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Does Populism Matter?

The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism
by Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 2020, 320 pages

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, along with previous developments such as the election of Narenda Modi in India and the rise of right‑populist parties in Hungary and Poland, set the stage for a widely held political narrative of the last five years: the populist moment is here and it is not going away. I should know, as I was one of the chief proponents of this narrative. I coauthored a book titled The Populist’s Guide to 2020 in February 2020, which seemed like a uniquely opportune moment to affirm this thesis. Although it may be hard to believe now, at the time Bernie Sanders sat atop the Democratic presidential field and Donald Trump had led the Republican Party to its highest level of party identification since the George W. Bush era.

What happened after is well known. Bernie Sanders was trounced in the Democratic primary. Donald Trump, the populist-in-chief, ended up dramatically mishandling the coronavirus pandemic and presided over a haphazard economic response largely crafted by the neoliberals whom he supposedly had destroyed in 2016. Then Trump ran a campaign whose only real theme was opposition to the excesses of cultural liberalism. To the extent he discussed his economic agenda at all in 2020, it was mostly to argue that the pre-Covid-19 economy was the “greatest in history” and that the pandemic fallout was not his fault. He even floated cutting social security via a payroll tax cut. According to my and many others’ populist thesis, his campaign should have been roundly rejected in the way polling predicted, and yet Trump won ten million more votes than he did in 2016 and came a mere forty-five thousand votes short of an Electoral College victory.

The surprising success of the Trump 2020 campaign in the face of unprecedented circumstances poses some thorny questions: Did any of his “populist” promises in 2016 actually matter? Where was the discussion of mass immigration, his trade war with China, declaring peace with the social welfare state, and using the pandemic economic response to usher in a new industrial age for America? The only real takeaway from the 2020 election is that populism is not a policy platform; it is simply a campaign tool.

What’s the Matter with Populists?

There have been many attempts to explain the Sanders, Trump, and global phenomena in the years after 2016, but one of the most useful is a counternarrative from historian Thomas Frank in his latest book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. In the book, Frank challenges the elite narrative that populism on the left and right is the last gasp of a nostalgic and authoritarian bloc of losers. By tracing the history of populism from Middle American farmers and manufacturing workers of past eras to current events, Frank makes it apparent to the reader that the elite caricatures of populism commonplace today have largely remained constant across moments of deep-seated dis­content dating back to the 1890s.

Frank has been widely known in left circles since his 2004 best­seller What’s the Matter with Kansas? attempted to communicate to dumbfounded Bush-era liberals why Middle Americans supported the GOP and its market fundamentalist agenda. Kansas became a classic on the left for explaining the contradictions of neoconservative fusionism and the effectiveness of the culture war at the height of the Bush years. In contrast, his most recent effort is likely to be ignored by leftists, liberals, and conservatives alike, both because of what it gets right and, more importantly, what it gets wrong.

At its best, The People, No is an engaging if somewhat potted history of populism’s leading proponents and opponents during key moments of American history. Frank begins with the 1890s populists and what they stood for. As progressive journalist Matt Taibbi put it in his glowing review:

The Populists were a third-party movement that popped into view in the late 1800s in response to the excesses of monopoly capitalism. It centered around regulation of railroads, currency reform, federal loans to farmers, and other issues. In a development that particularly frightened the very wealthy at the time, it sought and secured alliances with Black farmers. Proving the concept of breaking the political and economic monopoly of New York elites with sheer voter energy was almost more im­portant than the individual issues.

Opposite these populists stood the political, economic, academic, and media elites who bankrolled the pro-business Republican presi­dent William McKinley in 1896. These gatekeepers routinely and effectively derided the populists who supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan as backwards authoritarians in terms eerily familiar to commentators today.

Similar themes recur in Frank’s retelling of the New Deal era, when Franklin Roosevelt received broad support from working-class Americans in his landslide victories of 1932 and 1936. Frank describes how business and other elites reacted with consternation when Roosevelt and his New Deal Democrat coalition used their strong mandate to enlarge the role of government in the economy. Even the small group of progressive academics labeled as Roosevelt’s “brain trust” was not exempt from the scorn FDR received from many prominent figures at elite institutions. President Roosevelt was slan­dered as a dictator and a Russian asset by those in high society and faced well-funded propaganda campaigns that sought to undermine his New Deal agenda.

Despite clear parallels to present-day politics, Frank’s narrative begins to break down when he attempts to weave these earlier populist movements seamlessly into the modern Left. Frank is not exactly an honest broker: he openly considers himself a left-progres­sive populist, and his book is best read as an attempt to define American populism as an explicitly left-wing ideology, one that cannot be reconciled with the nationalist Right or the establishment center.

Multiracial working-class movements made up of poor farmers, domestic workers, and factory laborers might appear at first glance to parallel Bernie Sanders’s romanticized vision of a political revolution within the modern Democratic Party, a vision Frank celebrates. But Frank’s most compelling work comes in the section excoriating the rise of the so-called New Left, in which he skillfully eviscerates the anti-populism of the college-educated radicals who emerged in the 1960s, and points to it as the moment when left-wing politics diverged from populism.

