Populism was the first of America’s great economic uprisings, a roar of outrage from people in the lower half of the country’s social order. It was a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans came to think of the country’s inequitable system as a thing they might change by common effort. It was a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, can sometimes react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements is no longer tolerable to them.
Populism was also our country’s final serious third-party effort, the last one to stand a decent chance of breaking the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. In the 1890s the two main parties were still basically regional organizations, relics of the Civil War; Populism transcended that system by making an appeal based on class solidarity, aiming to bring together farmers in the South and the West with factory workers in northern cities. “The interests of rural and civic labor are the same,” proclaimed the famous 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, and “their enemies are identical.” By which the Pops meant those who prospered while producing nothing: bankers, railroad barons, and commodity traders, along with their hirelings—corrupt politicians who served wealth instead of “the people.”
This was, of course, a time of unregulated corporate monopolies, of in-your-face corruption, and of crushing currency deflation—and it was also a time when everyone agreed that government’s role was to provide a framework conducive to business and otherwise to get out of the way. That was the formal ideal; the execution was slightly uglier, a matter of smoke and exploitation, bankruptcy and foreclosure, of cabinet seats for sale and entire state legislatures bought with free-ride railroad passes.
Against this backdrop came the Populist revolt. The rightful subject of the government’s ministrations, populism insisted, was not business at all but the People.
It all began in the 1880s when farmers started signing up by the thousands for a cooperative movement called the Farmers’ Alliance. America was still largely an agricultural nation, and in the places where Populism eventually took root farmers made up overwhelming majorities of the population.
They were not particularly affluent majorities, however. In the South, farmers tended to be desperately poor, borrowing against future crops to buy food and necessities. The merchants from whom they borrowed took pains to ensure not only that the farmers never got out of debt but that they took the merchants’ dictation on what to grow and how to grow it. What to grow always turned out to be cotton, and as the southern farmers produced crop after bumper crop of the stuff, the price only sank.
Farmers in the West, meanwhile, found themselves at the mercy of a different set of middlemen—local railroad monopolies and far-off commodity speculators. Like their brethren in the South, they worked and borrowed and grew and harvested; they watched as what they produced was sold in Chicago and New York for good prices; and yet what they themselves earned from their labors fell and fell and fell. In 1870, farmers received forty-three cents a bushel for corn; twenty years later in eastern Kansas it sold for ten cents a bushel, far less than what it cost to grow. Accounts from the period describe corn lying around on the ground with no takers; corn burned in stoves for heat.1
To such people the Farmer’s Alliance made a simple proposition: Let’s find out why we are being ruined, and then let’s get together and do something about it. Education was the first order of business, and the movement conceived of itself as a sort of “national university,” employing an army of traveling lecturers. Chapters of the movement ran lending libraries; radical rural newspapers (of which there were many) sold cheap books about agriculture and political reform.2
The movement also promised real results for farmers, by means of rural cooperatives and political pressure. And the Farmers’ Alliance spread like a wildfire. By the end of the 1880s it had millions of members, mainly in the South; the Colored Farmers’ Alliance (the southern Alliances were segregated) represented a million more; similar farm groups in the northern states brought additional millions into the radical fold. News reports marveled at the enormous audiences that would turn out to hear Alliance speakers—crowds of the size typically found at modern-day football games, gathering in a pasture somewhere. A novel published at the time describes the way American minds began to change:
People commenced to think who had never thought before, and people talked who had seldom spoken. . . . Little by little they commenced to theorize upon their condition. Despite the poverty of the country, the books of Henry George, [Edward] Bellamy, and other economic writers were bought to be read greedily; and nourished by the fascination of novelty and the zeal of enthusiasm, thoughts and theories sprouted like weeds after a May shower. . . . They discussed income tax and single tax; they talked of government ownership and the abolition of private property; fiat money, and the unity of labor; . . . and a thousand conflicting theories.3
At first, the political program of the Farmers’ Alliance focused on a handful of big issues: the regulation of railroads, federal loans to farmers, and currency reform of a kind that would help debtors. The Alliance developed positions on a whole host of other matters as well: it supported free trade, for example, and votes for women, and secret ballots on Election Day. Thanks to the movement’s vast numbers, conventional politicians in every farm state began to pay attention, promising to act on the farmers’ demands.
But somehow the politicians never delivered. The power of business over the state legislatures always turned out to be too great to overcome. The same thing on a larger scale was obviously true of Congress in Washington, D.C. And while the politicians triangulated, the farmers’ position worsened.
Something profound had taken place, however. The farmers—men and women of society’s commonest rank—had figured out that being exploited was not the natural order of things. So members of the Farmers’ Alliance began taking matters into their own hands. In Kansas and a few other western states they went into politics directly, styling themselves as the People’s Party, a new organization with a new agenda. In the fall of 1890 they challenged and in places overthrew the dominant local Republicans, turning out old-school senators and representatives and replacing them with leaders from their own movement.
Over the next few years, the party organized itself nationally, and at their gathering in Omaha in the summer of 1892 they formally announced their program to the world. By this time the Knights of Labor and a number of other unions were on board, along with most of the reform-minded farm groups of the era, and so the People’s Party declared itself to be “the first great labor conference of the United States and of the world,” bringing together “the producers of the nation” from both the country and the city. They denounced “capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts,” and they declared that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” In that heyday of American inequality, that golden age of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, the Populists alone saw things clearly:
The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.4
In 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, a Civil War general from Iowa named James B. Weaver, won 22 electoral votes, and by following a strategy of “fusion” or coordination with local Democrats, the party managed to elect governors in several western states ordinarily controlled by the Republicans. In the South, where the dominant group was the conservative “Bourbon” Democrats, the Populist revolt met with disaster. The party of white supremacy casually cheated the Pops out of victories that should have been theirs. The only southern state where the third party prevailed was North Carolina, where fusion with the local Republicans brought Populism into power in the middle of the decade. To this subject we shall return anon.
Social class was essential to how the Populists understood their situation, and they talked often about what they called “the producing class.” But the phrase they favored above all others when speaking of the toilers was “the people.” As in: “We the People.” As in: “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” That was the struggle as they saw it: the “plain people” versus the power.
It is common to cast Populism as the end of something, as the farmer’s last political stand or the terminus of nineteenth-century radicalism. With a slightly wider focus, the arrival of Populism looks a lot more like the shock of the new. “A new way of looking at things,” in the words of historian Lawrence Goodwyn; “a mass expression of a new political vision.”5 This was the first movement in American politics that demanded far-reaching government intervention in the economy in order to benefit working people, and contemporaneous accounts of the movement often describe its arrival as a sort of epiphany, a “Pentecost of politics,” a moment of sudden, mass enlightenment. Consider this description of a gathering of Texas Populists:
For a whole week they literally lived and breathed Reform: by day and by night they sang of Populism, they prayed for Populism, they read Populist literature and discussed Populist principles with their brethren in the faith, and they heard Populist orators loose their destructive thunderbolts in the name of the People’s Party.6
In truth, that vision was manifesting all over the world in those days. The Pops won the support of a significant chunk of the emerging American labor movement, and in some places the People’s Party was basically a labor party. As such, Populism was part of a great wave of working-class political movements then rising up in the industrialized countries. The British Labour Party was founded at about the same time, and Populists on occasion looked to it for inspiration. The Australian Labor Party, for its part, actually considered adopting the name “People’s Party” in homage to what then looked like a powerful new force in the United States.7
Like these other groups, the Pops concentrated their efforts on economic issues and the closely related matter of electoral reform. By and large, they stayed away from the culture-war issues of the day. This surprises the modern-day student of the movement: the Populists may have had a churchly way of speaking, but for the most part they refrained from denouncing ordinary people for their bad values. Questions like prohibition, for example, threatened to break the Populist coalition apart and therefore had to be avoided despite the distaste of many Pops for liquor and saloons. With their singular focus on economics, they regarded many of the controversies of the day as traps or distractions.
Populist rhetoric oscillated between passionate denunciations of injustice and methodical, even boring exegeses on complicated economic problems. “Starvation stalks abroad amid an overproduction of food,” roared a typical Populist j’accuse of 1891; within a few sentences, however, it had gone from hot to cold, calling on readers to
calmly and dispassionately examine the facts which we are prepared to submit in support of our claims. . . . [I]f the facts and arguments we present can be refuted we neither ask nor expect your support.
These were peculiarly math-minded reformers. Look over introductions to the reform cause like the 1895 pamphlet What Is Populism?, and you will find a detailed, plank-by-plank exposition of the party’s economic program: its demands for a government-controlled currency, for government control of the railroads, for rooting out political corruption . . . and precious little else.8
Many of Populism’s causes are familiar to us today: the regulation of monopolies, the income tax, the initiative and referendum, the direct election of senators, and so on. They are familiar because they have largely been achieved.
One item on the list of Populist grievances requires a lengthier explanation today, however. For many Americans of the late nineteenth century, currency deflation was the single greatest issue facing the nation. At that time, the worth of the dollar was fixed to the value of gold: the “gold standard.” As a result, the amount of dollars in circulation could not increase unless the government’s reserves of gold—a scarce metal—increased as well.
One consequence of the gold standard was painful, constant deflation. Since the population and the economy were both growing explosively, and since the number of dollars in circulation could not grow with them, dollars became scarcer every year and constantly increased in value. If you were a banker, this was a fantastic situation. If you were a debtor—and farmers were debtors—the gold standard was dreadful. It meant you had to repay what you had borrowed using dollars that were now far more valuable than they had been when you took out your loan. Debt of this kind was not something you paid off easily; it was a condition in which you struggled all your days, a form of servitude, almost.
“Fiat currency” was the hard-core Populists’ proposal for solving this problem. It would have authorized the government simply to print the nation’s medium of exchange however it chose and then to establish its value by administrative pronouncement, without any reference to precious metals. (This is the system we have today, incidentally.) The other remedy Populists embraced was “free silver”: simply replacing the limited reserves of gold with a more plentiful supply of silver. Since silver was being mined all the time in America, the money in circulation under a silver standard would stand a better chance of keeping up with the economy’s growth.
“Free silver” proceeded to catch the imagination of certain classes of Americans in a way that is difficult to understand today. Silver became the object of a sort of crusade in the 1890s, a symbol that made everything fit together. Silver would not only solve the problem of deflation, people thought; it would humanize capitalism. Silver would bring back fairness. Silver represented democratic virtue and workerist authenticity. Gold, meanwhile, came to stand for aristocratic privilege and deathly inequality. As the silver craze swept America, the Populists saw their fortunes ascend with it—ascend so rapidly that eventually free silver came to crowd out everything else the party stood for.
In 1893 the national economy went into one of its periodic recessions—this time it was sharp and painful. Banks and businesses failed all over America and especially in the West. Unemployment came close to 20 percent, with millions thrown out of work. Homeless people roamed the country. There were of course no federal programs in place for relief or stimulus or recovery; the crisis response of the Grover Cleveland administration in Washington consisted of an aggressive campaign of . . . buying gold.
The plight of the unemployed was of little concern to the country’s economic authorities. But the confidence of bankers and investors was a different matter: such people had to be assuaged. They had to be convinced of the government’s unswerving devotion to economic orthodoxy, meaning the gold standard. And this the Democrat Cleveland set out to do. To stave off a panicked run on the nation’s gold supply, he stockpiled gold and then he stockpiled more gold. He made deals with bankers, keeping them happy with guaranteed profits, so that they wouldn’t withdraw that precious yellow stuff. He worked hard to restore their confidence. Above all, he stockpiled that gold.
Before long, outrage was no longer confined to farm country; all over America working people were learning what the Populists had figured out a few years previously. In the summer of 1894, a local strike at the Pullman passenger-car plant in Chicago blew up into a vast national conflagration. In solidarity with the workers at Pullman, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, refused to handle trains with Pullman cars attached. Rail traffic throughout the country quickly came to a standstill. President Cleveland took a break from stockpiling gold to order the U.S. Army into Chicago; his Justice Department tossed Debs in jail for obstructing the mail.
