Scheer Intelligence: Don’t Believe Anything You Were Told About Populism
Above image: A portrait of Thomas Frank by Mr. Fish.
On this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” the journalist examines the history of American populism, and how it was distorted by Democrats and co-opted by Republicans.
The word “populism” gets a bad rap these days as corporate media warns of its alleged dangers and President Barack Obama goes so far as to blame Sarah Palin for its recent rise. But, according to Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and his new book, The People, No, a detailed account about the history of populism in the United States, true populism is a force for good, not evil. On this week’s installment of Scheer Intelligence, the journalist and historian joins Robert Scheer to discuss in-depth how the Democratic Party chose to quash populism, while the Republican Party decided to use its stripped-down ideals for its own nefarious means.
“Today you open up something like The Atlantic magazine and populism is [billed as] this dreadful phenomenon, this thing to be deplored,” begins Frank. “It’s paranoia, it’s anti-intellectualism, it’s all these appeals to bad motivations in humans. And of course it’s always defined as being Donald Trump–that’s populism.
“I’m here to say that that is not the case at all,” says the author. “That the correct definition of populism is a great thing, a hopeful thing. Populism is when ordinary people come together and work for economic democracy. That’s the definition of the word, and it’s something that we should be aspiring for, not something that we should be fearful of and try to stamp out.”
Reminding listeners of what became of the Populist Party or People’s Party, Frank goes on to trace populist roots through more recent American history, like the Civil Rights movement, and argues that many of the country’s current political troubles stem from a distortion of populism which bolstered the ruling elite by fragmenting the working class. He also puts to bed the misconception that populism is somehow anti-intellectual, pointing to the important tradition of pamphleteering that aimed to make texts by ancient philosophers but also left-wing thinkers accessible to all Americans. Listen to the full conversation between Frank and Scheer as they pinpoint the turning point that still defines American politics to this day.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, no question, I think maybe one of the top two or three political writers we have in this country now, Thomas Frank. Most famous–and I always blow the titles of books, but the–what is the Kansas book about, and the title?
TF: It’s called What’s the Matter with Kansas, and it’s about the sort of rise of the, you know, culture-war right.
RS: Yeah, and that’s the book that I think made you, clearly brought you to great prominence. And you’ve gone on with a number of books; I’m not going to go into all that now, because I want to hype, actually–let me use the word–I want to get people to read your current book. And let’s talk about it. The title itself is interesting; it’s The People, No. And as I understand it, it’s a play on a Carl Sandburg–for people who don’t remember Carl Sandburg, the people’s poet, when I was growing up he was the most famous popular poet, and he wrote The People, Yes. And he also was famous for a poem, Chicago, which again celebrated the strength of the populace. And he brought up the whole populist tradition in America, particularly the period just before the turn of the twentieth century, 1895 around, when populism was popular.
And so this is a book where you are basically in this fraught moment where Donald Trump, a pretend populist of the right, has been defeated, but almost 72 million Americans voted for him. And he’s been derided. And most recently, the word populism came into play in an interview with Barack Obama about his new book, A Promised Land, in which Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, used it derisively–again, once again this idea of populism. And in the account I saw, “Obama said the populist wave was ignited by Sarah Palin, whose rallies ‘hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.’”
So populism has been given a bad name. And your book is basically a celebration of what you think is really the most important strain in American democracy, the democratic experiment. Which is an anti-elitism which asserts that the common folk–farmers, workers, people who are not products of the elite school–actually should have their say, and they contain the basic font of wisdom. A kind of a Jeffersonian version, as opposed to a Hamilton one.
TF: That is exactly right. That is exactly–[Laughs] you are exactly right, Mr. Bob Scheer.
RS: Well, tell me about the book! The whole point is to get people to read the book, so please–
TF: Yeah. Well, let’s see, where should we start? You know, Carl Sandburg–yes, he wrote this great book-length poem in 1936 called The People, Yes, and it is a celebration of the way ordinary people talk, and the kind of work that they do, and the way they view the world, and all those sorts of things. But that was–that was a great decade for that kind of thing. They called him “the people’s poet,” as you mentioned. And I think of the 1930s as the decade of the common man; it was, that kind of symbolism and that kind of talk were everywhere in American culture and in American politics in those days. And it is funny how far we have gone from then. I mean, when I say in culture and politics, I mean in politics–Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, you know, in the economy; organized labor, this was their great decade in the arts. You know, you think about the WPA murals that are always showing ordinary working-class people from all different racial backgrounds engaged in some massive industrial project. Or you think of the movies of someone like Frank Capra, which are all about the genius of the common people. And how far we have gone from that–that today, you know, you open up something like The Atlantic magazine and populism is this dreadful phenomenon, this thing to be deplored. You know, it’s paranoia, it’s anti-intellectualism, it’s all these appeals to bad motivations in humans. And of course it’s always defined as being Donald Trump–you know, that’s populism.
And I’m here to say that that is not the case at all. That the correct definition of populism is a great thing, a hopeful thing. Populism is, you know, when ordinary people come together and work for economic democracy. That’s the definition of the word, and it’s something that we should be aspiring for, not something that we should be fearful of and try to stamp out.
RS: Let me just say something about that personally. I think that you have hit upon the most underappreciated factor of American life, which is about its liberation of individuals from the confinement of class. And the assumption–and yes, the founders were flawed in their vision; yes, there were a lot of contradictions, so white males and property owners benefited. But throughout–or, and others were excluded; I don’t want to minimize it in any way. But there was an assumption–I know it inspired me as a kid in the Bronx, with garment-worker parents working in factories; my father was a knitter mechanic, keeping knitting machines going and so forth. And I remember at that time being most inspired by Tom Paine, and the idea that this guy who’d come over from England and was working as a–what, I don’t know, a corseter’s apprentice or something–he had all these like kind of crummy jobs. But he could get someone who had a letterpress and publish a pamphlet, and that informed the whole revolution.
And I read about Tom Paine in a pamphlet that was designed for workers, and I was pleasantly surprised at the end of your marvelous book–and I say “marvelous” because it captures a reality I experienced as a kid. I was born in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a god in my family. And I remember thinking at that time, I wanted to–I was inspired by Tom Paine, that anybody could write, anybody could read, anybody could understand. And that wisdom came to me by somebody you celebrate at the end of your book, but you identify with the populist tradition: Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. And he published something that ended up being published in 500 million copies around the world–
TF: [Laughs] Yes.
RS: –and they were little blue books. The Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books. I bring it up because, you know, I just thought there was such a vitality to that. And I remember reading about Tom Paine, but I also remember reading about Plato. And the reason I bring it up is that the attack on populism is an attack on a really uninformed basis that assumes that it was anti-intellectual. That it was against thought, it was against ideas. No–it was against the idea that working people could not entertain deep thought and deep ideas. When I was a kid, my father gave me a pamphlet not only on Tom Paine, but he gave me one on Plato published by Halderman Julius and told me to read it when I was just a kid. And my father was a factory worker. So why don’t you bring up that sort of expectation, that ordinary people can have big ideas and be responsible, and the current meritocracy, the elitism. That to my mind is the power of your book: it is an attack on what has happened to liberalism, its abandonment of trade unions, of working people, and embrace of a technocratic elitism that dominates, really, the Democratic Party. And then as you point out in your book, on the Republican side they have a faux populism, and they now invoke images of populism and anti-elite power to justify basically the same crowd that the Democrats are justifying, which is big concentrated wealth on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, et cetera.
TF: Yes. Oh, my god, Bob Scheer, how am I ever going to–that is one hell of a question. [Laughs] But let’s talk about that–[overlapping voices]. Let’s just start, you know, Tom Paine–the greatest, one of the greats of the founding fathers. I just want to–I just want to, you know, I don’t really talk a whole lot about the founding fathers of this country in the book. But I do want to emphasize that there is something profoundly democratic about America, and has been since the very beginning, in a way that you don’t see in any other country in the world, or any other country that I am familiar with. And that, you know, even though of course in those days when they wrote the Declaration and the Constitution only a small, tiny minority of the population was even allowed to vote, slavery was legal and was practiced by a whole lot of these guys, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, someone like Tom Paine reminds us–and the things that he was saying in the 1770s remind us that the democratic impulse has been here all along, in that populist, pamphleteering tradition.
Now, the Populist Party was–I mean, the word was actually made up. Let’s talk for a second about where the word comes from. It was actually–you know, it’s not just a word that fell from the skies that we get to use however we want. The word was consciously invented by an American political movement in the 1890s. It was a classic farmer labor movement, with the emphasis on farmers. And it was, the word was made up–it’s close to my heart, because it was made up on a train traveling between Kansas City and Topeka, and I’m from Kansas City and I’ve spent a lot of time in my life in Topeka. [Laughs] And this is where the word was made up, and it was invented in 1891 to describe this farmer labor movement that was then coming up and starting to challenge the other two parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
This was–the Populist Party was the last great effort to launch a third party in this country. And it was, of course, supposed to be a left-wing party. And it was a left-wing party that was based not on, you know, having the president of Harvard University sit in your cabinet and tell everybody what to do, and having a whole lot of fancy technocrats here in Washington D.C. sort of twisting the dials. It was a party that was based on the idea that ordinary people understood their situation, and understood their predicament. And that ordinary people, you know, are the ones who are best placed to understand what’s going on in their country, because obviously it’s their business to understand that.
Populism was not anti-intellectual, regardless of what everybody says about–the way everybody uses the word today. But it did defy the orthodoxies of its age. The great orthodoxy of that time was, the great economic orthodoxy was the gold standard. You couldn’t–you know, how dare you question the gold standard, it could not be done. But populism did; populism dared to say, we should get off the gold standard and have a modern currency where the value is determined by the government rather than by the price of a precious metal. And the populists went against the, you know, Ivy League economists of their time when they said this. And yes, they were a bunch of cranks out on the prairie, but the joke is ultimately on the elites, because the populists were right about this stuff.
So let’s talk about the pamphlets for a second, if it’s OK with you, Bob. The populists loved pamphlets. They would set up these lending libraries of their sort of populist movement literature, which included all kinds of different left-wing authors and different thinkers. And it included people like Tom Paine. And one of the newspapers–populism was a movement of newspapers; every small town in the plains–by the way, this was true in California as well. Not so much in the Bronx, I don’t think. But all, you know, in big parts of the country, populist newspapers would challenge the sort of mainstream media of their day. And one of the most successful populist newspapers was called The Appeal to Reason. And it was published in a small town in Kansas called Girard, Kansas, and it later, when populism died, the newspaper went over to the Socialist Party and becamse this enormous socialist publishing operation. It’s not, you know, remembered much anymore, but it had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which is kind of extraordinary.
But anyhow, when socialism died, the publisher of the paper who was the guy you mentioned before, Haldeman-Julius, the publisher of this newspaper said well, what am I going to do? I’ve got this huge printing plant, I’ve got all these employees, I’ve got this great capacity. What am I going to do? And he hit on the idea of, you know, sort of going back to the populist pamphleteering, the populist mania for pamphlets, they loved pamphlets. And he started issuing pamphlets–he started out doing sort of classics of the left, but then he branched out and just did classics of world literature, classics of philosophy. You know, you mentioned Plato; he put out Goethe, he put out Schopenhauer, you know, in these pamphlets that cost five cents. And they were five cents apiece, so you would mail him a dollar to his headquarters in Girard, Kansas, tell him which ones you wanted, and he would send you 20 of these booklets, you know, in a box. And it was an incredible success; these pamphlets went all over the world–well, you know this, Bob. You were telling me earlier about how you read them when you were young.
RS: Let me just put a footnote on that, by the way. My family, my father was a German Protestant, it was a family of welders and machinists and so forth. And my mother’s family were also working in garment working, and were basically the working class, and they were from Lithuania and they were Jewish. And I was born in ’36, and it was, you know, fascism issues, and what Germany was going to do, Russia, and came to be unfortunately one of the great tragedies of human history. And yet on both sides of my family, they were progressive, they were enlightened, they were anti-fascist, including the German protestants, and a few Catholics in that group. And I think the library, the actual total library in both houses, were these Haldeman-Julius pamphlets.
RS: So here you had two ethnically different groups, I would go from one to the other, and the reading library–I mean, I only came to think a lot about it when I finished your book, because you have Haldeman-Julius at the end as a denial that populism means being anti-intellectual. Because my relatives–and it’s not true you didn’t have it in the Bronx, you say–
TF: No, no, I’m sorry, Bob, there’s two different things here. There’s the populist political movement in the 1890s, which caught on basically everywhere in the country except for the Northeast–
RS: Oh, but you still had many newspapers. Your point was people challenging the establishment. When I was growing up, of course 40 years later, in New York City, you had like 25 newspapers, and quite a few of them were on the left, and some were on the right. But there was no question that they were challenging the orthodoxies of the elite. And I want to get to that in a minute–
TF: Yes. And that’s–by the way, just let me interject, that’s populism. Not, like, you know, Sarah Palin peddling conspiracy theories or something like that, but what you just described. When you have all these different voices, and you have people trying to, you know, saying that–well, challenging the orthodoxies, and saying that knowledge cannot just be monopolized by higher education, it can’t just be monopolized by people that went to fancy schools. It has–this is a democracy, it has to be the property of everyone, and it has to be accessible to everyone. That’s what they were saying.
RS: Well, I want to get from that to a really provocative point in your book, not that the other isn’t. But the whole eradication of class of ordinary people, and this idea that somehow only through a certain kind of elite education and meritocracy will we get leadership. That becomes the big challenge. And it’s interesting, because in your book you mention Seymour Martin Lipset, a well-known sociologist. I happened to be a graduate student at Berkeley when he was a professor there, and some of us were really admirers of C. Wright Mills, who certainly introduced notions of class. But Seymour Martin Lipset, who had come out of this kind of left working-class background in New York City and so forth, was denying it now, and others. Meanwhile you had Michael Harrington and other great writers asserting it.
