September 28, 2016


The Original Deplorables : Obama misunderstands populism (GEOFFREY NORMAN, 10/03/16, Weekly Standard)

[W]hile McGovern's visceral and honorable opposition to the war was unquestionably anti-elitist, there were gaps in his populist résumé. He lacked the pervasive sense of anger and the appetite for payback. He was, basically, a decent liberal of generally sunny disposition. He was missing the hate chromosome.

The legendary populists had this. For Huey P. Long, hate served as a kind of adrenaline, driving him to the excesses for which he was famous. He hated the rich, especially those made that way through inheritance. And he hated Standard Oil and all the big corporations who prospered, even through the Depression, while farmers and the working men endured and either lost hope or found some in Long's "Share the Wealth" vision.

George McGovern would have been uncomfortable in Huey Long's presence. And Long would have found McGovern's campaign promise of a thousand-dollar grant to every taxpayer anemic and his personality boring.

And since he was fundamentally a decent and honorable man, George McGovern would have been repelled by the antisemitism that attached to the Share the Wealth program and its lead crusader, Gerald L. K. Smith.

This, in fact, is the great stain on populism, going back to the days of William Jennings Bryan and earlier. It may have been inevitable that the movement would be infected and cursed by the oldest of all the hatreds. The populists of the Midwest and prairie states in the last years of the nineteenth century were white Protestants, hostile to people who weren't like them. And they believed that foremost among their enemies and oppressors were .  .  . the bankers. And we all know who runs the banks.

Some of the early populists went gladly down this ugly road. As, for instance, when E. Z. Ernst, a Kansas populist, made the case that "English capitalists" had somehow gained financial control over America, whose citizens were unaware they now had "Shylock's rope about their necks in preparation for the final execution."

This was pretty common fare in populist circles, which accounts for the popularity and influence of a tract called Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the American People, first published in 1887. The author, Sarah Emery, employed a lot of crackpot numerology, conspiracy theorizing, and not-so-thinly veiled antisemitism (she, too, had a fondness for the name "Shylock") to account for the woes that were catalysts of populism. The book may have sold as many as 400,000 copies.

There was antisemitism attached to the early populist movement, and racism as well. Bryan himself had given a speech in defense of the KKK at the 1924 Democratic convention.

But as progressivism prospered, populism declined and, with Long's assassination, seemed a spent and marginal force. Without the kind of emotional--not to say "charismatic"--leaders that Long and Bryan had been, there was no populist movement. The movement depended on emotion more than reason and, thus, lost vitality and influence during the New Deal and the Second World War. Populism might depend on the passions of the common man and his resentment of elites, but it needed leaders and did not seem to breed them. They sprang up and seized on the anger of people who eventually fell in behind them. Both Bryan and Long blazed onto the political stage at relatively young ages, and both rose very quickly. But while they had many followers, there weren't any understudies to take their places. And this was, according to enlightened thought, a good thing. The widespread prosperity following World War II also took the edge off the anger that had been populism's rocket fuel. Times were good--or good enough--and people had money. Presumably, the bankers had been defeated along with the fascists.

By the fifties, populism had been reduced to material for academic study. It was a crucial element in Richard Hofstadter's exceedingly influential take on American political history. Hofstadter won two Pulitzers, and his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" never seems to go out of style. Perhaps because it explains that the dark night of fascism is always descending on America (though, as Tom Wolfe's rejoinder had it, seems always to fall on Europe).

Hofstadter made the populists intellectually relevant by arguing that their antisemitism and conspiratorial view of the world had somehow made Joe McCarthy possible. He laid the foundation of this argument on what he called the "agrarian myth," explaining, "The utopia of the Populists was in the past, not in the future. According to the agrarian myth, the health of the state was proportionate to the degree to which it was dominated by the agricultural class, and this assumption pointed to the superiority of an earlier age."

So, "The agrarian myth encouraged farmers to believe that they were not themselves an organic part of the whole order of business enterprise and speculation that flourished in the city .  .  . but rather the innocent pastoral victims of a conspiracy hatched in the distance." This "notion of an innocent and victimized populace colors the whole history of agrarian controversy, and indeed the whole history of the populistic mind."

Suspicion of city boys morphed into hatred of them and the "paranoid style," so you could draw a line from William Jennings Bryan and Sarah Emery straight to McCarthy and what intellectuals like Hofstadter and those who read and quoted him believed was a climate of fear.

The argument was exceedingly influential and would seem to have driven a stake through the heart of populism as a plausible political movement. What politician would want to run as leader of the nation's paranoids? Populism was a term of opprobrium, and when it was attached to any living American political figure, he would most likely be from the South and a raging racist, the prototype of whom was Tom Watson of Georgia, who had been an early leader in the Farmers' Alliance. In those days, he was something of a liberal on matters of race; he had even, in one of his campaigns, personally stood up to a mob intent on lynching a black man. He ran for president in the 1904 and 1908 elections, as candidate of the Populist party. But by then, he was an out-and-out white supremacist who would celebrate--in a newspaper he published--the lynching of a man named Leo Frank who "happened" to be a Jew.

He was also fiercely opposed to immigration. When he wrote, "We have become the world's melting pot," it was not to celebrate the fact. "The scum of creation has been dumped on us," he continued. "Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American."

There were other Southern politicians to whom the populist label was attached. Not all of them racists--at least not of the Watson temperament. George Wallace, after all, began his political odyssey as something of a moderate on race. And then there was the man who preceded him, Jim Folsom. "Big Jim" or "Kissing Jim," as he was known by his followers in Alabama.

Folsom was a sort of big-hearted rube who knew how to touch all the right buttons with the common folk. Folsom was moderate enough on race that he had Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell over for a drink at the governor's mansion in Montgomery. He was also against the poll tax and generally for the things a good populist should be. He drank like a fish and loved the ladies, which accounted for many of the "colorful" anecdotes about him. Like the one about how he was warned that his political enemies were trying to snare him in a scandal by getting him drunk and then sending a temptress to seduce him. "Boys," Folsom is supposed to have replied, "let me tell you something. If you're fishing for Big Jim with that kind of bait, you're going to catch him every time."

He was populism's best face in those times but was too crude and corrupt to be taken seriously. He couldn't supply much juice to the paranoid streak in American life that Hofstadter and other intellectuals and academics saw as the great American menace. Coming, of course, from the right.

But as populism was being marginalized by events and scholars, the conditions for its resurrection were germinating, and they would flower on both the left and right.

Posted by at September 28, 2016 7:31 PM