Sunday, August 9, 2020

The People, No! A Brief History of Anti-Populism. A Review of Thomas Frank's New Book.

            I know I said I wouldn’t be posting for a while, but I came across a mention of Thomas Frank’s The People, NO!: A Brief History of Populism and was able to get a copy from the library. At 256 pages (excluding notes), it’s a quick read and very much worth reading.

            While I was reading the book, I was transported to New York in the 1970s. My friend Mike, whom I’d met in Oklahoma, where he was a VISTA volunteer, and I were on a crosstown bus going from his mother’s beautiful pre-war rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment (which was larger than my parents’ house) to an Italian restaurant we liked in Yorkville. On the way to the bus stop a man was handing out political flyers, and I took one. At the time New York was probably at its worst in recent memory. The country was in the grips of stagflation, Gerald Ford had recently become president and had pardoned Richard Nixon, which was not a popular move in New York. Add to that the city was close to bankruptcy, and Consolidated Edison, on which Mike’s mother relied for a good deal of income, was in a serious financial crisis. It says a lot about the long-term optimism of those living in that time that people were handing out flyers instead of throwing Molotov cocktails.

            On the bus I glanced at the flyer, which was about how the working class was getting shafted. Mike, who had refused to take a pamphlet, asked me why I would be interested in what it said. I told him I wanted to know what was going on, and besides, the pamphlet had some really good points. He gave me that condescending look only a native Manhattanite knows how to give, and said, “Do you consider yourself working class?” I hadn’t really given it much thought, but I said, “I work, so I must be working class.” He started in on all the reasons we were not working class. (Mike was a reporter for a neighborhood newspaper, so he worked, too.) I couldn’t believe what I was hearing (and from a former VISTA volunteer at that). All I could say was, “It sounds to me like you just don’t want to be considered working class,” which elicited a loud snicker from another passenger and a request from Mike that we change the subject.

            Mike did very well, married an attorney, and lives in a beautiful condo in Riverdale that overlooks the Hudson River. He is one of the people who told me I needed to get my butt in gear and get back to writing, so he gets some credit (or blame) for this blog.

            Thomas Frank must feel like Cassandra, who was cursed to utter prophecies that were always true but which would never be believed. In his 2016 Listen, Liberal, Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? Frank warned Democrats that they were alienating the working class by concentrating on wealth and technology and ignoring the tragic loss of manufacturing jobs and those hit hard by the economic crisis and housing depression. Even worse, Democrats were telling people the situation they found themselves in was their own fault because they lacked education and nothing could be done about it. In other words, to borrow a phrase from 1970s New York: Democrats to working class: Drop Dead. Frank was ignored, and we wound up with an orange buffoon in charge of the country.

            Frank is restating and enhancing his message in The People: NO! and he’s giving us a much-needed history of populism, which he says is a word that has taken on undeserved negative connotations. Populists, historically, were not ignorant racist hayseeds. In fact, many, including tramps, dirt farmers, and the working poor, were extremely well-read, especially compared to today, when we have more television available than we can possibly consume. He tells the story of Emmanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius, who in Girard, Kansas began publishing the “Little Blue Books,” which included classics as well as political pamphlets (probably like the one I took in New York). Many were about racism and anti-lynching. The books were five for a dollar and were sold everywhere including railroad stations. They were even offered in vending machines. By 1951, when Julius died, there were 2,500 titles offered, and some 500 million Little Blue Books had been sold.

            Historically, even though populists were not ignorant hayseeds, the elite have inevitably sought to portray them as such. Beginning in 1896 supporters of William Jennings Bryan were portrayed as monstrous cretins bent on raping polite society. In 1936 supporters of FDR were portrayed the same way, albeit not with much success, since populist policies, if not actual populists, had won the day in many cases, and FDR’s efforts to fight the Depression were making people’s lives better—especially the lives of the working class, who became the backbone of the Democratic party. Until about the time Mike and I took that bus ride.

