Here is my personal master narrative of American history: the long-running war between the populist tradition and the people who hate it.
Everyone these days deplores populism, by which they mean an out-of-control, Trump-voting public. It is the trendiest and most up-to-date political project of them all. Unfortunately, the celebrated journalists and intellectuals who have guided us down this path have completely misunderstood what populism is.
Worse: when they revile populism in this way they situate themselves in an intellectual tradition with an ugly past—a tradition that long ago began using the word “populism” as a shorthand way of depicting democracy as folly. It is a nineteenth-century smear campaign that is somehow still going, that is alive and well on the op-ed page, the elite campus, the foundation convening.
The real story of populism is an account of enlightenment and liberation; it is the story of American democracy itself, of its ever-widening promise of a decent life for all. Between this tradition of democratic reform and the elites who just can’t stand it there is a curious dialectical give and take. It starts in 1891, takes a turn through the early days of the New Deal, lingers over 1950s academia and the Civil Rights movement, and carries you on through the political culture of the 80s and the 90s and the present.
The People, NO is a work of history, but my hope is that you will find it surprisingly up-to-date. After all, we are living through a period of cascading elite failure almost as calamitous as the 1890s or the 1930s–and the elites have responded by insisting that the only alternative to their gracious, enlightened rule is a blustering racist fool like Trump.
My message–and the message of populism–is that there is another way.
Gallery of Anti-Populism
In the summer of 1896, the Democrats nominated the reformer William Jennings Bryan for the presidency and the fledgling Populist party got behind him as well. In response, the journalistic establishment (along with the academic establishment, the clerical establishment, and of course the business establishment) launched themselves into a kind of hysteria. Revolution was upon us, they convinced themselves; the lower orders were rising up against all that was good and correct and respectable. The name they gave to that anarchic menace: “populism.” What follows are images from that original Democracy Scare, with my descriptions from “The People, No“.
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