but he worked with the actual left when he had to. But keeping the lid on was part of his goal.

Hofstadter's and Bell's books came out after McCarthy was finished. Galbraith's and Schlesinger's books (Countervailing Powers and The Vital Center) were earlier. But calling McCarthy a Populist while attacking him doesn't ring true to me. First, he wasn't really a populist; and second, calling him a populist didn't really hurt him. It seems to me that the attacks on McCarthy were part of a larger anti-populist agenda, which was probably already underway before McCarthy started making a splash.

The 1930s progressives were genuinely dramatic and unpredictable. In Minnesota one branch of the Farmer Labor Party became isolationist Republicans, and one (Ernest Lundeen) worked with the Nazi publicist Viereck. Another branch became Communist fellow-travellers.

But these were people who made the New Deal possible. I think that one point to bring from this is that serious mass politics risks flying out of control, and for that reason, the technocrats did not want serious mass politics.


[ Parent ]
Control is what every politician wants (4.00 / 2)
In an earlier comment David Mizner wrote:

The three leading factors I'd say are:
1. elitism (fearing the rabble, especially the rabble's anger).
2. miscalculation that populism isn't, in fact, effective (internalized corporate-sponsored conventional wisdom.
3. fear of losing corporate money to the GOP.

Number 3, I think, is often underestimated. Clinton-Rubin-McCauliffe chose to give corporate power the keys to the party and Dems like Rahm are terrified of losing their money.

I think that it is not only corporate money, but more importantly corporate support, that Democrats are afraid they cannot succeed without. In the present circumstances it is easy to see why they would think that. One way to counter the firm grip corporations and the elite they serve have is to stir up righteous anger in the population at large.

But as you say above,

I think that one point to bring from this is that serious mass politics risks flying out of control, and for that reason, the technocrats did not want serious mass politics.

Even if Democrats wanted to make serious reform, could they stir up enough righteous anger in the masses to overcome corporate power and still remain in control? Many fear that they could not. So, they attempt to work with the corporate masters to find reforms that the elite will accept, even if the resulting compromised reforms prove ineffective. For without suport of the elite no proposal will pass, or be signed by our President and become law.

Of course, we are learning that many Democrats don't want to make serious reforms anyway. They were quite comfortable talking about serious reform when they had no power to enact laws, but clearly are not supporting even minor reforms now that they have power. But, that is a whole different issue.

 


[ Parent ]
Damn! You Know I'm Sick! (0.00 / 0)
I'm usually the one correcting others making this mistake!

"Uppie" is a local hero around these parts.  When I drive to work, I pass within half a block of the Liberty Hill plaque marking the spot where he was arrested for reading the First Amendment.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
And Lewis grew up ten miles from here. (0.00 / 0)
The Sinclair brotherhood.  

[ Parent ]
This begs the question: (4.00 / 7)
Should we aim to re-legalize fusion? Because where there is fusion, there are parties like the WFP, and those parties have created even more progressive populism where there could have been very little.

For instance, in the NYS legislature, thanks to the WFP, progressive legislation has passed, such as

- a minimum wage increase (over then-Gov. Pataki's veto)
- a tax increase for the top 1%
- paid sick days (I'm not sure if this has been passed, though)

My point being, if we're going to bring back this carrot-and-stick-like progressivism, I think we should look towards bringing back fusion as a first step. Oregon did the right thing by re-legalizing it.


Absolutely. (4.00 / 7)
We should also allow defeated primary candidates to run as independents in the general.

Destroying the party stranglehold is a goal. The parties are self-interested groups of self interested people, robber barons who have gained control of access to democracy and are extorting the concerned citizenry and excluding those who can't pay the tax.


[ Parent ]
I think fusion is absolutely necessary... (4.00 / 2)
...in fact it should be the issue that anyone who really wants change should rally around.  Without it I really don't think you will see change, the current two major political parties will not allow it.

I think Progressive Populists should create a 3rd party with fusion initiatives on state ballots being its first goal.

Regards,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred. - FDR


[ Parent ]
Perhaps a coalition of all 3rd parties... (4.00 / 2)
...working together on fusion initiatives could work.  Fusion will bring them more influence so there would be a common interest along with a self interest motivating the 3rd parties.

