Review of Thomas Frank’s “The People, No”

By Polly Cleveland

These days the major media fill with denunciations of populists. They are the ignorant people who rally to the standards of far-right fascists like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil or Marine Le Pen of France. Or to a supposed leftist demagogue (but in fact democratically elected) Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. In the US, they are Donald Trump’s loyal “deplorables” or Bernie Sanders’s “Bernie Bros.” They are racist, sexist, xenophobic, suspicious of expertise, contemptuous of those who disagree with them, resentful of privilege, backward-looking, quick to mob violence. In short, populists represent a rising danger to democracy.

Taking his title from Carl Sandburg’s book-length Depression-Era poem, The People, Yes, Thomas Frank proposes that anti-populists pose the real threat. Modern scholars and media have the story backwards.

Frank begins with the largely-forgotten Populist political party. The Populist, or People’s Party, founded in Kansas in the early 1890s, was the last serious effort to form a national third party. It drew together the Farmers’ Alliance, which promoted collective action by farmers, the Greenbackers, who sought a fiat currency instead of the gold standard, labor organizers like Eugene Debs and Terence Powderly, advocates of votes for women, followers of utopian novelist and activist Edward Bellamy, and followers of economic reformer Henry George.

Most of the reforms on the Populist platform sound familiar today and would eventually happen. The Populists called for regulation of the banks and public ownership of railroads. They proposed to end the gold standard, which harmed famers and other debtors by causing steady deflation. They called for direct election of senators, votes for women, a graduated income tax, and the eight-hour work day. To achieve these objectives, the Populists sought to create a coalition between midwestern famers and city workers. Even more radical, poor white farmers in the south allied with organizations representing poor black farmers. Far from disparaging knowledge, the Populists believed in education, publishing millions of pamphlets and setting up reading and discussion groups among farmers and workers. Above all, the Populists believed that an alliance of ordinary working-class people could take control from the moneyed elite.

In the 1892 presidential election, won by gold-standard supporter Democrat Grover Cleveland, the Populist candidate won four states. In 1896, responding to the growing Populist movement, the Democratic Party dumped Cleveland and nominated a passionate gold standard opponent, the young William Jennings Bryan, to run against Republican William McKinley. The Populist Party with some trepidation threw in behind Bryan. That simply terrified the railroad magnates, bankers and other robber barons. It petrified the bourbon Democrats who ruled the South. As Bryan barnstormed across the country on a platform of free coinage of silver, the Republican establishment mounted a massive campaign of disinformation and intimidation that would have made Karl Rove proud. Bryan and the Populists were murderous beasts, they said, seeking mob rule like the French revolutionaries a hundred years before. (Frank has posted some great cartoons.) Bryan lost disastrously and the Populist Party collapsed, though it continued a while competing in local elections. The first anti-populist campaign succeeded magnificently.

While the Populist Party foundered, populist ideas nonetheless filtered into the Progressive movement, and into corners of the major parties. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) began to enforce the 1990 Sherman anti-trust act. He supported labor unions and denounced big business. Under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Congress established the income tax (affecting only the wealthy), created the Federal Reserve to tame the boom and bust cycle and passed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. Populist enthusiasm and lawmaking reached a peak in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era from 1932 to 1940 with the establishment of a host of regulatory agencies, strong labor laws, Federal deposit insurance, Social Security, vigorous anti-trust enforcement and decisive reining in of the banks with the Glass-Steagall Act. Anti-populists complained bitterly that Roosevelt had betrayed his class, but to no avail.

In the broad prosperity following World War II, populist enthusiasm waned while anti-populists quietly regrouped in the US Chamber of Commerce, University of Chicago, and new right-wing think tanks. By the 1970s, as Frank documents, many scholars were reinterpreting populism in negative, pessimistic terms. These included historian Richard Hofstadter, famous for his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Following the shocking election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, liberals and centrist Democrats increasingly became a party of the educated elite. They clucked their tongues at the benighted and bigoted classes who listened to Republican racist dog-whistles and hypocritical religiosity, wondering why these people couldn’t see their economic self-interest.

That was the question Frank posed in his 2004 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? and again in Listen Liberal (2016). His answer remains the same: Democrats have forgotten that they were the party of ordinary working people. That was painfully obvious in Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” and before that in Barack Obama’s excruciating remark to wealthy donors about how residents of Midwestern small towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them…” In true populism, ordinary folks stand together against powerful and unaccountable elites. Centrist Democrats have joined those elites. They have become scolding, condescending anti-populists. In so doing, they have left the door wide open to Republican faux-populists of whom Trump is only the latest and worst.

Frank quotes historian Lawrence Goodwyn that to build a movement like the Populists of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” (Emphasis in original.) Only by practicing “ideological patience,” said Goodwyn, can one build a hopeful and powerful movement. Let’s pray the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party can develop more of that patience.

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In his account of the Populist Party, I wish Frank hadn’t omitted an important part of the story. The Populists substantially overlapped with the Georgist movement, starting in 1879 with the publication of Henry George’s worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. That was one of the main books that those Populist study groups were reading. It was George who gave the Populists their sophisticated understanding of economics and helped convince them they could change their lives by taking control of government through the ballot box. The anti-populists were equally enemies of George, making sure that his classical economics were replaced by new-fangled neoclassical economics which put working people back in their lowly place.

