What’s the Matter With Populism?

populism, populist
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Metropolitan Books
Reading Time: 18 minutes

Thomas Frank laid bare what it means for voters to go against their own self-interest in his bestselling book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Frank takes on the effort to reclaim populism from the likes of Steve Bannon and its current rightwing avatars.

Frank’s newest book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, makes the case that everything we think we know about populism is wrong. He explains the emergence of populism as a political force for good in the US in the 19th century. 

While it has often been dismissed as a playground for the stupid, con artists, and bigots, it was originally about enlightenment and liberation.

With a deep dive into history, Frank reveals how populism began as a progressive way of doing politics — one that fueled the last relevant third-party effort, when after decades of industrialization and corporate consolidation, industrial and farm workers in the 1890s decided to take a stand for their own rights.

He shows how populism has been hijacked by successive American administrations in order to devalue reform movements in general, why it has been detested by various elitist groups, and how it continues to be misrepresented by politicians and the media alike.  

In Frank’s telling, it’s a modern lesson in how the good can be sidelined and denigrated when the worst really are “full of passionate intensity.” 

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.
Jeff Schechtman: The business of politics is essentially about the business of governance. As such, it must rely heavily upon history coupled with an equal dose of imagination about what is, or what might be possible. As it does this, it must often produce tangible results as divergent as paving the roads or achieving peace. But to do so requires perhaps the least tangible thing in the form of language, framing, and essentially what we might call today marketing. Be it a democracy or an authoritarian government, language and words matter. The words we use to frame the debate matter. We’ve seen this just within the last month in the discussion about defunding the police. Add to this the way in which words or memes come to mean different things at different times. After all Republicans were once a party of racial justice, and Democrats once cried out for federalism and state sovereignty. All of this makes it complicated to try and define and talk about our politics today in language from the past. And yet history requires that we must.
Jeff Schechtman: Such is the case with the idea of populism. Once a term that was pro-equality, pro-democratic, pro-human rights, today it’s been co-opted to almost define bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and mob rule. We’re going to focus in on essentially this idea of populism today with my guest Thomas Frank. Thomas Frank is the author of the bestsellers Listen Liberal, Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and the iconic What’s the Matter with Kansas. He’s a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harpers, and the founding editor of The Baffler. It is my pleasure to welcome Thomas Frank to talk about his newest work, The People Know: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. Thomas Frank, thanks so much for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Thomas Frank: Mr. Jeff Schechtman, it is good to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s great to have you here. First of all, let’s start with populism today. And how would you define what it’s come to mean right now?
Thomas Frank: Well, the way the word is used by the mainstream media now, by say The New York Times, or The Washington Post, or the European newspapers is as a synonym for racist demagogue. And I have to say the first time I realized that they had just decided that that’s what the word meant – this would have been about two or three years ago – I was shocked because I used to study the movement that called itself populism, the movement that invented the word, which is an American movement. Actually it came out of my home state of Kansas, is where they invented the word populism. They coined it one day on a train going between Kansas City and Topeka. And if you know anything about that movement, you know it’s the exact opposite of the way The New York Times uses the word today. And so that raises the really interesting question, how the hell did that happen? How did the word flip like that?
Thomas Frank: And so I set out to trace how that happened. And it actually, the story is consequential. It’s not just a sort of an interesting little tale of a word sort of slipping its gears, going into reverse, or whatever you want to say. It actually has a lot of implications for how we look at the world today.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about that and why it’s important to understand this particular word. Because certainly words change meanings in our political dialogue all the time. All we have to do is look at the way left became liberal, became progressive. I mean, we can find an equal number of examples on the right. Why is this more important?
