Given the alarming recent support for reactionary Right-wing populist politicians around the world, discussions of populism as a cultural-political phenomenon have become increasingly important. In this detailed review, Andrew Urie reviews Thomas Frank’s book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (2020), which provides an engaging history of American populism and its Left-wing potential.
Thomas Frank has long been one of my favourite American cultural-political analysts. An historian by training, Frank authored the influential academic book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (1997) before exclusively dedicating his talents to his career as a progressive-minded journalist and public intellectual. His book Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016) was one of the most insightful tracts of the 2016 US electoral year, as it brilliantly crystallized how the Democratic Party had been captured by centrist neoliberal interests that stood at odds with the populist socioeconomic anxieties of vast swaths of the electorate. Though not specifically focused on the Trump phenomenon, the book clearly pointed to how the Republican Right has, since the 1970s, accrued a successful track record of manipulatively appropriating populist rhetoric in order to sabotage the Democratic Party, which has drifted from its populist New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society platforms of the past in order to align itself with a technocratic ethos. Given the insightfulness of Listen, Liberal, I embarked on reading Frank’s most recent book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (2020), with high hopes. Clearly, an informal sequel of sorts to Listen, Liberal, the book sees Frank engaging in a detailed historical exploration of American populism. What I ultimately encountered was a fascinating if somewhat reductive read, in which Frank explores how the noble history of progressive American populism has been distorted by many misinformed contemporary academics, professionals, and technocrats, who have pejoratively labelled populism as an exclusively reactionary force.
Frank begins by tracing the formal origins of organized US populism to the progressive People’s Party (1892-1909) movement. Challenging both the Democratic and Republican parties, the People’s Party “protested poverty, unbearable debt, monopoly, and corruption – and it looked forward to the day when these were ended by the political actions of the people themselves” (11). Though agrarian-themed at its inception, the People’s Party grew to form links with organized labour and the urban industrial working class. Its legacy paved the way for the Democratic Party’s co-optation of progressive populist energies in the form of the New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society initiatives. These initiatives endured up until the economic and cultural upheavals of the 1970s, which witnessed the Democratic Party embrace neoliberalism while increasing numbers of the deindustrializing and primarily but not exclusively white working class were co-opted by the manipulative anti-elitist rhetoric of the Republicans. As Frank notes, there is an evident “lesson” here for all cultural-political analysts: “Populism is the supreme rhetorical weapon in the arsenal of American politics” (253).
One of the few Democratic politicians who understood this was Bernie Sanders, who ran against Trump in 2016 and in 2020 by channeling the historical grain of American populism in a manner that was revamped for the multicultural, gender diverse twenty-first century. Accordingly, Sanders received key support from the black rapper Killer Mike (Michael Santiago Render) and the black feminist and socialist activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016). And yet, unbelievably enough, Sanders found both his campaigns crushed by leading Democratic technocrats and power brokers, many associated with the defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), who portrayed him as an unrealistic rabble rouser even though what he was proposing was in keeping with the Democratic New Deal/Fair Deal/Great society platforms of the past. Considered in historical context, many of his proposals would have likely been acceptable to “golden age” Republicans like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were they still alive.
As Frank points out, the horrific outcome of the 2016 conjuncture was that Trump, via the advice of the reactionary populist strategist Steve Bannon, outfoxed the Democrats by manipulatively presenting himself as the voice of the deindustrializing working class (219). Naturally, Frank is astute enough to recognize that this turned out to be nothing more than an insincere, opportunistic bid to secure the support of some desperate, misguided people, some 6 to 9 million of whom had previously voted for Obama (Skelley). As Frank notes, the key leadership task that Trump embraced with “enthusiasm” resided in dismantling the “regulatory state,” which remains one of “the few institutions in Washington designed to help working class Americans” (221).
Frank is, of course, no romanticist for a mythologized bygone era of racial harmony. He fully recognizes how the progressive populist energies that coalesced around the New Deal, for example, were geared towards the interests of white socioeconomic advantage (109). Nonetheless, Frank is bang on in noting that New Deal-era populism was remarkably progressive given the obvious entrenched limitations of the era. Compared to the lacklustre measures of Republican president Herbert Hoover, Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt undertook sweeping progressive reforms during the Depression. These reforms saw the Democrats gain the overwhelming support of black neighbourhoods during the 1936 election (109).
