Can We Revive “We the People?”

A Review of Thomas Frank’s The People, NO! A Brief History of Anti-Populism

By Nancy Spannaus

Nov. 7, 2020—As the current brawl over the presidential election results should make clear, the people of the United States are dangerously divided, almost split down the middle. In my view, the question before us is less who will take the White House, than it is whether our incoming political leaders can take the actions necessary to recreating national unity. Can we revive the sense of “We the People” which is enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution?

At the center of that task is the adoption of the principles of the American System, which were so successfully implemented in the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obviously, there are huge obstacles to achieving that task; it will take qualities of leadership which we have not seen in decades. One essential step will be to recognize how we have come to the current political crisis.

Can We Revive "We the People?"

An anti-populist cartoon from the 1890s, as reproduced by Thomas Frank

That is where Thomas Frank’s book comes in. In The People, NO!,[1] Frank examines the political history of our country starting in the 1890s, with the rise of the populist movement against the robber barons and Wall Street plutocrats who were then running amok. His major focus, however, is what he calls the anti-populist movement, which, he argues, has reached such dominance in the United States in recent decades that it is driving a huge portion of the population into the arms of the “fake populists” of the Republican Party.

The problem is writ-large in today’s Democratic Party, which idolizes “experts,” and shows contempt for a vast mass of working people as “deplorables.” We saw this blatantly in the Democratic Party Convention, which was hosted by movie stars and lacked any presentation of an alternative to the devastation caused by the policies of free trade and deindustrialization over the last decades. And then the Democratic Party wonders why lower-income Americans flock to the Republican Party, even when it has a program against their “objective” interests.  It should be not surprise that they are angry about the contempt, angry about their living conditions, and angry that the Democratic Party is making no effort to address their plight with a real economic revival.

The result, he says, is “a party system in which the divide fell not between the few and the many, but rather between the small minority of wealth and the small minority of the educated, in which the captains of industry were at odds with the distinguished professors and the lords of the press, and in which each group had captured control of one of the political parties.” In other words, it is competing elites who occupy the positions of power, leaving the population to choose between “resentful oil billionaires” and “enlightened private equity billionaires.”

Think about that, for a minute, and I think you’ll hear the ring of truth. What Frank is saying is that neither major political party today is putting forward policies for the benefit of all the people—an assessment that an honest accounting of the state of the U.S. economy and workforce bears out. Just look at our low-wage economy, our crumbling infrastructure, our opium epidemic—not to mention a health care system which left us totally unprepared for the pandemic which is uprooting our daily lives and causing hundreds of thousands of excess deaths.[2] Presidents from both parties have presided over this disaster; it’s nonpartisan.

Can We Revive "We the People?"

In the remainder of this review, I will summarize Frank’s presentation of populist movements and the virulent anti-populist opposition, and conclude with a short addendum on what I consider the shortcomings of the analysis.

What Populism Is, And Is Not?

To understand populism in the United States, Frank argues, you have to trace it from the launching of the Populists in 1892. The term was adopted by Kansas activists after the founding convention of the People’s Party in Cincinnati that year. The party was essentially an alliance of farmers and labor who were demanding economic reforms ranging from regulating the railroads, to relief for debtors by removing the “cross of gold.” They wanted government intervention to aid debt-burdened farmers and underpaid workers, and to fund public works. They were allied with many unions, including the Knights of Labor,[3] in common cause.

Can We Revive "We the People?"

A meeting of the People’s Party in Columbus, Nebraska

The reaction to their demands included a barrage of lies, which maintain currency up to today, and Frank provides a compelling set of examples to refute them. I’ll deal with ones that resonate today:

  1. Populists are backward-looking, wanting to revive an idealized past. Frank demonstrates this is a lie, by noting the movement’s emphasis on scientific progress in agriculture, among other areas.
  2. Populists hate government. To refute this, Frank quotes the party’s Omaha Platform of 1892, which said: “We believe that the powers of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
  3. Populists are “anti-pluralist,” i.e. racist. In fact, Frank documents that the 1890s movement was a leading force against racism, forging alliances with blacks.  His most detailed example was the creation of the Populists’ fusion alliance (1894-1900) with the Republican Party in North Carolina, which was ultimately smashed by the “Bourbon Democrats” with murder, and armed overthrow. Populists saw racialism as a tool to divide the working population against itself.[4]
  4. Populists are “anti-intellectual,” hating experts and knowledge. This is a whopper, as Frank elaborates throughout the book. “Populism was a movement of books and newspapers, of reformers who believed in what the historian Postel calls `progress through education.’” Of course, the populists took issue with the dominant experts, especially the economists, in their day, and for very good reason. Just as reasonable people should today!

When Populist Ideas Succeeded

The original populist movement was smashed in the 1890s, although some of its demands were eventually met (like the 8-hour day, regulation of railroads, etc.). But in the 1930s, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States reached what Frank calls “peak populism,” and turned the federal government into a government of the people.

FDR did not call himself a populist, Frank notes, but he rejected orthodox economics, and used government power to aid those who had suffered from it. To carry out his programs, he had to face the opposition of the Republican Party, big business (read Wall Street), and the press, who accused him of creating a dictatorship and oppressing “the respectable” people.

FDR visits with farmers in North Dakota in the 1936 campaign.

Frank describes how some of the slanders against the populists of the 1890s were revived against FDR himself.  That included the charge that populists were mentally defective, probably genetically; that they were communists; and that they wanted to wipe out the wealthy and educated elite. Yes, there were demagogues among the social movements of the 1930s, Frank admits, but they were not representative of the populism of the New Deal.