And one of the really interesting things in your book is your discussion of the Civil Rights Movement, and the role of labor and labor unions in making America a better place. And in fact you bring up this question of professional economists–well, the New Deal, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was basically attacked by most of the professional economists and the elite. And places like where I went to school, City College of New York, we didn’t respect Harvard. We knew they were a sellout for the elite, and we were going to get it straight, you know. And we had professors who would challenge that narrative, you know, and then some became neoconservatives and ended up betraying that tradition. But you have gotten hold of really the most important challenge of the democratic experiment: what is the role of the mass of people?
TF: Exactly. And–
RS: Deriding the mass of the people, the attack on the very idea of democracy, and surrendering it to the meritocracy, is the strength of your book. And I want people to read it, because in no place was that clearer than what happened with Barack Obama. That first of all, under Bill Clinton, you really had the shift of the Democratic Party. In the Republican Party, that was clear; they were for the plutocracy, they were for Wall Street. But it was Bill Clinton who ushered in the deregulation of Wall Street, and really created the basis for the great housing meltdown, the Great Recession. That’s one marker in it, and the whole argument was the smart people know what they’re doing. Lawrence Summers in congressional testimony attacking Broseley Borne, a member of the administration who really sounded the alarm about this deregulation, attacked her–they know what they’re doing, he was getting $6 million a year from Wall Street at one point as an advisor to the D.E. Shaw company and so forth. But the whole professionalism of the meritocracy, we’re going to select the best and the brightest, and then we’re going to get them to defend us, defend power and so forth. And with Barack Obama, you have the personification of that in that administration, because the bailout of Wall Street, the surrendering of Main Street, was really the theme of ’08. And so why don’t we talk a little bit about that, what you call the “historic inversion,” and how elitism came to define liberal and Democratic Party politics, and then this absurd parody of populism comes to define the Republican Party.
TF: Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly where we are today. You know, Bob, I’ve been talking about issues of economics and social class my whole career, and I have never felt less optimistic about my message getting through. Nowadays, people think there’s something wrong with you if you even talk about this; it’s not even like part of–you know, I live here in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. And one of the things–and I know you know what I’m talking about here–these yard signs that you see, that try to list all the liberal causes to be as comprehensive–you know, and to the people who live around me, it’s very natural that the affluent and highly educated would be the rank-and-file of liberalism. That makes perfect sense to them. You know, that’s what liberalism is; it is an appeal to the smartest, the most able, the best members of society.
And they have these yard signs that describe, that try to comprehensively give a little shoutout to all the different branches of what they take to be the liberal faith. And so it’ll say like, ah–these are all things I agree with, by the way–they’ll say things like, women’s rights are human rights; no human is illegal; you know, respect science or whatever, science is truth or something like that; water is life. Like a whole, all these different issues–but they never say anything about work. Or working-class people, or you know, like that every job should be a middle-class job. [Laughs] Or that the minimum wage should be $15, or you know, something like that. Or like everyone should have health care. They don’t mention these things. It’s as though that has been deleted from the liberal consciousness. And it’s just–it’s just natural and normal to liberals now that that’s not part of liberalism, that’s something else. That’s not part of the left. You know, the left is about being really, really moral, and being really, really good, and being really, highly educated, and knowing the most words. And you know, and knowing the science, and keeping everybody else out. That’s what liberalism is.
And when I try to explain to them–you know, this is why I had to write this book, by the [way]. Because populism, the populist tradition in America is the tradition of working-class politics. The Populist Party that I mentioned before, in the 1890s, was emphatically about working-class people, and taking a stand against industrialization and against plutocracy, you know, against the corruption and the concentration of wealth in the 1890s. That’s what they were all about, and that’s what–and you know this is true, Bob–as you look around, that’s what parties of the left all over the world used to be about. You know, respecting science? Sure. Of course. You know, water is life? I mean, yeah, we don’t like pollution. But to just delete what used to be essential, you know, to delete that part of the identity–to delete the populist aspect of the left is, that is where we are today. And I’m afraid that it is a recipe for disaster.
RS: Well, it’s not just a recipe for disaster, ultimately electorally and so forth, because you’re alienating–you know, there are still almost 72 million people who voted for Donald Trump, and if you think they’re all deplorables, the way Hillary Clinton described them, you’re dismissing half the–actually just, you know, Biden got supposedly the most votes anyone has ever gotten, Trump got the second most votes. But you know, what’s interesting about this is there’s a conceit that informs it that your book unmasks. And the assumption is the masses get it wrong, and therefore you have to have an elite, and yes, the elite should be drawn with the best and the brightest, from the masses as well as from the people of privilege. And there should be opportunity, a level playing field, and so forth, you know, and what have you. But that somehow excellence is what you want to reward. That’s the assumption of the meritocracy.