Regards,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred. - FDR


[ Parent ]
YES PLEASE (4.00 / 1)
Third parties will never take power until the election and campaign system allows them to do so.  Without fusion, maybe a sensible approach is a single "Fair Elections Party", whose platform's sole plank is election and campaign reform in line with republics of the non-banana variety.

[ Parent ]
I just wanted to thank John Emerson... (4.00 / 2)
...for a great article.  My life long area of study has been history and it is nice to see someone who is well grounded in that area write this type of article.

Regards,

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred. - FDR


The reason why Democrats "shun" populism.... (4.00 / 1)
...is that at it's core, populism is anti-government and it's core values are designed to disrupt effective government.

We can take a look even at 19th century examples you bring up.  Populists were adamantly opposed to any central banking system (as they are today).  As a result, without effective control of monetary policy, the American economy suffered through no less than a dozen depressions until the Fed (a compromise in itself) was formed to try and stabilize the economy.

Populism "governs" out of spite.  Which direction that spite leads towards is dependent on who motivates them.  FDR managed to move the populists in a pro-government direction, but that was an unusual case, only brought about because the hatred of business was bigger... People were ok with sticking it to big business even if it meant more government.  Traditionally, though, the hatred of any form of government intervention supersedes all else.  The 19th century populists fought against a national back.  Populists of the 1960's fought against civil rights.  Current populists fight against health care reform.  The populists wanted to take down our banking system and manufacturing sector out of spite.  That makes a lot of people feel good, but deliberately creating massive unemployment out of spite is hardly good policy.

The idea of a strong, interventionist government generally conflicts with the core tenets of populism, which is why it is so difficult for us to embrace it.  In addition, with the Democrats in charge, they actually have to govern and do what is right as opposed to what is popular. Sure, you could let the banks fail--that would be popular for a little while... until the economy completely collapsed, then what?

There is only so much populism a sitting government can embrace before it experiences failure due to bad policy.  The Bush presidency was a populist one... how did that turn out?  Populism and policy don't go together very well.

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!


This Is Misinformed (4.00 / 5)
You are misrepresenting a lot of secondary characteristics, and presenting them as primary.

Although virtually no one in the 19th Century really had a handle on how economies work, the Populists had better intuitions than their so-called "betters" did.

Populists were opposed to tight credit, and were for easy money.

So was John Maynard Keynes.

His approach was more sublime. He called it "the euthanasia of the rentier."

But the essential orientation was the same.

Finally, populism is most certainly not opposed to a strong interventionist government.  It's only opposed to a strong interventionist government acting on behalf of the monied few.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
This is all erroneous (4.00 / 4)
The Populists supported a state bank and a fiat currency. It was the Jacksonians who opposed a state bank. The populists (called Progressives by then) opposed the private-public Federal Reserve monstrosity we have, but not a state bank as such.

Your comment was remarkably ignorant and was apparently based, not even on Hofstadter's own misrepresentations in "The Age of Reform", but on journalistic spinoff misrepresentations distantly descended from Hofstadter. I am unable to find one word in your comment which relates to populist reality.

I suggest Postel's recent "Populist Vision",  Goodwyn's "Democratic Promise" and Johnston's "The Radical Middle Class" if you want to educate yourself.  


[ Parent ]
THE populists? (0.00 / 0)
Sry, John, I certanly know much less about populism than you, but you make it sound in your answer as if there only can be one populist drive at any given time, as if populism is a homogenous movement, and that can't be right. It all  depends on the artificial boundaries you put apply to your focus, for instance if you look at single states rather than the nation, or the earth. For instance, Huey Long led a populist movement, but only in Louisiana, not so much in the whole South, and certainly not in the US. There were other populists in America beside him, with a different political agenda. And you even acknoledge this by speaking of "fake" and "real" populism, a differentiation that is understandable (you bewing a good preogressive), but which nonetheless is based on your ethical judgment, which isn't above criticism.

And then, populism is a political stance which pretends to put the interests of common folks above the interests of the elite (the wealthy, the powerful) and as such it all rests on the definitions framed by polulist leaders. Who ARE the common folks, in their opinion, and who is seen as the ELITE? And that's where populism is open to all kinds of manipulations and distortions. Sometimes, the common folks are white "blue collar" workers, sometimes rural people. Sometimes the elite are the wealthy, sometimes those arrogant, better educated urban residents. So,there is no reason to believe that there can be only one popular movement at any given time, historical evidence shows us that this is not true, and so there is no good base to dismiss Lord Mike's objections as simply being "all erroneous". Especially not in that authoritarian tone, and with the manipulative framing of pretending there was only one populist movement, why others are simply "Jacksonians". Lord Mike certainly made a mistake by speaking off "The 19th century populists", as if this was a hmogenous group, but his objections deserve a more detailed and fair answer.

