American History · Politics · Racism

Why the Populists Still Matter Today

On Morning Joe today, Joe Scarborough and Ana Marie Cox of MTV News had a back-and-forth about whether a recent Trump campaign video is anti-Semitic. (See the exchange here, “New Trump ad criticized as anti-Semitic by some”). Anti-Semitic or not, Trump’s message is definitely a populist one—language of exclusion, reform-oriented, focused on economic conditions undermining American democracy. Scarborough said that when he shared the Trump video, he was immediately accused of anti-Semitism and branded a Nazi even though he has spent his professional career as a staunch pro-Israel Republican. His response to Cox was that Bernie Sanders used the same sort of argument in his campaign, was duly recognized as a populist candidate, yet never faced accusations of racism as a result of it. Of course, the fact that Sen. Sanders is Jewish undermines any effort to accuse him of anti-Semitism; but the flip-side of the coin is that Trump’s other ideological positions, though not included in the video, have been on display over the past 18 months and led many Americans to associate him with the undoubtedly racist “white nationalist” movement and its alt-right spinoff.

People like Cox are interpreting Trump’s latest video in light of his campaign as a whole—the first Republican presidential campaign in recent history to garner KKK endorsement. I think that this is a fair judgment in Trump’s case, and I would not be surprised if he were personally attracted to the “new world order” conspiracy theories of Alex Jones and his ilk. But is the new video’s message really filled with racist dog whistles? If it had come from the Sanders campaign 6 months ago, would we even be having this conversation? On October 7, Sen. Sanders appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and took a similar position to the one Trump takes in the video. In fact, one of his comments on the show accorded so much power to the “big banks” that anti-Trump conservative Andrew Sullivan accused him of being no different than Trump in declaring the electoral process rigged by insiders.

So why exactly is the populist message, so prevalent throughout this entire electoral season, treated differently when it is called up by Republicans versus Democrats? Many Trump supporters have answered this question by flippantly accusing the national news media of bias against Trump and preferential treatment toward the Clinton campaign. Donna Brazile’s departure from CNN notwithstanding, this is still a weak and dissatisfying argument.

I think that the answer to the question has something to do with Americans’ basic understanding of populism as a form of political expression. Journalists and cable news contributors often use “populist” as a descriptor without explaining their definition of the term. Many seem to be willing to call any grassroots political movement a new manifestation of populism. Those who actually do some research before applying the “populist” label seem to travel no further than the opening pages of Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion (1995), a book that defined populism so broadly that just about any political speech falls within its parameters. Of course, many other historians have written prolifically about American populism at the turn of the 20th century, the nature of its message to African Americans, and its emergence in conjunction with globalization—but as you might expect, their explanations have not traveled very far outside of academia due to a combination of their unapproachable writing style and the lack of interest among everyday Americans.

Taking a good hard look at what the historians have to say about populism’s previous heyday in American politics can elevate the national conversation about populist politics this time around. Journalists like Joe Scarborough and Ana Marie Cox would not have to struggle so hard to explain themselves if they were better acquainted with the facts and theories about populism that historians have written about over the past several decades.

Reactionary or Revolutionary?

Over time historians have disagreed about the Populists of the 1890s and the populism that they espoused. In fact, the consensus among the specialists has taken a 180-degree turn in the past half-century. Richard Hofstadter, writing in the 1960s, claimed that the Populists were reactionary, backward-looking country folk looking to reinstitute the old Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian democracy. Since last summer, when the 2016 campaign revved up, a number of journalists have quoted Hofstadter and used his perspective to inform their commentary (see Newsweek example here).  This is dangerous for American readers because Hofstadter’s interpretation was blown apart in the 1970s. Lawrence Goodwyn made a persuasive case for Populists as innovative thinkers, even revolutionaries. The reigning work on Populism, an award-winning book called The Populist Vision (2007) reinforces the turn away from Hofstadter’s thesis. The book’s author, Charles Postel, argues that Populists were moderns, and that their successes in the American South and West were actually part of a larger movement that included many other radical groups inspired by theorists like William Bellamy and Henry George.

It is sad that American journalists, acting out of ignorance rather than bias, have presented the American news-consuming public with an inaccurate and superficial view of populism throughout American history and the Populist movement which lent that mode of expression its name. The Newsweek article cited above was a straightforward effort to situate Trump and Sanders within a larger tradition of American populism, but it failed miserably in its interpretation. The author stuck to the disproved Hofstadter thesis and turned to Michal Kazin, whose work on populist rhetoric in the 20th century has severe methodological and analytical shortcomings. In looking for information on populism the author went to exactly the wrong sources, and historians bear some of the blame for his mistake.

