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.

***

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.

The Liberals Didn’t Listen: The Immense Cost of Ignoring Tom Frank’s Warnings

By William K. Black

Cross-posted with New Economic Perspectives

November 8, 2016     Kansas City, MO

I am writing this article late on election night in my office at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, about a mile from the home in which Tom Frank grew up just over the state line in Kansas.  Beginning with his famous book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, first published in 2004, Tom Frank has been warning the Democratic Party of the increasing cost it was paying by abandoning and even attacking the working class, particularly the white working class.  Some political scientists tried to savage his work, pointing to Bill Clinton’s electoral success and arguing that the disaffected members of the working class were also less likely to vote.  Frank returned to the theme just in time for this election with a new book – Listen, Liberal – that documents in damning, lively narrative the New Democrats’ war on the New Deal, their disdain for organized labor, and their antipathy for what they viewed as retrograde white working class attitudes.

Frank kept showing the enormous price the working class were paying as a result of the economic policies of the Republicans and the New Democrats, and the indifference to their plight by the leaders of the New Democrats.  Senator Bernie Sanders consciously took up the cause of reducing surging inequality and became a hero to a broad coalition of voters, many of them fiercely opposed to the New Democrats’ embrace of Wall Street cash, policies, and arrogance.  Sanders set records for small donor fundraising and generated enormous enthusiasm.  Sanders knew he would face the opposition of the New Democrats, but he also found that progressive congressional Democrats would rarely support him publicly in the contest for the Party’s nomination and even union leaders sided overwhelmingly with Secretary Hillary Clinton, the New Democrats’ strongly preferred candidate.

Hillary did not simply fail to reach out to the working class voters that the New Democrats had turned their backs on for decades, she infamously attacked them as “deplorables.”  This was exactly the group of potential voters that was enraged because it believed, correctly as Tom Frank keeps showing us, that the New Democrats looked down on them and adopted policies that rigged the system against the working class.  Hillary’s insult confirmed their most powerful bases for their rage against her.  Her insult was an early Christmas present to Trump.  Her attempt to walk the insult back was doomed.

Hillary Clinton handled things so miserably that she allowed a plutocrat whose career is based on rigging the system against the working class to become the hero of the working class.  That is world-class incompetence.  Had she followed Tom Frank’s advice she would today be the President-elect.  The real cost, however, of her failure will be enormous damage to our democracy, the safety of the world, and the damage that President Trump will do to the working class as he systematically betrays their interests.

The first test of whether the Wall Street-wing of the Democratic Party has learned any of the lessons Tom Frank tried to teach them is whether President Obama will continue with his threat to try to have the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) approved by the lame duck session of Congress.  Obama, who was elected on the promise that he would stop TPP, should listen to Senators Sanders and Warren and honor his promise to the voters to stop TPP.  He must begin the process of the Democrats winning back the support of the working class.

The leaders of the democratic-wing of the Democratic Party need to move forward assertively to retake control of their Party.  The current head of the DNC has been exposed as part of the effort to prevent Senator Sanders from winning the nomination.  She should resign tomorrow.  The Clintons should cease acting as Party leaders.

A period of enormous corruption and elite fraud is coming soon as the Trump administration brings its signature characteristic – crony capitalism – to bear to control all three branches of government.  Trump promises to deregulate Wall Street, appoint top supervisors chosen for their unwillingness to supervise, and appoint judges who will allow CEOs to loot with impunity.  Trump promises to outdo even the savage anti-media and anti-whistleblower policies of the Obama administration.  The House and Senate committee chairs will intensify their blatantly partisan use of investigations while refusing to conduct real oversight hearings revealing the elite fraud and corruption.

The progressive Senate Democrats will have to be innovative and stalwart in these circumstances to find ways to blow the whistle repeatedly on the mounting corruption.  Their challenge will be to lead despite having no real institutional power.  Democrats should start by doing what they should have done in 2004 – take Tom Frank’s warnings deadly seriously.