Thomas Frank: Well, the classic example is the word liberalism, which to Europeans means this sort of 19th century, what we would call a conservative outlook, but for us means something very different. But populism, the reason it’s important is because the word was deliberately flipped. So it happened in the 1950s, the first time the word got, the meaning of the word changed, and it happened for specific reasons. And when we use the word populism in the sort of the way that say The New York Times uses it today, we’re basically, we’re not just, it’s not just, “Hey, look at that. The word’s meaning changed.” We’re embracing a whole ideology when we use the word that way. We don’t know that’s what we’re doing, but that is what we’re doing. And I’m going to explain it to you, and by the end of this conversation, you’re going to be like, “Oh my God, he’s right.” So shall we proceed?
Jeff Schechtman: Please.
Thomas Frank: Okay. So populism, the people who invented the word in the 1890s was a mass movement of farmers and working class people, industrial laborers. The idea was to build a kind of a labor party in the United States and the movement, it was the last big, third party movement in American history. And they sort of rose up, challenged the establishment of the day, and were destroyed by about 1896, by the end of 1896, they were in ruins. And the campaign that defeated them was, is absolutely fascinating to me. The newspapers of America came together with the great tycoons and the great academics, the great learned men of the 1890s to denounce and deplore populism, which they understood as a synonym for mob rule.
Thomas Frank: So the populists understood their own movement as a sort of a hopeful thing as you mentioned earlier, a coming together of farmers and workers to humanize the US economy, to bring various economic reforms. By the way, economic reforms, what they proposed back in the 1890s are all things that today are common sense. Everybody thinks there’s nothing really controversial about what they wanted anymore, but the establishment of the day said, “No, this is a demand for mob rule. This is like the French Revolution. This is like the Reign of Terror. This is something really frightening. This is the riff raff, trying to lord it over their natural betters,” by which they meant of course, themselves.
Thomas Frank: So this was a sort of standard way for conservative establishment to confront left-wing movements. And they did it again in the 1930s when the Labor movement was doing a very similar kind of thing, organizing average working people, trying to bring them together, and acting in politics through Franklin Roosevelt, and The New Deal, and the various other politicians of that era. And again, the establishment came together and denounced them in the same way, that this is an uprising of the unfit. And then in the 1950s, everything changed. And it changed because you had a new generation of intellectuals rising up on the scene, and you had this sort of, this kind of managerial takeover of American life. This is the great period of, remember The Organization Man, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. This is when American institutions began to be run not by people who had inherited them or people who were entrepreneurs, but by people with advanced degrees.
Thomas Frank: And so you had political scientists running the Pentagon, and you had MBAs running corporations, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera. And these people they sort of looked back at populism, they looked back at the 1890s and they decided that movement, instead of being this sort of great reform effort that failed, what populism really was, was a kind of proto-fascism. It was a whole bunch of people who really had no business wanting to be in government, coming together and expressing their paranoia and their folly, and their error, and their foolishness, and what you really need for reform is people like us, meaning the managerial elite, who were then sort of rising up. And so they looked back and they took this word populism and made it into something else, defined it as a kind of proto-fascism.
Thomas Frank: Now they were wrong to do that. I mean, technically that was a complete mistake in historical terms, and they got called on it. This was a complete misinterpretation of history. But their redefinition of the word stuck, because this sort of, the idea of managerialism has never gone away and the kind of, the people who dominate American society today, your sort of professional elite, they need a term to describe what they have displaced. The movement that came before them, the way Americans used to reach out for reform was with mass movements of ordinary working people, farmers, industrial workers, that sort of thing. And they don’t, that’s obviously not the way we go. According to the managerial elite, that’s not how you do it anymore. That’s not how you should have ever done it. The way you do it now is you have a bunch of experts sitting around a table in Washington DC, and they decide for you.
Thomas Frank: And that’s how the word got flipped, and it’s just continued along that same road ever since. And so every time, whenever we hear the word used that way, it’s always as a way of … do you remember when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters deplorables?
Jeff Schechtman: Deplorables, right, a basket of deplorables.
Thomas Frank: Yes, it was the same idea that mass movements of working-class people can never be trusted to do the right thing. Now that was a … Hillary, that was a mistake. As we all know, that was the great blunder of 2016, and she knew it was a mistake. And she tried to … she’s a good politician. She tried to get out of it. But what’s fascinating to me, Jeff, is the way our sort of commentary class in America, our sort of pundit bureau is I like to call them, doubled down on that. They accepted what she said, and they were like, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.” America is in the grip of this terrible thing that they call populism, which means these average people believing horrible things, and rejecting the advice of their betters and electing fools like Donald Trump and doing idiotic things across the board. What is fascinating is that this hostility to populism, this hatred of populism has gone from being an elite thing in the 1890s, a sort of hysteria of the upper classes, and the bankers, and the media to being today, a hysteria of liberals, of the center left. And it’s expressed in almost exactly the same terms as in the 1890s with a few exceptions.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that seems to make it possible is that it was also something the founders were worried about. I mean, there was this sense of fear of the mob, and that goes back literally to the founding, and somehow the ability to gin up that fear, and particularly the paranoia, seems to have such deep roots in the American experience.
Thomas Frank: Oh yes, absolutely. And everywhere that you have democracy, there’s the fear of the misguided majority, the tyranny of the majority. I think this goes back to Plato and Aristotle, this fear of the great unwashed taking over. And in the 1890s, people were, this country’s, the sort of ruling elite of this country were very open about that, and they were in the 1930s as well. They saw that this is the end of the world with these unions grabbing for power, and these politicians pandering to the lowest order of society. All I can say is that historically those fears have been really unfounded here in America, that the things that populism proposed, were not, “Let’s set up a guillotine in Wall Street and execute everybody.” That’s not what they wanted to do.
Thomas Frank: The things they wanted to do actually are today, they wanted to get off the gold standard. They wanted votes for women. They wanted the secret ballot, they wanted a farm program, they wanted regulations of railroads. Everything they wanted just seems like common sense today, and yet the elite of that time reacted in the most hysterical manner. And we’re doing it again today. It’s the same old fear. You’re exactly right. It is always with us, and I guess the answer would be that populists are … and it was certainly there in the founding. Thomas Jefferson, all the debates among the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson versus James Madison and certainly Alexander Hamilton, who very famously said, or didn’t say, we don’t really know, he said that the people are a great beast. And this has been the fear since, the number one fear since the beginning of the country.
Thomas Frank: But all I can say is that there is a rival strain in America that trusts ordinary people. You think of Frank Capra movies, or you think of Orson Welles movies, or you think of all the sort of, the great, the movies of World War II, all of the sort of mass, or pop culture of the 1930s, which was really about the nobility of average people, and that is really deep in the American grain, that kind of populist sensibility.
Jeff Schechtman: Where did those two things, if they do, separate? That sort of ordinariness, that kind of Frank Capra-esque thing you’re talking about, and the way in which that gets flipped to the kind of negative populism that you’re talking about. Somewhere that ability to flip that, there was some inflection point. Talk about that.
Thomas Frank: Yes. It’s the ’50s. It’s the 1950s. There’s a generation of intellectuals coming up. They were terrified by McCarthyism, which seemed to them to be, this is exactly what we’re describing, tyranny of the majority. Here’s this blowhard demagogue politician who’s accusing people willy nilly of being communists. And this was very frightening to intellectuals. He, for whatever reason, McCarthy singled out intellectuals and was always attacking them. And people got fired from their jobs at universities, and Hollywood, and places like that, and this was very frightening. And so this generation of intellectuals saw that they described McCarthy as populism. This is an example of when democracy goes off the rails.
Thomas Frank: Now, in fact, Joe McCarthy, and as people, lots of people pointed out in response, Joe McCarthy had nothing to do with populism. Populism was this movement in the 1890s that was vaguely socialist. Anyhow, he had nothing to do with it. He was not in that tradition, he was not from that part of America, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He came from a very typical conservative tradition. So they pointed that out right away, but that didn’t matter. It was the equating of McCarthyism with mass democracy was … it rang true for this generation of intellectuals. They also saw Nazism that way, they thought fascism … they were terrified by what they had seen in World War II in Europe. And there were all of these studies that came out after the war was over of what was then called the authoritarian personality, the idea being that you could blame authoritarianism not on the ruling elite of these countries, but on working class people, that they had this certain flaw in their personality. You could even … I know this sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, Jeff? But this is true.
Thomas Frank: This is really what they thought. They thought, you know, you look at working class organizations, which means labor unions. And no, they’re not authoritarian. In fact, they’re often the victims of authoritarianism, and they’re very anti-racist, and they’re very pro-democracy. But if you do these personality tests, if you give their members these personality tests, you find that they secretly harbor authoritarian views. And therefore they came up with this whole theory that they called working class authoritarianism, meaning that you can blame fascism on working class movements, which is again, factually ridiculous but rang true for this generation of intellectuals. They wanted to put the days of mass working class movements behind us. And you know what’s funny, Jeff, is they actually did. I mean, those movements really have … here we are now 60 years later, those movements really are dead. Farmers’ movements, workers’ movements. I mean, we have Black Lives Matter out in the streets now, but it’s very unusual for, for this kind of movement to succeed anymore.
Jeff Schechtman: Right. Somehow that the way in which those movements disappeared, there’s an important period of time in the Reagan years, which I think is worth looking at in terms of the way they gently disappeared.
Thomas Frank: Yeah, well, yes. Or not so gently, that was … the Reagan presidency is, it’s really the big political inflection point in this country where we changed course. And we decided, that the government turned against … he broke, he very famously broke the … what were they called? The Air Traffic Controllers Strike in 1981. And that was sort of a signal that the government wasn’t going to help out unions any longer. And sure enough, very quickly it was open season on unions, all across the economy with the result that we are where we are today, they’re down to something like six or 7% of the private sector workforce. I mean, from a high point of something like 35%. They’ve been really beaten down. The whole idea of mass organizations, of working people, is something that today’s generation doesn’t really understand because they have very little experience of it. And Reagan did all the other things as well.
Jeff Schechtman: Right, but the genius of what Reagan did is that he was able to do it while creating this external, kind of Capra-esque, patina of the ordinary man.
Thomas Frank: Yes, exactly, exactly. You’re there in California. A couple of years ago, I visited his library, The Reagan Library and it’s all, it’s filled with that stuff. It was really a trip back into the past for me. I was 15 when he got elected, but I remember that he used to give these radio talks. Do you remember this back in the ’70s? Very short-
Jeff Schechtman: Absolutely. For [inaudible] sponsored by General Electric.
Thomas Frank: Yes, and they were so Capra-esque. They were like, Reader’s Digest. It was just sort of wonderful … he had this wonderful small town way of talking, this average guy way of talking, but the things that he was proposing doing were basically the destruction of that whole way of life. I mean, the ironies of Ronald Reagan, I mean, this is the man, as you and I just noted who was responsible for destroying the power of working class organizations. He’s also the only president who’s ever been a union leader. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and here he comes in, he becomes president, and absolutely, utterly destroys the movement that he came out of. And as the ironies are thick, I have some really rich quotes in the book about Reagan, where Reagan is saying, he doesn’t like to hang around with stockbrokers and businessman, he prefers the company of people who have calluses on their hands. And Reagan was often described in the ’80s as a populist, when he first ran for the presidency. They used that word to describe him because of all of this kind of this folksiness.
Thomas Frank: And that’s, that’s sort of the way we use the word today. It describes this, like George W. Bush was also described as a populist. Newt Gingrich, all of these guys are, they’re right there with you in terms of values and manners, and they’re in favor of you going to church, and they’re sitting there on the couch with you watching these horrible Hollywood movies insult your values, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It’s the culture wars. They’re right there with you in cultural terms, but in economic terms, which were all that really mattered to the populists, in economic terms, oh my God. They are on the side of the big guys.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, part of it is, and it’s modern politics in a way, the way in which you use language to frame and define your opponent. That’s what happened to the word populism, essentially.
Thomas Frank: Yes, it is. That is totally right. But I just want to reiterate that that’s only half of the story, and the other half is what I try to bring out in this new book of mine. And I hope that your listeners understand this and see what I’m talking about, which is the anti-populist tradition, the tradition that regards ordinary people with fear, and with a certain amount of hate. And that tradition is alive and well, and it never seems to change. It uses the same language today, as it always has. Only today it is usually in service of a different elite. It’s usually nowadays being used by the sort of center left who speak for your sort of professional managerial class today. Although Republicans will use it if you push them, of course. Donald Trump will go from talking about what a man of the people he is to, denouncing protestors at the drop of a hat. They’re all anti-populists, basically.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, I guess the larger frame is the way, looking historically, the way in which both culture and class have been used to almost co-opt politics and political rhetoric.
