April 2009

If there was ever a time for pitchfork populism, it’s right now. Unemployment is past 8% and still rising, and most people have seen a third to half of their retirement money disappear, and this was all the result of multimillionaires’ financial machinations. But so far we haven’t seen much public rage.

Partly this may be because, so far, only the unemployed and the people who know them have directly experienced the problem. Certainly it’s in large part because the media and both political parties are so close the malefactors that they don’t want the electorate  to figure things out. This is the result of twenty years of bipartisan deregulation, freemarketism, and financial utopianism, and the culprits obviously don’t want us to think about it.

Someone is going to be blamed, and the Republicans have figured out who: Clinton and Obama. But the Democrats are staying above the battle and refuse to “play the blame game”. This responsible, patrician, professional approach hasn’t worked for the Democrats for thirty or forty years, not even during normal times, and it’s certainly not going to work now. But the Democrats don’t realize this, and they’re so committed to their cool, professionalism that are unlikely to be able to deal with the politics of the impending disaster at all.

It’s only in the last decade or so that I’ve learned how absolutely anti-populist the Democratic Party is. At all levels within the party, from the leaders  down to the up-and-coming young pros, populism is identified with racism, bigotry, ignorance, conspiracy theorists, lynch mobs, and the like. (The pros also claim that populism loses elections, though considering their own knack for losing elections I don’t know why anyone should listen to them about that.) The result is that, by now, populist rage is — rather improbably, if you think of Phil Gramm, for example —  a Republican monopoly.

As I’ve said many times, Republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real. So that’s my problem: figuring out how the “party of the common man” became elitist. *1


Between 1870 to 1932, the Democratic Party was no further left or more liberal than the Republican Party, and it was often more conservative. Even after 1932, many Democratic regulars opposed Roosevelt — Al Smith, the Democratic Presidential presidential candidate in 1928, campaigned for the Republican candidate in 1936 and 1940. The two parties were sectionally and ethnically defined  (basically Northern Protestant Republicans versus Northern Catholic and Southern Protestant Democrats), and both of them  were totally controlled by finance, manufacturing, and monopolies like the railroads. There were a few token issues they consistently disagreed on (prohibition and tariffs), and members of the establishment would play one party against the other for specific purposes, but labor and poor farmers in general (altogether as much as 70% of the population) had no advocate in  government. In effect, that meant that the Eastern middle and upper classes ran the show: the rest were divided by ethnicity and geography and received no reward for their party loyalty.

The two parties were interest groups in their own right and were completely non-ideological. Party pros delivered votes to the party’s candidates and were rewarded with plum government jobs which they used to enrich themselves and buy more votes. Government resources were delivered selectively to loyal voting blocs, and during elections the big policy questions were often not a concern at all. Of course, once they were in office and it was time to govern, politicians did deal with the serious questions: they delivered big favors to the business concerns who lined their pockets.

As a result, between 1860 and 1940 most of the creative political work was done by third parties and extra-party pressure groups: the Farmer’s Alliance, the Greenbackers, the Populists, the LaFollette Progressives, the Farmer-Laborites, the Nonpartisan Leaguers, the Farmers’ Holiday, the Knights of Labor, the AFL, the CIO, the Socialists, the Communists, the Trotskyists, and so on. There were dozens of these groups — some of them existing only on paper or during one election in one state, some of them with millions of members, and some enduring for a decade or more. Sometimes they ran their own candidates, sometimes they took over one of the major parties via the primary system, and sometimes they cut a deal and supported a friendly major party candidate – e.g., William Jennings Bryan (a Democrat). Groups of this type were the first to call for many things we now take for granted: women’s suffrage, the secret ballot, open primaries, the graduated income tax, social security, minimum wage, the eight-hour day, unemployment insurance, trust-busting, the regulation of business, and paper money. (The Greenbackers, often thought of as rustic lunatics, pioneered monetarist economics). The most progressive Republicans and Democrats during that era — Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and the unsuccessful Bryan — stole third party ideas when their parties were under pressure from the left.

The difference between then and now is that we don’t have any third parties any more. The two parties have professionalized and are no longer dependent on graft in the strict sense of the word, but the party pros are still non-ideological mercenaries chasing after the dollar. The dollar they’re chasing is overwhelmingly corporate, and the parties themselves have converged on pro-business, pro-war centrism.  Campaigning tends toward peripheral wedge issues and “baffle them with bullshit” rhetoric, exactly as it did in the past — except that the Southern Democrats and the Eastern Republicans have switched places, Tweedledum-Tweedledee style.

In short, it’s just as it was during Boss Tweed’s era. The Democratic pros are against populism and radicalism because they would interfere with their influence-peddling. They get more money losing a centrist campaign than they would winning a populist or radical campaign.