Racial Cooperation or Racial Animosity?

For the most part, historians agree that the Populists, the most successful third-party movement in American history, were innovators looking for new solutions to modern problems. There is still some disagreement, however, about African Americans within the Populist movement. Because Populists sometimes ran “fusion” tickets, joining forces with Republicans at the state or local level to unseat the Democrats who dominated Southern politics, they have often been elevated as an example of bi-racial cooperation. In fact, one strain of thought about the rise of Jim Crow laws claims that the potential for bi-racial, class-based cooperation represented by Populism was the root cause of segregation; white elites (Democrats) in the South felt threatened by the bi-racial Populist movement and set out to divide the races against one another to maintain their social power. This version of the story also pits “good guy” Populists who conveniently fit our notion of the Jeffersonian ideal against “bad guy” elite Democrats who are generally associated with corruption and racism.

This is a facile interpretation that over-estimates the role of African Americans within the Populist Party. Like any insurgent political movement, Populists needed votes and were willing to make some token concessions to people outside their target demographic in order to get more of them. The Democratic Party did the very same thing, and the elite or “Bourbon” Democrats of the South were often more tolerant of black political autonomy than the middling farmers and professionals who filled the ranks of the Populist Party.

Steven Hahn has skillfully pointed out the folly of holding up the Populist Party as an example of bi-racial cooperation. The Texas Populists’ advocacy in 1894 of amending the vagrancy laws that targeted African Americans, and reforming the convict lease system killing disproportionate numbers of black Texans, are actually the token concessions that prove the rule of indifference to the concerns of African American voters. These vague and slippery campaign promises contrast sharply to their detailed and impassioned demands for economic reform and government-run crop warehouses. Southern Populists fit the type for the “whitecappers” and vigilantes who terrorized black Republicans throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and into the 1890s. A few token promises do not make a bi-racial coalition.

If we, as Americans, are going to engage in populist political rhetoric or claim populist candidates as our own, we need to confront the racially murky history of this form of expression. Michael Kazin’s work received criticism from academic historians, but it did demonstrate that throughout the 20th century populist rhetoric frequently lent itself to messages of exclusion, like McCarthyism and segregation. If we stick with Kazin’s loose definition of populism and work backward to locate its origin in American political discourse, we arrive all the way back in the early 18th century. At that time republicanism, a set anti-monarchical ideas, was quite popular and ultimately inspired the American Revolution. Republicanism disparaged aristocrats and identified freedom in relation to slavery—free people (white men) should not be treated like slaves (non-white people), George III treats the colonists like his slaves, so the patriots should rise up and fight for their freedom. From its earliest inception in North America, this mode of expression has made use of racial bias and assumed that “we the people” are white.

What can we do?

We should apply a standard of scrutiny to both Republican and Democratic politicians who resort to populist rhetoric on the campaign trail. Trump and Sanders have overlapped substantially in their messages about elites and insiders. Both ought to be considered populist candidates and accept responsibility for the anti-Semitic undertone of their denunciations of “the political class” and “Wall Street insiders.” Trump’s ideological proximity to “white nationalism” and the alt-right has already (and justly) received much attention, but Sanders’s lack of support from African Americans garnered considerably less. It is no accident that Black Lives Matter protesters took issue with the Sanders campaign—he, being a populist candidate, tripped over the same stumbling block as his historical predecessors when he focused deeply on economic problems afflicting white Americans to the exclusion of the social and legal issues of great concern to our nation’s racial minorities. Unlike his Populist forebears, his shallowness in regard to African Americans’ concerns probably arose from single-mindedness or forgetfulness rather than deliberate omission, but his mistake is nonetheless a revealing one.

There are still a few other things that we, as Americans, should do if we are to continue using populist rhetoric in our everyday politics. We must hold journalists accountable to do their research before using examples from history in their publications. A quickie Google search on the outdated classics is simply not good enough, and it is an insult to the vibrant historical profession at work today. But historians also need to change—we must begin writing in a more approachable style, and writing about subjects that everyday Americans might find appealing. In a world where every Barnes & Noble stocks hundreds of history books, why are we allowing the work of journalists to fill the shelves? If they can write engaging history books without getting a PhD in history, just imagine how great our engaging history books would be!