Given the obvious historical successes of progressive populism in America during the first half of the twentieth century, why, then, did populism become negatively labelled as a reactionary force? As Frank points out, populism is today generally criticized by mainstream Democrats, policy “experts,” journalists, and academics alike (with respect to the two latter categories, two notable exceptions, respectively, are John B. Judis and Michael Denning, the latter of whom Frank briefly references [102, 109]). How, then, did populism come to be so negatively branded by the ostensibly “educated” SPT (scholarly-professional-technocratic) class? In addressing this question, Frank turns to the work of the famed American scholar Richard Hofstadter, whose 1955 anti-populist-themed book, The Age of Reform, is today routinely taught in undergraduate and graduate university courses throughout the humanities and social sciences as a cautionary against the supposed evils of the American populist tradition. As Frank points out, however, there is a major problem with Hofstadter’s anti-populist thesis: It is founded on shallow research that is at odds with historical reality.
As Frank demonstrates, Hofstadter painted the historical populists of the 1890s as racist, anti-Semitic reactionaries who had “despised immigrants” and embraced a “profoundly nationalist and bellicose” rhetoric (154). This was in fact completely untrue. Hofstadter, it turns out, “had done little archival research on Populism” (165). Specifically, he had “not read deeply in the movement’s literature or studied its record in government,” and he was guilty of selecting evidence in his favour by “cherry-picking” that was “taken to a kind of extreme” (165). Ironically enough, given Hofstadter’s accusations that the historical populists had been anti-Semites, it was the Jewish American historian Norman Pollack who offered the most devastating rebuttal to Hofstadter’s thesis. While not denying that there had been anti-Semitic currents within the traditional populist movement as a whole, Pollack demonstrated that the actual incidence of such currents had been “infinitesimal” (qtd. in Frank 166) and that historical populism was amongst the most progressive movements of the era.
Perhaps the key reason that Hofstadter’s thesis was able to gain such scholarly and public traction was because it emerged during the supposedly “post-ideological” (Bell) consensus school years of the 1950s, when the Cold War was in its early stages and American intellectuals and policy wonks harboured a suspicion of any American movements that might be deemed “radical.” Though this consensus school perspective, as Frank points out, would later go up “in flames” amidst the countercultural currents of the 1960s (149), it would essentially return during the 1970s, which would herald a transition towards the technocratic neoliberal consensus that reigns supreme today. As Frank notes, “Upon Hofstadter’s famous mistake the burgeoning pedagogy of ‘populism studies’ builds its theories and convenes in panels. Out of this scholarly blunder of the 1950s has grown the common sense of ruling elites everywhere” (167).
If there is a discernible weakness in Frank’s book, it resides in how he cannot quite seem to see the forest for the trees when it comes to his discussion of populism. In taking such great lengths to posit a foundation for American populism within the People’s Party movement of the 1890s, Frank ends up giving the misleading impression that populism is an anchored movement that appeals primarily to the rural white “left behinds.” Yes, Frank points out that the historical populist movement had formed coalitions between white and black farmers (42-44). Yes, he points to how Martin Luther King had cited this populist movement in building his own populist transracial crusade for socioeconomic justice (169-177). And, yes, he cites the now forgotten 1972 A Populist Manifesto, which proposed a market socialism based primarily around white-black collaboration (200). The problem is that in doing all this and more when it comes to discussing the history of progressive populism in America, Frank never, in my opinion, fully transcends his early focus on populism’s ostensible roots in order to explain what populism actually is and how it functions in twenty-first century America.
In my view, populism is simply the energy that propels democracy itself. One need not be a political scientist to recognize this. As the late, great black American comedian and longtime progressive political activist Dick Gregory writes in his book Dick Gregory’s Political Primer (1972), democracy emanates from “the Greek words demos meaning ‘the people’ and kratein meaning ‘to rule’” (276): “The original meaning is a government in which the people rule” (276). Yes, we can point out that the ancient Greeks had a slave-based society, but clearly democracy has evolved with time. With this in mind, populism is simply the essential energy that propels genuine democracy itself. A notable national progressive populist movement of the late twentieth century, for example, would be the black American Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign (1984), which emanated from the communal Black Panther-[White] Young Patriot interracial coalition of the late 1960s and the early 1970s (McCanne). To his detriment, Frank fails to mention these latter movements, which attest to the rich multicultural energies that inhere in the grand legacy of progressive American populism.
