The People, No
For my final political book, I decided to come to a reckoning with populism, the idea that has defined my career. Also with anti-populism, by which I mean the people who hate that idea.
I start by showing why everything we think we know about populism is wrong. It is not, as certain pundits and political scientists claim, a tradition of ignorance and intolerance. The true story of populism, which I trace through the titanic social struggles of the last century, is a history of enlightenment and liberation; indeed, it is the story of American democracy itself, of its former promise of a decent life for all.
Even more interesting (at least to me) is the story of the elite groups that have persistently opposed populism over the decades—the ones who say “the people, no.” Tracing the arc of anti-populism from the frantic days of the 1890s to just last week, I try to show how cynical elites have repeatedly cast hopeful democratic movements in the same harsh light, demonizing them with the same fears, defaming them with the same insults.
Flipping the famous Hofstadter thesis on its head, I tell how anti-populism has changed sides, evolving from a doctrine of conservative wealth in the 1890s to a faith of liberal professionals today.
The People, No is the story of how much of our modern world we owe to our home-grown democratic movements for reform. It is also a cautionary note for our time, a warning against the pundits who tell us to fear the plain people, to keep to the path of centrist complacency, to let the experts handle our lives and our future.