And what your book unmasks so clearly, and applies to the argument about populism, is actually the people who were derided unfairly as being anti-intellectual, which they weren’t–this is why I bring up the Haldeman-Julius pamphlets. There was a great emphasis on knowledge, on studying the experience of others, on getting informed. These people wanted more public education, they wanted more money spent on educating the working class, and so forth. But the conceit that somehow the elite, technological elite, professional elite, they get it right–well, they got it wrong about the populists, because the populists thought the gold standard was madness. And yet the economics profession thought it was absolutely necessary to stability. In fact, it was holding back spending money on things that needed to be spent. It was holding back on notions of fairness and equality and opportunity. And now, if you’re arguing for the gold standard, you’re Ron Paul or somebody, you know? [Laughter] You’re considered a nutcase. You know, and that’s what the populists did.
But I want to take this on, this meritocracy thing, because I think you’re dead right. First of all, I never have met any working person–and I certainly, coming from that kind of background, had my own share of jobs that I didn’t particularly like–who didn’t welcome technology. I worked in the Post Office for, you know, all through college, and every single working day, and that’s how I went to college. And boy, I tried to invent the ZIP codes. I was an engineering student by that point; I had all sorts of ideas of how you could make the–I’ve never met anybody working at a supermarket, working in a factory, who didn’t think–my own father loved machinery. You know, he was a machinist, and he loved figuring out better ways to produce things so you didn’t have to use labor. Labor has never been against technology; what they’re against is technology that replaces their value. And if it replaces their value, there ought to be a method of compensation.
That’s really the issue in all of these trade agreements. You know, send the jobs elsewhere, but don’t send it because those people are working for next to nothing. And one of the ironies, by the way, is in Donald Trump’s rewrite of NAFTA there’s actually for the first time some protection of labor. And if you’re in Mexico and you’re assembling cars, 45% of the workers have to be paid 16 bucks an hour. It’s not enough, you know, but it’s a start. And the irony is these trade agreements did not factor in environmental protection, but then factored in working protection. We now are using all these gadgets from China, we’re thrilled, Chinese production is back on track, Apple could come out with one line after another, very successful. And as your book mentions, really, no one cares about what are we paying workers in the Apple plants. What right do they have–and you mentioned about those lawn signs. Why aren’t there–you even gave me an example in your book from a young woman in school, everybody’s talking about what’s important and she holds up labor. Why isn’t there a demand now, instead of pushing around China because they’re going to steal our secrets through TikTok or something, when we have led the world in surveillance technology, of course. Why is there no demand that China meet our minimum wage? Or that they have a decent standard of pay, or that their workers have the right to form unions? You know, that doesn’t even come up, that’s not even considered a human right internationally, that you have the right to organize into a union or free speech to defend workers’ rights, or the right to a minimum wage.
You know, and I think that is the power of your book. You cut through this basic conceit that the elite first of all gets it right–they don’t get it right. But David Halberstam had the best title of a book about Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. And the elite there–it was Robert McNamara, as you mentioned in your book, who brought in this whole idea of the professional, technocratic class. Well, his best and the brightest got it all wrong. You know, and they got it all wrong about banking deregulation under Clinton, and they got it all wrong about how to save the economy in the Great Recession under Obama, because they went to Wall Street. The great revelation of Julian Assange, who’s now sitting in prison in England waiting for extradition–maybe the Democrats will finally get their hands on him–was what Hillary Clinton told Goldman Sachs: I have to go back to Washington to fix these problems, and I need the smart people in this room to go with me. That was the whole argument. You know, so I think the conceit, (a), that the best and the brightest actually get it right is not true. You know, we’ve had one disastrous error after another. And the other is that somehow empowering ordinary people means a loss of quality and smartness and accountability, when just the opposite is the case. In your book you point out example after example. So give us some of those examples.
TF: OK. So, wow. [Laughs] This is a huge subject, this is the subject of the book, and it’s hard to put it all in one, you know–
RS: Take your time, we can go longer, and at least one–you mentioned that NPR and PBS, they don’t have you back, and television doesn’t have you back–
TF: Yeah, they’re not interested anymore, yeah.
RS: At least for this week, I can’t guarantee it’ll go on forever–
TF: [Laughs] OK.
RS: –but I will go as long as you want to tell us about–
TF: OK. So–
RS: I think it’s a really important book, and it will be on KCRW, the NPR station that’s one of the most famous in the country, and it will be picked up elsewhere.