The New Deal was divided by Pearl Harbor into two parts: the liberal, quasi-left, quasi-populist period before the war, and the military, technocratic, managerial period during the war. During the first period Roosevelt relied heavily on third parties, left-wing groups, and populist extra-party movements to help him ram his domestic program past Republicans, conservative Southern Democrats, and machine Democrats. Politics was turbulent, frightening, and uncontrolled in that era, with many Communist and near-fascist groups active, but more was accomplished than could have been during a more orderly period. As WWII approached, however, many progressives,  populists, and leftists (but after June 22, 1941, not Communists) stuck to their neutralism  and resisted and opposed the war, and some of the populists (following Gerald L.K. Smith and Father Coughlin) veered off in a fascist direction.*2

Pearl Harbor changed everything. Most of the anti-war voices fell silent, voluntarily or otherwise, and those who didn’t were marginalized. Roosevelt had a much freer hand than he had had during peacetime, and ironically, the Keynesian spending he had not always been able to do during peacetime became possible during the war. Roosevelt had always had a “Brain Trust”, but during the war it was no longer balanced by popular movements, and government relied increasingly heavily on university expertise in a wide variety of areas. Both government and the university were massively transformed by this: government became more technocratic, and the university became more bureaucratic, more administrative, and more involved in government policy. These transformations worked strongly against populism and popular politics generally; increasingly electoral politics became a separate technical specialty separated from governance called “engineering consent”: “Why should anyone care what an orthodontist thinks about foreign policy?”

With the professionalization of Democratic politics, the Democratic Party is now staffed mostly by freshly-scrubbed Ivy-Leaguers of various ages. One problem with this, which I will not go into in detail here, is that people of that sort lack street smarts and initiative and have several times succeeded in throwing elections to the Republicans despite general popular support for the Democrats on the issues. (Karl Rove had one year of undergrad education at a second-rank school, but he kept on winning). But the main problem is that persons of that sort are incapable of empathizing with commoners in a non-condescending way — even if they went to Harvard from a plebian background, they spent at least four years of their lives, and often as many as ten, forgetting their past and learning to present themselves successfully in elite circles. Professionals are successes and have organized their whole lives around success, and by their standards most voters are losers. (This is also a problem in areas like medicine, education, and counseling.)

In 1936 Roosevelt was strongly neutralist and refused to aid the Spanish Republic. As WWII approached, Roosevelt increasingly tilted toward war, but before Pearl Harbor he was held back by strong neutralist sentiment. On December 7, 1941 our entry into the war (in alliance with Stalin, and with the full support of American Communists) became inevitable.

Within three years of the end of the war, the four-decade-long Cold War (and our alliance with fascist Spain) began, and in another two years we were in a hot war in Korea. But during the war a certain proportion of Americans had developed a degree of sympathy with our Soviet and Chinese Communist allies,  including many who had worked directly with them, and not all of them were nimble enough to switch allegiances in a hurry. Considering our three-year alliance, McCarthy’s claim that our government was infested with Communist sympathizers could hardly have been completely false.

The about-face had a double effect. On the one hand, everyone who had supported WWII reluctantly felt vindicated, but at the same time furious and demoralized: it’s hard to motivate ordinary people to give the last full measure of devotion in the service of a strategic alliance. On the other hand, the technocrats running the government had an additional reason to be wary of popular politics: managing the twists and turns of great-power  foreign policy requires a lot of cynicism, and it’s risky and difficult to have to deal with public opinion every step of the way. The anti-popular theory of democracy had always been strong (e.g., with Walter Lippmann), and it became increasingly dominant within the Democratic Party. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate even though he had already made up his mind to go to war in Vietnam, and four years later the Democratic Party and Hubert Humphrey immolated themselves in support of that war. (Judging by the response to Bush’s Iraq War, “Support All Wars” seems to have become the Democratic conventional wisdom.)

Orwell’s 1984 is usually read as an anti-Communist tract, but it also portrays the demoralizing effect of a heavily propagandized, aggressive, cynical foreign policy.


If you ask well-educated Americans about Populism, unless they are American history specialists what you’ll get is regurgitated Hofstadter. The Populists are usually thought of  as  angry, ignorant anti-intellectual, sometimes-murderous rural white racists and anti-Semites who were living in the past and who reacted with blind rage to a world which they didn’t understand. Tom Watson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Gerald L. K. Smith, Father Coughlin, George Wallace, and other undersirables are thought to be characteristic Populists. Very few contemporaries are even aware that much of the New Deal simply put into effect 50-year-old Populist proposals, or that much of the support for the early New Deal came from populist groups, or that Roosevelt’s administration would have been much more conservative (and less successful)  if it had not been for populist and leftist pressure from outside the Democratic Party.

Hofstadter’s criticisms of the populists were not really about the populists at all; they were motivated by issues nearer to him in time. For him Joe McCarthy was the representative populist — quite a doubtful judgment considering that McCarthy was a conservative Republican who appealed to a non-populist demographic and  became Senator by defeating an actual progressive / populist.  Hofstadter took McCarthy’s antisemitism to be evidence of populism, but in America antisemitism was found in all classes, but above all in McCarthy’s Republican Party.*4 Similarly, while the Populists did have a mixed and in a few cases horrible record on civil rights in the South, Democrats of Hofstadter’s era were hardly in a position to point fingers at them. The refusal of many populists and progressives to support WWII has to have been another of Hofstadter’s motivations, though this does not jibe at all with Hofstadter’s accusation that the populists were militarists.

