Populism Belongs to the Left

Thomas Frank

In an interview, writer Thomas Frank discusses how populism brought together workers, farmers, and all those struggling against the wealthy for a more egalitarian society — and why that’s made it a dirty word for the elite, both in the 1890s and today.

Populist Party candidate nominating convention held at Columbus, Nebraska, July 15, 1890. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Astra Taylor

How did populism get such a bad name? It’s a single word that, for many, succinctly conveys everything that is racist, anti-intellectual, conspiratorial, and provincial about mass working-class politics. It’s a label applied to right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Marine Le Pen, who are then conflated with left leaders like Bernie Sanders, making all of them appear as different instantiations of the same dangerous force.

In short, says Thomas Frank, it was populism’s elite enemies who defined the late-nineteenth-century movement of farmers and workers as maniac menaces to the social order. Mid-twentieth-century historian Richard Hofstadter then rendered this partisan attack into a commonplace consensus account that has stigmatized an undifferentiated mass of challengers to the establishment. This all laid the groundwork for today’s dynamic with a Democratic Party that sanctifies expert rule and a Republican Party that has successfully appropriated popular revolt and recast it as a conflict over social class with questions of economic power mostly aestheticized.

Thomas Frank’s latest book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, is a history of this political dynamic.

In this interview for Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig, Astra Taylor interviewed Frank about this important history. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Astra Taylor

The election of Donald Trump led to a flurry of articles, which somehow became books about the rise of populism — the idea being Trump was the epitome of the term. Through all of them, there was this false equivalency between Sanders and Trump, which I found to be very bankrupt and demonstrably false.

But I’m just wondering if you can sort of recap that discourse for us at that moment, because you open your book with it as well. Why did you find it so frustrating?

Thomas Frank

So, years ago, I was fascinated by Populism. By which I mean the political movement in the 1890s, the people who invented the word “populism.”

It was a sort of farmer-labor movement, and it was particularly strong in my home state of Kansas. For a while, the Populists basically ran the state. I knew the subject very well. I really admired the original Populists and I couldn’t believe it when people started using that word as a kind of shorthand for “racist demagogue,” which is what they were doing with Donald Trump. It drove me crazy because that’s not what populism was, and that’s not what the word means to me.

Now there are ways to say that Donald Trump mimics populism or that Donald Trump is a kind of phony populist or that Donald Trump and the Republican Party is building a kind of a weird “shadow left,” which is what they are doing.

I think all of those things are correct, but to just call him a populist made me mad, Astra. I’ve noticed this with other people that I know from Kansas and from the Midwest who are familiar with the original Populist movement and know something about it and have this kind of regional pride in our forefathers who were in the Populist movement.

I wrote an article about it for the Guardian going after some of this literature for getting the Populist tradition in America completely wrong. And then I decided to write a book about it. Let’s talk about the real deal. Let’s talk about what populism was, but along the way, I stumbled into a much more interesting argument, which is a much more interesting history, which is the history of anti-populism. The people who hated Populism in the 1890s and who still hate it today. These people are fascinating to me.

Astra Taylor

Which is: Just what is populism? It’s certainly a term that is being contested. It’s being used as a weapon by these anti-populists. And I’ve been struck by the way that populism is being appropriated by the Right now.

Thomas Frank

Steve Bannon uses the word all the time. And I don’t think Steve Bannon knows what it means. Pat Buchanan uses it all the time. Since I wrote the book, I discovered that [Barack] Obama more than once called himself a populist. Jimmy Carter used to call himself a populist, but it’s unusual for politicians to apply the word to themselves.

If you want to trace the actual history of the word, you’d go back and look at where it came from. And it was made up by these guys in what was called the People’s Party in the year 1891, the last sort of successful or marginally successful third-party movement in American history.

They took over. They had elected officeholders from all these different states in the Midwest and the South and the far West. And their formal name was the People’s Party, but it was a very clunky name. It doesn’t really roll off the tongue. So a bunch of politicians from Kansas were sitting around one day on a train in 1891, trying to come up with a nickname for this organization and they came up with “populism” — and it stuck.

My definition of it, if you want to take this history seriously — which I think we’re obligated to do with the populist tradition — is to sort of extrapolate from that movement and then from other movements that were very similar to it. The Populist tradition is a multiracial coalition of working people coming together — a mass movement of working people coming together for economic democracy. So multiracial is an important part of it. It’s not a racist movement.

And “working people” is important. The Populists were intensely focused on working people, on the working class, they talked about it all the time. And what they’re coming together for is also important: economic democracy. They’re coming together to help out the people at the bottom. Farmers, laborers — they’re looking for the eight-hour day. They’re looking for a federal farm program. They’re looking for a sort of war on monopolies. They’re looking for a banking system that works for ordinary people. They’re not looking for tax cuts for the rich. They’re not trying to put America back on the gold standard. So that’s my definition of populism.