An even more spectacular event occurred that same year when one Jacob Coxey, a Populist from Ohio, conceived of the idea of “a petition in boots”—an army of unemployed men that would march to Washington, D.C., to make plain the miserable economic conditions in the hinterlands. From all over the country, jobless people joined up with Coxey’s Army and, several weeks and a few borrowed train rides later, they arrived in the nation’s capital: the first-ever mass protest march on Washington. Their demand was that the government hire unemployed people to build roads and other infrastructure, paying for it with deficit spending. Respectable Washingtonians laughed at the cockeyed suggestion and at the dirty tramps who supported it: what a bunch of cranks! D.C. police tossed Coxey in jail for walking on the Capitol lawn.
The Populists seemed perfectly positioned to take advantage of these dreadful developments. They were, after all, the self-proclaimed party of working people and economic grievance. They loudly deplored the methods used by the Cleveland administration to smash the Pullman strike in the streets of Chicago, and after the strike was over the Pops embraced Eugene Debs as their newest hero.9
Meanwhile, as the hard times deepened and the Democratic administration did its grotesque favors for the banking community, the mania for silver grew and grew. Both of the old parties remained committed to the gold standard, leaving only the Populists standing outside this tidy consensus of the orthodox and the comfortable. Never before had the reformers’ charge that the two parties ignored the real issues seemed more obvious, more self-evident. Populism was going to ride the silver escalator to the top. Reform was on the march; Populism was unstoppable.
Then something crazy happened. As the recession deepened, the Democratic Party began to turn against its sitting president, the banker-coddling Grover Cleveland. When the Democrats gathered for their convention in Chicago in the summer of 1896, pandemonium broke loose. Not only did the party denounce its own president, but it declared its intention to toss the gold standard itself overboard. Then they nominated for the presidency the virtually unknown William Jennings Bryan, a thirty-six-year-old free-silver advocate from Nebraska who talked as much like a Populist as did anyone from the Cornhusker state.
Eastern respectability reeled as it beheld one of the country’s two traditional parties apparently captured by radicalism. The actual radicals in the People’s Party, meanwhile, reckoned with the very different problem of seeing a powerful rival swipe the idea upon which they had strategically placed all their hopes. Meeting right after the shocking Democratic convention, the Populists felt they had little choice but to throw in their lot with Bryan. Fusion had been a successful strategy for the party at the state level, and now Populist leaders hoped to follow it into the executive branch in Washington.
The gamble was a painful one for certain Populists, however. Not only did it mean selling out their far-reaching reform program in favor of one issue, but many among the party’s southern and black contingents had risked their lives to make a stand against the Democratic Party. For them to come crawling back because their colleagues wanted to endorse Bryan was a humiliating prospect.10
Still, the wager was done. The crusade was launched. It was free silver against the gold standard, with Populists and Democrats standing more or less united to defeat the plutocracy. When Bryan proceeded to lose to Republican William McKinley, Populism fell mortally wounded.
The People’s Party struggled on for a few more years, but after the catastrophe of the 1896 election its fate was sealed. The party immediately broke into squabbling factions. Its conventions, scheduled for large auditoriums, were attended by embarrassingly small crowds. At length the economy recovered, even for farmers. Agricultural prices rose and, thanks to various technological advances, the global production of gold increased enormously, finally erasing the problems of deflation.
Meanwhile, the two big parties slowly came around to the Populist innovations. Populist voters gradually made their way back to their previous partisan homes, while a chunk of the leadership joined the Socialist Party. By the first few years of the twentieth century, the third party’s grievances and its evangelical style seemed dated and easy to forget.
Populism’s list of demands, however, did not perish. It lived on and met with success. The direct election of U.S. senators, for example, was secured through the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1913. Railroads were regulated and so was the telephone system. Other monopolies were broken up. Women got the vote. Rich people got the income tax. Beginning in the 1910s, farmers got a whole host of programs designed to protect them from speculators and middlemen and the ups and downs of the market. Putting unemployed people to work on infrastructure eventually became a standard element of economic policy.
In monetary policy, Populism also won in the end. The country finally came off the gold standard in 1933. Ultimately the United States moved to adopt the most radical Populist demand of them all, a managed or “fiat” currency—although we didn’t do it fully until 1971, some eighty years after Populism first came thundering over the prairies.
These items make up “The Populist Contribution,” a phrase that a long-ago historian used to describe this list of belated triumphs.11 For scholars of that generation, Populism was a chapter in the story of democracy’s advance, part of a long-running drama in which the American people faced off against aristocratic financial interests. The movement aimed “to make of America a land of democratic equality and opportunity,” wrote historian Vernon L. Parrington in 1930—“to make government in America serve man rather than property.” Populism showed that egalitarian aspirations lived and were capable of prevailing even in the country’s most corrupt, most plutocratic period.12
The ideology of Populism was not a difficult thing for historians in 1930 to identify. Its signature ideas—equality, hostility to privilege, anti-monopoly—were part of a radical nineteenth-century tradition that could be traced to Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. One reason that historians knew this was because the Populists said so all the time. The Jefferson the Pops admired is easy to pinpoint—it was the Jefferson who declared that banks were “more dangerous than standing armies,” who believed that the natural divide between political factions fell between “aristocrats and democrats,” who once urged a friend not to be intimidated by “the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people.”
Understood in this way, Populism is not only a radical tradition, it is our radical tradition, a homegrown Left that spoke our American vernacular and worshipped at the shrines of Jefferson and Paine rather than Marx. We may have lost sight of the specific demands of the Populists’ Omaha Platform, but the populist instinct stays with us; it is close to who we are as a people. We may gag at political correctness, but populism endures; populism is what ensures that, even though we bridle against the latest crazy radical doings on campus, we also hate snobs and privilege with the core of our collective democratic being.
Over the last century, observers called countless movements and politicians “populist” because they were reminiscent in some way of the original. The People’s Party, however, was one of very few movements to apply that word to itself, to proudly call itself “Populist.” For decades after its brief flowering, it remained virtually the only example of the species, the number one definition of the word in English-language dictionaries.
It is therefore surprising that modern-day thinkers who assail what they call populism only rarely bother to consider the movement that invented the word. Of the contemporary anti-populists I describe in this book, almost every single one is employed by an American news outlet, university, or think tank, and yet they attach the term far more frequently to the deeds of the Le Pen family in France or the rhetoric of South American politicians than to the group that revolutionized U.S. politics in the 1890s. Some of these experts seem unaware that the People’s Party existed.† Others mention it only casually and in passing.‡
Still, in their characterization of populism as a threat to democracy—an “ism” as insidious in its own way as communism used to be—these present-day thinkers are doing far more than calling into question various racist demagogues: they are also attacking the American radical tradition. That is ultimately what’s in the crosshairs when such commentators insist that populism is a “threat to liberal democracy”; when they announce that populism “is almost inherently antidemocratic”; when they declare that “all people of goodwill must come together to defend liberal democracy from the populist threat.”13
These are strong, urgent statements, obviously intended to frighten us away from a particular set of views. Millions of foundation dollars have been invested to put scary pronouncements like these before the public. Media outlets have incorporated them into the thought feeds of the world. They are everywhere now: your daily newspaper, if your town still has one, almost certainly throws the word “populist” at racist demagogues and pro-labor liberals alike.
When we fact-check the claims of this anti-populist onslaught, however, we find that they miss the reality of the original Populist movement as well as the many subsequent expressions of the populist credo. Again and again, upon investigation, the hateful tendencies that we are told make up this frightful worldview are either absent from genuine populism, or are the opposite of what it stood and stands for, or else more accurately describe the people who hated populism and who have opposed it since back in the 1890s.§
I do not point all this out merely as a historical corrective; that is just the starting point. This book has larger ambitions. As we shall see, anti-populism always serves as a tool for justifying unaccountable power. As such, it is a doctrine worth exploring in its own right. But the immediate and urgent task before us is to rescue from the anti-populists the one radical tradition that has a chance of undoing the right-wing turn.
The first item in the bill of charges against populism is that it is nostalgic or backward-looking in a way that is both futile and unhealthy. Among the many public figures who have seconded this familiar accusation is none other than the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who in 2016 criticized unnamed politicians for having “embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore.” What he was taking aim at was obviously Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again,” which implied that the country’s best days lay in the past.14
Obama’s understanding of “populism” as a politics of pointless pining for bygone glories is unremarkable, but a more accurate noun for this sentiment would be “conservatism”—the political philosophy that defends traditional ways. The agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century did no such thing. Populism called for radical reforms that would have put this country on an entirely different trajectory from the finance-capital road we followed.
Indeed, the Populists believed in progress and modernity as emphatically as did any big-city architect or engineer of their day. Their newspapers and magazines loved to publicize scientific advances in farming techniques; one of their favorites was a paper called the Progressive Farmer. For all their gloom about the plutocratic 1890s, the Populists’ rhetoric could be surprisingly optimistic about the potential of ordinary people and the society they thought they were building.15 This did not mean, however, that the Pops simply welcomed whatever happened as an improvement on what had happened the day before. It was not a step forward to pack the nation’s wealth into the bank accounts of a handful of people who contributed nothing; real progress meant economic democracy as well as technological innovation.
Anti-populism is similarly misleading on the crucial matter of international trade. In a 2017 paper about the “populist backlash of the late nineteenth century,” the Hoover Institution historian Niall Ferguson tells us flatly that hostility to free trade has always been one of the signature issues that define populism, because populism, as he puts it, is always a “backlash against globalization.” Lots of other scholars say the same thing: William Galston of the Brookings Institution, for example, tells us that populism has always been “protectionist in the broad sense of the term”; that all forms of populism stand “against foreign goods, foreign immigrants, and foreign ideas.”16
When applied to Gilded Age America, these arguments are almost entirely upside-down. If you look up where the parties stood on the then-important issue of tariffs, you find that the great champions of protectionism were in fact big business and the Republicans. The man responsible for crushing Populism first rose to fame as the author of the “McKinley Tariff,” the very definition of a backlash against free trade. It was William Jennings Bryan’s Democrats who were the true-believing free-traders of the period.¶
It’s also worth remembering that agrarian organizations in America have nearly always supported free trade, for the simple reason that American farmers export huge amounts of food and because many of the things that farmers consume can be purchased more cheaply overseas. And sure enough, among the various manifestos of the Farmers’ Alliance is found the following: “We further demand a removal of the existing heavy tariff tax from the necessities of life, that the poor of our land must have.” Indeed, the Populists were so passionate about encouraging trade that a number of their legislators enlisted in a scheme to build a publicly owned railroad running from the Great Plains to the Texas Gulf Coast, which would theoretically allow farmers to export directly to the world without having to pay the high freight rates imposed by private railways. That’s how actual Populists regarded protectionism—in precisely the opposite way from what modern scholars assure us populism always does.17
Contemporary experts further inform us that populists feel an “instinctual antagonism” to government agencies, particularly of the sort that are insulated from politics.18 While this is certainly true of modern-day conservative Republicans (who despise regulation of business) and of Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom (who fear the unaccountable bureaucracy of the European Union), it is almost precisely the opposite of the viewpoint of American Populists.
In point of fact, the Pops came out of the reform tradition that invented the modern independent regulatory agency,** and historians generally acknowledge that the People’s Party was the first to call for large-scale government intervention in the economy—by which I mean, intervention on behalf of ordinary people, not corporations. Their 1892 Omaha Platform spelled it out clearly: “We believe that the powers of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded . . . as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
The Populists wanted the government to own and operate the nation’s railroads, to manage the currency, to take possession of land owned by speculators, to set up postal savings banks, and a dizzying list of other interventions. The third party’s hopes for government assistance were one of the things that made Populism seem so sick and twisted to men of respectability at the time. “The Populist faith in the ‘Gover’ment’ is supreme,” observed one of the earliest students of the movement, in 1893.
The Government is all-powerful and it ought to be all-willing. When a Populist debtor is approached by a creditor his reply is actually often in these words: “I can’t pay the debt until the Government gives me relief.” This intervention or saving grace of the Government is a personal influence to him, a thing of life. What shall minister to a mind diseased like the Populist’s? Only constitutional remedies.19
Yes, ordinary, working-class people once demanded that government get bigger and take over vast chunks of the economy. That was what American liberalism was all about, once upon a time, and it started with Populism.