Interested readers may want to check out the three-part interview Paul Jay (formerly of The Real News Network) did with Thomas Frank about his book: https://theanalysis.news/uncategorized/thomas-frank-on-populism/.

 is an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Dating the Recession

Alarmed by the coronavirus-induced economic collapse, the NBER declares the economy in a recession in record time.

By John Miller

My wife Ellen and I got married in 2013 after living together for 15 years. The Justice of the Peace who married us told our twelve-year old son Sam that are we had already been married, and all she was doing was helping us fill out the paper work to make our marriage official.

On June 8 of this year, the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER), the nation’s official arbiter of the business cycle, finished its paper work, and made what we already knew official:  The COVID-19 economic collapse is a recession, and a damn bad one.   After reviewing data on the calamitous drop in employment and consumer spending and the deterioration of other economic variables, the NBER declared that the recession began in February (2020).

The depth and diffusion across the economy of the downturn convinced the NBER to announce the onset of the recession far more quickly than it usually does.   The Business Cycle Dating Committee waited a full year into the recession to declare that the Great Recession had begun in December 2007. This time, the NBER declared the onset of the recession just four months after it had begun.  The downturn was so pronounced that the dating committee didn’t bother waiting for data to confirm that the economic contraction would meet the economist’s shorthand definition of a recession, two consecutive quarters of negative real (corrected for inflation) GDP growth.

Identifying Business Cycles

To understand what economists call a “recession,” we need to look more closely at the method used by the NBER dating committee to date a business cycle, and its two phases–economic expansions and economic contractions (also called “recessions”).

The NBER tracks the waves of economic activity that economists call “business cycles.” A business cycle runs its course from trough of a recession to the peak of an expansion and back down into a trough. In the first phase of the cycle–the expansion–the economy grows as companies produce more goods and services and hire workers. When the economy begins contracting, its second phase, companies produce fewer goods and workers lose their jobs. The NBER has identified ten complete business cycles in the U.S. economy since World War II. The current task of the NBER was to decide when the expansion of the business cycle that began in June 2009 ended and entered its recession phase.

The NBER’s Dating Committee, a group of eight economists, has no rigid rules for determining the start or finish of a business cycle. For instance, the committee looks for “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months” to identify a recession. The committee considers a broad array of macroeconomic indicators put pays particular attention to two broad monthly measures personal income less transfer payments, in real terms, and payroll employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ household survey, just as they did in dating the onset of the current recession.

In short, the committee eyeballs the data and is guided by their malleable definition of an economic contraction to identify a recession. Dating a recession using the economists’ shorthand definition of a recession as two consecutive quarters of negative real growth measured by GDP would assign similar starting and ending points to a recession, but not always – particularly when a downturn is interrupted by a quarter of slow but positive economic growth. In addition, GDP data are available only after a considerable lag and are often subject to revision.

End of the Expansion

The NBER announcement also closed the books on the economic expansion that began in June 2009 lasted 128 months, making it the longest expansion on record.  The expansion, which spanned the Obama and Trump presidencies, might have been historically long it was also slow, and did little to improve the lot of most people by historical standards.  “Long but limp growth” was The Financial Times’ far from flattering description of U.S. economic performance during the decade long expansion. Its 2.3% economic growth rate was the slowest of any U.S. economic expansions since 1949.  It also failed to even match the 2.9% average posted by the sluggish economic expansion during the last decade that led up the Great Recession, and it was nowhere close to the 4.3% average growth of the ten previous expansions since 1949.

The employment record of the expansion was also a mixed bag. The expansion created fewer jobs per month than any economic expansions in the last five decades with the exception of the jobless expansion from 2002 through 2007.  But 113 straight months of positive job growth was enough to push the unemployment rate down to 3.5%, the lowest rates since 1969.  Still falling unemployment rates did little to improve workers’ wages.   Average hourly earning of production and non-supervisory workers corrected for inflation rose just 0.7%, per year, slower than the 1.1% per year rate during the 120 month long expansion in the 1990s, less than half of the 1.7% per year rate during the 106 month long economic expansion of the 1960s. Only the dismal wage growth during the expansion of the previous decade did worse.

All told, working people were tightening their economic belts even when the economy was expanding.  Now that the COVID-19 economy is contracting at an alarming rate, we are in real trouble.  But you probably didn’t need the NBER to tell you that.

John Miller is a professor of economics at Wheaton College, a member of the Dollars & Sense collective, and author of the “Up Against the Wall Street Journal” column in D&S. 

Sources:   “NBER Determination of the February 2020 Peak in Economic Activity,”  National Bureau of Economic Research, June 8, 2020; “The record-breaking US economic recovery in charts,” by Robin Wigglesworth and Keith Fray, The Financial Times, July 4, 2019;  Bureau of Labor Statistics, Total private: Average Hourly Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, 1982-84 Dollars, Seasonally Adjusted.  Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), Real Gross Domestic Product, Billions of Chained 2012 Dollars, Quarterly, Seasonally Adjusted Quarterly; and, All Employees: Total Nonfarm Payrolls, Thousands of Persons, Monthly Seasonally Adjusted Monthly; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED).