Anyone looking for a compact, highly readable history of the American political movement known as populism, and the determined efforts from both right and left to squelch it, will enjoy prominent progressive journalist Thomas Frank’s The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.
Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) describes how, despite populism’s brief formal life—from the founding of the People’s Party in 1891 to the crushing defeat of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896—its ideals have persisted through more than a century of American political history. Their influence, as he describes it, reached its zenith during the New Deal when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while not expressly invoking any populist lineage, nonetheless “talked constantly about the urgent need to take power away from economic elites and return it to the average American.”
But after World War II, as Frank points out in perhaps the most intriguing portion of his argument, the opposition to populism subtly shifted from obvious enemies, like the robber barons of the Gilded Age, to the “technocratic, elite liberalism” that came to dominate the Democratic Party. In the hands of these professionals and intellectuals, populism became a code word for “demagoguery and intolerance,” as their interests diverged from those of the working class.
The disdain of this “highly educated leadership class” for the populist impulse turned out, in Frank’s candid assessment, to be nothing less than a “liberal folly,” opening the door for what he calls the “phony populism of the right” that flourished in the Republican Party beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It climaxed in Donald Trump’s unlikely victory in 2016, when a candidate whose true agenda would have made William McKinley smile successfully harnessed popular hostility to elites and rode it into the White House.
Credit goes to Frank for this admirable effort to reclaim the noblest parts of the populist legacy and make them relevant for contemporary Americans, but there’s good reason to doubt we’ll see this platform realized soon, no matter who prevails in November 2020.