Being aware that this may provoke an even harsher answer from yozu, I want to go even further than Lord Mike, and state that populism is very close to demagoguery, and that's the big danger and the very reason why there are so many people who oppose such movements. Don't forget, Hitler certainly was a populist (I'm German, and I don't give a damn about Godwin's law), and there's good reason why he was the leader of the national SOCIALIST party. And what about the communist leaders? They certainly were populist in the heydays, but their actions were simply aimed at exchanging one elite for another. Which leads me to the bigger question: Is there really anything other than "fake" populism? Isn't behind every populist movement a leadership who wants to (mis)use popular support for increasing their own power? This is a point that is totally missing from your article. Populism sure can cut both ways, it's a sword in the hand of a political warrior, and so it can't be something positive per se. Imho this deserves further scrutiny, and the 'dark side of the force' shouldn't so offhandedly being dismissed as "fake" populism.


[ Parent ]
Did you read my second sentence and my final sentence? (0.00 / 0)
What I said: Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of  the common folk. It takes both left wing and right wing forms and sometimes degenerates into bigotry and attacks on minorities.

If you want a way for distinguishing fake populism from real populism, you might follow the money. Fake populists are not funded by plutocrat sugar daddies behind the scenes. All of the populist groups I'd name were shoestring operations. The Populists themselves worked almost entirely by word of mouth and small newspapers, and their poverty meant that they couldn't make any push in the East.

Who ARE the common folks, in their opinion, and who is seen as the ELITE?

What I said in my last sentence: But in order to do this, you'd have to define, find and persuade an actual majority. In other words, I was pointing to the problem you raised. Can you forgive me for not solving it right here and now?

Gray, I do suggest you learn something about the Populist Party, the Progressives 1896-1910, the Non-Partisan League, the Lafollette Progressives, and the Minnesota Farmer Labor Party. Those are the people I'm talking about. They were the progressive engine in American politics for fifty years, and their survivors were purged in 1948. And you can throw in the Debs Socialists and part of the labor movement.

You choose to define populism as a device used to control the people. I define it as as device used by people to influence the government. In Pol Sci 110 (and perhaps in Germany) the latter definition is impossible. Elitism is wired in.

And my topic is the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to make direct appeals to the people, thereby conceding populism to the right, and their related refusal to defy any of the big-money interest groups.

I just don't think that the Hitler example is relevant. From what I read, even the German liberals (Thomas Mann and Max Weber are my examples)  disliked liberalism. The conservatives wanted a return to the old authoritarianism. The left wanted Bolshevik revolution. After the end of WWI there were armed bands (Freikorps) roaming around killing one another. Nothing good could have come of that. It really baffles me the way American intellectuals adopted German political thinking. The Germans and Austrians, including their intellectuals, really fucked up terribly.


[ Parent ]
I DLON'T "want a way for distinguishing fake populism from real populism"! (0.00 / 0)
Quite to the contrary, I think the way of artificially creating that difference, when there really is none, is false! Right wingers use REAL populism to gain support for their crap, you may like it or not. The problem is, you don't define what "false populism" is anywhere, and imho this is absolutely necessary when you use such a misleading phrase. And, yes, I see populism as a way to gain support, and to direct and amybe even control people, in a top down way. That's the most common way of populism, that it is started by an agitator, and there are only seldom exceptions from that rule, like the peace movement, maybe.  Well, if you would call instead it "good" and "bad" populism, and further distinguish between top down and bottom up movements, this would be a miuch better idea, imho.

"Can you forgive me for not solving it right here and now?",Hey, sure! :D
It's just that I'm maybe a bit aq spoiled brat from reading so many of Paul Rosenberg's stories, who constructs his cases in an academic way and takes great care to answer the questions he raises. Or to show why there can't be an answer. I guess most of my problems with your story would vanish if you would have called it "left wing populism in US history" or something like that. "What is populism" is just too broad a topic, any your story doesn't go into the depth of this. And "why are Democrats afraid of it" is a great question, but your examples, not enough of them of them from recent decades only provide part of the answer, imho. However, covering this conclusively would have required a much longer essay, sure.

"I just don't think that the Hitler example is relevant." Well, not for reviewing progressive populism, but certainly for discussing populism in general. The Nazis developed and finetuned lots of methods for creating a populist movement, one of the most shameful "the big lie". And the right wingers replicated some of bad ole Joe Goebbels' tricks, so this would be relevant if you would also investigate the reaction of the Dem party to the manipulative populism of Gingrich and Co.


[ Parent ]
There's no reason for me or anyone to accept a definition of populism... (0.00 / 0)
that you've pulled out of your butt and are angrily asserting.

I gave a way of distinguishing fake from real populism: people funded by big money are not populists, regardless of their rhetoric. I don't see the problem with that. It's a pretty good distinction, but you don't want a distinction. I could add: I don't think that a movement promising a Fuhrer or a master and authoritarian rule is a populist, regardless of his rhetoric. None of the American populist groups that I'm talking about did that, and that's where the name came from.

Likewise, a wise expert administrator doing what he decides best for the people is not a populist if he doesn't take part in a political process (which Nader refused to do, as I said). Furthermore, the Greens never really were a majoritarian movement -- they seemed to be an assemblage of single issue groups with support in a few specialized communities. Some Greens talked like populists or wanted to be populists.

You seem to be insistent on using whichever definition of populism that makes it easiest to call Hitler a populist. Which is the standard Poli Sci 101 definition ingrained in our political system and the Democratic Party.

In any case, as I said, I acknowledge the negative possibilities of any kind of populism, and do not want the Democrats to do everything that every populist ever did. I just want to break the taboo, so that the response to the economic decline deriving from the financial collapse can be aggressive rather than defensive. But at the present moment they can't, first because they've been indoctrinated, and second because they've been bought.

And, yes, I see populism as a way to gain support, and to direct and maybe even control people, in a top down way. That's the most common way of populism, that it is started by an agitator, and there are only seldom exceptions from that rule, like the peace movement, maybe.

I don't think that any of that is true. None of the populist movements I named were dominated by single leaders or charismatic individuals, except maybe the LaFollette Progressives. If you're just saying that populist movements do have leaders at all, yes, but they're not top down movements.

I don't think that the term "populist" is widely generalizable. The Russian narodniks were completely unlike the American populists, and as far as I know those are the two sources of the name. Gellner's book "Populism" tried to treat the term cross-culturally, but I thought it was unsuccessful and as I remember, it was generally admitted that the national versions were dissimilar.

I just refuse to accept that anyone whatever who speaks angrily, irrationally, and demagogically about the authorities or the elite counts as a populist. That is the  common definition, to the point that irrational anger has become sufficient to make someone a populist.


[ Parent ]
Pls care about your own butt, John! (0.00 / 1)
The place where you find definitions like "people funded by big money are not populists, regardless of their rhetoric". Pls show me one respected expert in the field who supports that! I'll be back to check your anser tomorrow, I've had enough for today.

[ Parent ]
As far as I know there's no consensus definition (0.00 / 0)
You seem to be sure that there is, and that (surprise) it's your definition. The Gellner book was pretty loosely tied together and begins by wondering whether the term has any value at all. Worsley's conclusion, after a survey, claims that "populism" is a usable term, but a very vague one, and he doesn't define it. (He incidentally denies that totalitarian movements are populist, while granting that they include a populist element.)

As far as I can tell the term "populist" is a contested one without a consensus definition, and defining it is part of the struggle. I have my definition, which I'll fight for, and you can have yours, but I'm not going to let you say that yours is the consensus definition. Frankly, the idea that there is such a definition strike me as just more Pol Sci 101 thinking.  


[ Parent ]
Oh, yeah, sure... (0.00 / 0)
..there's no consensus definition. And you didn't really try to give one by writing "Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of  the common folk". Sry, John, but your logic doesn't hold water. And with every new comment you contradict yourself even more.

[ Parent ]
I was trying to give a working definition for the purpose of this post (0.00 / 0)
There were various things about my original post that I could have clarified rather painlessly. This is about a 2,000 word post, as I remember. That's pretty long for a blog post, but it's pretty short as a summary of 50 years of American political history. If I'd thought you actually wanted clarification I might have worked with you, but I felt that you were looking for a fight, as you still are, and I gave you one.

