What US thinking on populism can teach us about how we tell true egalitarians from false friends and frauds, writes Adam Barnett

It is a sign of our shallow times that despite the ubiquity of the word ‘populism’ over the last two years, so little attention has been paid to the movement which gave it currency in the Anglosphere. The United States’ populist movement of the 1890s, organised around the People’s party, is not even well known in US anymore, but a proper study of the capital ‘P’ Populists might help untangle the mess of modern politics.

Michael Kazin’s 1995 book   The Populist Persuasion: An American History – reissued this month with a new preface – remains the best overview of US populism and its legacy, and provides the finest definition of the term for general use. Populism, he writes, is ‘a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.’

Kazin recounts how the People’s party was forged by western and southern farmer’s alliances and the Knights of Labourthen the US’ biggest trades union body – and became a national force striking fear into the hearts of the powerful. The People’s party, or Populists, championed the plight of ‘producers’ against the industrial monopolies of the period, calling for a progressive income tax, a regulated economy, a shorter working day, and nationalisation of the railways.

However, as Kazin notes, ‘party activists made clear they were not advocating socialism’, and defined ‘producer’ broadly, in order to unite workers and farmers across class lines. The party had some success, winning 1.5 million votes in 1894 and electing seven people to the House of Representatives, six to the Senate, and taking hundreds of seats in state legislatures. But the movement fizzled out after backing Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s close-run bid for the presidency in 1896.

Populism’s legacy has been contested ever since. Its defenders see populist ideas and rhetoric in the US left over the next half century, in particular the labour movement and president Theodore Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal. But its echoes have also been heard in the rightwing demagogy of senator Joseph McCarthy, Father Coughlin, George Wallace and the like, down to the Tea party, Sarah Palin and president Donald Trump.

How can such a diverse crowd all be considered heirs to Populism? Kazin’s book makes the distinction between saying they all were populists, in the sense that one is a socialist or Catholic, and saying that they all ‘employed populism as a flexible mode of persuasion’. His new preface reviews the subject in light of the 2016 presidential election, and proposes ‘two different, often competing traditions’ of US populism. One, represented by Bernie Sanders, ‘directs its ire exclusively upward’ at corporate elites and government, while basing its definition of ‘the people’ on shared economic interests. The other, represented by Donald Trump, defines ‘the people’ in national or ethnic terms, and imagines ‘a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below’.

Yet both traditions can trace their roots to the original Populists. As Richard Hofstadter argued in his 1955 book Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR, populism – for all its virtues – had a definite streak of nativism, and more than a little antisemitism. Part of the populists’ obsession with ‘free silver’ was belief in an international conspiracy of bankers, Jews, and (worst of all) England, to control the money supply at the expense of US ‘producers’. Dark noises about ‘secret cabals of the international gold ring’ and financiers with Jewish names were joined by attacks on cheap foreign labour, mainly from China.

Kazin takes this on in his new preface: ‘Populism has certainly had an unruly past. Racists and would-be authoritarians have exploited its appeal …’ However, he concludes that ‘while populism can be dangerous, it may also be necessary’, and advocates pruning the populist style of its nastier elements.

But what if this cannot be done? As we can see from the original Populists, vague categories and Manichean models are handy for building coalitions, but only by clouding important distinctions and conflicting interests – which are, after all, what politics is about. Why bother trying to cram everyone into either ‘elites’ or ‘the people’ when so much is born of divisions among these phoney groupings? (Consider Brexit, or Trump’s election.)

The language of class anger is certainly potent, but when its analysis of society is pure bunkum – a virtuous and wronged people versus a secret plot by a moneyed cabal – it becomes positively sinister. This is what Hofstadter called ‘history as conspiracy’, and is only a few steps away from the socialism of fools. At that point, you might as well be yelling in a beer hall.

Not coincidentally, the populist style also has a tendency toward vanguardism. Kazin says ‘an enduring irony of populism’ is having the language of anti-elitism spoken by ‘eloquent men who stand above the crowd’. While Kazin is right to add that delegation of power is a feature of representative democracy, there are special dangers with populists. If a politician can presume to speak with the vox populi, what mandate can they not claim for themselves? And if you criticise them, you can be accused of attacking ‘the will of the people’.

Kazin’s book goes on to detail how the US left came apart in the 1960s by neglecting conflicts of interest within its own coalition, to the benefit of the right. Thomas Frank picked up this thread in 2004’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, charting how the right drives the pseudo-class politics of populism to victory. But the beginning of wisdom is to see that populism is a pseudo-politics in the first place, and often an indispensable tool of power. What is needed is not a cleaned-up version of it, but a revival of the democratic left. Only by asking ‘Which people?’, ‘Which elites?’, ‘Change things how, and in whose interests?’, can we hope to tell true egalitarians from false friends and frauds, whose sound and fury signifies nothing.


Adam Barnett is a freelance journalist and former staff writer for Left Foot Forward. He tweets at @AdamBarnett13