And if you define it like that, there are populist movements that have erupted throughout American history. In the 1930s, you have the labor movement. In the 1960s, you had the civil rights movement, which kind of morphed into a broader populist movement about economic issues. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr used to talk about all the time. And then he was murdered and between that and the Vietnam War, that kind of put an end to it all. The Bernie Sanders movement is very much in this same vein. And when you look at someone like Donald Trump or any of these other Republicans that I’ve been writing about my whole life, it’s a cynical, shadowy kind of fake populism, fake workerism, fake left.

So let’s take a step back here now. A theme of all of my writing and all of the books that I’ve been writing all these years is that this is a country that doesn’t really have a traditional left anymore. The Democratic Party killed it off in the 1990s with Clintonism. So who’s going to fill that niche?

There are still lots of working-class people in America. It’s not like their needs have gone away. So who is going to fill that market niche? And the answer is you’ve got these fraudsters on the Right who reach out to those people and give them these false promises. That’s what it is. So the absence of a real populist movement paves the way for fake populism.

Astra Taylor

You write at one point that Populism was one of the first great efforts to tame the capitalist system. And this is a proudly socialist podcast.  So I’m wondering where does socialism fit into this conversation historically? You just said Bernie Sanders is very much in the Populist tradition. And I agree. I just was wondering if you could dig into that a bit more?

Thomas Frank

There is a difference. A lot of the Populists were socialists, but their idea was to be a much broader movement than that. They weren’t Marxists. This is important to remember — they traced their thinking to Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. People like that. Very well-known American Founding Fathers. They knew who Marx was. If you read their newspapers, they would refer to Marx and stuff like that but they weren’t Marxists. Marxism generally doesn’t regard farmers as suitable proletarians, usually because farmers own their own land, which they certainly did in Kansas.

But that’s probably a mistake. These people in Kansas did own their own land, but these are nevertheless some of the poorest people in America. Or you look at the Populists in the South and yeah, a lot of them did own their own land, but once again, these are some of the very poorest people in America. Farmers were once an absolute majority in America. They were more than 50 percent of the population. But when Populism died after the election of 1896, the party lingered on a little after that, but they basically got the wind knocked out of them by that election.

And that was the end of them. But a lot of the leadership went over to the brand-new Socialist Party. So Eugene Debs, for example, who became a Socialist leader, had been a Populist and the great socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, was published out of Girard, Kansas. Appeal to Reason started its life as a populist newspaper and then made the big switch over to socialism, like so many of these Populist people did. It doesn’t look to European theorists. It’s very much all American. When I talk to Europeans and I describe what the Populist Party believed in, they say, “Well, that’s just social democracy.” And that’s true. It is. That is absolutely correct. But it’s the American version of that. The Populist Party was very similar to the Labour Party in England or the Labor Party in Australia, which came up at the same time. But it, nevertheless, was uniquely American.

Astra Taylor

Talk a bit more about those early farmers and some of the institutions they built, like the Farmers’ Alliance, just to sort of flesh out a vision so we can feel them with us in 2020.

Thomas Frank

Farmers were the absolute majority of the population, more than 50 percent. It was by far the largest occupational group in America in the 1880s and 1890s, but they were a group that was on their way down. They were growing poorer as the years went by. It was becoming very difficult for them to survive. It dragged on for decades and farmers just felt their situation getting worse and worse and worse and worse.

In the South, they had become a kind of serf class. They were basically controlled by local bankers and merchants who would extend them credit. The bankers and the merchants were actually instructing the farmers — what to grow, what to do with their time, everything.

So the group called the Farmers’ Alliance, which is basically a farmer’s union, came together with the idea that if farmers all got together all over America and started studying economics and studying their situation, they could figure out what had gone wrong and what they might do about it. This movement among farmers grew by leaps and bounds. It became an enormous mass movement. It had all of these different chapters and sections and there were regional varieties of it and it had millions and millions and millions of members. They referred to themselves as a national university because the idea of it was to educate farmers.

Farmers were people who, by definition, did not have a lot of education and had not gone to college, usually had not gone to high school. And the Farmers’ Alliance would distribute pamphlets among these people, pamphlets explaining their economic situation. They tried to set up universities here and there; they would send lecturers around the country talking about the farmer’s economic situation. They also set up newspapers. So like every small town in Kansas would have had a Republican newspaper and then you’d have a Populist newspaper or a Farmers’ Alliance newspaper that would be the sort of very left-wing take on issues of the day. And their idea was to figure out what had gone wrong for farmers and take collective action to do something about it.

What they eventually discovered after trying all of these different forms of collective action is that they couldn’t do anything without politics. And so they went into politics, and they did this at first by endorsing politicians from one of the two major parties. But that was frustrating. And so they decided to launch their own party, which was a very daring move, but they did it. And this was Populism. And they came from out of nowhere in the year 1890.

This is the first year they tried it. They came out of nowhere and took over the Kansas legislature. Kansas was their most successful state. Kansas was kind of radical at the time. It was settled by abolitionists. And so they took over the state legislature in Kansas as complete shocking surprise to the local Republican Party and indeed to the entire world. They went from there to all over the Great Plains states, all over the West, all over the South, all over the Midwest with different levels of success in different places. The only place where they didn’t have any success at all was in the Northeast. But they were the last time that a third party organized nationally. They contested elections all up and down the ballot. And in fact, elected members of Congress, mayors, governors — they even ran a guy for president, but that was an afterthought. That was populism. That’s where it came from.

But along the way, they accreted all of these other groups that joined up. So it started with the Farmers’ Alliance, but eventually they had signed on all the other labor reform groups of the era. So the Knights of Labor were part of this movement. All of these other unions were part of it. The AFL [American Federation of Labor] was not, by the way. Samuel Gompers wanted no part of this. But a lot of the more radical unions signed on. They wanted a lot of electoral reform. The women’s suffrage movement was part of this reform effort of Populism.

Astra Taylor

So they’re trying to figure out where you actually intervene in the American political system, which I feel like leftists are just now starting to do in a strategic way. Yet so many of their demands are now kind of common sense because they were victorious, right?

Thomas Frank

Yeah, absolutely. They had their three big economic demands, which were a government program for farmers, which we got, of course, in the New Deal. They wanted the government to nationalize the railroads, which we never did, but we do regulate the railroads, which is also the same thing. They wanted this kind of war on monopoly. And the gold standard — they wanted to reform the currency.

It’s hard for modern-day listeners to understand this huge economic issue in the 1890s, but I’ll take a stab at it here. We were on what was called the gold standard at the time, which meant that the value of the dollar was pegged to the amount of gold that we had in the US Treasury. And because gold is extremely scarce, the value of the dollar would go up all the time. So this is called deflation, the opposite of inflation, and it’s really, really, really bad for you if you borrow money. And farmers back then and to this day are a debtor class.

They borrow money as just part of their operations. Every year they borrow money. And then at the end of the harvest, after they’ve sold their harvest, they pay it back. This is what farmers do. The problem is if the currency is deflating, you borrow money and then when you go to pay it back, it’s worth a lot more. So let’s say you borrow the equivalent of five bushels of corn. And when you go to pay it back, it’s seven or eight bushels of corn. This is a huge part of the explanation of why farmers were going down in the 1890s and why their standard of living was declining and why they were being ruined.

And so they wanted to get America off the gold standard and have a currency that kept pace with the growing economy and growing population rather than doing the opposite, which is what the gold standard did. Then they also wanted electoral reforms. They wanted to make it easier for people to vote and safer. They wanted votes for women. They wanted the secret ballot. At the time you would vote in public and everybody could see who you were voting for because your ballot was distributed by one of the two political parties. They wanted—

Astra Taylor

An Australian innovation, right? Not something from the United States.

Thomas Frank

Yes, they called that “the Australian ballot.” That’s right. Don’t they hand out free sausages at the polling place? Isn’t that like part of the deal there?

Anyways, there was incredible concentration of wealth. There was no income tax. They wanted an income tax, by the way — that was one of the Populist demands. This is the great heyday of the Vanderbilts and the Astors and the Carnegies, the great American fortunes. Enormous concentration of wealth, huge monopolies. This is when Standard Oil is coming up. All of the railroad monopolies are already in place. You have a steel monopoly. And the government doesn’t do anything to stop these monopolies. It’s also a time of extraordinary political corruption.

And what the Populists realized, and what we’re starting to realize again today, is that these three things went hand in hand. That the extreme concentration of wealth and monopolization go hand in hand with political corruption. Unfortunately, the word has been poisoned for us.

Astra Taylor

They were seen as these harebrained amateurs, right, stepping out of their lane and trying to have opinions about things that should be left to the experts — but who was correct in the end? We’re not on the gold standard anymore. These self-educated farmers were vindicated.

Thomas Frank

Yeah, they turned out to be right on all the issues that I mentioned. We have a farm program now. We regulate railroads. We regulate monopolies, or at least people think we do. Women have the vote. We have the secret ballot. We all have the eight-hour day. We have all those things. This is a group that has been absolutely vindicated by history. Basically everything on their agenda eventually happened, but, it didn’t happen by their hand. It took twenty, thirty, forty years for it to happen. And it was done by others because the Populist Party fell apart. They didn’t last very long — six or seven years, basically.

Astra Taylor

Was public banking one of their core demands?

Thomas Frank

It’s not mentioned in their platform, but there were places where they did that. So if you look at North Dakota, it was a big-time populist state. And they set up a public bank there. So there were sort of neo-Populist movements for years afterward, like in North Dakota, they were called the Nonpartisan League. By the way, you mentioned something interesting earlier about the tactics and the strategy of this. These were guys that didn’t prevail. Obviously, they didn’t win in their lifetimes, but they did make one hell of a splash and they used a lot of pretty hardball tactics.

You look at our modern-day Democratic Party who always seem to just get played for chumps — they’re really good at tamping down their left wing, but they’re really bad at every other aspect of the political game. One of the tactics that the populists would use — and this was common in the nineteenth century for third parties — which is that they would force the other two parties to deal with an issue that the two mainstream parties would rather ignore.

So in the case of the Republican Party, that issue was slavery. In the case of Populism, that issue was industrial capitalism. And the two, the main parties, would rather just ignore the issue and not do anything about it. But the third parties would force them.

That strategy is no longer available to us. One of the things that the Populists did to put these issues on the agenda was a tactic called fusion, where they would sometimes line up with the Democrats and then other times they would line up with the Republicans. And sometimes they would line up with nobody and just run by themselves. Either way, they would bargain with these other parties and get what they wanted. They used this strategy to great effect.

They elected two governors of Kansas this way. They elected a lot of other officials this way. When you have three parties rather than two, this is how it’s done. The two of them will gang up on the third and they’ll somehow prevail.

Astra Taylor

I think we should linger on North Carolina because we do have to talk about the question of racism and the Populists. At the heart of this idea of populism and at the heart of democracy is this question of who is “the people” — who is included in “the people” and who’s excluded?

I think you make a really strong case that Populism is this multiracial movement for economic democracy. But some of the most famous Populists like Georgia Populist Thomas Watson did become die-hard white supremacist. This is a man who once said to black and white workers, “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” which I believe is true. But this man’s eventual trajectory flew in the face of that insight.

Thomas Frank

Yes. And this is especially important because the way the word populist is used nowadays is as a synonym for racist. And so it’s really, really important to understand that that’s not who the original populists were. They were not the racist party of the 1890s. Anybody that knows American history knows who the racist party of the 1890s was. It was the Southern Democrats. They were called the Bourbon Democrats and they were a poisonously racist party. This is extremely well known. They were the legacy of the Confederacy. And Populism, as I said, was a movement of farmers. And the South, obviously, was an agricultural region — it still is.

And Populism had a black wing. Historians refer to them as the black Populists. The Farmers’ Alliance was segregated, at least in the South. So they confronted this system in the South where they called this “white solidarity.” At the time, blacks could still vote in most Southern states. This is in the early 1890s we’re talking about. And the way the white ruling class stayed in power, the Bourbon Democrats, was by saying to the voters, “Your interests as white people are paramount to any other interest that you might have. And you have to stick together as whites and vote for the party of white people and vote for the Bourbon Democrats.” And this is how they maintain their grip on the South through this doctrine of white solidarity.

And the Populists said something really, really interesting in the early 1890s. They said, “No, in fact, your interests as farmers are more important than your interests as white people.” And so, therefore, and they said to the black farmers, “Come and join up with us.” And the white farmers joined up with the black farmers and said, “Together we’re going to come together and we’re going to get reforms.” This was their sales pitch in the early 1890s. The quote that you just read from Tom Watson is very famous. He published that in a national magazine saying this is how Populism is going to address the race issue in American life: by saying that black farmers and white farmers have economic interests in common.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate this. He wasn’t saying that they should be friends or that they should be social equals or anything like that. He’s just saying they should vote together and should come together politically to advance their economic interests. That was his argument.  And this is the case that Populism tried to make across the South. And you can guess what happened next.

The Southern white ruling class just came down on them like a ton of bricks and used every trick in the book to beat these people: lynching people, shooting people; this is how elections were fought in the 1890s in the South. And it went both ways. The Populists fought back, but the Populists by and large lost except in one state. And that was North Carolina.

It’s the only Southern state where they actually managed to legally win the election. They probably won in other states as well, but they were cheated out of their victories. Tom Watson had been a member of Congress and the Bourbon Democrats basically cheated him out of it once he had made that stand. But in North Carolina, they managed to win. They elected a governor and they elected a US senator and they did this and they did that. They did it by coming together with the local Republican Party, who at the time was the party that most black voters were still loyal to. They won a couple of statewide elections in North Carolina. They took over the legislature. They passed a lot of laws allowing home rule in local areas, which meant that there were then black officeholders at the municipal level.

And this made the Bourbon Democrats a little bit crazy. They were murderous. They launched this campaign of incredible race hysteria. The campaign was called the White Supremacy Campaign and North Carolinians used to be proud of this! You can read up on it in the history books and they were like, yeah, we put down Populism and this is how we did it by sort of stoking these insane racial fears. They set up paramilitary gangs. By the way, they were called the Red Shirts. Isn’t that interesting? It’s a sort of a predecessor of the brown shirts and the black shirts.

They went around intimidating people, murdering people. And when the dust had settled, they won — they defeated Populism. And in one city, Wilmington, North Carolina, they not only defeated the populists — and the Republicans who were in North Carolina were known as the Fusionists — they overthrew the local Fusionist government. They went into this town with guns and murdered and lynched and burned the black part of town. It’s incredible. And they were never punished for doing this. The only known military coup in American history was to overthrow this sort of Republican-Populist regime in Wilmington, North Carolina.

And so what happened to Tom Watson is he was one of the most flamboyant Populists around. He was from Georgia and he started out as this arch Jeffersonian. A Populist so full of promise that they ran him as their vice presidential nominee in 1896, which we’ll talk about in a minute. It didn’t work out for him. He was humiliated on the national stage in a kind of spectacular way. And after that, he sort of went quiet for a couple of years. He had started out as an advocate of interracial solidarity. Solidarity between blacks and whites. But then he reemerged a couple of years later as the biggest racist in the South. Turned against his former allies in this absolutely vicious manner.

By the time he did this, by the time he made his sort of extreme racist turn, the Populist Party didn’t exist any longer as a national force. There were still pockets of Populism here and there, but they were basically wiped out. Watson continued to call himself a populist because in Georgia, he was the party. But the party nationally, in a place like Kansas, was basically dead by that point. Then he became this spectacular antisemite around the 1910s. He had a newspaper and he was basically responsible for one of the most notorious lynchings in Southern history. It was a Jewish factory manager who had been wrongly accused of murdering one of his employees. Tom Watson was responsible for that.

Historians are fascinated by his career because it’s the original example of a left-wing figure, like something going wrong with him mentally and him turning into this sort of insane, vicious right-winger. One of the most famous works of American history is this biography of Tom Watson written by the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward. Historians are fascinated by how this guy went wrong. But Woodward, interestingly, does not say that this is the danger of populism. Woodward says, no, there’s something wrong with Tom Watson. Tom Watson kind of had a screw loose, and his humiliation on the national stage made something go wrong in his mind.

After I finished the book, I found an essay that I really wish I had seen before I published the book by W. E. B. Du Bois where he talks about Watson and Populism. And it’s a history of the state of Georgia, but it’s a beautiful essay because he’s talking about the tragic history of the South and how everybody that thinks about it understands that the only real hope for some kind of resolution to the awful history of Georgia is when the working class white farmers got together with black farmers. And he said there’s only been one moment in the history of the state when that was possible. And that moment was Populism.

But it was this very, very brief moment. And it was snuffed out almost immediately by the ruling class.

Astra Taylor

Let’s segue into anti-populism, which I sense is your true topic. The present-day enemies of populism like to say populism is racist demagoguery. It is Trump, it is Bolsonaro, it is Viktor Orbán. And it’s this toxic tendency. So where does that idea come from?

Thomas Frank

No one would have made that accusation in the 1890s. They accused Populism of a lot of other things, but they did not accuse it, at the time, of being racist or xenophobic or antisemitic even. There’s a really obvious reason for that once you start digging in the literature of anti-Populism. Because the ruling elite of this country despised and hated the Populist movement and generated what I call a whole literature of their own, this anti-Populist literature denouncing the Populist movement.

And if you dig into this literature, you right away discover why they didn’t accuse Populism of being racist and antisemitic. It’s because they themselves were so racist and antisemitic. It would have been really odd to accuse someone else of that. The racism of that period is just so in your face once you start reading this literature. But okay, to take a step back — there was this massive reaction against Populism once it sprang up in Kansas. People didn’t welcome this new left-wing movement with open arms.

They feared and hated it. They despised it. They regarded it as the coming of the class war. They thought it was the French Revolution all over again and things really came to a head in the year 1896. There had been an economic depression, there were strikes all over the place, the Pullman

Strike famously — probably the biggest national strike we’ve ever had — and the Democratic Party met for their convention in Chicago. Now I should mention here that the Democratic Party nationally was different than the Southern Democrats. The Bourbon Democrats were important in the national Democratic Party, but they weren’t determinative. They couldn’t force the national Democrats to choose one of their guys.

So the national Democratic Party meets for their convention in Chicago. And they nominate this guy, William Jennings Bryan, who is thirty-six years old, the youngest presidential candidate of all time. They nominate him for president. He’s a one-term congressman from Nebraska. And they nominate him on the strength of a speech that he’s just given attacking the gold standard. This is the famous “Cross of Gold” speech where he compares the gold standard to a cross on which the government is trying to crucify the working class. He is acclaimed for this speech. And the East Coast elite of this country is absolutely aghast.