Your belief that there is an agreed-upon definition of populism, i.e. yours (a tool for controlling people and a kind of rhetoric), and that other definitions are wrong is false as far as I know. What you did was assert your view and demand that I document mine. That's the oldest trick in the book and I don't play that way.

One of the main points of my last few months of posting is to rehabilatate the term "populism" by a.) defending the Populists themselves, b.) showing how much of the progressive energy 1890-1940 came from post-Populist populist groups, and c.) fighting against the Pol Sci tendency to write paranoia, stupidity, unfocussed anger, and bigotry into the definition of "populist", making them into almost sufficient conditions for the designation.

I confess that I am lacking in patience and perhaps sometimes unfair to those who seem to be repeating the Pol Sci 101 orthodoxies.  


[ Parent ]
Well, I AM a combative commenter... (0.00 / 0)
..and I'm sry if I came through as aggressive. But your distinction between "real" and "false" populism really rubbed me the wrong way. And I still think it's artificial, not supported by evidence and logic, and thus fraudulent. I understand your stance is somewhat based on your dislike of everything "Pol Sci", but I don't think we will find common ground on this. Let's leave it at that.

[ Parent ]
I've said four times now.... (0.00 / 0)
.... someone speaking for the common people against the rich is fake if he's secretly funded by the rich and has no intention of actually doing anything against his sponsors.

You're right, though, that the definition of the word "populism" is one of the issues. I just looked it up in the 1971 version of the OED. There was no common-noun populism listed there -- just the American political party plus the Narodniks. Gellner's 1969 book spoke of populism in the generic sense as something that everyone was talking about, but which no one could define. The book is an attempt at the definition of the generic term, and an unsuccessful one as far as I am concerned.

So how did the proper noun become a common noun? I'm pretty confident that it was generalized from the work of Hofstadter and his cohorts. (At this point I've read all of Hofstadter's books, AFAIK, plus two biographies). But Hofstadter's work on Populism and progressivism was polemical, from the point of view of a disappointed and fearful ex-leftist, and one of the founding documents of anti-populist administrative liberalism -- his three polemics all sell better than any other book discussing populism other than Goodwyn's, and are used to train up and coming people in Pol Sci even though the books' historical inaccuracy is known.

Hofstadter did not do primary research and was criticized for that, and at one point he said that he was more a man of letters than a historian. Hofstadter also relied on Adorno et al's "Authoritarian Personality", which admirers of Adorno (of whom I am not one) think of as a book rather compromised by his political mood and the auspices under which it was written (it was commissioned by people with an agenda.)

In short, I believe that returning to the 1971 definition (a. Populist b. Narodnik) is justified, because I think that the extension of the term starting with Hofstadter and Adorno is based on a false, unfair, and polemical understanding of the Populists. You can't use it to mean just any angry rabble-rouser.

I use "Populist" to describe the actual party, and small-p "populist" to describe similar American political movements 1870-1940.

The purpose and effect of the redefinition of the term was to rule out a kind of politics via guilt by association. "Ignatius Donnely, Joe McCarthy, Hitler, and other populists....."

Here's what I said: Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of  the common folk. It takes both left wing and right wing forms and sometimes degenerates into bigotry and attacks on minorities. Populism can be faked, and that is being done right now. Note that the degeneration of populism into bigotry  was mentioned first, and the statement that populism can be faked is an additional statement. So I do acknowledge the darker possibilities.

I will specifically grant that Huey Long was a real but  bad populist, and Tom Watson during his later years. Coughlin was a different, trickier  case, considering that Populists were almost all Protestant and often anti-Catholic, and considering that Coughlin had his own roots in Catholic conservative doctrine, which was hierachal and anti-populist. But (while granting that the misuse is widespread) I don't grant the stretching of the term to mean any anti-establishment bigot demagogue whatsoever. Long and Watson had their populist bona fides, beyond the demagoguery. I'm not even sure that Gerald L. K. Smith did, he seemed to be a pure opportunist demagogue.  


[ Parent ]
Well, even though I disagree with you,... (0.00 / 0)
..your comments sure are very informative. Thx! However, and that is still the unsolved problem, where to draw the line between "real" and "fake" populism? Why should Huey "every man a king" Long, and Father Couglin (who's Tom Watson? The IBM guy?) be real, but bad populists, and, say, Gingrich a fake one? You admit that Long and Couglin had their own interests in mind, too, so why the arbitrary and artificial distinction? Gingrich certainly believed in at least some of the points he ranted about, too, and he was up against the establishment, consisting of the Clinton administration, too. Still doesn't make any sense to me. And I guess it never will. I always have a problem when binary judgments (good/bad) are applied to real life issues that are almost always consisting of more dimensions.