TF: OK, fantastic.
RS: So you have a megaphone right now.
TF: All right, here I go. So I mentioned what populism actually was. And so your listeners are probably saying, well, how did the word get flipped? How did it come to mean, remember that quote that you gave at the very start of the show–how did it come to mean paranoid, racist, you know, anti-intellectual? How did it come to mean that? And the answer is that in the 1950s, there was a sort of generation of scholars. You mentioned Seymour Martin Lipset. He was one of them. They were, this was the consensus school of intellectuals. And these guys, some of them had, like Lipset, had been involved with organized labor. But as a group they became immensely suspicious of working-class movements–for a lot of different reasons; bad reasons, basically. Like they were, you know, they decided that McCarthyism was a working-class movement, which it was not. But they became really frightened by the prospect of mass movements of working-class people, and they decided that mass movements of working-class people were by their nature authoritarian, anti-intellectual, demagogic, you know, foolish; they did everything wrong, racist, xenophobic, you know, right down the line. And the word that they started to use to describe these mass movements was populism. Now, this was–the reason they started doing that was because of a famous work of history that came out in the 1950s that said that’s what the populist movement was in the 1890s. That work of history turned out to be completely wrong. It was debunked by other historians; it’s a very famous story if you go to graduate school and study American history. This, you know, this guy famously got populism exactly wrong. But–
RS: Well, mention it, it’s Richard Hofstadter–
TF: It’s Richard Hofstadter, yeah, the most famous historian of that period. But his redefinition of the word, and the way that he turned the word into a generic meaning–meaning, you know, mass movements of working-class people that are xenophobic, anti-intellectual, et cetera–that caught on. And so people like Seymour Lipset were using it, Daniel Bell was using it, Edward Shils was using it. And their argument was that all movements of working-class people, all mass movements of working-class people were similarly dangerous. You know, even when they said they weren’t dangerous. Like you take something like organized labor in the 1950s, which said it was antiracist, and said that it was very civically minded–and in fact it was. [Laughs] But they said no, even though they say that, and even though they are that, we can do these personality studies of their members and discover that in fact they harbor these really ugly sentiments, and in fact they’re guilty of all these terrible things. Even though they say they aren’t, and in fact they really aren’t, we can still say that they are.
And this is Lipset’s famous essay, the–what is it called–I’ve actually got a copy of it right here, I’m going to look it up, I’m going to flip it open to that chapter, and it was called “Working-Class Authoritarianism.” That was the argument. Working-class authoritarianism, basically that’s what working-class politics always is. And that’s a really pessimistic way to think about we the people. You know, in this country that had this great tradition, this Tom Paine tradition, this Haldeman-Julius tradition of believing in the intelligence of the common man–all of a sudden we’re saying, no, these people are dangerous, they’re puppets in the hands of a slick demagogue, they’re authoritarian. And what do they, why do they say this, why did this catch on? Why is this such a powerful idea? Because it was also flattering to a different group of people. It was insulting to, you know, ordinary Americans, but it was very flattering to a different group. And that group was, of course, the sort of managerial class, the professional class; it was just then starting to feel its power in American life.
You mentioned Robert McNamara; he was kind of the poster boy for this class, he was the great genius behind the Ford Motor Company. They put him in charge of the Pentagon. He could run the Vietnam War with a big computer. He could deliver victory over communism without, you know–all through his mastery of these amazing managerial techniques of the 1950s and 1960s. And similarly, the argument was that managerialism could deliver prosperity; it could deliver–well, it could deliver whatever you chose, as long as you put people like Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, Lipset, you know, this generation of intellectuals–you had to put them in charge. Once they were in charge in Washington, once you had experts and leaders and lobbyists and people with PhDs and people with MBAs sitting around the big mahogany table in Washington, D.C., then you’d get results. Then you’d get reform. Then you’d get social progress.
So the idea was that populism, this appeal to the masses, this appeal to the common man, this appeal to the working class–you couldn’t do that anymore. If you wanted progress, if you wanted reform, if you wanted to win the war against communism, you couldn’t do that anymore. You had to put the managerial class in charge. And so it is the meritocratic class, the people who scored well on the SATs, the people who understood how the world worked–they had to run things, not mass movements of working-class people. And just to put the message of–you know, that’s the attitude and the philosophy that dominates the Democratic Party today. That’s the attitude and the philosophy that gave us the Vietnam War, that gave us the housing bubble, and that gave us the financial crisis, and that gave us the Wall Street bailouts, et cetera, and gave us the opioid epidemic. You know, those pills didn’t prescribe themselves. [Laughs]
And so the message of my book is that this philosophy is entirely upside-down. It’s entirely backwards, and it’s entirely wrong. And the real genius of America still resides in the hearts of ordinary people. The rank-and-file, the common man. And you know, government by geniuses, they always wind up doing–they act as a class, Robert. You know this. They act as a class. They help each other out, they get each other off the hook when they get in trouble, they bail one another out. You know, they make sure that their colleagues never face any consequences. And they also endlessly tune out the voices of the common people. Always. So that’s the whole nature of professional economics, that they don’t have to listen to voices from outside their profession. That’s the nature of political science; they don’t have to listen to you. You know, they only have to listen to one another.