Then a few weeks later, the Populist Party — remember they’re still in business in 1896  — meets for their convention and they’ve discovered that Bryan has stolen their thunder. He’s stolen their number-one issue: the gold standard. He’s taken that away from them. And so they’re trying to figure out what to do. And they decide to endorse him. You know, he’s not with them on a lot of their other issues. He’s not with them on women’s suffrage. He’s not with them on the railroad issue, all these other things.

But he is with them on this big issue of currency reform. And so they endorse Bryan. They do this kind of fusion strategy on a national level and they make Tom Watson their vice presidential candidate. Anyhow, long story short, the East Coast elite of this country goes absolutely berserk and stirs up this kind of hysteria against Bryan. They say that Bryan is anti-intellectual. They say that Bryan is mentally ill. The New York Times runs a series of articles suggesting that he is in the grip of paranoia — that he’s crazy.

The reason they say he’s anti-intellectual is because he simply doesn’t understand modern economics. He doesn’t understand globalization. He doesn’t understand that they need the gold standard. They say that he represents the worst elements of society coming together against the best. So the lowest orders, the lowest ranks of society, trying to grab control of the economy from the captains of industry — the East Coast people, graduates of fancy colleges. And they come together against Bryan in this extraordinary coalition, this sort of gathering of the elite tribes — railroad tycoons, millionaires, financiers together with university presidents and other big-name intellectuals.

William Graham Sumner was on board with this but most importantly newspaper owners. The newspaper owners of America began this incredible campaign of hysterical attacks on William Jennings Bryan; they claim, “This is the class war! This is the French Revolution! This is Jacobinism come home to America, and we’ve got to stamp this thing out!” And their one-word description for Bryanism — for all of the ills that I just mentioned — was “populism.” This is what they called it. Bryanism was populism. Populism is anti-intellectualism. It’s mental illness. It’s this uprising of the lower orders who don’t understand all this stuff.

They succeed and beat Bryan, and the Populist Party basically falls apart because they’ve made this incredible compromise in order to back William Jennings Bryan and now it’s come to nothing. And so that’s the end of them. And what’s funny is that the stereotype that the East Coast press invents to describe Bryanism, what we call “populism,” this stereotype lives on and in the 1950s gets embraced by academia. So then this sort of stereotype from the 1890s weirdly resurfaces in the 1950s. Actually, it doesn’t just resurface in the 1950s — it resurfaces again and again in American history.

I said earlier that there’s a populist tradition in American life. There’s also an anti-populist tradition where this same sort of understanding of working-class movements keeps resurfacing — that they’re dangerous, that they’re led by demagogues, they’re anti-intellectual, that they’re trying to put the worst people in charge of society. And that comes up again in the 1930s in opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt, now with a lot of eugenics mixed in because that was the science of the day — the lower orders were lower because they deserve to be lower because they were genetically chosen to be the lower orders and how dare they rise up against the people that nature and science have chosen to run society! You know, the best and the brightest. So these ideas are another sort of persistent strain in American life. This tradition is profoundly mistrustful of democracy. This sort of anti-populist tradition really dislikes democracy and it’s strong in American life.

Then a really weird thing happens in the 1950s, when you have a generation of high-ranking liberal academics at the great universities — the “consensus scholars” — basically embrace this anti-populist theory of democracy: that mass democracy is actually kind of dangerous. The people are puppets in the hands of these demagogues, they’re anti-intellectual, they’re paranoid, they’ve got all of these pathologies going on there. They’re prone to authoritarianism. And then this other new idea that if you let working-class people form movements and join up with mass movements, they will automatically be racist and antisemitic. There were a whole bunch of scholars working on this idea at the same time in the 1950s, but the one that’s most important for our purposes is the historian Richard Hofstadter.

Hofstadter decides to summarize this way of looking at mass movements of working-class people with the word “populism.” And he does this because he’s written a new history of the Populist movement. It comes out in 1955 and it’s called The Age of Reform. And it’s one of the most famous works of American history ever written. He wins a Pulitzer Prize for it. Up until then, historians had looked very kindly on Populism and on the labor movement and things like that. And they regarded the early Socialist movement and especially the Populists as heroes. And Hofstadter says, “No, there were all these things wrong with the Populist movement. They had status anxiety. They had this paranoid streak. They believed in conspiracy theories. They were antisemitic. They were anti-intellectual.” Again, simply because they went against the great intellectuals of the time.

This is enormously influential. And this is where the word populism stops being spelled with an uppercase P, a reference to this movement in the 1890s, and becomes a generic term to describe the pathological movements of working-class people. Okay, that’s how within ten years, his take on the Populist movement of the 1890s is completely refuted by other American historians. They go after him and basically destroy his take on Populism. No, it wasn’t particularly conspiratorial — some of them were, but so were a lot of other people at the time. No, it wasn’t particularly antisemitic. Again, some of them were, but so were a lot of other people at the time. It wasn’t anti-intellectual, it wasn’t xenophobic, it wasn’t anti-immigrant. Everything he said about Populism was basically refuted by other American historians. There have been probably a hundred books and articles refuting Hofstadter’s take on Populism.

