The interesting, if flawed history of American populism and its corruption by the elite
Rarely does a work of history contain startling implications for the present, but in The People, No Thomas Frank pulls off that explosive effect by showing us that everything we think we know about populism is wrong. Today “populism” is seen as a frightening thing, a term pundits use to describe the racist philosophy of Donald Trump and European extremists. But this is a mistake.
The real story of populism is an account of enlightenment and liberation; it is the story of American democracy itself, of its ever-widening promise of a decent life for all. Taking us from the tumultuous 1890s, when the radical left-wing Populist Party — the biggest mass movement in American history — fought Gilded Age plutocrats to the reformers’ great triumphs under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Frank reminds us how much we owe to the populist ethos. Frank also shows that elitist groups have reliably detested populism, lashing out at working-class concerns. The anti-populist vituperations by the Washington centrists of today are only the latest expression.
Frank pummels the elites, revisits the movement’s provocative politics, and declares true populism to be the language of promise and optimism. The People, No is a ringing affirmation of a movement that, Frank shows us, is not the problem of our times, but the solution for what ails us.
I’ve been a fan of Thomas Frank’s writing for some time, now. His books have offered plenty of interesting and incisive examinations and critiques of American politics, culture, and economics. In The People, No, he turns his attention to “populism”: a term that has become quite ubiquitous in the age of Trump, but it is a term that is widely misunderstood. Frank provides a history of this movement, and explains how it has been twisted for nefarious ends.
Sometimes, reading The People, No was like reading the longest “Well, actually”. Frank is clearly frustrated with the corruption and appropriation of the term “populism” by forces that do not pursue populist policies or ends. While very well-researched and written, his history of the term and movement (dating back to the 1890s and the Populist Party) becomes a tad repetitive and veers away from exhaustive into the exhausting. It picks up considerably when he gets to the 1970s and beyond, though.
From the very beginning… populism had two meanings. There was Populism as its proponents understood it, meaning a movement in which ordinary citizens demanded democratic economic reforms. And there was Populism as its enemies characterized it: a dangerous movement of groundless resentment in which demagogues led the disreputable.
Frank introduces “anti-populism” a movement that seeks to diminish the power of the people in a governmental system that enshrines “the people” at the centre of its philosophy. This tendency is easily visible in the American system, whether in the form of belittling those who live in the “flyover states”, “rural” Americans, “urban Americans”, “uneducated Americans” and more. The tendency for every pundit to paint their ideological/political opposite as a populist has become rampant in the US. His criticisms of this tendency are well written and he brings receipts. It is a mentality that places “a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans” at its core, and bears responsibility for the toxicity of American politics.
Frank’s desire to spread the blame around equally is not as effective as it could have been. He excoriates the “educated elites” (a strange term to throw around with disdain by someone with a BA, MA, and PhD from prestigious schools), a popular bogeyman for the left and right. In particular, he takes aim at those on the left for their misuse of “populism” to paint Republican voters and Trump supporters as easily dismissed and hoodwinked, gullible, etc. He takes justified issue with those who dismiss anyone who does not agree with one’s politics or ideology. Like many fiery left-wing pundits, he has developed a frustration and antagonism towards the Democratic Party that sometimes forgets nuance and context (Matt Taibbi is another semi-prominent example).
The disappointing experience of the Obama years made it clear that the ruling clique of the Democratic Party lacks the fortitude to confront the plutocratic onslaught of the last few decades. Even the most high-scoring meritocrats, we learned, will not take on the hierarchy to which they owe their exalted status.
Generalizations are deployed (for both right and left) that aren’t always indicative of a wider tendency or pattern. As is often the case, however, examples that point out the hypocrisies of the right are far more telling, widespread, and damning than the majority of those presented to criticize the Left. “The fraudulence of the Right’s bait and switch is so plain it feels like a waste of space even to describe it,” he writes. He does describe plenty, thankfully, as the political landscape in the US suggests that one does have to describe it — because there are plenty of people who still remain oblivious.