And this is a philosophy of government, and a philosophy for running a society, that is so profoundly misguided. And nevertheless, that is–my word for it is anti-populism. And yet that anti-populism is precisely what is, you know, the dominant philosophy in the Democratic Party today, the party that you and I, Bob, have spent our lives supporting and cheering for. OK, I have, anyways. I know you hate it when I say things like that, I’m sorry.
RS: You hate it? No, I don’t hate it. It’s true, I have voted for the lesser evil–[Laughs]
TF: I know.
RS: All of my life. But let me, I want to make a point about this, because again, listeners–OK, we’ve had this big menace of Donald Trump, and thank god, you know, Joe Biden is now president. And hopefully, you know, he’ll do a better job. If not for the pandemic, by the way, I think Donald Trump would have been reelected, probably by a big majority.
TF: Yes, I think that’s probably right, yeah.
RS: You know, he didn’t get us into any new wars, and he actually, the economy seemed to help a large swath of people, certainly better than his predecessor’s in many ways. But having said that, I think the real problem here is recognizing that this class of the elite, some of them become very rich. Some of them make a lot of money. But the main group that they benefit are coupon-clippers, the very same people that the populists were attacking. People who happen to have a lot of wealth, and can parlay that wealth into a lot of income. And that’s what happened with–Bill Clinton is a very good example. I remember interviewing him when he was still governor of Arkansas, and on the eve of his winning the nomination. And I met his mother, I met a lot of people around him. And the fact is, Bill Clinton had a sense of what it was like to be poor and white in Arkansas, a very poor state. And the ticket into the meritocracy–the same for Obama, who had some reality in his life, having a father from Africa. Who, ironically, I spoke at an anti-war thing where his father–
RS: –evidently spoke at, according to some clippings that I found in Honolulu.
TF: That’s amazing! [Laughs]
RS: But the key to the meritocracy is to abandon the people you grew up with, and to abandon what you observed. And so Bill Clinton, just like Ronald Reagan–after all, you mentioned WPA; his father worked for the Works Progress Administration under Roosevelt. And Ronald Reagan in his own autobiography, [Where’s the Rest of Me?] or whatever it was, said you know, without the New Deal–Roosevelt was a god in his house–without the New Deal, they would have starved. OK, which was true in my household. But the trick to the meritocracy is to forget where you came from. And what Bill Clinton did is he embraced the monied elite, the very people who had left Arkansas such a mess. And he ended the main federal poverty program, the very thing Martin Luther King was fighting for, which was helping not just people of color, but of any color. Bill Clinton, who knew what it was like to be poor, presided over the end to the–
TF: AFDC, yes he did.
RS: Aid to Families with Dependent Children; 70% of the beneficiaries were children, a significant number were people of color; he ended it. He empowered the banks through deregulation, and let them go do their business. So the problem with the intellectual elite is that they get these handouts from the foundations and the big money, but they also serve the interests of the most powerful. And one of the poignant examinations in your book–and maybe we’ll wrap it up with that–is the idea that somehow populism was at its heart racist, was anti-feminist, all of these things that’s hurled against it. In your book you document how in fact the situation of women, because of the war and women going into the workforce, was very much advanced by labor. And so is the condition of people of color, particularly by the development of the CIO, as against the old trade-union basis of the AFL. And that you point out that the heart, really, of Martin Luther King and of the Civil Rights Movement were people like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph. In your book you say A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Sleeping Car Porters union, was the most important visible civil rights figure before Martin Luther King. It was Bayard Rustin who basically organized the March on Washington. They came out of the labor movement. And that the labor movement, you had for instance the longshore on the West Coast, they had Ford Local 600 under a guy named Carl Stellato. These were the first big unions that opened up to people of color. And at a time when the U.S. military was segregated during World War I, Black workers were being welcomed into mass industrial unions, the United Electrical Workers, and so forth.