But in the 1950s, the needle turned against the populists.  Frank provides an insightful, trenchant discussion of the ascent of anti-populism in the universities, using the examples of Daniel Bell (The End of Ideology-1962), Richard Hofstadter (The Age of Reform-1955), Edward Shils (The Torment of Secrecy: the background and consequences of American security policy–1956), and Seymour Lipset (Economic Development and Political Legitimacy–1959). The common thread of these sociologists was to characterize the populists, and the labor and farmer movements generally, as irrational, nihilistic, bigoted, and basically in the way of the “experts” who should be in control of running the economy and the government. Effectively, the working class became the enemy.

A significant challenge to this idea came from the civil rights movement, as Frank explains. He quotes from Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin on the need for blacks to unite with the labor movement and take on injustice in the economy. One of the more surprising quotes, to me, was from King’s speech in Montgomery, Alabama after the Selma march, where he laid the blame for Jim Crow in the South directly on the “Bourbon Democrats,” and cited the efforts of the 1890s populists to create a multi-racial movement. Frank discusses the Poor People’s March, and King’s orientation toward labor as in the authentic populist tradition.

Pseudo-Populism

But upon King’s death, a disastrous turn occurred. The 1960s social ferment turned anti-labor, leaving the working class to the Republicans, who adopted a “pseudo-populism” which actually bolstered Wall Street control.  After all, the program of tax cuts (mostly for the rich), deregulation, deindustrialization, and disempowerment of the unions has been the hallmark of the post-FDR Republican Party.

Martin Luther King leaders marchers for the Memphis sanitation strike. HIs orientation to economic justice waned after his death.

But it has increasingly become that of the Democrats as well, as Frank effectively shows by detailing the program of President Jimmy Carter. Carter, the great “populist,” launched a program of austerity, union-busting, and anti-industrialism which, as might be expected, caused an anti-Democratic Party reaction.  Thus was born the “Reagan Democrat,” and the launch of what Frank calls “pseudo-populism” which grew into what we have seen in the Trump administration to date.

And the reaction of the Democrats? To present themselves as some kind of moral elite, “prophets of reproach” who refuse to admit that the economic policies of recent decades have destroyed the lives of tens of millions of Americans and must be changed. To tell the truth would be to “legitimize” Trump voters, they say, so the truth cannot be told. Frank’s chapter on this turn is brilliantly titled: “Let Us Now Scold Uncouth Men.” He characterizes Obama and his centrist allies as epitomizing the “politics of reprimand” which continue to tear the nation apart. He concludes the book with a question posed by Bernie Sanders: “For whom does America Exist?” How the nation answers it will determine whether the elite hierarchy and plutocracy continue to rip our nation apart.

What’s Missing

What’s missing in Frank’s valuable book is almost assured by the fact that he begins his narrative in the 1890s. By that time, the guiding principles of the American System of Economics – the commitment to technological progress for all, government regulation of the currency and credit, government support for infrastructure and innovation – had begun to be buried by Wall Street domination of our economy. Of course, it had only been 30 years since Abraham Lincoln implemented such American System policies, including the greenback, but Frank never mentions that fact. And I doubt he would have recognized the ancestors of Lincoln’s policies in those of Alexander Hamilton, Mathew and Henry Carey, and John Quincy Adams.

Instead of the American System tradition, Frank chooses to cite Thomas Jefferson as the touchstone for a positive mass social movement. This flies in the face of history; Jefferson’s idea of democracy was not to empower government to aid people, but to reduce government’s role. He was the inspiration for resistance, not economic reform. The American System politicians and economists were the ones who called for mass education, infrastructure building, and protection for labor (yes, through tariffs).

I believe it is in the American System tradition that we can find the means of bridging the deadly divide we now face.  Frank does refer to it when he is discussing the 1970s as an opportunity lost by the abandonment of King’s economic platform. The key to uniting our nation once again lies in an FDR-style program for massive infrastructure-building, expanding new technologies such as nuclear fusion, and eliminating poverty here and around the world. People don’t have to love each other to collaborate in such a program, but if they see it as a path to progress, they will participate, and perhaps come to love their neighbor in the process. We have seen such processes in the military; why not in civilian life?

Can We Revive "We the People?"

The electoral map of Virginia in the 2020 election.

We need the opposite of what I’ve seen consistently in the Democratic Party of Virginia, for instance, which insists it has “turned Virginia blue.” Are you kidding? An electoral map shows the vast expanse of the state voting Republican, with the urban centers voting Democrat.  That the numbers put the Democrats in power should not be the occasion for triumphalism, but a challenge: How to pull the state together in a way that deals with the legitimate grievances of all, and provides progress to a better standard of living.

The American System statesmen of the 19th century understood this. They demanded an economic program of support for industry, labor, and infrastructure which they were sure would lead to the elimination of slavery. Simply moral suasion would not work. And certainly not sanctimonious lectures from privileged elites, who have no interest in, or understanding of, the lives of blue-collar and low-wage workers.

That said, Frank has written a fantastic book against anti-populism, and provided valuable insight into our decline into today’s social conflict.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.

[1] Frank takes his title from a book-length poem written by Carl Sandburg in 1936  entitled “The People, Yes,” which celebrated the common man, warts and all. His book was published in 2020 by Henry Holt & Co., New York City.

[2] Excess deaths – that is, the number of deaths above the average yearly number – in the United States were more than 225,000 as of August, and undoubtedly higher now.

[3] The Knights of Labor was an industrial labor federation founded in 1869, which brought in unskilled workers and fought for broad objectives, including the 8-hour day.

[4] The article on the Virginia Readjuster movement on this website provides a good case study.