Frank also takes issue with the “joyless politics of reprimand” (or wokeness, I suppose) that he sees as rampant on the left and in US politics/culture as a whole. While there are some who take things to extremes, I’m not sure it’s nearly as widespread as many pundits and writers claim. I’m also surprised that he says this is a politics of the centre — when, really, it’s seem to be the so-called centrists who complain the most about it (aside from the Right, who wind themselves up into hysterics about “cancel culture” while rarely ever being actually cancelled).
Plutocracy will go on even if we were to cleanse Twitter of every last problematic participant; health care will still be unaffordable even after the pundits manage to shame every last resentful Trump voter into silence. As a vehicle of reform this species of liberalism is useless.
The author points out that “scolding people for having morally obtuse politics may be the very worst way to get them to change those politics”. I agree, but it’s strange coming out of a book that itself feels like a scolding. While Frank doesn’t say it, it seems clear that he believes this “joyless politics of reprimand” is a distraction from the more serious issues facing America: economic fairness, healthcare, and so forth. (I’ve often thought that Democrats/the Left focus more on certain issues because it’s so much easier to be on the right side of some things — e.g., Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ rights, etc. — than it is to fix the economy, healthcare, etc. There’s less push-back on these “SJW” issues among progressives, while the others are far more complicated and harder to reach a consensus.)
Frank’s dismissal of educated elites seems to argue that they should not be trusted, and shouldn’t be in government. Based even on the evidence he presents, it’s far more clear that we actually need new thinking in government (and this is true for the US, UK, Canada, and most Western countries). Government is extremely complex, and gets more so every election cycle. A diversity of education, experience and creativity will be far more effective at solving problems than purging or marginalizing “educated elites”. Drawing from more than a handful of Ivy League schools will also help. (Just because you didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc., does not mean you aren’t brilliant in your field.) I will concede that I am perhaps a bit more sensitive to the portions of the book that are critical of “educated elites” because I, too, have multiple university degrees.
He decides to skip over a portion of history that bears a huge amount of blame for the corruption of the term “populism” and its adoption by forces wholly opposed to the ends and policies of traditional populism — he admits that it’s because it was painful enough to live through it, and just doesn’t want to repeat it (he’s covered it in other books). This is strange, because it seems like the whole point of the book is to highlight the corruption of “populism” and the rise of “anti-populism”, two things that happened at a much greater clip over the last 50-ish years. Frank makes many excellent points about tackling the dangers of demagogues of all stripes (it just happens that, in America, the vast majority of them are Republicans/right-wing). It takes him a long time to connect Bernie Sanders’s politics to the populist movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries — something that is obvious from very early on.
The book ends with an excellent series of questions, ones that need to be answered clearly and intelligently by progressives:
For whom does America exist? Its billionaires? Its celebrities? Its tech companies? Are we the people just a laboring, sweating instrument for the bonanza paydays of our betters? Are we just glorified security guards, obeying orders to protect their holdings? Are we nothing more than a vast test market to be tracked and probed and hopefully sold on airline tickets, fast food, or Hollywood movies featuring some awesome new animation technology? Or is it the other way around—are they supposed to serve us?
Ultimately, I think this is a very good, even important book. It is likely to spark conversation and debate, infuriate some. It is also an interesting history of a political movement in the United States. But it is flawed: Frank sometimes buries his arguments in excess details, belabours points, or reaches rather flat conclusions. At other times, he perfectly skewers the cynicism and disfunction of the American political class (e.g., the “abattoir of idealism known as Washington”). The book contains many valuable observations and lessons, and poses serious questions that Americans need to answer for themselves and the good of their country. I think the book just needed to be a bit more focused — I muttered “get on with it!” not infrequently to myself while reading.
A cautious recommendation, then. Not Frank’s best, but still a good and interesting book.