Hofstadter was a “consensus historian” who wanted to minimize conflict, both analytically in history and in the reality of his own time, and he was a strong advocate of the continuation of the post-ideological, post-popular, non-adversarial, technocratic rule by experts that had been developed during WWII. There was no place in this consensus for popular movements, whether progressive, populist, or leftist, so Hofstadter could not possibly write affirmatively about past American movements of that type. His view of populism quickly became dominant within the Democratic Party, and after the 1988 election it became stranglingly so,  as it remains to this day.*5


Less than a decade after Hofstadter’s book was published, the Democratic Party was faced with three more or less populist mass movements, and as a result it was crippled for a generation. The first was the civil rights movement, which is not usually counted as populist, but was:  religious, bottom-up, mass involvement, outside the parties. (The Kennedy Administration supported the civil rights movement only very reluctantly, though in the end their support and LBJ’s was substantial and meaningful). The second was the anti-Vietnam War movement, which also was atypical in membership even though it was populist in organization. The third was George Wallace’s racist presidential run with the American Independent Party in 1968. And the combination of the three (two of them in conflict with the other) was deadly.

What are the lessons of 1968? It might merely be the fatalistic one that in America, race ruins everything: this was the story of the original Populist party, or at least a big part of the story. Another might be that war politics trumps domestic politics, and also tends to ruin things: both WWI and WWII destroyed a lot of popular movements. (I still wonder what would have happened if LBJ hadn’t listened to the generals in 1964 —  and according to report, so did LBJ). But by and large the lesson the Democrats took from those events was Hofstadter’s: popular movements are just no damn good. And by this they delivered populism permanently to the Republicans.


At this point I have to ask myself: Is my interest in populism just nostalgia? Even if you count late movements like the LaFollette Progressives and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, populism was dead before I was born. In 1930 or 1940 the average American was dirt poor, whereas Ruy Texeira and others have concluded that the contemporary “poor” demographic is relatively small and  hard to mobilize.  Furthermore, a high proportion of middling Americans have decided — actively or passively, explicitly or tacitly, for better or worse — that they’re in on the game, and that they shouldn’t rock the big-money boat. (America has been economically successful enough to produce a demographically significant group that thinks of itself as “elite”).

All I can say is that that is going to change. High finance has done its work, and we’ll be paying the costs of their financial collapse for a decade or more. Right now, except for the unemployed and their families, we’re still just talking about numbers on paper rather than personal disasters: 30-50% declines in net worth, trillions of dollars slopped out to the malefactors who caused the problem, and so on. As the years pass we’ll increasingly feel the effects in our daily lives.

Someone is sure to demagogue this issue — certainly someone should — and the brain-dead party of Phil Gramm has already started. Rationally and objectively the Democrats are in a slightly better position than the Republicans to go on the offensive, but none of them seem capable of it. They’ve spent the last fifty or sixty years deliberately destroying their populist and radical wings, and now they’re going into battle with no weapons except slogans, good feelings, claims of competence, lesser-evil policies, and pleas for bipartisanship.

Hopefully, if they can’t or won’t do the job, a third party will. And maybe this is just as much of a hopeless dream as is the revival of the Democratic Party, but without these fantasies, America is a fantasy too.

(Notes Below at the “More”)



The below has been edited entirely by deletion, mostly by the removal of sections  (e.g.,  on Free Silver) which are not relevant today and which seem unlikely to become relevant in the future.

[Note: If you think the below is irrelevant at this point in time, you should still check back in again every year or two.]

Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized.The newspapers are largely subsidized, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into [“European” = terrible] conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bondholders; a vast public debt payable in legal tender currency has been funded into bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people. A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it the establishment of an absolute despotism.

We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.

While our sympathies as a party of reform are naturally upon the side of every proposition which will tend to make men intelligent, virtuous, and temperate, we nevertheless regard these questions, important as they are, as secondary to the great issues now pressing for solution, and upon which not only our individual prosperity but the very existence of free institutions depend; and we ask all men to first help us to determine whether we are to have a republic to administer before we differ as to the conditions upon which it is to be administered, believing that the forces of reform this day organized will never cease to move forward until every wrong is remedied and equal rights and equal privileges securely established for all the men and women of this country.

Preamble to the 1892 Omaha Platform of the Populist Party

I have no idea, and don’t really care, and doubt that it’s a major question even for North Dakotans. Probably relatively few; my guess is that North Dakotans still have a peasant terror of debt and flee from avant-garde finance schemes.

I just wanted to get the headline up on Google. I really, really hate to see good headlines wasted the way “Di Dies” was wasted. Or the way “Stick a fork in him, he’s done” is wasted when someone (especially an athlete) succumbs to sunstroke.

They’re there to use, folks!