But here’s the punchline: that doesn’t matter. Hofstadter’s take on Populism is still riding high today. It is in fact the foundation stone of an entire pedagogy that they call “global populism studies.” It’s all based on Hofstadter’s redefinition of Populism as the pathological movement of authoritarian minded, racist working-class people. Even though that is not what Populism was, they start their definition with his definition. I’m reading this and I’m like, well, Hofstadter has just taken this sort of stereotype built by American newspapers in the 1890s and has kind of rejuvenated it using, you know, fancy psychological buzzwords of the 1950s.

So why does it persist? Why is it still going? Just the other day I opened up a very popular work of history that refers to Hofstadter all over the place and uses the word populism exclusively as a synonym for racist demagogue. And the author has no idea that Hofstadter was refuted and just assumes that this is correct — that that’s what Populism was. Why does this bad idea persist even though it was refuted?

Astra Taylor

Well, I think this is one thing that they get right about populism is that it is anti-elitist. That is something that’s accurate, right? And that’s part of the transgression.

Thomas Frank

Oh yeah, there’s no doubt about that. Of course they were anti-elite. But so is Thomas Jefferson. That’s our history. That’s who we are. It’s Thomas Paine. America is anti-elite. So in that sense, they are deep in the American grain. The reason Hofstadter’s idea persists is because it was flattering to this group of intellectuals coming up in the 1950s. Again, they call themselves “the consensus scholars,” and they had a very different understanding of how American government worked than the reform movements of the past. And their idea was that you don’t get reform by building a mass movement of working-class people in the streets. You don’t get reform through the labor movement. You don’t get reform by strikes. You don’t get reform by building a giant union of farmers. You get reform by people like them — by putting people like them in charge.

So this is the 1950s. This is the heyday of managerialism in American life. And so you’ve got MBAs [master of business administration] taking over the corporations, which are no longer being run by entrepreneurs and heirs and stuff like that. They’re being run by MBAs now. You’ve got PhD people running the great departments in Washington. You’ve got Robert McNamara at the Department of Defense. The smartest guys in the room are joining in together. It’s the best and the brightest. McNamara is the face of the can-do managerial style.

The intellectuals will win the Cold War for us. The guys with the computers will give us a planned economy that will deliver prosperity to everyone. And they’ll win the Vietnam War. And it’s basically a brief for rule by a certain class — by the professional elite. This new managerial elite is rising up and so they use the word populism to describe that which they are displacing. That’s what the word means to this day. Whenever you hear the word populism used in this way, it’s like you think about the Europeans who use it. They’re talking about the opposite of these technocrats in Brussels.

Astra Taylor

I think that’s why it’s so important to highlight that the early populists were right about so many things the federal government came to adopt.

Thomas Frank

Yeah, they were right. The intellectuals of the time were, in fact, wrong. The highfalutin economists and scholars of the day were all into social Darwinism and the gold standard. They were completely wrong.

Astra Taylor

I want you to talk more about this because meritocracy is something that you have written and railed against so much, and I think especially at this moment, when there are a lot of batshit conspiracy theories and a lot of ignorance, you still have to have that leap of faith and trust people’s capacity. Liberals shouting, “Trust experts, believe science, fact check” is not sufficient, right?

Thomas Frank

Meritocracy tells us that it’s ruled by “the best and the brightest” — the smartest guys in the room. But it always turns out to be corrupted in some spectacular way. When I was in graduate school, the hot subject of the day was the rise of the professions. And everybody wanted to write histories of the professions and how professions come together and how professions work. And what fascinated me about all that was how professions fail. These are the highly educated experts to whom we have turned over the operation of society, as Richard Hofstadter and his friends wanted.

You come face-to-face with this class of people all the time, whether you’re talking about your physician or you’re talking about scientists or the guys down at City Hall that give you a permit to do whatever work you want to do on your house or the administrator at your kid’s college, the experts are societies. This is society’s officer class that we’re talking about here. Meritocracy is the idea that these people deserve to rule because they are the best — that this elite is a legitimate elite, that this hierarchy is a legitimate hierarchy. That when you base hierarchy on SAT scores or GPA [Grade Point Average], that makes it a legitimate hierarchy. And I’m here to tell you that in fact, members of this class — the professional class — actually act like any other class in that they help each other out.

They show solidarity in the face of challenges. They excuse each other’s transgressions. They circle the wagons to prevent themselves from being criticized. And most importantly, they refuse to listen to outside voices. This is, in fact, the definition of a profession. They’re autonomous. So economists don’t have to listen to you and me when we talk about our opinions on economics as the Populists learned in the 1890s. The economics profession doesn’t care what you think. They don’t have to listen to you. It’s by its nature profoundly undemocratic. And then you put them in charge.