[ Parent ]
Applying a double standard, Randall Kohn? (0.00 / 0)
But I guess you simply overlooked that I cited John Emerson's comment when I wrote "butt". Either TR both comments, or none of them, pls.

[ Parent ]
This is diametrically wrong (4.00 / 5)
FDR managed to move the populists in a pro-government direction, but that was an unusual case, only brought about because the hatred of business was bigger.

FDR was a mainstream Democrat tending toward laissez-faire like most of the Democratic leadership. Only the force of events and heavy pressure from progressives / populists inside and outside the party moved himn to activism and Keynsianism (which he never fully accepted). Farmer-Labor Senator Lundeen of Minnesota, an unmistakable populist, was talking about Keynes right starting in 1932, and he also proposed superior race-blind, need-based versions of Social Security and unemployment insurance that never made it past the Southern Democrats.

Your rant was an excellent specimen of the standard Democratic view, though.


[ Parent ]
To Be Fair (4.00 / 4)
FDR was more of an outsider than Obama is.  First off, he was very old money, so he was perfectly secure in taking on anyone if he felt the need to.  Second, of course, he was handicapped--at the same time as being about as elite as one could possibly be... a very interesting combo.  Third, he had already instituted the largest welfare system in the US as governor of NY.  The fact that he had a Labor Secretary like Frances Perkins didn't just come out of nowhere.  Nor did the fact that he was open to being influenced.

But no, he was not the Great White Father Thank You Jesus Saviour In The Sky.  That guy has pretty much nothing but lightning bolts and questionable aim, at best.  Not a big help.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Populists believe government should protect people from big business (4.00 / 2)
The Populist movement rose in the 1880s in reaction to the rise of corporate trusts -- particularly the railroads and mercantile interests that whipsawed farmers and workers. They supported the establishment of co-ops and passage of anti-trust legislation and regulation of railroads and public utilities. Many of the reforms they proposed eventually were enacted in the Progressive Era and the New Deal. See the Populist Platform of 1896.

[ Parent ]
So by an "actual majority"... (0.00 / 0)
I assume you mean the "non-white and/or non-Christian and/or LGBT" coalition Chris Bowers has been talking about for years now? (best example, IMO: http://www.openleft.com/showDi... )

In other words, if I`m reading you correctly, and/or am drawing the right conclusions, outside Progressive organizations should engage in a cosmopolitan/pluralist populist strategy, perhaps the first time in history such a strategy has been used.

Now that`s something I can get behind.


You've put your finger on the problem (4.00 / 2)
I don't have an answer. Diversity is the latest incarnation of the Democrats decision to treat their base as a collection of interest groups, rather than trying to define a majority based on a common interest. I think that the whole exercise has had a big down side. It reminds me of Tocqueville's saying I cited earlier, "A despot doesn't care if his subjects hate him, as long as they hate each other." Likewise, two collusive parties really want to have the electorate divided up into two hostile, roughly equal parts, because then all decisions will be made in back-room deals between party leaders, and the party leaders become all-powerful.

This is the old argument that culture is used to divide people and miss their economic interests. For example, demographically the bottom half of the population would all be better off with single-payer, a full employment policy, strong unions, a higher minimum wage, and free or inexpensive higher education. To the extent that they get diverted to affirmative action, MLK this and that, X history month, etc., etc. without getting the serious stuff, they lose. (Or on the other side, Confederate flags or whatever).

My sort of politics hasn't worked for quite awhile, and many say that that proves it's no good. Supposedly I'm an elitist who doesn't respect the common people, etc., etc. What I say is that both political parties have been working against this kind of politics, and both want the populace divided. And likewise, the media absolutely suppresses this kind of politics. That's basically the opposition we have to face.

The populist groups didn't take the public opinion of the average man as something given. The leaders -- who tended to be educated middle class, but often were self-educated, and mostly were commonfolk originally -- had their ideas and they had to persuade people. All of the groups had very active educational arms.  


[ Parent ]
I understand it`s just a blog comment (0.00 / 0)
And you know a lot more about this stuff than I do, but I still think you`re oversimplifying things here.

