Populism from Bryan to Obama

Barack Obama’s current political woes are slightly overstated, the current Democrat slump has been worsened by a panic reaction to bad economic news, even although the economic evidence viewed overall points to a continuation of the slow recovery.

Still the prognosis for the Congressional Democrats is dire (although could the unpopularity of the Republicans make a difference?). Ongoing debate on the American left as to what Obama could have done between what I call structuralists and intentionalists with the former such as Brendan Nyhan stressing the obstacles Obama has faced and the later such as John Judis believing that he could been more politically effective. Related to this is an interesting debate about populism in The American Prospect. Left critics of Obama are prone to arguing that he needs a populist message. Kevin Mattson has different evaluation of populism:

But liberals, like it or not, have to worry about more than just rallying the masses around their collective anger. They have to worry about governing — and nurturing the semblance of rational dialogue that governing requires. Populism is susceptible to pandering and over-promising in its rhetoric, prone to outlandish promises that generate disillusionment in the face of the reality of political compromise and the demands of governing in a complex world. Liberals can’t promise the people that translating their anger and frustration into political power will fix everything that’s wrong with America. And they have to admit the reality: Like it or not, since the 1960s populism has steadily become the property of the right, precisely because it is dramatic and simplistic in its worldview. Liberalism, however, doesn’t assume that people are automatically virtuous. It suggests that people need to become more than what they are. Civic-minded liberalism, unlike populism, projects a vision and political language appropriate for both campaigning and governing. It accepts that everyone is tainted by self-regard — leaders and the people they lead. It recognizes the appeal of playing up anger and emotions in politics, but it also acknowledges that such an approach won’t save us from the complexities of the problems we face. Civic-minded liberals believe in the need for expertise and intelligence in solving problems, a demand that flummoxes populists. Consider the BP oil spill currently devastating the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, we must force the corporation to clean up its own mess at its own expense. You could call that the populist spirit behind any sensible policy — the interest of “the people” versus the power of corporations. But beyond that, we also need science and expertise in monitoring the situation, those elitist skills that populists inherently distrust. Similarly, in order to create a good solution to the health-care crisis, we need intelligence and hard scrutiny of our existing system. Both situations demand an ability to explain how policy works to solve problems. Whooping yawps against big corporate health providers might rally the masses but will only get us so far. In this way, civic liberalism takes after community organizing, which engages people where they are but initiates a dialogue that lifts them to a higher purpose of collective engagement through a rational — or as rational as possible — understanding of the issues at hand. It pushes and pulls and concludes, “The people, sometimes.” The populist strain in American history, which emerged during the 1880s and 1890s, is both apocalyptic and fervid. Go back to the Populist Party platform of 1892, and there you’ll find not just calls to nationalize the railroads and set up an alternative credit system but the diagnosis that America had been “brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin,” that “the fruits of the toil of the millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few … and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.” Consider Tom Watson, a founder of the Populist Party in Georgia, who claimed in 1892 that populists would bring forth “a new order of things” and a “revolution in the old systems.” Or think of William Jennings Bryan who, four years later in one of the most famous speeches in history, asserted that the “struggling masses” deserved better than the gold standard: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Good stuff. Yet it didn’t work, not even back then. The Populist Party won slim margins in 1892 and suffered the fate of most third parties in America (in this case fusing with the Democrats before crumbling); Bryan lost the 1896 election. But let us imagine for a moment that the Populists had won. Would their rhetoric have saved them from the difficulties that lay ahead, allowing them to institute reforms in the interest of the people? Historians have debated the meaning of the original populist movement for years. Some, like Larry Goodwyn and the late Christopher Lasch, believed populists were democratic yet reactionary, hoping to block progress and preserve petty-bourgeois ownership against the onslaught of modern industrial capitalism. Others, like the late C. Vann Woodward and Charles Postel, depicted populists as rational and forward-looking. As Postel points out in The Populist Vision, populists believed in planning and took as their inspiration for government’s effectiveness and power the success of the American postal system (not exactly a model ripe for replication today, of course). These distinctions are important for historians, but they’re largely academic. Once America moved from being a small, rural society to an industrial and then a post-industrial high-tech society, populism veered rightward. Huey Long’s “share the wealth” slogan may have had a left-wing populist tinge in the 1930s, but it was wrapped up in a dangerous form of demagogy. Recent attempts to paint Harry Truman as a raging populist ignore significant portions of his presidency, such as his willingness to let the Office of Price Administration wither, his argument that Joseph McCarthy’s populist attack on the State Department (the senator’s demonization of the silver-spoon, Ivy League elite) was dangerous, his building of the national-security state, and his dislike for labor unions in times of crisis. At one point, he talked of shooting John Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers. Since the 1960s, populism has succeeded on the right and has produced few if any left-wing counterparts. The tradition has moved from the segregationist George Wallace, who derided the federal government and pointy-headed intellectuals, to Richard Nixon’s celebration of “the silent majority” and Spiro Agnew’s attack against journalists and elites. It has fed on an easy hatred of government and taxes, from the “I’m Mad as Hell” chants of the California tax protesters in 1978 — the spirit that helped get Ronald Reagan elected president — to the Tea Party of today. There’s no way to steer this boat back to left-wing shores…Most populist techniques smack of pandering, precisely because once someone has earned office, any populist claims begin to ring false. Case in point: When I worked on the John Kerry campaign in Appalachian Ohio, we struggled with the fact that Kerry was no man of the people. When we were sent flyers from national headquarters showing Kerry duck hunting, I thought at first, sure, here’s a good pitch — this man won’t take your rifles away (and more abstractly, Democrats protect public hunting lands better than Republicans, a message few voters seemed to absorb). But then I thought more realistically about my region: There were deer hunters in abundance, but there were no duck hunters — that’s so New England. As I distributed these flyers, I realized voters found the idea of John Kerry as a potential hunting buddy to be shameless pandering. This is anecdotal experience, yes, but still, fair warning…This doesn’t mean we should deride the people, but nor should we celebrate their virtues at the expense of intelligence. We shouldn’t fear our own capacity to explain our political positions to people in a way that doesn’t pander to their anger. Liberals should embrace the difficult responsibility and balancing act of ensuring that political debate remain as rational as possible, that civility not be broached, that respect for expertise and intelligence be respected. All the while accepting the idea that what we really want to win is the respect of voters who trust us to govern, not just make them feel good about themselves.