Obviously, there are some caveats here when it comes to progressive populist organizing. While I fully appreciate the historical importance of the noble American People’s Party movement, I think it is healthy to maintain a general but by no means fixed skepticism of contemporary political parties that formally label themselves as “populist” or claim to speak for “the people.” Populism, in my view, is much better understood as a political energy that can assume both progressive and reactionary hues, and it is most likely to erupt in democracies during specific political conjunctures (Hall) when vast swaths of the populace lose faith in status quo politics. Accordingly, populism is an energy that needs to be acknowledged and co-opted by progressive-minded politicians and activists, for to ignore it is to cede the political terrain to the Right, who are more likely to cater to and enflame reactionary populist sentiments than they are to attempt to creatively address them by amelioratively channeling them towards radical redress (Mouffe).
The American 2016 election is an excellent example of what I mean here. Essentially ignoring the dangerous racialized economic anxieties about neoliberal globalization that had come to consume significant sections of the American populace, the Democratic Party threw Sanders – the one truly progressive populist candidate – under the bus in favour of backing Hillary Clinton (Gautney), who endorsed the sort of consensus-driven neoliberal political approaches that had helped fuel the populist energies that had exploded in both progressive (e.g., the Occupy movement) and reactionary (e.g., the Tea Party movement) formations. The end result was a nightmare for America. Trump, who had clearly done the Rustbelt math with Bannon, won by seizing the Electoral College, historically an anti-populist instrument (4), with the direct assistance of the 6 to 9 million former Obama voters whom he had co-opted and the indirect assistance of the roughly 45 percent of eligible voters who did not even bother to vote given their evident disdain for both candidates (Bremmer 163).
Overall, The People, No is a worthy cultural-political endeavour with respect to its progressive populist focus. Its key problem resides in how Frank becomes bogged down in contextualizing American populism in relation to the People’s Party movement of the 1890s. In doing so, he never seems to fully transcend his exploration of American populism’s agrarian roots in order to explain how populist energies are in fact relevant to and operational within an increasingly urbanized twenty-first century America. For those looking for a concise examination of American populism that explores its formal origins and demolishes the Hofstadter-promulgated notion that it emanates from a reactionary, anti-science-minded rural movement based on racist nativist sentiments, however, this will prove an enlightening read.
Andrew Urie is an independent interdisciplinary scholar and writer who recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University (Canada). His dissertation, Turning Japanese: Japanization Anxiety, Japan-Bashing, and Reactionary White American Heteropatriarchy in Reagan-Bush Era Hollywood Cinema, was nominated for York’s Best Dissertation Prize. He specializes in American Studies and British Cultural Studies, and he has published in Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy; Fast Capitalism; Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900 to Present; PopMatters; The Bluffs Monitor; Pop Culture and Theology; the quint: an interdisciplinary quarterly from the north; American Studies Blog; Athabasca University’s Canadian Writers site; Popula; Journal of Contemporary Drama in English; and American Studies Journal (forthcoming).
Featured Image: March on Washington on the 4th of February 2017. Photograph taken by Ted Eytan.
Bell, Daniel. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. 1960.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
Bremmer, Ian. Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. New York: Penguin, 2018. Print.
Frank, Thomas. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. New York: Henry Holt & Co.,Print.
Gautney, Heather. “Dear Democratic party: it’s time to stop rigging the primaries.” The Guardian. 11 June 2018. Web. 2 Nov. 2018.
Gregory, Dick. Dick Gregory’s Political Primer. 1972. Ed. James R. McGraw. New York: HarperCollins, 2020. Print.
Hall, Stuart. “Gramsci and Us.” 1987. The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. By Stuart Hall. London: Verso, 1988. 161-173. Print.
McCanne, Michael. “The Panthers and the Patriots.” Jacobin. 19 May 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2021
Mouffe, Chantal. For a Left Populism. London: Verso, 2018. Print.
Skelley, Geoffrey. “Just How Many Obama 2012-Trump 2016 Voters Were There?” Rasmussen Reports. 1 June 2017. Web. 27 Jan. 2019.