Saturday, March 28, 2020

Book Review: 'The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism' by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank has discovered that the term populism is fungible.

Since its invention in the late 1800s, when it meant the native intelligence of the populace at large to correct the ills and corruption of the USA, it has been hijacked numerous times in different eras. Like everything else in the universe, it doesn’t stay fixed for long.

Populism started out as anger over property taxes, injustice, corruption and inequality in the Gilded Age, all of which were actually worse in the 1890s than they are today. Groups and movements formed. Authors began exposing abuses. The country slowly came around to seeing things weren’t as the founders had envisioned. To boil it down to a phrase, populism valued human rights over property rights.

Inevitably, the rich fired back. They portrayed populists not as reasoned citizens with legitimate positions, but as ignorant hayseeds, unfit to even speak let alone govern. Governing was for the governing class, made up of the rich and the credentialed, not farmers and laborers, women or nonwhites. Academics in particular showed themselves to be narrowminded, selfish and power-mad in their denunciations of populism.

As time wore on, they assigned populism to ever more evil traits. It didn’t matter how crazy the attack was. The elites lashed out in all directions, fighting to keep their exclusive domain of governing and pillaging. They attached it to Nazism, for example, when until that point populism had always been considered a leftist disease. It had been associated with the rise of labor unions, not fascists.

But, despite the battering and the haranguing by newspapers and magazines against it, the movement had a profound effect. It resulted in FDR’s unprecedented four terms as president, in which he established regulating agencies, old age pensions, works projects and numerous other egalitarian institutions for all, much to the continuing horror of the establishment. It was, as Noam Chomsky posited of such movements, a “Democracy Scare”.

The scales tipped back in the 1960s, when populism began to fade. There were numerous reasons, most of which Frank does not go into. People became weary of conformity and equality. They wanted to break out, to move ahead of the pack, not nestle in it. The cult of the individual arose and government receded. Populism became a sneeringly bad concept, assigned to crackpot Argentine dictators and buffoonish Italian prime ministers of the extreme right.

Now, in the Trump era, the concept has mutated into something that makes no sense at all – a corrupt billionaire president making himself and his class even richer, while claiming to represent the long-aggrieved and deceived working class. Frank says “If this is populism, the word has truly come to mean nothing.”

Frank has definitely done the research. He has found long forgotten leaders, long forgotten tracts, and long forgotten events - and rehabilitated them. Even the book’s title, The People, No is a takeoff on a long forgotten 1936 booklength poem by populist Carl Sandburg – The People, Yes.

Today, the term populism is shackled to bigotry, white supremacy, the patriarchy, and nothing at all to do with its roots in human rights and equality. It makes the book a wild ride.

For some reason, this is the season for books on populism. This is at least the fourth one I’ve seen so far, and the second I have read. The other, Robert Putnam’s Upswing, puts populism in perspective instead of exhaustive examination. Putnam shows the record inequality of the Gilded Age, the remarkable pendulum swing to the New Deal, the rise of the individual and decline of protections - as waves. He asks, can America break free of this stranglehold again? Can populism (the original version) return? Frank, on the other hand, is total immersion in the rise and perversion of populism. Two books, each with important messages not to be overlooked.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.