I would agree mostly. It is noteworthy that old left populism was an electoral failure. The Democrats not only lost in1896 but the election initiated a major partisan realignment that saw them trail the Republicans by 10 percentage points on average at presidential elections from 1896-1928. Their failure is particularly notable during the pre-1912 era because real wages were stagnant during this period. Reminded here of the European Marxist critique of Russian populism and of those revisionist socialists who wanted socialist parties to appeal to small producers, see here Lenin and Kautsky. Contemporary progressive Democrats espouse trivial populist causes such as opposition to companies sending jobs ‘overseas‘ rather than campaigning for policies that would actually make a difference. The 1998 and 2007 elections in Australia saw Labor rebuild its support among working-class voters but this was on the basis of a critique of the policies of the conservative Howard government not a campaign against domestic enemies. I discussed this issue in my book on the great Austrlian example of Labor populism Langism:

We should not be surprised at the fairly uniform swing[against Lang at the 1932 NSW election]. Election campaigns can be politically polarising without being socially polarising. Across a wide range of countries and party systems partisan swings are usually fairly uniform. The collective goods that governments provide such as economic management and general administrative competence are valued by all electors and despite distributional conflicts most electors benefit by economic growth. Even Lang’s populism mostly identified the enemies of the people as foreign bankers external to the Australian community and in 1932 the conservatives appealed to workers.

Is this what Antonio Gramsci meant by his distinction between a hegemonic appeal and an economic-corporate one? An interesting attempt to consider what Gramsci’s analysis might mean for political strategy is Laclau & Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

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