The Democratic party isn`t diverse because the leadership treats it as a "collection of interest groups."  The Democratic leadership has been trying to court white straight Christians (especially white straight Christian males) for more than two decades now.  The idea that they could suddenly win over this demographic group if they started advocating for single-payer, strong unions, etc. seems false to me--this same demographic group is the one most opposed to these liberal economic positions, largely because they will disproportionately benefit minorities.  Again, I`m sure you know all of this--but it strikes me as disingenous to imply that all the Democrats have to do is advocate for free college and everyone will start voting for them (and yes, I am oversimplifying your argument here, but it`s to make a point--sorry).

All I`m trying to say is, the view that our political leadership is intentionally dividing the populace to stay in power is overly simplistic.  You`re trying to divide political opinions (economic vs. social/cultural) that really can`t be divided for a lot of people.  A lot of people are economic conservatives because they`re social conservatives.  These people aren`t being manipulated; they`re voting for the person that truly expresses the political beliefs they hold.

At the end, you imply that the root problem is a lack of education.  I actually agree.  But given how your intended demographic is also somewhat philosophically opposed to education itself (it`s dangerous to know too much, don`t you know), that also seems like somewhat of a losing proposition to me.

I still think the best bet is to go with a cosmopolitan populist appeal.  Cultural supremacy opposes healthcare reform along with affirmative action--if you give the (poor) outgroups healthcare, after all, they might advance in society.  Get the cultural supremacists out of power, and economic reforms become a lot easier as well.

But what the hell do I know; all my information on these topics comes basically from reading political blogs and thinking on my own. :P I am probably wrong.

(P.S.: I apologize if this post seems a little scattered--it`s late at night where I live, and I`m tired)


[ Parent ]
It was really a deliberate plan (4.00 / 1)
Majoritarianism was to be deliberately avoided. Pluralism (o consensus theory) meant rich and poor, finance and industry, rural and urban, autos and steel, in addition to various ethnic groups and (later) sexual minorities. Democrats in office would dish out favors to the various interest groups according to their political power and support for the Democrats, with some attention to a general liberal interventionist philosophy. It was really almost a technocratic version of urban boss patronage politics, as opposed to progressive do-good-ism. populist majoritarianism, or radical class consciousness.

I don't imply that the root problem is the lack of education, except in the sense that the Democratic party neglects issues development and political education. More schooling wouldn't help.

I think that it's a mistake to assume the good faith of Democratic leadership. Both parties have to get some kind of a majority while keeping their donors happy. TV has to keep viewers while keeping advertisers happy. Neither wants support that will alienate the money people. That's a big point to remember: for the media (AND the political parties) viewers / voters aren't the customers. They're the product; parties and media deliver people (voters / viewers) to the money people.

There's nothing particularly simple about my view, but in any case "simplistic" is one of the neo-lib / neo-con smears that's a red flag for me, along with "conspiracy theorist" "fundamentally unserious" and a bunch of others.

Reframing the debate to bread and butter issues is difficult, labor-intensive task, not a strategy or a tactic. In order to reach the political goal, you will form a party outside the party, do a lot of outreach, do a lot of political education, and channel your donations and time through this group. You do not allow the media or the Democratic pros to guide you.

And again, wonk Democrats translate everything into strategy and tactics rather than goals. I'm not saying that by emphasizing lunchbucket issues is a way of winning; I'm saying that it's the goal.  


[ Parent ]
Heresy. (0.00 / 0)
"I'm not saying that...emphasizing lunchbucket issues is a way of winning; I'm saying that it's the goal."

Not for either the D or R factions of the neoliberal, militarist, American-exceptionalist, police-state-supporting, blame-the-poor, anti-democratic (small-"d") War Party, or the major funders of those factions, or their mouthpieces in the corporate media.


[ Parent ]
The reason I think it`s simple (0.00 / 0)
Is because you`re trying to boil down politics to economics.  You yourself admit that`s what you want to do ("emphasize lunchbucket issues").  The thing is, politics is about a lot more than economics--at least for me, and a lot of other people, too.

If you look at all of politics through a purely economical lens, then yeah, you see a conscious strategy by the rich to manipulate the poor, because the rich are getting richer while still getting a lot of (though not most of) the poor to vote for them.  Karl Marx figured that out centuries ago.