Authoritarianism is a grave danger that always attends the rise of populism, modern-day scholars assure us. The menace of “authoritarian populists” is one of the important themes in Yascha Mounk’s book, The People vs. Democracy. Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, meanwhile, argues that populists “weaken” democracies by “undermining the norms that sustain them,” thus raising the specter of authoritarianism. “When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions,” he warns in his best-selling book, How Democracies Die.20
Now, there is no doubt that Donald Trump is a norm-violating, would-be autocrat. And attributing his authoritarianism to his “populism” draws on the long-running scholarly tendency to find that virtually all working-class movements are tyrannies-in-waiting.21
If the original 1890s Populists were authoritarians, however, they were some of history’s most ineffectual tyrants. Discipline was always poor in the People’s Party: the organization could never shake what the historian Charles Postel calls its “nonpartisan and anti-party origins”; it started splitting into factions soon after it got going. The Pops were even lousy at selling out. After endorsing the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896, they were unable to convince the Democrats to reciprocate and accept the Populist choice for the vice presidency.
Then: the Pops and their Sunday-school hero William Jennings Bryan were torn to pieces in one of the most brutal demonstrations of military-style politics ever seen in this country, a coldly efficient electoral massacre organized by William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the tycoon warlord of the Republican Party. The GOP is estimated to have outspent the Democrat/Populist campaign by twenty or thirty to one that year. To this day, by one standard of measurement, the Republican effort of 1896 still holds the record for the most expensive presidential campaign of all time.22 To study that famous contest and announce that the Populists were the authoritarian team in the match would be a pants-on-fire outrage.
In one of the more distorted charges, virtually everyone who writes on the subject nowadays agrees that populism is “anti-pluralist,” by which they mean that it is racist or sexist or discriminatory in some other way. The source of this sin is said to be populism’s love of “the people,” a concept that always supposedly excludes big parts of the population for being inauthentic or ethnically different. Populism’s hatred for “the elite,” meanwhile, is thought to be merely a fig leaf for this ugly intolerance.23
Something like this is true in today’s world: The leader of the Republican Party denounces elitists in what he calls the “global power structure” and also sets nativist hearts a-thumping with his promises of a wall along the Mexican border. And so, liberal intellectuals conclude, the two must be connected. Movements that criticize elites in the name of the people are by definition opposed to the colorful mosaic of complex modern societies; intolerance is encoded in populism’s very DNA.
It’s a funny thing, though: the example of Populism once inspired intellectuals as they went about attacking racism. C. Vann Woodward, the legendary historian of the American South, writes in his memoirs that he was drawn to the subject of Populism as a young man because it “compelled reconsideration” of the racist shibboleths of the South’s Democratic Party elite: “progress, prosperity, peace, consensus, white solidarity, black contentment. . . .” The young Woodward meant to shatter these stupid, stifling complacencies, and when he discovered the South’s Populist past as a graduate student in the 1930s, he thought he had found the weapon with which to do so.24
This is because attacking racist shibboleths was something that certain Populist leaders famously did during the movement’s brief career. The South in the 1890s was filled with poor farmers both white and black, and keeping these two groups at each other’s throats was virtually the entire point of the region’s traditional politics. “A generation of white-solidarity indoctrination,” as Woodward called it in his classic Origins of the New South, ensured poverty for both groups but unchallenged power for the “Bourbon” Democratic elite.
Populism’s strategy for taking on the region’s one-party system, as Woodward described it, was to organize “a political union” between white and “Negro farmers and laborers within the South,” a shocking affront both to racist tradition and to the interests of the local moneyed class.25 The Pops, Woodward continued, “ridiculed the clichés of Reconciliation and White Solidarity.”
The bolder among them challenged the cult of racism with the doctrine of common action among farmers and workers of both races. The very existence of the third party was, of course, a challenge to the one-party system as well as to white solidarity.26
In 1892, the Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia declared in a national magazine that “the People’s Party will settle the race question” by addressing the common economic interests of black and white farmers. Watson then spoke to those farmers directly: “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”27
This is not to say that white southern Populists were racial liberals or that they practiced what they preached; they weren’t and they didn’t. What they did do, however, was defy the Bourbon Democrats of the South, for whom white solidarity and the suppression of African Americans were the monolithic first principles of political consciousness. Populism’s very existence was an attack on these doctrines.
At times, the People’s Party appeared to be making progress toward its stated ideal of class-based political action across the color line. Charles Postel reminds us that the marchers of Coxey’s Army deliberately violated segregated norms and that they were often helped along the road to Washington by black churches. In some southern states, the Pops struck fusion deals with local Republicans, the party to which many blacks were still loyal. By this device, for example, the Pops and the Republicans were able to defeat the Democratic Party of North Carolina and take over the government of that state for several years.28
“Poverty has few distinctions among its victims,” observed Hamlin Garland in an 1897 novel set amidst the rise of Populism. Describing a protest of Kansas farmers, he wrote, “The negro stood close beside his white brother in adversity, and there was a certain relation and resemblance in their stiffened walk, poor clothing, and dumb, imploring, empty hands.” The spectacle, Garland continued, was “something tremendous, something far-reaching. The movement it represented had the majesty, if not the volcanic energy, of the rise of the peasants of the Vendee.”29
The Colored Farmers’ Alliance was the name of the group that organized black farmers alongside the whites-only southern Farmers’ Alliance. Leaders from the Colored Alliance were essential in launching the People’s Party; in some respects they were well ahead of their white brethren in calling for a third party.30 But Black Populism, as it is now called, was ultimately a fruitless effort. Everywhere in the South, the Pops hit the wall of violence and vote fraud that blocked the progress of anyone who challenged white solidarity. When the new party made its debut in southern elections in 1892, black voters were attacked and a number of them were murdered, a direct reflection, according to a recent study of Black Populism, of “the political threat posed to the Democratic Party by the coalition of black and independent white voters.” Violence of this kind continued here and there across the South until Populism was completely vanquished.31
Nor was the commitment to equality professed by many white Populists truly sincere. Some of them turned out to be just as committed to white supremacy as were the Southern Democrats they meant to defy. Many others thought racism and segregation were grounded in science.32 And later on, once Populism had begun to weaken, the same Tom Watson who wrote such admirable words in 1892 reemerged as one of the nation’s most notorious racists, producing (according to the historian Woodward) a stream of “tirades against his onetime allies of the Negro race that were matchless in their malevolence.”33
The point here is not some precise accounting of the Populists’ record on race—summary: they meant well but didn’t deliver. The critical thing to understand, for present purposes, is that the Populists were not the great villains of the era’s racist system. That dishonor went to the movement’s archenemies in the southern Democratic Party, leaders who were absolutely clear about their commitment to white supremacy.34
The modern-day association of populism with “anti-pluralism” misses the historical target in several other crucial ways. For example, the Pops were the only party of their time to feature women in positions of leadership. In Kansas, the movement was singularly identified with the outrageous adventures of one Mary Elizabeth Lease, a dynamic orator who traveled around the state in 1890, damning Republican politicians and (according to legend) advising her audiences to “raise less corn and more hell.” A quieter, more executive role was played in that same state by the journalist Annie L. Diggs, whom a Kansas City newspaper once called the “unqualified dictator of the Kansas Populists . . . the first woman boss in American politics.”35 Again, not all Populists supported women’s suffrage, but enough of them did to secure women the right to vote in several of the western states where the party was strong.
On the question of immigration, which was just as controversial then as it is today, the People’s Party was of two minds. Its 1892 Omaha Platform—like the platforms of the two major parties—opposed “pauper” immigration on the grounds that it “crowds out our wage-earners.” The man the party chose as its presidential candidate, however, was a forthright supporter of open immigration, demanding in stormy Populist style:
Are we still an asylum for the oppressed of all nations, or are we about to become a policeman for the monarchs and despots of the old world—a despicable, international slave-catcher, under a world-wide fugitive slave law—engaged in the business of arresting and returning to their cruel task-masters the poor slaves who are fleeing hither to become citizens and to escape from hopeless conditions?36
Toward immigrants themselves the People’s Party was remarkably open. A granular investigation of the attitudes of Kansas Populists toward immigrants found precisely the opposite of what present-day theorists insist is always the case with populism. Kansas in the 1890s was a state filled with just-arrived people, and the Populists competed vigorously for their votes; Populist officeholders, meanwhile, came from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and so on.37
As it happens, there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic hate group at work in the 1890s. But it wasn’t called Populism. It was the American Protective Association (APA), and the political organization through which it preferred to do its work was that norm-defending organization known as the Republican Party. Here is how the Populists of Kansas regarded the APA, as laid down in a resolution adopted (“nearly unanimously,” according to the historian who discovered it) at the party’s state convention in 1894:
Resolved, That the People’s party, as its name implies, is the party of the people, and hence the enemy of oppression and tyranny in every form, and we do most emphatically condemn such conduct as un-Christian, un-American, and as totally opposed to the spirit of the Constitution of our country and we pledge our best efforts to defeat such organizations and to protect as far as we are able every individual of every nationality, religious creed and political belief in his sacred right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.38
This is curious, is it not? So many denunciations of populism for its “anti-pluralism,” and yet here are the Populists themselves loudly attacking intolerance and anti-pluralism.
What makes populism truly dangerous, our modern-day anti-populist experts concur, is that it refuses to acknowledge the hierarchy of meritocratic achievement. In its deep regard for the wisdom of the common person, it rejects more qualified leaders . . . which is to say, it rejects them, the expert class.
The election of Trump, with its implicit rebuff of the Ivy League approach of the Obama years, inflated this particular fear into a kind of national nightmare. A man of remarkable ignorance about our system of government had been placed in charge of that system. A cartoon in the New Yorker captured the absurdity with a scene of airline passengers in a populist mutiny of their own: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us,” bellows one of them. “Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
“If the elites go down, we’re all in trouble,” warned a 2017 headline in the Boston Globe. David Brooks informed readers of the New York Times that “populism” is the word we use to describe the hatred of “excellence” by the mediocre. Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, announced in Foreign Affairs that “America lost faith in expertise” due to a psychological syndrome in which stupid people are unaware of their own limitations while fine, scholarly people are peer-reviewed and know how to avoid confirmation bias. For good measure, he equated populism with “the celebration of ignorance.”39
Understanding recent history as a showdown between peer-reviewed expertise and mass ignorance is at the core of the anti-populist tradition. “Voters are very ignorant, and always have been,” write the political scientists Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes in a 2017 paper, “More Professionalism, Less Populism.” Therefore, the two argue, the populist goal of increasing public participation is inherently wrongheaded; experts are the ones we should be empowering. “Like it or not,” the two experts write, “most of what government does simply must be decided by specialists and professionals.” Quoting one of their professional peers, they conclude that we must have a “new professional class to set the agenda.”40
This is the recurring nightmare we will encounter throughout this book: the horror of populist anti-intellectualism. In its hyper-democratic folly, experts agree, populism believes that one person’s ideas are just as good as another’s, and hence it refuses to recognize learning or accomplishment. As a British politician put it just before the Brexit vote: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
Populism is the mob running wild in the streets of Washington, bellowing for beer and cheap gasoline. Meritocracy, meanwhile, is populism’s diametric opposite: the mind that must rule the corpulent political body of America. Meritocracy is rule by well-graduated people who have dutifully climbed every ladder, rung every bell, and been rewarded for their excellence with their present high stations. Yes, meritocracy is an elitist system. But the only alternative to it is to place the fragile bureaucracy of, say, the State Department in the hands of a blundering dunce who can’t find Pakistan on a map.
This harkens back to one of the essential philosophical problems of democracy: that the people will always be too ignorant to rule themselves. It’s a question that vexed Jefferson and Madison, and now it vexes us, under the name of populism.
But does this archetypal dilemma really describe the Populist ideal? Was 1890s Populism a “celebration of ignorance” or a species of human stupidity?
No. The real problem with Populism—with all genuine populisms over the years—was the opposite: that ordinary people had come to understand their interests all too well and were now acting upon that knowledge.
Populism was a movement of books and newspapers, of reformers who believed in what the historian Postel calls “progress through education” with the earnest faith of the nineteenth-century uplifter. Think of the vast encampments of rural families listening to lecturers from the Farmers’ Alliance, or of the lending libraries the Alliance set up all over the place, or of the universities that leading Populists helped to establish.41 There were Populist newspapers, hundreds of them, started in order to contest the mainstream media of the day and to spread the gospel of reform. In their pages the reader would find cheap left-wing books for sale; the editor of the famous Appeal to Reason newspaper, for example, dispensed political tracts under the headline, “Books Laboring People Should Read: To Remain Ignorant Is to Remain a Slave.”42
But neither did Populism call for rule by experts. Populism was about mass enlightenment, not the empowerment of a clique of foundation favorites or Ivy League grads. On the money question, Charles Postel tells us, the Pops thought it “could and must be understood by the people whose business interests and livelihoods were affected by it.” Experts were regarded as helpful guides to the issue. But the Populists also understood that, in a democracy, ordinary working-class people were the ones who had to make the decisions, and so they educated themselves and prepared to “wrest the levers of monetary power from the corporate elite.”43
In short, Populists both loved knowledge and rejected professional elites. The reason was because the economic establishment of that age of crisis was overwhelmingly concerned with serving business, not the people. The Populists mistrusted professional elites, in other words, because from their perspective those elites had failed.
A good illustration of what I am describing can be found in the 1895 pamphlet What Is Populism?, in which the author recounts all the different measures urged by “the financial doctors” upon “the plain people” as cures for their distress. Farmers and the government, we are told, followed the advice of these physicians, and “our illness continued and our suffering increased.” In response, professional economists prescribed different, even sharper rounds of austerity, and still the economic disaster of the 1890s mounted.
“Let me tell you a secret,” the Populist author confides. “The people have lost confidence in the professional skill of these physicians; they are reading up their own case; they reason that . . . a wrong financial policy must be the cause of financial distress; that a reversal of that wrong financial policy is the only rational and certain remedy.”44
Does losing faith in professional economics mean that “the people” rejected learning across the board? Does it mean they celebrated ignorance? No: the author of What Is Populism? was in fact a professor of mathematics at Willamette University in Oregon. What he was criticizing was what we might call expert failure. The problem was not knowledge, it was orthodoxy: “financial doctors” who trusted blindly in the gold standard and in one another.
Proving that the experts had failed was a favorite set piece among reformers of the period. They loved to imagine leading financiers and academics—the stuffed-shirt, consensus crowd of their day—laid low by the steel-trap reasoning of some ordinary person. The outstanding example of this device is Coin’s Financial School, William Harvey’s best seller of 1894, in which bankers, economists, and newspapermen are humiliated by the overwhelming logic of a small boy who somehow happens to be an expert on free silver.
In the course of his story, Harvey mocks the mental processes of his exalted antagonists, depicting the minds of businessmen as tools of leading financiers. “On all such questions as a National finance policy their ‘thinkers’ run automatically,” repeating whatever they have heard some banker say. And yet, as with other favorite Populist documents, Coin’s Financial School was packed with tables and numbers: its point was not to discredit learning but to challenge conventional wisdom—to encourage people to figure out their predicament for themselves.
Mass enlightenment largely disappeared from the reform tradition in the decades after Populism was defeated. Instead of “self-education and self-mobilization,” Postel reminds us, “the initiative passed to expert women and men, with professional training and administrative posts.”45
And so it is today. Liberalism as we know it now is a movement led by prosperous, highly educated professionals who see government by prosperous, highly educated professionals as the highest goal of protest and political action. Where once it was democratic, liberalism is today a politics of an elite.
What makes this particularly poignant is that we are living through a period of elite failure every bit as spectacular as that of the 1890s. I refer not merely to the opioid crisis, the bank bailouts, and the failure to prosecute any bankers after their last fraud-frenzy; but also to disastrous trade agreements, stupid wars, and deindustrialization . . . basically, to the whole grand policy vision of the last few decades, as it has been imagined by a tiny clique of norm-worshipping D.C. professionals and think-tankers.
In this moment of maximum populist possibility, our commentariat proceeds as though the true populist alternative is simply invisible or impossible. You can either have meritocracy or you can have Trumpism. Those are the choices, the punditburo proclaims: You must either be ruled by gracious, enlightened experts or by racist, authoritarian dunces. Between them there is no middle ground and no possible alternative.
Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Frank
* Before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution (1913), senators were chosen by state legislatures.
† Yascha Mounk, in The People vs. Democracy, suggests that “one of the earliest populists to rise to prominence” was Jörg Haider, an Austrian rightist whose heyday was in the 1980s and ’90s (p. 114). Similarly, the home page of the Stanford Global Populisms Project tells us that populism was “initially associated with Latin America in the 1990s” before migrating to the United States and giving us President Donald Trump. This seems like the place to mention that the founder of Stanford University, California senator Leland Stanford, was briefly considered as a Populist presidential candidate in 1892 (Hicks, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmer’s Alliance and the People’s Party [University of Nebraska Press, 1959 (1931)], p. 234).
‡ The saga of the People’s Party is related briefly in Populism: A Very Short Introduction by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser (Oxford University Press, 2017), but the details of the movement are weirdly garbled. For example, the authors explain the rise of Populism by pointing out that “economic changes, such as the coining of silver, affected the rural areas particularly hard.” As we have seen, Populists actually supported the coining of silver as a way of relieving rural hardship.
§ Only one of the present-day populism experts openly acknowledges that the 1890s Populists do not fit the current, voguish definition. This is Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University, who writes that “the one party in US history that explicitly called itself ‘populist’ was in fact not populist,” by which he means, the people who invented the word were not the racist, authoritarian demagogues Müller wishes to associate with the word (What Is Populism? [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016], p. 85). This is admirably forthright of Müller, to be sure, but it somehow doesn’t lead him to do the obvious thing—stop using the word “populist” to describe racist, authoritarian demagogues. Instead he gives us an entire book doing exactly that and then exempts the 1890s Pops from his critique. If historical reality conflicts with fashionable political theory, I guess, it is reality that must give way.
¶ For the record, here is the statement on trade from the Democratic Platform of 1896, on which Bryan ran for the presidency: “We denounce as disturbing to business the Republican threat to restore the McKinley law, which has twice been condemned by the people in National elections and which, enacted under the false plea of protection to home industry, proved a prolific breeder of trusts and monopolies, enriched the few at the expense of the many, restricted trade and deprived the producers of the great American staples of access to their natural markets.” See more at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/1896-democratic-party-platform.
** The world’s first modern independent regulatory agencies were midwestern state railroad commissions, set up at the behest of the Granger movement in the 1870s. The Grangers were the direct ancestors of the Farmers’ Alliance, which became the People’s Party. See Chester McArthur Destler, American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (Quadrangle, 1966 ), p. 10.
1. John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party (University of Nebraska Press, 1959 ), pp. 56–57. On the price of corn in 1890 see The Annals of Kansas: 1886–1925, vol. 1, ed. Daniel W. Wilder (Kansas State Historical Society, 1954–56), p. 92.
2. Hicks, The Populist Revolt, p. 130; Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press, 2007), chapter 2.
3. The quotation is from Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West (Harper & Brothers, 1902), pp. 133, 136. As quoted in Hicks, The Populist Revolt, p. 132.
4. This is a quotation from the Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, approved July 4, 1892, as reprinted in Hicks, p. 440.
5. Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 33.
6. Roscoe C. Martin, The People’s Party in Texas: A Study in Third Party Politics (University of Texas, 1933), quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Louisiana State University Press, 1951), p. 274.
7. British Labour Party: According to the historian Chester McArthur Destler, the remarkable effort to bring the squabbling labor unions of Illinois together under the Populist banner in 1894 involved writing a state platform that imitated the “political program of British labor.” Chester McArthur Destler, American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (Quadrangle, 1966 ), p. 176. Australian Labor Party: David McKnight, Populism Now!: The Case for Progressive Populism (Newsouth, 2018), p. 15.
8. 1891: From a statement issued by the Kansas People’s Party in 1891 and quoted in Hicks, p. 221. T. C. Jory, What Is Populism? (Ross E. Moores & Co., 1895).
9. The Populists made a bid for the votes of urban, industrial America that year, bringing together Chicago’s squabbling labor unions under the People’s Party banner for a local electoral campaign. But the strategy didn’t work. Despite impressive public displays of solidarity, including a rally featuring Debs, his lawyer Clarence Darrow, and the old-time abolitionist Lyman Trumbull, the Populist-Labor coalition fizzled at the polls. See Destler, American Radicalism, chapters 8 and 9.
10. Postel, The Populist Vision, pp. 271–75.
11. “The Populist Contribution” is the final chapter of John D. Hicks’s 1931 book, The Populist Revolt.
12. Parrington, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, vol. 3 of Main Currents in American Thought (Harcourt Brace, 1930), p. xxiv.
13. “Threat to liberal”: This is, again, a quotation from the “About” page of the Stanford Global Populisms Project. “Almost inherently antidemocratic”: Anna Grzymala-Busse, director of the Global Populisms Project, on a Stanford radio program on June 30, 2018, available at https://soundcloud.com/user-458541487/the-future-of-populism-political-movements-w-guest-anna-grzymala-busse. “All people of goodwill”: Max Boot, a columnist for the Washington Post, in his 2018 book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (Liveright, 2018), p. 212.
14. Obama, “The Way Ahead,” The Economist, October 8, 2016.
15. The Populists’ attitude toward progress is the subject of Charles Postel’s important 2008 study of Populism, The Populist Vision. For an example of Populist optimism, see the 1893 inaugural address of Kansas governor Lorenzo Lewelling, in which he hails “the dawn of a new era in which the people shall reign.” The speech is reprinted in Norman Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), pp. 51–54.
16. Niall Ferguson, “Populism: Content and Form,” a paper dated October 31, 2017, and presented at the Stanford “Global Populisms” conference (quoted with permission). Ferguson explicitly states that he is describing populism of the “late nineteenth century.” Ferguson has made the same argument in other venues, such as a 2016 issue of Horizons, a magazine published by the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development. William Galston, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (Yale University Press, 2018), p. 126.
17. The remarks about the “existing heavy tariff tax” appeared in the Ocala Demands, approved by the Farmers’ Alliance in December 1890 and reprinted in Hicks, The Populist Revolt, appendix B. The railroad to the Texas coast is described in R. Alton Lee, “The Populist Dream of a ‘Wrong Way’ Transcontinental,” Kansas History, Summer 2012. Here is how the historian C. Vann Woodward describes the southern farmer’s attitude toward the protective tariff on page 186 of Origins of the New South:
“Everywhere it was the pattern for poverty. As a producer and seller the farmer was subject to all the penalties of free trade, while as a consumer he was deprived of virtually all its benefits. It did not soften his resentment to reflect that out of his meager returns was extracted the tribute that built up the monopolies he hated.”
18. The quotation is from Eichengreen, The Populist Temptation, p. 2. See also Mounk, pp. 63–66.
19. Frank Basil Tracy, “Rise and Doom of the Populist Party,” The Forum 16, no. 2 (1893), p. 246.
20. Populists “weaken” democracies: See Levitsky’s paper “Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism,” which he presented at the Stanford “Global Populisms” conference (quoted with permission). “When populists win”: This is from Levitsky’s best-selling 2018 book, How Democracies Die, which he co-authored with Daniel Ziblatt, p. 22. In the latter we read: “What kind of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders do. . . . Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to ‘the people’ ” (p. 22). See also Levitsky and James Loxton, “Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes,” Democratization, 20:1 (2013).
21. Cf. Seymour M. Lipset’s famous 1959 paper, “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism,” which was included in his book Political Man and which I discuss further in chapter 5.
22. “Brutal demonstrations of machine politics”: I am following the vivid description of Matthew Josephson, The Politicos: 1865–1896 (Harcourt, Brace, 1938), chapter 19. Josephson estimates twenty or thirty to one on page 706. When we compare electoral price tags as a percentage of gross domestic product rather than in dollar amounts (even adjusted for inflation), it becomes apparent that the 1896 campaign absorbed a greater share of the country’s net worth than any other, before or since. See Matthew O’Brien, “The Most Expensive Election Ever . . . 1896?,” Atlantic, November 6, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/the-most-expensive-election-ever-1896/264649/.
23. Niall Ferguson tells us that “populism is a backlash against multiculturalism.” “When populists invoke the people,” writes Yascha Mounk, “they are positing an in-group—united around a shared ethnicity, religion, social class, or political conviction—against an out-group whose interests can rightfully be disregarded.” The economist Eichengreen insists that “the hostility of populist politicians to not just concentrated economic power but also immigrants and racial and religious minorities is intrinsic to the movement.” For a comprehensive summary of this viewpoint, see Uri Friedman, “What Is a Populist?,” Atlantic, February 27, 2017.
24. C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Louisiana State University Press, 1986), p. 31.
25. Woodward, Origins of the New South, pp. 244, 252. This narrative was to become one of the themes of Woodward’s career as a historian.
26. Ibid., p. 249.
27. Tom Watson, “The Negro Question in the South,” in Norman Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), pp. 370, 371–72.
28. Coxey’s Army: See Postel, The Populist Vision, p. 258.
29. Hamlin Garland, A Spoil of Office (D. Appleton and Company, 1897), p. 358.
30. See Omar H. Ali, In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886–1900 (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), p. 76.
31. The quotation is from Ali, In the Lion’s Mouth, p. 80.
32. The two extremes are captured by Walter Nugent in The Tolerant Populists: Kansas, Populism and Nativism (University of Chicago Press, 1963) and Charles Postel in chapter 6 of The Populist Vision.
33. Woodward, Origins of the New South, p. 393.
34. Especially disturbing is the story of the white supremacy campaign in North Carolina in 1898, which not only destroyed Populism in that state but led to the armed overthrow of the municipal government of Wilmington. See Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), chapter 8; Woodward, Origins of the New South, pp. 277, 348, 372, etc.
35. “Or should we say bossess, bosserina, or bossy?” The Kansas City Journal, quoted in Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Summary of the Press Throughout the World, August 9, 1900, p. 166.
36. On the Populists’ inclusion of the “pauper immigration” plank, see John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (Atheneum, 1978), p. 346, note 13. The Populists’ candidate in 1892 was James B. Weaver; the quote is drawn from his campaign memoir, A Call to Action: An Interpretation of the Great Uprising, Its Source and Causes (Iowa Printing Company, 1892), p. 281. From the Democratic Platform of 1892: “We heartily approve all legitimate efforts to prevent the United States from being used as the dumping ground for the known criminals and professional paupers of Europe; and we demand the rigid enforcement of the laws against Chinese immigration and the importation of foreign workmen under contract,” etc. From the Republican Platform of 1892: “We favor the enactment of more stringent laws and regulations for the restriction of criminal, pauper and contract immigration.” The parties’ platforms can be found at the website of the American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu.
37. Walter Nugent, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism (University of Chicago Press, 1963).
38. The anti-APA resolution is quoted on page 163 of Walter Nugent, The Tolerant Populists.
39. Neil Swidey, “If the Elites Go Down, We’re All in Trouble,” Boston Globe Magazine, October 5, 2017. David Brooks, “The Rise of the Resentniks and the Populist War on Excellence,” New York Times, November 15, 2018. Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise,” Foreign Affairs, February 13, 2017. To his credit, Nichols acknowledges in this essay that experts often make mistakes. To his discredit, he quotes Richard Hofstadter as an expert on populism without acknowledging the overthrow of Hofstadter’s views on that subject.
40. Rauch and Wittes, “More Professionalism, Less Populism,” Brookings, May 2017. The final quote is from political scientist Bruce Cain.
41. See Postel, The Populist Vision, chapter 2; “progress through education” occurs on page 48. Lawrence Goodwyn estimates the number of Alliance lecturers at forty thousand in The Populist Moment, p. xxi. The university founded by a Populist leader was North Carolina State; the Populist in question was Leonidas L. Polk.
42. The Appeal’s list of books, in their issue for December 14, 1895, included titles by Karl Marx, Henry George, William Morris, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and the economist Richard T. Ely, in addition to the usual Populist favorites.
43. Postel, The Populist Vision, p. 281.
44. T. C. Jory, What Is Populism?, p. 4.
45. Postel, The Populist Vision, p. 286.
A Brief History of Anti-Populism
The following post is excerpted from Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank. A former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harper’s, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and writes regularly for The Guardian. He is also the author of Listen, Liberal, Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter with Kansas?
The First Shall Be First
The essays collected here scan over many diverse aspects of American life, but they all aim to tell one essential story: This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve. This is the way ordinary citizens react when they learn the structure beneath them is crumbling. This is the thrill that pulses through the veins of the well-to-do when they discover there is no longer any limit on their power to accumulate.
In headline terms, these essays cover the years of the Barack Obama presidency and the populist explosion that marked its end. It was a time when liberal hopes were sinking and the newly invigorated right was proceeding from triumph to triumph. When I wrote the earliest installment in the collection, Democrats still technically controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the presidency; when I finished these essays, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office and Republicans had assumed a position of almost unprecedented power over the nation’s political system.
For a few, these were times of great personal satisfaction. The effects of what was called the Great Recession were receding, and affluence had returned to smile once again on the tasteful and the fortunate. The lucky ones resumed their fascinating inquiries into the art of the cocktail and the science of the grandiose suburban home. For them, things transpired reassuringly as before.
But for the many, this was a period when reassurance was in short supply. Ordinary Americans began to understand that, recovery or not, things would probably never be the same in their town or neighborhood. For them, this was a time of cascading collapse, with one trusted institution after another visibly deteriorating.
It was a golden age of corruption. By this I do not mean that our top political leaders were on the take—they weren’t—but rather that America’s guardian class had been subverted or put to sleep. Human intellect no longer served the interests of the public; it served money—or else it ceased to serve at all. That was the theme of the era, whether the locale was Washington, D.C., or the college your kids attended, or the city desk of your rapidly shrinking local newspaper. No one was watching out for the interests of the people, and increasingly the people could see that this was the case.
The financial crisis of 2008 engraved this pattern in the public mind. Every trusted professional group touching the mortgage industry had turned out to be corrupt: real estate appraisers had puffed the housing bubble, credit rating agencies had puffed Wall Street’s trashy securities, and of course investment bankers themselves had created the financial instruments that were designed to destroy their clients. And then, as the larger economy spiraled earthward … as millions around the world lost jobs and homes … the trusted professionals of the federal government stepped in to ensure that their brother professionals on Wall Street would suffer no ill effects. For the present generation, the bailout of the crooks would stand as the ultimate demonstration of the worthlessness of institutions, the nightmare knowledge that lurked behind every scam that was to come.
What I describe in this volume is a vast panorama of such scams—a republic of rip-offs. Bernie Sanders, the archetypal reform figure of our time, likes to say that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud,” but in truth we could say that about many of the designated protectors of our health and well-being. Pharmaceutical companies, we learned, jack up prices for no reason other than because they can, because it is their federally guaranteed right to do so. The brain power of Silicon Valley, meanwhile, concentrates on the search for ingenious ways to harvest private information and build monopolies so that it, too, can gouge the world with impunity.
The university is the ultimate source of credentialed expertise—of the idea that there are values beyond those of the market—and here, too, the rot and the corruption were unmistakable. That the traditional professoriate was doomed became obvious in these years, and also that the contemplative way of life was circling the drain as well. But even as the intellectuals went down, the universities themselves prospered in a remarkable and even unprecedented way, growing and building and driving tuition prices skyward. As these developments unfolded, legitimate higher ed was dogged by countless educational scams and even fake-educational scams, operations that would sell anyone a realistic-looking college degree for a modest sum.
In politics, of course, the scam and the fib are as old as the earth itself. Even so, the past decade has been a time of extraordinary innovation in the field. The rise of the super PAC and the Citizens United decision drew the most attention in this regard, but what seems most striking in retrospect was the way the casual dishonesty of politics started to spill over into everyday life.
The consolations of ideology became available to the millions, thanks to Facebook and Twitter and the political entertainers on cable news. Millions of Americans came to believe that everything was political and that therefore everything was faked; that everyone was a false accuser so why not accuse people falsely; that any complaint or objection could ultimately be confounded by some clever meme; that they or their TV heroes had discovered the made-up argument by which they could drown out that still small voice of reality. At right-wing rallies, one began to notice a gleeful denial of things that were obviously true.
Legitimate public defenders like newspapers were simply shutting down. And as your local paper went silent, the reign of factuality seemed to crumble as well. Among newspapers that survived, meanwhile, the resident professionals often seemed to be in denial about what was happening. This was a “golden age of journalism,” they chanted, and as their little world shrank and the public grew to hate them more and more, the survivors came together in an ever tighter circle of professional unanimity, missing the obvious but agreeing with one another on the correct interpretation of an amazing variety of events.
Fake news flourished, of course. For every newspaper that withered away, an opportunity opened up for somebody willing to imitate what had gone before. Social media entrepreneurs prospered, as did home-grown propagandists and online scam artists. It sometimes seemed as if everyone was search-engine-optimizing something or making bogus documentaries or Photoshopping some outrageous text onto some stock photo. The Internet teemed with collators of tweets, makers of memes, content farms, traffickers in panic and stereotype, liars for hire.
The representative figure of this new era was Andrew Breitbart, the master of a homemade right-wing Web empire, who rose from obscurity to become the bellowing scourge of the mainstream media: accusing promiscuously, denying vociferously, always shouting, always rationalizing. For him, representation was everything, reality was nothing, and politics became more and more an analogue of pro wrestling. The pseudo-event was the only game in town.
* * *
The United States has always been friendly to quacks and mountebanks and false accusers; that is an essential teaching of this country’s literature from the days of Mark Twain to those of Lewis Lapham. Like pumpkin pie and the bald eagle, the con game is so utterly American that it probably deserves its own series of postage stamps. But something is different today. The quacks and the mountebanks own the place, and everyone knows it. The con game is our national pastime. Everyone either is in on it or has a plan for getting in on it soon.
What has made corruption’s reign possible is no mystery. For most Americans, the props of middle-class life—four years at college, for example—are growing expensive and moving out of reach. At the same time, the rewards showered upon society’s handful of winners have grown astronomically greater. The result is exactly what our cynical ancestors would have expected: people will do anything to be among the winners.
And as we serve money, we find that money always wants the same thing from us: that it pushes everyone it beguiles in the same direction. Money never seems to be interested in strengthening regulatory agencies, for example, but always in subverting them, in making them miss the danger signs in coal mines and in derivatives trading and in deep-sea oil wells. You can have a shot at joining the one percent, money tells us, only if you are first committed to making the one percent stronger, to defending their piles in some new and imaginative way, to rationalizing and burnishing their glory, to exempting them from regulation or taxation and bowing down as they pass.
What I am describing is not “sustainable,” as people in Washington like to say. It has given us a rendezvous with oblivion, not with destiny. You can’t build a civilization on rip-offs … on no-doc loans taken out in order to make scam phone calls to senior citizens … on rolled-back odometers and fancy college degrees that are worth less than they used to be and might well prove to be worthless altogether … on the presidential aspirations of a con man who mimics your way of talking but has no idea how to govern.
And so we come to Donald Trump, the very personification of this low, dishonest age. Nearly every one of the trends described in this book culminates with him. He is an Ivy League graduate who also went into business selling degrees of his own. A dealer in tasteless palatial real estate. A one-man right-wing propaganda bureau who didn’t seem to be able to distinguish between what was true and what was false amid his constant tweetings and accusings. A character from pro wrestling and reality TV. A true-believing adherent of Breitbart’s doctrine that only media matters—indeed, a candidate whose 2016 campaign was run by the viceroy of Breitbart’s empire.
Trump was the most virulent fake populist of them all: a “blue-collar billionaire,” as his admirers described him, a Republican who was carried to victory by his lovable habit of inventing cruel nicknames for his opponents. The legitimate media came together against him as a matter of course, tallying up his falsehoods and insults and assuring their audience that he represented the end of conservatism at long last. The country’s surviving newspapers endorsed his Democratic opponent by an unprecedented margin.
For all that, there was still something real about Trump—or rather about the suffering of the white working-class people who attended his rallies and who made him their president during the crazy election of 2016. These were people on the receiving end of the trends I’ve described; they were living in the world dominated by the self-serving professionals who screwed things up and survived to screw things up again. Despite what the Beltway types assured them, they knew that the wars were inexcusable and the elites were corrupt and the trade deals were bad. And what others saw as Trump’s falsehoods they saw as a form of honesty, a plain-speaking directness that was refreshing in all its vulgarity. They looked not to be saved by experts but rescued from them, and Trump’s achievement was to make himself the vehicle of their hopes.
The results were disastrous, of course, and much of what I describe in the book that follows are matters of grave import. You will notice, however, that I describe them with a certain amount of levity. I do that because that’s the only way to confront the issues of our time without sinking into debilitating gloom. “We live in a land of abounding quackeries,” wrote H. L. Mencken once upon a time, “and if we do not learn how to laugh we succumb to the melancholy disease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm.”
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Frank.
Rendezvous with Oblivion
Although it’s difficult to remember those days eight years ago when Democrats seemed to represent something idealistic and hopeful and brave, let’s take a moment and try to recall the stand Barack Obama once took against lobbyists. Those were the days when the nation was learning that George W. Bush’s Washington was, essentially, just a big playground for those lobbyists and that every government operation had been opened to the power of money. Righteous disgust filled the air. “Special interests” were much denounced. And a certain inspiring senator from Illinois promised that, should he be elected president, his administration would contain no lobbyists at all. The revolving door between government and K Street, he assured us, would turn no more.
Instead, the nation got a lesson in all the other ways that “special interests” can get what they want — like simple class solidarity between the Ivy Leaguers who advise the president and the Ivy Leaguers who sell derivative securities to unsuspecting foreigners. As that inspiring young president filled his administration with Wall Street personnel, we learned that the revolving door still works, even if the people passing through it aren’t registered lobbyists.
But whatever became of lobbying itself, which once seemed to exemplify everything wrong with Washington, D.C.? Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that lobbying remains one of the nation’s persistently prosperous industries, and that, since 2011, it has been the focus of Influence, one of the daily email newsletters published by Politico, that great chronicler of the Obama years. Influence was to be, as its very first edition declared, “the must-read crib sheet for Washington’s influence class,” with news of developments on K Street done up in tones of sycophantic smugness. For my money, it is one of the quintessential journalistic artifacts of our time: the constantly unfolding tale of power-for-hire, told always with a discreet sympathy for the man on top.
Capitalizing on Influence
It is true that Americans are more cynical about Washington than ever. To gripe that “the system is rigged” is to utter the catchphrase of the year. But to read Influence every afternoon is to understand how little difference such attitudes make here in the nation’s capital. With each installment, the reader encounters a cast of contented and well-groomed knowledge workers, the sort of people for whom there are never enough suburban mansions or craft cocktails. One imagines them living together in a happy community of favors-for-hire where everyone knows everyone else, the restaurant greeters smile, the senators lie down with the contractors, and the sun shines brilliantly every day. This community’s labors in the influence trade have made the economy of the Washington metro area the envy of the world.
The newsletter describes every squeaking turn of the revolving door with a certain admiration. Influence is where you can read about all the smart former assistants to prominent members of Congress and the new K Street jobs they’ve landed. There are short but meaningful hiring notices — like the recent one announcing that the blue-ribbon lobby firm K&L Gates has snagged its fourth former congressional “member.” There are accounts of prizes that lobbyists give to one another and of rooftop parties for clients and ritual roll calls of Ivy League degrees to be acknowledged and respected. And wherever you look at Influence, it seems like people associated with this or that Podesta can be found registering new clients, holding fundraisers, and “bundling” cash for Hillary Clinton.
As with other entries in the Politico family of tip-sheets, Influence is itself sponsored from time to time — for one exciting week this month, by the Federation of American Hospitals (FAH), which announced to the newsletter’s readers that, for the last 50 years, the FAH “has had a seat at the table.” Appropriately enough for a publication whose beat is venality, Influence also took care to report on the FAH’s 50th anniversary party, thrown in an important room in the Capitol building, and carefully listed the many similarly important people who attended: the important lobbyists, the important members of Congress, and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the Obama administration’s important former healthcare czar and one of this city’s all-time revolving-door champions.
Describing parties like this is a standard theme in Influence, since the influence trade is by nature a happy one, a flattering one, a business eager to serve you up a bracing Negroni and encourage you to gorge yourself on fancy hors d’oeuvres. And so the newsletter tells us about the city’s many sponsored revelries — who gives them, who attends them, the establishment where the transaction takes place, and whose legislative agenda is advanced by the resulting exchange of booze and bonhomie.
The regular reader of Influence knows, for example, about the big reception scheduled to be hosted by Squire Patton Boggs, one of the most storied names in the influence-for-hire trade, at a certain office in Cleveland during the Republican Convention… about how current and former personnel of the Department of Homeland Security recently enjoyed a gathering thrown for them by a prestigious law firm… about a group called “PAC Pals” and the long list of staffers and lobbying types who attended their recent revelry… about how the Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the gang got together at a much-talked-about bar to sip artisanal cocktails.
There’s a poignant note to the story of former Congressional representative Melissa Bean — once the toast of New Democrats everywhere, now the “Midwest chair of JPMorgan” — who recently returned to D.C. to get together with her old staff. They had also moved on to boldface jobs in lobbying, television, and elsewhere. And there’s a note of the fabulous to the story of the Democratic member who has announced plans to throw a fundraiser at a Beyoncé concert. (“A pair of tickets go for $3,500 for PACs,” Influence notes.)
Bittersweet is the flavor of the recent story about the closing of Johnny’s Half Shell, a Capitol Hill restaurant renowned for the countless fundraisers it has hosted over the years. On hearing the news of the restaurant’s imminent demise, Influence gave over its pixels to tales from Johnny’s glory days. One reader fondly recounted a tale in which Occupy protesters supposedly interrupted a Johnny’s fundraiser being enjoyed by Senator Lindsey Graham and a bunch of defense contractors. In classic D.C.-style, the story was meant to underscore the stouthearted stoicism of the men of power who reportedly did not flinch at the menacing antics of the lowly ones.
A Blissful Community of Money
Influence is typically written in an abbreviated, matter-of-fact style, but its brief items speak volumes about the realities of American politics. There is, for example, little here about the high-profile battle over how transgender Americans are to be granted access to public restrooms. However, the adventures of dark money in our capital are breathlessly recounted, as the eternal drama of plutocracy plays itself out and mysterious moneymen try to pass their desires off as bona fide democratic demands.
“A group claiming to lobby on behalf of ordinary citizens against large insurance companies is in fact orchestrated by the hospital industry itself,” begins a typical item. The regular reader also knows about the many hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by unknown parties to stop Puerto Rican debt relief and about the mysterious group that has blown vast sums to assail the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) but whose protesters, when questioned outside a CFPB hearing, reportedly admitted that they were “day laborers paid to be there.”
You will have noticed, reader, the curiously bipartisan nature of the items mentioned here. But it really shouldn’t surprise you. After all, for this part of Washington, the only real ideology around is based on money — how much and how quickly you get paid.
Money is divine in this industry, and perhaps that is why Influence is fascinated with libertarianism, a fringe free-market faith which (thanks to its popularity among America’s hard-working billionaires) is massively over-represented in Washington. Readers of Influence know about the Competitive Enterprise Institute and its “Night in Casablanca” party, about the R Street Institute’s “Alice in Wonderland” party, about how former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli came to sign up with FreedomWorks, and how certain libertarians have flown from their former perches in the vast, subsidized free-market coop to the fashionable new Niskanen Center.
There are also plenty of small-bore lobbying embarrassments to report on, as when a currently serving congressional representative sent a mean note to a former senator who is now an official at the American Motorcyclist Association. Or that time two expert witnesses gave “nearly identical written statements” when testifying on Capitol Hill. Oops!
But what most impresses the regular reader of Influence is the brazenness of it all. To say that the people described here appear to feel no shame in the contracting-out of the democratic process is to miss the point. Their doings are a matter of pride, with all the important names gathering at some overpriced eatery to toast one another and get their picture taken and advance some initiative that will always, of course, turn out to be good for money and terrible for everyone else.
This is not an industry, Influence’s upbeat and name-dropping style suggests. It is a community — a community of corruption, perhaps, but a community nevertheless: happy, prosperous, and joyously oblivious to the plight of the country once known as the land of the middle class.
The Life of the Parties
[This piece has been adapted from Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books).]
When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior — when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.
So let’s go to a place that does. Let’s choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can’t taint the experiment.
Let’s go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.
The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how “knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based” a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida’s statistical indices of approbation — in 2003, it was number one on the “creative class index,” number three in innovation and in high tech — and his many books marvel at the city’s concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.
Boston’s knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston’s metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country — probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.
The city’s Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the “suburban liberal.”
Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT’s achievements in this category, the school’s alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.
Then there are Boston’s many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the “life sciences super cluster,” which, properly understood, is part of an “ecosystem” in which PhDs can “partner” with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new “innovation centers” shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.
To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage — with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.
Seething City on a Cliff
You can see what I mean when you visit Fall River, an old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Median household income in that city is $33,000, among the lowest in the state; unemployment is among the highest, 15% in March 2014, nearly five years after the recession ended. Twenty-three percent of Fall River’s inhabitants live in poverty. The city lost its many fabric-making concerns decades ago and with them it lost its reason for being. People have been deserting the place for decades.
Many of the empty factories in which their ancestors worked are still standing, however. Solid nineteenth-century structures of granite or brick, these huge boxes dominate the city visually — there always seems to be one or two of them in the vista, contrasting painfully with whatever colorful plastic fast-food joint has been slapped up next door.
Most of the old factories are boarded up, unmistakable emblems of hopelessness right up to the roof. But the ones that have been successfully repurposed are in some ways even worse, filled as they often are with enterprises offering cheap suits or help with drug addiction. A clinic in the hulk of one abandoned mill has a sign on the window reading simply “Cancer & Blood.”
The effect of all this is to remind you with every prospect that this is a place and a way of life from which the politicians have withdrawn their blessing. Like so many other American scenes, this one is the product of decades of deindustrialization, engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats. This is a place where affluence never returns — not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.
Even the city’s one real hope for new employment opportunities — an Amazon warehouse that is now in the planning stages — will serve to lock in this relationship. If all goes according to plan, and if Amazon sticks to the practices it has pioneered elsewhere, people from Fall River will one day get to do exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics.
But that is all in the future. These days, the local newspaper publishes an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians, and the lamentable surplus of “affordable housing.” The town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in: Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a “competition for crumbs,” as a Fall River friend puts it.
The Great Entrepreneurial Awakening
If Fall River is pocked with empty mills, the streets of Boston are dotted with facilities intended to make innovation and entrepreneurship easy and convenient. I was surprised to discover, during the time I spent exploring the city’s political landscape, that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District, a disused industrial neighborhood that has actually been zoned creative — a projection of the post-industrial blue-state ideal onto the urban grid itself. The heart of the neighborhood is a building called “District Hall” — “Boston’s New Home for Innovation” — which appeared to me to be a glorified multipurpose room, enclosed in a sharply angular façade, and sharing a roof with a restaurant that offers “inventive cuisine for innovative people.” The Wi-Fi was free, the screens on the walls displayed famous quotations about creativity, and the walls themselves were covered with a high-gloss finish meant to be written on with dry-erase markers; but otherwise it was not much different from an ordinary public library. Aside from not having anything to read, that is.
This was my introduction to the innovation infrastructure of the city, much of it built up by entrepreneurs shrewdly angling to grab a piece of the entrepreneur craze. There are “co-working” spaces, shared offices for startups that can’t afford the real thing. There are startup “incubators” and startup “accelerators,” which aim to ease the innovator’s eternal struggle with an uncaring public: the Startup Institute, for example, and the famous MassChallenge, the “World’s Largest Startup Accelerator,” which runs an annual competition for new companies and hands out prizes at the end.