So this whole idea that organized labor, that the labor movement in this country only favored privileged, white workers, and was racist, is a total distortion of history. The labor movement was the main agency for ending segregation in work opportunity well before we had the recognized Civil Rights Movement. And Martin Luther King, who you deal with very seriously in your book, was the first person, would be the first to acknowledge that. And after all, he died defending janitors in Memphis, Tennessee, in a labor dispute in which the workers were Black. So why don’t we discuss that, because the cheapest argument against populism, progressive populism, is to accuse it of an inherent racism and misogyny and whatever. Those are always thrown up against it as a convenient way of smearing it.
TF: Well, that’s–I’m really glad you asked me this question. Look, you know, we’ll talk about two things. The populist movement in the 1890s, the Populist Party, and the populist tradition, sort of the, you know, what I call the populist tradition, organized labor and things like that. The Populist Party in the 1890s was the only party, of the three big parties at the time, it was the only one that had women in leadership positions. And it was the only one that endorsed women’s suffrage. The other, you know, the Republicans and Democrats did not. It would be truly bizarre to think that this was a misogynist undertaking. So in Kansas in particular, Kansas was populism’s biggest state; it’s kind of hard to believe, but it was true. In Kansas, populism was very closely identified with the adventures of this woman named Mary Elizabeth Leese, who would travel around the state giving speeches, and it was regarded as pretty racy at the time. What she would say is, “You farmers need to raise less corn and more hell.” [Laughs] This was supposed to be shocking. Populism actually secured women’s suffrage in two states, in Colorado and Idaho. This was, what, 30 years before women got the vote nationally. So they were way ahead of the curve on that one.
And they were also–I mean, in my opinion, significantly less racist than the other two parties of their day. In fact, they did something really interesting in the Southern states. Populism had a lot of appeal in the South because it was, you know, obviously a region of farmers and agricultural workers. And populism had a–there was a Black wing of the movement. The historians refer to it as, refer to this group as the Black Populists. And so they, you know, what they tried at the time–this was in the 1890s in the South–in a lot of the Southern states, Blacks could still vote; they hadn’t been disenfranchised yet. But the sort of white rulers of the South kept a lid on the situation, and kept themselves in power by manipulating racist sentiment. And the term that was used for this at the time was “white solidarity.” The idea being that your interests as white people–
RS: And this is the Democratic Party.
TF: Yeah, I’m sorry, this is the Democratic Party in the South, yep. And the–
RS: It was totally dominant, totally dominant.
TF: Absolutely dominant, yep. And it was a one-party region, and they had a doctrine called white solidarity. The idea was that your interests as a white person–they would go to, you know, this is, again, a region where farmers are overwhelmingly the majority of the population. They’re also extremely poor, and they’re getting poorer, and it’s getting worse all the time. And they would say to these people, your interests as white people are, you know, outweigh your interests as farmers, your interests as someone who’s watching their way of life get destroyed, et cetera, et cetera. So you have to keep voting for the Democratic Party. You have to put your economic interests aside and you have to keep voting for the Democratic Party. That was what the Democrats said. The populists came in with a really novel proposal, which was that your interests as farmers, as working-class people, are actually more important than your interests as white people, and so therefore you white farmers should get together with Black farmers and vote for the Populist Party instead, and we’ll get some measures enacted to–you know, we will do something to help farmers out, to help you people out.
Now, this is not to–I don’t want to exaggerate this–this does not mean that they were like racially enlightened in the way we are today, or that they were antiracist in the way that we are today. But by the standards of the 1890s, to go out there in the South and say this was extremely radical, and extremely threatening to the social order of the time. And you can imagine how that played out: the sort of masters of the South, the democratic ruling class of the South, came down on the populists like a ton of bricks. And there were, you know, gunfights and gangs; armed gangs would go around intimidating people. You know, people would shoot each other all the time. And it was, they basically, they defeated populism. And so to miss–I mean, it’s a long story, and it’s an awful story, what happened to the populist movement. But basically, to misunderstand that and think that the populists are the bad guys in that situation is just, it blows my mind that anybody could misread history that badly.
And then, you know, you take the populist tradition; what you just said about the CIO, you know, this was the great labor-organizing campaign of the 1930s, and their idea was that they were going to organize everyone. The AFL had only organized craftworkers, or highly skilled people in certain trades. And yes, a lot of the AFL unions were racist. But the CIO said, no; we are going to organize everybody, that is the only way to do this thing. And they were, I mean, if you put aside things like the NAACP, the CIO and their unions, this is the great antiracist force of the 1930s. You know, and they talked about it all the time. It’s in their literature, it’s in their propaganda, it’s in their speeches, it’s everywhere you go. This is what they were about. You know, and it’s funny, I talk to audiences–well, I don’t talk to too many audiences these days, because of COVID. But I talk to people about this all the time, and they can’t get their heads around the idea that organized labor was antiracist. This is just, it’s almost impossible for them to understand, because they equate the white working class with Trumpism.