            Frank says that beginning in the 1970s, Democrats began turning away from the working class. The late 1960s had seen the working class begin a migration to Republicans. In 1970 construction workers in New York rioted in support of the Nixon administration. Increasingly educated Democrats turned more toward elitism and less contact with the working class. They turned away from unions, and especially union leaders, who had increasingly become conservative and often were, or were perceived to be, corrupt. Frank quotes from Charles Reich’s 1970 The Greening of America to make his point about the pitiable blue-collar character, whose life is really quite sad: “He has very little of love, or poetry, or music, or nature, or joy. He has been dominated by fear. He has been condemned by narrow-minded prejudice, to a self-defeating materialism, to a lonely suspicion of his fellow man. He is angry, envious, bitter, self-hating. He ravages his own environment. He has fled all his life from consciousness and responsibility. He is turned against his own nature.” I should note here that I read The Greening of America when it came out, and I found it long on describing problems (a major one in Reich’s world being hydrogenated peanut butter) but woefully short on recommending solutions. It has that in common with Kids Today, the 2017 complainathon by Malcolm Harris b. 1988, but that was another review.

            Frank takes us through the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, who tried to govern as a centrist Democrat, concentrating on technical competence, alienating further the working class, and opening the door for the Reagan “revolution.” Since we’re concentrating on the Democratic party, I won’t dwell on Reagan (and you know I can). The next nominal Democrat to win office, Bill Clinton, concentrated further on trade, giving us NAFTA, CAFTA, and several other programs favored by Republicans, who repaid him by impeding as much of his progress as possible and ultimately impeaching him for alleged sexual misconduct, of which, truth be told, many of them were as guilty, if not more so, than he. Under Clinton, the working class receded further from Democrat’s agenda. In 2008 Barak Obama was elected and proceeded to name Republicans to his cabinet hoping for bipartisanship. He wound up rescuing banks and Wall Street while leaving homeowners, the victims of banks and Wall Street, to deal with their situation on their own. Even Obamacare, his signature achievement, did not “inconvenience Big Pharma or private insurance companies.” Yet another step away from the people Democrats depend on. Cue 2016, and Hillary Clinton does little to repair the frayed relationship with the former base of her party. Nevertheless, she wins a majority of voters, but not enough of a majority. And we have Trump. Even though he is The. Worst. President. Ever, this book is not about Trump. It’s about Democrats, and their reaction to Trump voters, who, Frank argues, could just as easily have been supporters of Democrats had they not been ignored and increasingly vilified. Read: Deplorables. And that gets us to the crux of the problem. According to Frank, Democrats, not Trump voters, are the problem. By offering nothing to their historic base, they have lost that base. And even worse, liberal Democrats are ensuring future defeat not only by not pursuing their former base, but by vilifying them. Instead of being the voice of the working class, Frank says, the Democratic party sees itself as a “sort of coming together of the learned and the virtuous.” The former party of the people became anti-populist. They want “no part of any systemic criticism of big business or monopoly or the financial industry. They shied away from supporting mass movements. The idea of putting together a coalition of working-class people was one they came to regard with deep distaste.” They became the party of the white-collar elite, the “smart and rich, the ‘better-educated upscale voters’ who wanted private retirement accounts but weren’t so keen on public schools.” Frank writes that in 1992 journalist and author Mickey Kaus advised Democrats to abandon their concern for economic equality; Democrats had to stop listening to labor unions and sever their ties with the black “underclass.”

            Frank refers to Lawrence Goodwyn, a 1970s-era scholar of populism, who wrote that in order to build a movement like the People’s Party of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” Goodwyn warned against a politics of “individual righteousness” or celebrating the purity of one’s radicalism. In order to reform the country’s economic structure, we must practice “ideological patience,” a suspension of moral judgement of ordinary Americans. Only then can we start to build a movement that is hopeful and powerful and that changes society.

            Frank says that if liberals are not interested in democratizing the country’s economic structure, individual righteousness is the way to go. Ordinary citizens are judged, purged, canceled, and scolded. This is not building; it is subtraction. Its goal is to “bring the corps of the righteous into a tight orbit around the most righteous one of all.” And he has a point. It seems many are more concerned with ideological conformity than with achieving objectives. Take, for example, the purging of pro-life Democrats. Let’s face it, most people wish there were fewer, or better, no abortions, and if that’s their position, fine, and as long as they don’t take any action to force their viewpoint on others, they should be welcome to express those views. Persuasion, yes; forceful intervention, no.

            Another point Frank makes is the modern Democratic Party seems totally uninterested in labor except to ask for its endorsement every few years. Frank tells the story of a group of affluent progressive teens whose opinions were sought on the importance of various issues. Racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, and gun control all had significant support. Labor, when it was mentioned, had no support. Zero. Frank points out that the yard signs the affluent are placing in their yards to show their support of inclusiveness, you know the ones that say:

                                    In this house, we believe

                                    Black lives matter

                                    Women’s rights are human rights

                                    No human is illegal

                                    Science is real

                                    And kindness is everything,

don’t say a word about the right to organize or earn a living wage.

            Frank says there are many examples of labor’s omission in today’s wokeness. He names “A Century of Protest,” a 2018 video feature produced by the New Yorker that included protests throughout American history, which began with an ad for Prada, and included fifty-eight clips of historical footage covering everything from suffragette marches in 1913 to the ACT-UP protests. There was plenty of civil rights footage, and Communists and even the KKK were represented, but nothing on labor. Nada. And heaven knows, there is plenty of footage available on labor protests, including the 1936 GM strike and the UAW strike of 1945-6. Besides being ignored, labor is being airbrushed out of history.

            Now that Democrats have alienated their former base (let’s hope temporarily), they seem to be going out of their way to keep them alienated. Rather than addressing the issues that drove so many to vote for a con man, liberals seem to be relishing any misfortune that has come to Trump voters, and woe be it to anyone who suggests that we show empathy with those who supported the buffoon. Frank writes that New York Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristoff reports nothing he has written recently generates the outpouring of rage he receives when he makes periodic assertions that Trump voters are human, too.

            “Karen” has become a generic term for a (usually) upper middle-class white woman who takes action to embarrass, publicly if possible and ideally on Twitter, those who are guilty of infractions of various perceived misdeeds. (Think of a 21st Century Hyacinth Bucket—that’s bu-kay—or the title character of John Waters’ Serial Mom.) While not using the term, Frank admonishes Karens to cool it. If you see something, say something to the individual. The world does not need to know.

            Frank points out Populism was and is relentlessly optimistic. The current anti-populist liberals are all about despair. He discusses some of the literature, including an editorial by Clemson professor Todd May, who questions whether human extinction might not be a bad idea. Now, isn’t that a day brightener? Who is going to be drawn to a party full of nihilists? Keep this up, and it’s the Democratic Party that’s going to be extinct!

            In my review of Max Skidmore’s Common Sense Manifesto I wrote about a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Portland, Oregon restaurateur Kurt Huffman complaining about the $600 unemployment insurance enhancement and bemoaning the fact that his slaves, er, I mean employees weren’t champing at the bit to return to work for $15 an hour and tips totaling as much as an additional $1 an hour (his words, not mine). How dare his employees inconvenience him? Oh, the humanity! As a quick Google search revealed, Mr. Huffman is Portland’s leading restaurateur whose favorite restaurant in is London. 

            Just to show that some things never change, Frank writes about a vice president at DuPont, who in 1934 wrote a letter to the chairman of General Motors to complain about the New Deal. Here is how, as Frank says, it ruined his life:

            “Five Negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this Spring, after I had taken care of them and given them house [sic] rent free and work for three years during bad times, saying they had easy jobs with the government… .

            “A cook on my houseboat at Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter when he never knew a thing about painting before.”     

            In 1934 the Democratic Party’s emphasis was on helping labor. I wonder where the party stands with regards to Mr. Huffman’s employees. That I even have to ask says a lot about how far the party has traveled from FDR and the New Deal. I’ve often imagined that Lincoln would be appalled at what has become of his party. I suspect the same could be said of FDR.

            As I was about to post this, I read the New York Times review of the book, which was written by James Traub, author of What Was Liberalism (which I have not read) and who is evidently not a fan of Frank, populism, or the working class. He relies on ad hominem to discredit the populists. Tom Watson became a virulent racist (which Frank discuses), Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman became a racist, and William Jennings Bryan became the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes trial. All true, but the fact that individuals in the Populist movement were flawed do not negate that movement any more than the fact that flawed individuals wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution negate what they achieved. Many Populists remained true to their beliefs including Eugene V. Debs, who would spend time in jail for opposing World War I, and Oscar Ameringer and his wife Freda, who carried on his work into the 1970s in Oklahoma City.

            I’ve had the time in retirement to study history at a more leisurely pace (I tell friends the first time I studied for a degree; I now study for an education), and I’ve come to realize it is a giant mistake to view any group as monolithic. Southerners were not all virulent racists. Northerners were not all morally pure abolitionists. Populists did not all become narrow minded anti-Semitic racists. We need to get over a Manichean view of history. If we’re looking for a movement made up of people who were perfect and remained so throughout their lives, we’re going to be looking for a long time.