Wayne O'Leary

Populism and Its Antithesis

There’s an old saying: the more things change, the more they remain the same. In the 2016 race for the White House, we’re seeing a perfect demonstration of that hoary proverb. Everything that’s now happening politically is being viewed as new, unprecedented, and revolutionary — except that it’s not.

The Sanders insurgency, the Trump derangement, the seeming chaos afflicting the party system, the perceived impotence of the establishment, the turmoil on the streets, the violence (verbal and literal), and the search for scapegoats have all been seen before. Almost exactly 80 years ago, in 1936, this country witnessed a very similar presidential cycle with a very recognizable cast of characters.

In each case, the catalyst was the same: economic hard times and uncertainty — the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Great Recession and its lingering aftereffects today. Both were exacerbated by external factors as well — fears of encroaching world totalitarianism in the first instance, fears of imminent international terrorism in the second.

The common political thread connecting 1936 and 2016 is what the mass media calls “populism,” by which it means a rising up of the great unwashed in all their unfocused rage and fundamental ignorance. Populism, as the pundit class sees it, is not an ideology, but an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to the anxieties of the moment. (See, for example, George Packer in The New Yorker, 9/7/15.) It has no coherent program, no visionary plan, no nuanced policies; it’s merely popular (hence, populist), and the sooner it’s brought under control and the sensible establishment takes the reins once more, the better.

Today’s broadly accepted definition of populist lumps together Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, the tea partiers, and the Occupy movement, among others. Supposedly, they’re all populists. There are left-wing populists (the angry, irrational left) and right-wing populists (the angry, irrational right); they’re equally wrongheaded and dangerous, which is why it’s important, we’re told, to nominate solid establishment candidates for president — people who know how things work and are properly loyal to the power structure.

In actuality, there are two divergent streams of American popular insurgency. True populism, which grew out of the People’s (or Populist) party of the 1890s, is a movement of the political left; it was originally a third-party response by farmers and industrial workers to the monopolistic control of government and the economy by late-19th century plutocrats, who then dominated both the Democratic and Republican parties. What is today called right-wing populism is more an outgrowth of European fascism, a philosophical construct of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s.

Whereas true populism is democratic, equalitarian, and hostile to corporate domination, its opposite number is authoritarian, accepting of wealth disparities, and corporatist. While true populism is predominantly multicultural, emphasizing class over racial distinctions, the fascist-leaning variety is racist and ethnically exclusive.

The last populistic upheaval, that of the 1930s, clearly illustrated these differences. Its leftist expression, the genuine article, included such progressive figures as Farmer-Labor Gov. Floyd Olson of Minnesota; the La Follette brothers of Wisconsin, Gov. Phil and Sen. Bob, sons and successors of the great Progressive party icon Robert M. La Follette Sr.; Upton Sinclair, muckraking author and candidate for governor of California; and (some would say), Huey Long of Louisiana, governor, senator and presumptive challenger to FDR until his assassination in late 1935.

Long remains an enigma; his politics were leftish — he was the bane of the Palmetto State’s oil companies and its conservative oligarchy — but he also ran his bailiwick in dictatorial fashion and abused civil liberties. Historians are divided on whether to label him a populist or a native fascist; “the Kingfish” was definitely sui generis.

What the populists of the 1930s wanted was what Roosevelt eventually gave the country, only more so: a kind of super New Deal. Building on the tradition of the original Populist party (whose detailed agenda, adopted in due course by mainstream liberals, included such items as a graduated income tax, the eight-hour day, and universal suffrage), the second-generation populists demanded a radically expanded welfare state, recognition of unions, and strict limits on capitalism. They pushed FDR to the left and are given major credit for the Social Security and National Labor Relations (Wagner) acts that crowned the so-called Second New Deal.

Arrayed opposite the Depression-era populists were America’s quasi-fascist demagogues, personified by Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest,” and the Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith, the Southern rabble-rouser. These and other radical rightists shared certain aims with the populists, principally a more activist response to the Depression, but they were tainted by an ill-disguised anti-Semitism (the 1936 counterpart to the anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic prejudices of 2016), by blatant totalitarian impulses, and by a visceral hatred for Roosevelt that mirrored the present-day anti-Obama insanity. (In contrast, the populists of the 1930s cooperated with FDR whenever possible, and he with them.)

Classical fascism had a distinct ideology: it glorified the nation state, subordinated the individual, and regimented national life. In that sense, today’s radical right is no more fascist than it is populist. It does, however, exhibit certain salient fascist characteristics: extreme bellicose nationalism, belief in an infallible strongman as leader (the Donald), and a general contempt for organized labor and minorities. These describe modern Trumpism to a tee.

Perhaps the best characterization of Trump is that he’s a pure demagogue — someone who leads by appealing to emotion, prejudice, and outright falsehood, without benefit of a coherent ideology. Like the fascistic demagogues of circa 1936, who opportunistically fluctuated between right and left, Trump has no guiding star except personal power and public adulation; he assumes whatever momentary political coloration benefits him.

Conversely, true populism demands adherence to progressive political principles and consistency of purpose; it’s not a brief philosophical stop on the way to somewhere else, nor is it a footloose appeal to know-nothingism. There is only one real populist in the 2016 race who meets that standard, and it’s Bernie Sanders.

The label notwithstanding, Sanders’ program of “democratic socialism” is directly in line with a political lineage that can be traced back to the 1930s and before that to the 1890s. And like the populists who went before, the Vermont senator will, win or lose, have an enduring impact on the politics of his time.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2016


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