Thomas Frank: Yes. I think that’s right. I think that’s the whole point of the culture wars is to take a way of looking at the world that is grounded in economic reality, in hard reality, and to turn it into this question of taste and manners, and to sort of pretend to take umbrage at different things. I mean, this is how the culture wars have been going on and on and on. I mean, you know what drives me absolutely berserk is that we’ve turned the coronavirus epidemic into a culture war. We fight over that now. And it’s the dumbest thing in the world, if you’ll excuse me. I just, it burns me up. Can I talk about that a little bit?
Jeff Schechtman: Oh please, go ahead.
Thomas Frank: I’m back here in Bethesda, Maryland, but I just got, got back here from Kansas City. I was out there in Kansas City with my family, and there’s all of these people there, they’re having these red hot debates about whether or not cities and states and counties should require people to wear masks. So they think that masks are this imposition on human freedom in there. And then the Democrats in these places and often the moderate Republicans as well respond, “You’ve got to believe experts. You’ve got to do as the experts say.” And I look at these two sides and I’m like, “You are missing the point here, folks.” It’s not about personal freedom and experts, it’s about building a healthcare system that works for everybody. And experts have had, of course I wear, I do all the things that you’re, that you’re supposed to do. I like to stay healthy. I believe in health and long life, and I wear a mask, and I wash my hands, and I eat clean food, et cetera, et cetera. I’m a modern person. But experts have a lot to answer for, and our modern day debates just seem to leave this stuff out, leave out this whole side of the question as though it’s expertise versus personal freedom. And what we always forget is that experts are often wrong.
Thomas Frank: There’s this, there is no … we have all of these people studying and writing about populism and deploring it, what a dreadful thing it is, and they mean like the Le Pen family in France, or Jair Bolsanaro down in Brazil, and they hate it, and they deplore it. And they talk about how populism is anti-intellectual and it leads to people refusing to listen to experts and all that sort of thing. But what they never ever talk about is all the ways in which experts have failed. Experts fail again and again and again.
Thomas Frank: And you look at a president like Barack Obama who filled his … and by the way, I was very supportive of Barack Obama in the beginning, filled his cabinet with these geniuses, these, hell, he had the president of Harvard University as his chief economic advisor. All of these Ivy League guys, all of these guys with advanced degrees, all of these prize winners, and they proceeded to bail out Wall Street with no consequences. They gave us a healthcare, this version of a universal healthcare system that is totally just a baby step, a half measure. There was no great reform of the economic system, although the economic system badly needed it to happen. And the point that I’m trying to make is that at the end of the day experts act, or the professionals I should say, act as a … like any other group, they act as a class. They help one another out. They don’t like to be questioned. They make all kinds of mistakes. They get you into stupid wars. They report the news wrong. They make mistakes.
Jeff Schechtman: This is the best and the brightest. I mean, it’s the same idea.
Thomas Frank: Exactly. Vietnam. Yeah.
Jeff Schechtman: Right?
Thomas Frank: Yes.
Jeff Schechtman: And I don’t know if you’ve seen Robert Draper’s new book about the Iraq War. It’s a similar thing. There were a lot of smart people that just did incredibly stupid and dishonest things.
Thomas Frank: I have not seen that, but it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to understand that. And that’s sort of the, that is the great motif of the Democratic party, the party that people like me have to look to, we have to be all hopeful about, and this is the party of experts and expertise, but they absolutely refuse to look in the mirror. And instead they denounce populism, which is supposed to be this stupid, blundering, braying rejection of expert advice. Well, experts need to be rejected. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jeff. We need to look to question expertise now and again.
Jeff Schechtman: Thomas Frank. His new book is The People Know: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. Thomas, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Thomas Frank: I love talking to you. Our interviews, our conversations are always great.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, I appreciate it as well. Thank you so much for your time.
Thomas Frank: All right.
Jeff Schechtman: Take care. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

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