The problem is, there are many more lenses than just the economical one.  You may think the world would be better if there weren`t, but I disagree--I think there are also a lot of human needs beyond "lunchbucket issues," and I want politics to address them. (Incidentally, I think this is the chief problem with Marx as well--his attempt to boil all of history and politics down to economics left him with a solution that was...well, simple, for lack of a better word)

So maybe that`s ultimately where our disagreement comes from.  That, or I`m misreading you.


[ Parent ]
Politics doesn't satisfy those other needs (0.00 / 0)
I read something by someone recently talking about the incredible pain and loneliness of transsexuals. She put all her political energy into hate crimes laws. Hate crimes laws are a good thing to the extent that they reduce hate crimes, but they don't cure the pain and loneliness. I've talked to gay men likewise, whose pain derived from rejection by their families and childhood communities. Politics can't help them.

Same with the other side. Conservatives want to return to a less secular, less profane world where sex roles were traditional, overt sexuality wasn't out in public, and people who misbehaved were punished, if possible, but at least were shamed into hiding. That can't be done either.

Regardless of what people think or feel about politics, there are some things politics can do and some it can't. The things politics can do are in the areas of war and peace, public services, education, law enforcement, environmental protection, and economics. I think that the identity politics tendency was a big mistake, for the reasons I just gave and also because it turns the Democratic Party into a zoo of mutually-hostile cultural groups.  


[ Parent ]
Well, obviously politics can`t do everything (0.00 / 0)
I mean, I`m not asking politics to solve existential crises, or give me friends, or by itself reshape gender roles, or anything like that.  I`m not suggesting politics is all-powerful.  But there`s a lot more to politics than foreign policy, public services (which includes education, law enforcement, and environmental protection), and economics.

I mean, this should be obvious.  For most of history, politics have been used to, well, oppress people, through many other means than just economically.  People have been killed, restricted in their movements, restricted in their job opportunities (kind of economics, but not really imo), denied the right to express certain opinions, denied the right to interact with non-oppressed groups, stripped of privacy...

On the other side, politics can also be used to positively affect culture for the better.  Would racism (at least rhetorical racism) be as generally rejected as it is now were it not for the political civil rights movements of the 60s?  Would (rhetorical) sexism?  Would we have as different religious opinions as we do have without freedom of religion?  And I can`t even begin to list the positive cultural changes from freedom of speech.

I`ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table here: I was a social liberal long before I was an economic one, and to be honest, I`m still most passionate about issues like civil rights, privacy, freedom of speech, and the like.  To say that these are positions concerned with getting politics out of certain areas is true--but beside the point.  The fact is that politics can do things in these areas, and that`s all I`m trying to argue.

I just don`t think you can win the votes of the majority of lower and middle-class white voters on the basis of purely economic populist arguments.  You`d have to drop social liberalism first--and if you did that, me and many other people would leave.

Or, to put it another way: If a socialist won a national election by only emphasizing lunchbucket issues, what would stop someone from running on an economically liberal but socially conservative platform, and win the country right back?  Or, to really put a finger on the point: What would stop someone from running on a platform that says "I will enact policies that economically benefit you, the majority group--but that will leave your hated minority group (pick one, doesn`t matter which) in the gutter"?

Identity has played a role in politics since politics began.  Even FDR had to appease the Dixiecrats` racism.  In a country (and world) that`s more diverse, multicultural, and cosmopolitan than ever before, do you really think that now is when it`s possible to take identity out of politics?


[ Parent ]
a few thoughts re. populism (0.00 / 0)
The definition (it seems to me) based on the word itself, would be a political movement that advanced issues favored by the majority... This excludes all issues that need outside funding, because only issues the majority agrees with will be popular enough to gain majority support. That is, unless there is enough money for everyone, bribes will not work. Some of the issues mentioned here are supported by the VAST majority, and would naturally comprise the policy bedrock of a populist movement. The "define, find and persuade" problem is reduced to: engage, spread the word, and pole participants, if we recognize the potential of Nancy Brodier's system/idea. It is ideal for formation of a new populist movement that democraticly sets it's goals, selects candidates, polices elected officials, self funds, and ignores party officials. All whial electing progressive people representing the wishes of the 90% (or so?) majority, that are currently unrepresented.

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR

What you are describing is not populism (4.00 / 1)
it's majoritarianism.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]
USER MENU

Open Left Campaigns

SEARCH

   

Advanced Search

QUICK HITS
STATE BLOGS
Powered by: SoapBlox