And then there are the innovation Democrats, led by former Governor Deval Patrick, who presided over the Massachusetts government from 2007 to 2015. He is typical of liberal-class leaders; you might even say he is their most successful exemplar. Everyone seems to like him, even his opponents. He is a witty and affable public speaker as well as a man of competence, a highly educated technocrat who is comfortable in corporate surroundings. Thanks to his upbringing in a Chicago housing project, he also understands the plight of the poor, and (perhaps best of all) he is an honest politician in a state accustomed to wide-open corruption. Patrick was also the first black governor of Massachusetts and, in some ways, an ideal Democrat for the era of Barack Obama — who, as it happens, is one of his closest political allies.
As governor, Patrick became a kind of missionary for the innovation cult. “The Massachusetts economy is an innovation economy,” he liked to declare, and he made similar comments countless times, slightly varying the order of the optimistic keywords: “Innovation is a centerpiece of the Massachusetts economy,” et cetera. The governor opened “innovation schools,” a species of ramped-up charter school. He signed the “Social Innovation Compact,” which had something to do with meeting “the private sector’s need for skilled entry-level professional talent.” In a 2009 speech called “The Innovation Economy,” Patrick elaborated the political theory of innovation in greater detail, telling an audience of corporate types in Silicon Valley about Massachusetts’s “high concentration of brainpower” and “world-class” universities, and how “we in government are actively partnering with the private sector and the universities, to strengthen our innovation industries.”
What did all of this inno-talk mean? Much of the time, it was pure applesauce — standard-issue platitudes to be rolled out every time some pharmaceutical company opened an office building somewhere in the state.
On some occasions, Patrick’s favorite buzzword came with a gigantic price tag, like the billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the governor authorized in 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical and biotech companies to do business in Massachusetts. On still other occasions, favoring inno has meant bulldozing the people in its path — for instance, the taxi drivers whose livelihoods are being usurped by ridesharing apps like Uber. When these workers staged a variety of protests in the Boston area, Patrick intervened decisively on the side of the distant software company. Apparently convenience for the people who ride in taxis was more important than good pay for people who drive those taxis. It probably didn’t hurt that Uber had hired a former Patrick aide as a lobbyist, but the real point was, of course, innovation: Uber was the future, the taxi drivers were the past, and the path for Massachusetts was obvious.
A short while later, Patrick became something of an innovator himself. After his time as governor came to an end last year, he won a job as a managing director of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by his predecessor Mitt Romney — and that had been so powerfully denounced by Democrats during the 2012 election. Patrick spoke about the job like it was just another startup: “It was a happy and timely coincidence I was interested in building a business that Bain was also interested in building,” he told the Wall Street Journal. Romney reportedly phoned him with congratulations.
At a 2014 celebration of Governor Patrick’s innovation leadership, Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that “if you want to solve the economic problems of the U.S., create more entrepreneurs.” That sort of sums up the ideology in this corporate commonwealth: Entrepreneurs first. But how has such a doctrine become holy writ in a party dedicated to the welfare of the common man? And how has all this come to pass in the liberal state of Massachusetts?
The answer is that I’ve got the wrong liberalism. The kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.
Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy — a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.
This is a curious phenomenon, is it not? A blue state where the Democrats maintain transparent connections to high finance and big pharma; where they have deliberately chosen distant software barons over working-class members of their own society; and where their chief economic proposals have to do with promoting “innovation,” a grand and promising idea that remains suspiciously vague. Nor can these innovation Democrats claim that their hands were forced by Republicans. They came up with this program all on their own.
Copyright 2016 Thomas Frank
The Blue State Model
Dear Tea Party Movement,
For the last few months, the world has been fascinated by your frenzied search for a presidential candidate who is not Mitt Romney. We know that you find the man inauthentic and that you have buoyed up a string of anti-Mitts in the Iowa polling — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich — buffoons all, preposterous figures whom you have rightfully changed your minds about as soon as you got to know them.
It was quite a spectacle, your quest for the non-Romney — and I think we all know why you undertook it. In ways that matter, Romney is clearly a problem for you. His views on abortion, for example, change with the winds. Ditto, gay rights. He designed the Massachusetts health insurance system that was the model for Obamacare. And he’s even said that he approved of the TARP bank bailout, the abomination that ignited the Tea Party uprising in the first place.
Grievous offenses all, I have no doubt. Still, my advice to you idealists of the right is this: get over it. Not for sell-out reasons like: Romney has the best chance of beating Obama. No. You should get behind the charging Massachusetts RINO (your favorite term for a Republican-In-Name-Only sellout type) because, in a certain paradoxical way, he may turn out to be the truest of all the candidates to the spirit of your movement.
After all, given everything you represent, why wouldn’t you line up behind this quarter-billionaire who’s calling for just a little human love and sympathy for billionaires? I’m sure you already understand me perfectly well, but just to be certain, let me make the case.
The Gimme Candidate of 2012
Start with those issues where Romney’s positions so offend the sensibilities of you Robespierre Republicans. First, of course, the social issues. If nothing else, you in the Tea Party movement have spent the last three years teaching Americans that they no longer matter — not when we’re supposedly in a battle for the very soul of capitalism.
And here comes Mitt Romney, the soul of American capitalism in the flesh. Look back over his career as a predator drone at Bain Capital: Isn’t it the exact sort of background you always insist politicians ought to have? Isn’t it the sort of titanic enterprise for which you lust, as you wave your copy of Atlas Shrugged in the air?
You accuse the former Massachusetts governor of opportunism, but from where I stand, the bad faith is all on your side. What offends you about Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare plan, for example, isn’t that it crushes human liberty, but that it provided the model for President Obama’s own healthcare overhaul, which you spent the last two years decrying as the deed of a power-grabbing socialist.
If the public ever learns about the Republican provenance of Obamacare — and if Romney is the candidate, they most certainly will — it will become obvious that your movement was not telling the truth about all that Kenyan Stalinist death-panel stuff. It is indeed a moment to fear, that day when the nation finds out that you were, ahem, exaggerating in your bullhorn pronouncements about the communist in the White House. Still, if the Tea Party movement is all about truth-telling and straight shooting, then you need to face it like a patriot.
And yes, Mitt Romney has also said that the bank bailouts of 2008-2009 were necessary, while you regard them as a mortal sin against free-market principles. (To his credit though, at least in your eyes, he was also a total hardliner about the auto industry bailouts, displaying the pointless meanness you seem to admire in nearly any other politician.) In truth, though, the candidate’s only offense on the bailout question was his candor. He merely admitted what should be obvious to any billionaire from a study of bank history: that conservatives have no problem doling out, or grabbing for, government money when the chips are down.
After all, President Herbert Hoover himself distributed bank bailouts in the early years of the Great Depression. Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, Charles Dawes, helped out in Hoover’s bailout operation, later changing hats and grabbing a big slice of the bailout pie for his own bank. Ronald Reagan’s administration rescued Continental Illinois from what was then the largest bank failure in our history.
Citibank’s market-worshiping CEO Walter Wriston begged for (and of course received) the assistance of big government when Citi needed it — after making loans to the troubled Penn Central Railroad. And don’t forget, every single one of you is guilty of taking a government bailout any time you make a withdrawal from a bank that’s been rescued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The reason they — I mean, you — do these things should be as obvious as it is simple: “free market” has always been a high-minded way of saying “gimme,” and when the heat rises, the “market” is invariably replaced by more direct methods, like demanding bailouts from the government you hate. Banks get bailouts for the simple reason that they want bailouts and have the power to insist on them — the same circumstances that got them deregulated in wave after wave in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts.
In this sense, Romney, who is loud and proud when it comes to the need for further deregulation, has actually been more consistent than you. He’s the gimme candidate of 2012 and so he should really be your guy.
Promethean Job Creators and Heroes of Venture Capital
You say Romney is an unprincipled faker. Fair enough — he is. He’s so plastic he’s almost animatronic. But have you looked in the mirror recently? Aren’t you the ones who fall for it every time Fox News wheels out some Washington hack to confuse this or that corporate issue with the sacred cause of freedom or states rights or man’s inalienable right to mine uranium in his backyard? Aren’t you the ones who thought that Glenn Beck’s tears were markers of emotional sincerity? And for Pete’s sake, your populist Tea Party movement was actually launched from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade!
I know, I know: for almost three years now you’ve dazzled the world with your proclamations that we’re being dragged into “tyranny,” that the country is being “destroyed,” that America needs to be “saved” — and now here comes Mitt, with his fondness for workaday compromise, ruining your carefully contrived atmosphere of panic.
That must be disappointing, but don’t lose the faith! Give the man credit: he has tried. He’s no stranger to the core Tea Party myth of the noble businessman persecuted by big government. Indeed, at the Conservative Political Action Congress in 2009, he opened his talk as a stand-up comic this way: “I gotta get through this speech before federal officials come here and arrest me for practicing capitalism.”
Meanwhile, he has the perfect Tea Party sense of social class. A centimillionaire who made his pile as a venture capitalist, Romney has both deplored class warfare — meaning, certain criticisms of Wall Street — and practiced it, taunting President Obama as a modern version of Marie (“let them eat cake”) Antoinette.
There’s no contradiction in any of this, either for him or you. When someone has made his way in life via academia, like the president, he is, of course, a snob, and part of the ruling elite. When, on the other hand, a person’s multi-millions were visited upon him by open-market actions directed from the C-suite, he is automatically a man of the people, a horny-handed son of toil. In fact, Romney takes this kind of market populism a step farther than you ordinarily dare: corporations, he has famously announced, are themselves people.
And keep in mind that, with Mitt Romney, venture capitalist, carrying your banner in 2012, you will finally get to submit your capsized vision of social class to the verdict of the people — the actual flesh-and-blood people, that is, not the corporate “people” who make up the S&P 500. You will get to defend exactly the sort of “person” your movement has longed to defend since it was birthed by a CNBC reporter almost three years ago to the cheers of a bunch of derivatives traders in Chicago.
You will get to explain your peculiar conviction that the way to react to a gigantic slump brought on by frenzied finance is to unshackle Wall Street. You will get to line up behind a heroic businessman, like those rugged, resourceful fellows in the Ayn Rand novels you love. You will get to go into battle for the job creators, which is what all capitalists are, right? (Well, okay, maybe not the guys at Bain Capital, the particular outfit where Romney made his pile, but the theory is all that really matters, isn’t it?)
Indeed, your leadership cadre is already playing up the inevitable criticisms of Romney as a job decimator as a way of launching a grand debate about capitalism — by which they mean, of course, freedom itself. When Newt Gingrich criticized Romney a few weeks ago for his career in private equity, the airwaves of your winger-tainment world exploded with outrage. “This is the kind of risk-taking, free-market capitalism that most people who call themselves conservatives applaud,” intoned Brit Hume on Fox News. If Newt had a problem with Bain’s operations, announced syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, “then Gingrich really doesn’t believe in capitalism at all.”
Washington Post columnist George Will declared that what Romney did in his venture capitalist days was an “essential social function,” that his company was “indispensable for wealth creation.” (Just whose wealth was being created he left discreetly undefined.) Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Center and a familiar figure at Tea Party events, is no fan of Romney’s, but he had this to say about Romney’s career: “private equity serves an incredibly important productive function in our economy… Private equity is in my view a heroic activity.”
“Heroic”: that’s exactly the word! In Romney we have finally found a quarter-billionaire to cry for. And so Suzy Welch, author and wife of Jack, appeared on Fox Business to wonder why Romney wasn’t defending himself aggressively against criticism of his business career. Romney, she announced, is “an American hero to people who believe in free enterprise, or he should be.”
And that combination of tragedy and heroism, my friends, is why you will soon be signing up for the Romney juggernaut. In him you will see the saintly victimhood of Sarah Palin melded with the Promethean job-creator who was the cult object of your 2010 efforts. Social issues be damned! Romney will ensure that we get the one thing that this country can’t do without on its path to hell: further deregulation of Wall Street.
