“Everyone is talking about Populism, and no one knows what it is”
Ernest Gellner, Populism: It’s Meaning and National Characteristics, ed. Gellner and Ionescu, 1969

I have mostly retired from the debate about Populism / populism — partly from overall political discouragement and partly from having learned that it is not fruitful to talk to certain sorts of people. However, Eric Rauchway’s response to Jeet Heer’s rather nice article in the New Republic got me started again. AlaRauchway’s squib is not his best work, but his confidence in putting it out there so quickly is presumably an index of the depth of his conviction, which is also the unthought belief of a major Democratic demographic — the wonks.

For the alleged misunderstanding of Trumpism as “populism,” Heer blames the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the middle 1950s explained he was interested in “that side of Populism” that sounded to Hofstadter a lot like McCarthyism. Hofstadter was right: there was a side of Populism, and not a trivial side, that sounded like McCarthyism—and Trumpism too.

A fluent writer, like Rauchway, Hofstadter succeeded in making it seem that the Populists were McCarthyists, while also making it seem that McCarthy was a Nazi.

The party was strongest in the West, where white people went to farm land taken from the Indians….

Some people I know do think that for this reason, no American political movement has ever had any legitimacy at all, but I am surprised — nay, astonished! — to find that Rauchway is one of them.

I am not trying to say that the Populists were fascists. But they were aggrieved white folks who thought they were entitled to something that they then did not get.

And indeed, most Populists (like most Democrats, Republicans, and Socialists) were white. (Though some were black). Privilege!

…. land taken from the Indians, which the US government gave white people for free, which was supposed to be well served by railroad lines subsidized by the US government… and which turned out to be full of wolves, locusts, and monopolists, and not nearly full enough of rainfall. Loans the settlers had taken, to improve the land or efficiently to plow it, became burdensome in bad years. As the railroads consolidated, the cost of shipping products out of the prairies soared. Promised an Eden and delivered a desert, the pioneers rebelled. They blamed railroad monopolies, international capitalists (not always a code for Jews), and international labor, or immigrants.

None of this was imaginary or frivolous IRL, though Rauchway’s summary of it is. The Populists made specific, intelligible political claims of the type that most political movements make, and they were able to back them up with arguments and facts. They objected to 1.) a deflating dollar which helped keep them in debt 2.) rail monopolies overcharging for freight 3.) milling and jobbing monopolies which kept them from doing well even in good years and 4.) a tariff structure favoring manufacturing over agriculture. And while the farm Populists were often landowners, a lot of them were very poor, and there were many labor Populists (or farmer / labor Populists who alternated by season) who were propertyless.

There is real argument against the Populists, and I will state it here. The case that can be made that things happened just as they should have, and that the farmers and workers had the bad luck to be the fall guys. Development required capital, and if money had gone to farmers or workers instead of to finance and manufacturing, it would have been unavailable for investment. The agricultural sector was receding into the past, and farmers needed to be forced off their farms and into the factories. (The case and the arguments are the same for contemporary and recent American labor.)

Unfortunately, the people I’m arguing against cannot allow themselves to say this, because they are liberals who do not want to be regarded as neoliberals, so they just talk about Populist racism and anti-intellectualism*.

The Populists had many labor members and they had close ties to the first big American union, the Knights of Labor — before the latter were destroyed by establishment violence — and the Populist objection to immigration was inherited from them. This is not a pretty part of the Populist story, but labor has never been enthusiastic about immigration, for obvious reasons, and their reasons cannot just be explained as RACISM!!!

The Democratic Parties of the South, by making legal disfranchisement of black voters their cause and appealing to white racial solidarity, could bring white voters back from the Populist Party.

This is quite an astonishing misrepresentation. (Hofstadter was a Democrat when he wrote his books, and in 1955 the Democrats were still the White Supremacy party). Democrats, who had been White Supremacists or slavers all the way back to the beginning, weakened the Populists by also making sure that certain white voters would be disenfranchised along with the black. (One of the Democrats’ major arguments all along had been that the Populists had been weakening the Solid White Supremacist South). In the South the Populists were allied to the biracial Republican Party, and the Democrats destroyed the Southern Populists the same way they destroyed the Southern Republicans, with murderous violence. (Look up the 1898 Wilmington Insurrection). Ben Tillman of South Carolina, a Democrat often thought to have been a Populist just because he was a racist, recruited and organized one of the armed bands (“Red Shirts”) which destroyed North Carolina democracy and the North Carolina Populist and Republican Parties.** (The black North Carolina Congressman George Henry White had been elected with Populist support, and when he left office in 1900 there would not be another black Southern Congressman from the South for 70 years).***

None of which is to say that the Populists—who eventually came under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and joined with the Democratic Party, where they lost, and lost, and lost—were fascists. [ This is the second time he says this: “But they were all honorable men”.] But the discontent that led to Populism could easily have become fascism, or something like it: and that is what Hofstadter correctly sensed.

This is the first time I’ve seen alt history used in an argument of this type. But let’s continue the game. Could enlightenment values have led to antisemitism? Yes, Voltaire. Could liberal values have led to slaveowning? Yes, Jefferson. Could socialist humanism have become genocidal? Yes, Stalin. Could a victorious anti-Nazi army end up fighting murderous imperial wars in all corners of the globe? …. You get the idea.

Nothing I have said makes any difference. The Populists will be Nazis forever.

For the record, it is my conviction that it is impossible for an anti-populist Left to succeed, though it is quite possible for anti-Populist liberalism / neoliberalism to succeed. And lo! What do we see before us?



* Let me just throw this in re anti-intellectualism: the Populist involved in the Scopes trial was Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes. The pious William Jennings Bryan prosecuting the case had always been a Democrat. H. L. Mencken, the cynical reporter beloved by all good liberals — and one of the few American decadents, along with Huneker and Hecht — was a little-government freemarketer who admired Grover Cleveland, waving away the Pullman massacre (Mencken Chrestomathy, ed. Mencken).

** Just to pile it on: another leader of the Wilmington Insurrection besides Senator-to-be Tillman was Josephus Daniels, later to be Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy and Roosevelt’s Ambassador to Mexico. The 1922 “Tulsa Race Riot” was led by Tate Brady, a local Democratic leader and former member of the Democratic National Committee. These were lynchings on the mass, triple-figure scale which totally transformed life in the states in which they took place.

*** From BillWAF 08.28.15 at 4:01 am (Crooked Timber Comments)


The next time you try to write about Populism, read the scholarship first. J. Morgan Kousser pointed out in his seminal work “The Shaping Of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910″ that in each Southern state, Southern elites turned to disfranchisement in response to an inter-racial insurgency, such as a Black Republican and white Populist alliance (or white Greenback). As I recall, twenty-five percent of white voters were also disfranchised.

The white voters who were targeted had voted Populist or Greenback. I am sure that white Populists voted to disfranchise themselves. Do the work next time before you claim to understand anything.

BTW, Kousser’s book started as his Ph.D. dissertation for C. Vann Woodward at Yale.

Rauchway, “Trump and Populism”

Jeet Heer, “Trump is not a Populist”

Me, long ago, What is populism and why is the Democratic Party so afraid of it?

Me, long ago on Crooked Timber.