What Was Populism?

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.

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank

Reports from a Sinking Society

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.

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank
Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank

The Influence of Influence in Washington

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 […]

Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank

How the Democrats Created a "Liberalism of the Rich"

[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 […]

Take a Ride on the RINO in 2012

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 […]

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 […]