And you remember when Barack Obama got elected, by the way, this is where this story becomes very personal for me because I was a big fan of Barack Obama in 2008. And I thought he was going to be a great president. And one of the reasons I thought that is because, at the time, I still believed in this kind of administration. Remember, after George [W.] Bush had filled the government with these hacks and cronies and fools and they had run everything wrong, and they had allowed this incredible financial catastrophe to take place in addition to the Iraq War and in addition to all their other catastrophes — after these imbeciles, I was ready for government by expert.

When Obama comes in, sure enough, that’s exactly what Obama does. He fills his cabinet with geniuses.  And I mean, literally people who got “the genius grant.” And there are people with Pulitzer Prizes, and there are people with every imaginable prize. He had the President of Harvard advising him on economic policy, right? Larry Summers, the smartest guy in America. And what do these people do? They continue the policies of the Bush administration in regard to the banks. Everybody is let off the hook. Obama’s Justice Department says at one point, and I’m paraphrasing, but they say, “Bankers are special creatures and we should not prosecute them.” They are above prosecution for their crime. Or that if you prosecute them, then the economy will crash. And so therefore, all these jobs are at stake. So you have to be nice to them, which is a kind of Ayn Rand scenario.

Astra Taylor

Do you think populism is a winning electoral strategy for the Left right now?

Thomas Frank

I think it absolutely is a winning strategy because America is, at the end of the day, a populist country. You look back to the great period of liberal political dominance, the 1930s and 1940s,  and it was a very populist time. Not just politically with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, which was basically the old political program of the Populist Party, but also culturally. Look at the Hollywood movies of the period. The Frank Capra movies and it’s just like, in-your-face populism! It’s this faith in “the people,” this hatred of elites, specifically of bankers. Or you look at the WPA [Works Progress Administration] murals of the time celebrating working-class people or all of those photographic projects where a photographer would go down to the South and take pictures of sharecroppers and stuff like that.

This is the great liberal triumph and it’s a time of incredible, intense populism. Also the labor movement is growing by leaps and bounds, especially the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], which was extremely populist as opposed to the AFL. And so populism coincides with liberal triumph. There’s no doubt about that in my mind. But it’s also true that the Democratic Party has done everything in their power to put that behind them and to get themselves away from that and to embrace the managerial strategy, the meritocratic strategy of the consensus generation. They’ve absolutely and totally done that which has cleared the way for the Republicans to embrace this fake populism that is, nevertheless, rhetorically extremely appealing to people.

Yet Republicans today want to complicate voting. The whole point of populism was to open up the voting process to us. That is the great tradition in American life: to constantly enlarge the circle of who gets to vote and encourage people to vote in it. What the Republicans are after is the opposite: to constantly problematize voting, make it scary for people, to cast doubts on its legitimacy. It’s a profoundly anti-populist project in that sense. It’s almost too funny, isn’t it? It’s like we’re in such a crazy world, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the way you beat right-wing populism is with the real deal.

And I don’t know what form that’s going to take. Look at the definition of populism. It’s about movements. Transracial movements of working-class people building those movements again, get the labor movement up and running again, and we can stop this thing, or we can at least short-circuit this thing.

The two parties in this country basically represent the two elites. The Republicans are your kind of business elite, but a certain kind of entrepreneurial, small business elite. And the Democrats represent essentially everyone else. So Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, Big Pharma, Big Medicine, all that’s the Democrats.

Astra Taylor

The insurance industry gets both of them.

Thomas Frank

Yeah. So some of them are contested like Wall Street. When we were younger, Wall Street was contested. They could go either way. But now they’re pretty much on the side of the Democrats. So there’s two different elite groups in this country, but what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is the liberals have this total cultural hegemony in this country that has materialized very suddenly in a kind of a shocking way. When I was doing the Baffler magazine, we used to make fun of a lot of these right-wing talking points. And one of my favorite ones to make fun of was the idea that there was a liberal media. I’d be like, “Ha, ha, ha, the media is not liberal,” and I would prove it by this, that, and the other. Well, they are. It turns out to be true.

And by the way, I want to bring it back to a subject that is close to your heart, which is the long trajectory of democracy itself in this country. And I want to remind you that democracy has always been a contested value in America. And what I mean by that is that the Founding Fathers didn’t like democracy. This is a bad word to them. This was something that they were afraid of. That sense of democracy meant mob rule. That idea persisted and persists to this day.

But the problem is that at some point, they couldn’t say that democracy meant mob rule anymore because America had fought two world wars for democracy. We were supposedly the arsenal of democracy. And they had to come up with a different word to describe this fear of ordinary people and “rule by the masses.” And so the word they came up with was populism. And it’s now the vehicle now for expressing that fear.