The nation’s all-powerful elitist socialists will, of course, disagree, and you’ll have a field day, raging and weeping at the way they are going to set out to persecute this noble, wealth-creating soul.
Pity the billionaire: it will be a powerful rallying cry for 2012.
Yours in petulant individualism,
Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). He has also written The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter With Kansas? and several other abrasive volumes. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.
Copyright 2012 Tom Frank
Pity the Quarter-Billionaire
As the Bush administration heads for "closure," Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska seems to be heading for the same fate in a "redecorating" scandal; Monica Goodling of the (in)Justice Department is back in town for her hiring and firing practices; the eternally Foxy Karl Rove continues to give contempt of Congress real meaning; a federal judge ruled against the administration’s typically imperial idea of "immunity"; and rumors are flying about coming "preemptive," blanket presidential pardons for those who organized the administration’s torture regime and committed other crimes. All the while, holding up the glorious banner of the Great Tradition, the John McCain campaign continues to be a chop shop for K Street Lobbyists. And that’s just a two-second glance at the Washington scene as August begins. As always, give them all high marks for consistency! Après Bush, of course, le déluge.
Thomas Frank, a Kansas boy who once followed conservatism deep into his home state and now writes op-eds that probably drive the readers of the Wall Street Journal crazy, has had a front seat at the Washington spectacle these last years as the Bush administration applied its "enhanced interrogation techniques" to the Federal government. In his latest must-read book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Frank offers nothing short of a how-to history of the conservative era — specifically how to destroy a government, leave Americans in the lurch, and enrich yourselves all at the same time. It wasn’t just, as he argues, that this administration left "smoking guns" littered around the landscape, but that it itself was the smoking gun. If you want to know just what we face as a nation in terms of rebuilding America, his book is a good place to start. Tom
Follow This Dime
Why Misgovernment Was No Accident in George W. Bush’s Washington
By Thomas Frank
Washington is the city where the scandals happen. Every American knows this, but we also believe, if only vaguely, that the really monumental scandals are a thing of the past, that the golden age of misgovernment-for-profit ended with the cavalry charge and the robber barons, at about the same time presidents stopped wearing beards.
I moved to Washington in 2003, just in time for the comeback, for the hundred-year flood. At first it was only a trickle in the basement, a little stream released accidentally by the president’s friends at Enron. Before long, though, the levees were failing all over town, and the city was inundated with a muddy torrent of graft.
How are we to dissect a deluge like this one? We might begin by categorizing the earmarks handed out by Congress, sorting the foolish earmarks from the costly earmarks from the earmarks made strictly on a cash basis. We could try a similar approach to government contracting: the no-bid contracts, the no-oversight contracts, the no-experience contracts, the contracts handed out to friends of the vice president. We might consider the shoplifting career of one of the president’s former domestic policy advisers or the habitual plagiarism of the president’s liaison to the Christian right. And we would certainly have to find some way to parse the extraordinary incompetence of the executive branch, incompetence so fulsome and steady and reliable that at some point Americans stopped being surprised and began simply to count on it, to think of incompetence as the way government works.
But the onrushing flow swamps all taxonomies. Mass firing of federal prosecutors; bribing of newspaper columnists; pallets of shrink-wrapped cash "misplaced" in Iraq; inexperienced kids running the Baghdad stock exchange; the discovery that many of Alaska’s leading politicians are apparently on the take — our heads swim. We climb to the rooftop, but we cannot find the heights of irony from which we might laugh off the blend of thug and Pharisee that was Tom DeLay — or dispel the nauseating suspicion, quickly becoming a certainty, that the government of our nation deliberately fibbed us into a pointless, catastrophic war.
Bad Apples All Around
So let us begin on the solid ground of these simple facts: this spectacular episode of misrule has coincided with both the political triumph of conservatism and with the rise of the Washington area to the richest rank of American metropolises. In the period I am describing, gentlemen of the right rolled through the capital like lords of creation. Every spigot was open, and every indulgence slopped out for their gleeful wallowing. All the clichés roared at full, unembarrassed volume: the wines gurgled, the T-bones roasted, the golf courses beckoned, the Learjets zoomed, the contractors’ glass buildings sprouted from the earth, and the lobbyists’ mansions grew like brick-colonial mushrooms on the hills of northern Virginia.
Democrats, for their part, have tried to explain the flood of misgovernment as part of a "culture of corruption," a phrase at once obviously true and yet so amorphous as to be quite worthless. Republicans have an even simpler answer: government failed, they tell us, because it is the nature of government enterprises to fail. As for the great corruption cases of recent years, they cluck, each is merely a one-of-a-kind moral lapse unconnected to any particular ideology — an individual bad apple with no effect on the larger barrel.
Which leaves us to marvel helplessly at what appears to be a spectacular run of lousy luck. My, what a lot of bad apples they are growing these days!
Corruption is uniquely reprehensible in a democracy because it violates the system’s first principle, which we all learned back in the sunshiny days of elementary school: that the government exists to serve the public, not particular companies or individuals or even elected officials. We Are the Government, insisted the title of a civics primer published in the earnest year of 1945. "The White House belongs to you," its dust jacket told us. "So do all the other splendid buildings in Washington, D.C. For you are a citizen of the United States." For you, young citizen, does the Post Office carry letters to every hamlet in the nation. For you does the Department of Agriculture research better plowing methods and the Bureau of Labor Statistics add up long columns of numbers.
The government and its vast workforce serve the people: The idea is so deep in the American grain that we can’t bring ourselves to question it, even in this disillusioned age. Republicans and Democrats may fight over how big government should be and exactly what it should do, but almost everyone shares those baseline good intentions, we believe, that devotion to the public interest.
We continue to believe this in even the most improbable circumstances. Take the worst apple of them all, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose astonishing career as a corruptionist has been unreeling in newspaper and congressional investigations since I came to Washington. Abramoff started out as a great political success story, a protégé and then a confidant of the leaders of the conservative faction of the Republican Party. But his career disintegrated on news of the inventive ways he ripped off his clients and the luxury meals and lavish trips with which he bribed legislators.
Journalistic coverage of the Abramoff affair has stuck closely to the "bad apple" thesis, always taking pains to separate the conservative movement from its onetime superstar. What Abramoff represented was "greed gone wild," asserts the most authoritative account on the subject. He "went native," say others. Above all, he was "sui generis," a one-of-a-kind con man, "engaged in bizarre antics that your average Zegna-clad Washington lobbyist would never have dreamed of."
In which case, we can all relax: Jack Abramoff’s in jail. The system worked; the bad apple has been plucked; the wild greed and the undreamed-of antics have ceased.
Misgovernment by Ideology
But the truth is almost exactly the opposite, whether we are discussing Abramoff or the wider tsunami of corruption. The truth is as obvious as a slab of sirloin and yet so obscured by decades of pettifoggery that we find it almost impossible to apprehend clearly. The truth slaps your face in every hotel lobby in town, but we still don’t get the message.
It is just this: Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.
The correct diagnosis is the "bad apple" thesis turned upside down. There are plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the last few years. Hang around with grassroots conservative voters in Kansas, and in the main you will find them to be honest, hardworking people. Even our story’s worst villains can be personally virtuous. Jack Abramoff, for example, is known to his friends as a pious, polite, and generous fellow.
But put conservatism in charge of the state, and it behaves very differently. Now the "values" that rightist politicians eulogize on the stump disappear, and in their place we can discern an entirely different set of priorities — priorities that reveal more about the unchanging historical essence of American conservatism than do its fleeting campaigns against gay marriage or secular humanism. The conservatism that speaks to us through its actions in Washington is institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions we learned about in elementary school.
Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy nonsense; they caution against bringing top-notch talent into government service; they declare war on public workers. They have made a cult of outsourcing and privatizing, they have wrecked established federal operations because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job. Repairing it will require years of political action.
Conservatism-in-power is a very different beast from the conservatism we meet on the streets of Wichita or the conservatism we overhear talking to itself on the pages of Free Republic. For one thing, what conservatism has done in its decades at the seat of power is fundamentally unpopular, and a large percentage of its leaders have been men of eccentric ideas. While they believe things that would get them laughed out of the American Sociological Association, that only makes them more typical of the movement. And for all their peculiarity, these people — Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Newt Gingrich, and the whole troupe of activists, lobbyists, and corpora-trons who got their start back in the Reagan years — have for the last three decades been among the most powerful individuals in America. This wave of misgovernment has been brought to you by ideology, not incompetence.
Yes, today’s conservatives have disgraced themselves, but they have not strayed from the teaching of their forefathers or the great ideas of their movement. When conservatives appoint the opponents of government agencies to head those government agencies; when they auction their official services to the purveyor of the most lavish "golf weekend"; when they mulct millions from groups with business before Congress; when they dynamite the Treasury and sabotage the regulatory process and force government shutdowns — in short, when they treat government with contempt — they are running true to form. They have not done these awful things because they are bad conservatives; they have done them because they are good conservatives, because these unsavory deeds follow naturally from the core doctrines of the conservative tradition.
And, yes, there has been greed involved in the effort — a great deal of greed. Every tax cut, every cleverly engineered regulatory snafu saves industry millions and perhaps even billions of dollars, and so naturally securing those tax cuts and engineering those snafus has become a booming business here in Washington. Conservative rule has made the capital region rich, a showplace of the new plutocratic order. But this greed cannot be dismissed as some personal failing of lobbyist or congressman, some badness-of-apple that can be easily contained. Conservatism, as we know it, is a movement that is about greed, about the "virtue of selfishness" when it acts in the marketplace. In rightwing Washington, you can be a man of principle and a boodler at the same time.
The Wrecking Crew in Full Swing
One of the instructive stories We Are the Government brought before generations of schoolkids was the tale of a smiling dime whose wanderings were meant to introduce us to the government and all that it does for us: the miner who digs the ore for the dime has his "health and safety" supervised by one branch of the government; the bank in which the dime is stored enjoys the protection of a different branch, which "sees that [banks] are safe places for people to keep their money"; the dime gets paid in tax on a gasoline sale; it then lands in the pocket of a Coast Guard lieutenant, who takes it overseas and spends it on a parrot, which is "quarantined for ninety days" when the lieutenant brings it home. All of which is related with the blithest innocence, as though taxes on gasoline and quarantines on parrots were so obviously beneficial that they required little further explanation.
Clearly, a more up-to-date version is required. So let us follow the dime as it wends its way through our present-day capital. Its story, we will find, is the reverse of what it was in 1945. That old dime was all about service, about the things government could do for us. But the new dime is about profit — about the superiority of private enterprise, about the huge sums that can be squeezed out of federal operations. Instead of symbolizing good government, the dime now shows us the wrecking crew in full swing.
Our modern dime first comes to Washington as part of some good citizen’s taxes, and it leaves the U.S. Treasury in a payment to a company that has been hired to do work on the nation’s ports. Back in 1945, the government would have done the work itself, but now it uses contractors for such things. This particular contractor knows how to win a bid, but it doesn’t know how to do the work, so it subcontracts the job to another outfit. The dime follows, and it eventually makes up a worker’s salary, who incorporates it into his monthly car payment. From there it travels into the coffers of an auto industry trade association, which happens to be very upset about a rule proposed by a federal agency that would require cars to notify drivers when their tire pressure is low.
So the trade association gives the dime to a Washington consultant who specializes in fighting federal agencies, and this man launches challenge after challenge to the studies that the agency is using in the tire-pressure matter. It takes many years for the agency to make its way through the flak thrown up by this clever fellow. Meanwhile, with his well-earned dime, he buys himself a big house with nice white columns in front.
But this is only the beginning of the story. As we make our rounds of conservative Washington, we glimpse something much greater than single acts of incompetence or obstruction. We see a vast machinery built for our protection reengineered into a device for our exploitation. We behold the majestic workings of the free market itself, boring ever deeper into the tissues of the state. Ultimately, we gaze upon one of the true marvels of history: democracy buried beneath an avalanche of money.
Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, is the founding editor of The Baffler, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and, most recently, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His WSJ columns can be read at his website. He lives, of course, in Washington D.C. and this essay has been adapted from his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan Books, 2008).
From the book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank, Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Frank. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.