Frank describes the widespread opposi­tion to the Vietnam War and larger fight against Soviet Communism on college campuses and how it contrasted with the hardhat workers who rioted in support of the war. This conflict in values represented the cultural gap that formed between American leftists who proclaimed to speak for work­ers and the actual working-class voters themselves, who were seen as un­informed, jingoistic morons by the same left-wing activists.

Ironically, many of Frank’s critiques of the New Left apply to the current state of the progressive Left which he supports. Even Frank himself could rightfully be subjected to some of these critiques, given the unflattering picture of working Americans he painted in What’s the Matter with Kansas in another political lifetime. There are also several instances in The People, No where he sounds like the elite anti‑populists of yesteryear whom he otherwise criticizes. In particu­lar, Frank uses rhetoric almost identical to that of the old gatekeepers when he assures his left-liberal readers that he sees Trump as a demagogue and “pseudo-populist” immediately after providing them with uncomfortable truths about what Trump got right in his 2016 campaign.

Frank’s aggressive use of the term “pseudo-populist” and selective ire for so-called false populist figures like Pat Buchanan and Richard Nixon reveal the contradictions inherent in attempting to define populism at all. By Frank’s telling, the rise of conservative populist figures, who dupe their voters by speaking to cultural concerns while fleecing them economically, culminated with Donald Trump. His criticisms of conservative populists are not necessarily untrue, but they fundamentally reveal the futility of trying to define the term populism in relation to any particular policy agenda. Frank essentially mirrors the progressive elites who use the term populism as an insult. In The People, No, the term “populist” mostly just means politicians Frank likes, while a “pseudo-populist” is any popular candidate he doesn’t like. In other words, if a politician who happens to be on the right espouses beliefs that resonate with working-class Americans, then it is pseudo-populism. If, however, a politician on the left campaigns on policies in the name of the working class, then he is a true populist, even if rejected by working-class voters.

The New New Left

This challenge is most obvious in Frank’s tortured treatment of Senator Bernie Sanders’s failed attempts to attain the Democratic nomination. Frank sees the Sanders movement as a truly populist answer to the Trumpist Right and establishment center. Yet the Sand­ers campaign of 2020, in particular, was notable mainly for its abject failure to realize Frank’s vision of populism. Sanders won a lower share of the vote in nearly every primary he entered compared to 2016, lost significant white working-class support relative to 2016, and never assembled the multiracial working-class coalition that he spoke of so loftily on the campaign trail. On the contrary, the candi­date who actually did garner the majority of the multiracial working-class vote in 2020 was the supposedly textbook anti-populist moder­ate Joe Biden.

Ultimately, The People, No fails in the way that nearly all progressive Left commentaries do, because of the assumption that populism specifically and exclusively prescribes certain economic policies. Frank’s ideal populist candidate, who can capture the presidency and working-class Republican voters, is one who runs on “universal health care, no more grotesque student debt, banking reform, a war on monopolies, a reimagining of our trade policy.” Yet we have a Democratic presidential candidate who has already run twice on this exact platform, in the last two cycles. Not only did this platform lose the Democratic primary, but its fiercest advocates, Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have become the chief villains among the Republican electorate. Additionally, Frank’s def­inition of populism cannot explain why Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2020 was able to abandon many of his 2016 promises, which at least sounded analogous to Frank’s ideal platform, and yet win millions more votes, including many minority votes.

The answer indicated by exit polling data is that the progressives who have anointed themselves the arbiters of what is populist and what is not espouse sociocultural positions that are dramatically out of step with public opinion outside of college campuses. Frank and other democratic socialists should read his chapters on the New Left more closely. The upper- and managerial-class composition of current progressive movements, which started with the New Left in the 1960s, separates them from the working-class populists of the 1890s and 1930s and continues to pose inherent conflicts with work­ing-class voters today. Primarily a class of urban college graduates, both the New Left and today’s Left feature cultural sensibilities that are dramatically out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Many self-described left-populists refuse to acknowledge the deep unpopularity of cultural leftism, and so their appropriation of the populist label is often at least as dubious as efforts by the neoliberal Right to don the same mantle. Self-proclaimed left-populists were among the loudest proponents of the “defund the police” slogan, for example, which demonstrably moved working-class voters away from Joe Biden and toward Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential elec­tion. Further, left-populists conveniently ignore the fact that nearly all of their grand economic proposals are couched in the language of the professional managerial elite and subordinated to its unpopular sociocultural positions.

Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All, for instance, was sold to activ­ists as a way to address racial inequities, offer universal coverage to illegal immigrants, grant universal access to abortion, and fully fund transition surgeries for transgender individuals. Elements of this framing are opposed by large majorities of voters. Nonetheless, a pared down proposal that steered clear of these controversial issue areas and simply focused on the more popular cause of extending health care coverage would not have passed muster with the progressive Left. Look no further than Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who after the passage of universally popular direct stimulus payments to Americans, began agitating for payments to illegal immi­grants. This pattern replicates itself across all areas of progressive economic policy, where the desire to signal extreme cultural liberalism appears to supersede all economic considerations, regardless of public opinion.

What’s (Still) the Matter with Kansas?

This critique of contemporary progressives should not be read as an endorsement of the presumption that the political Right represents true populism, however. Rather, the Right has discovered a new and distinct form of populism devoid of economic policy which can simply be stated as opposition to the dominant cultural leftism. This opposition alone was the fundamental selling point of the Trump 2020 campaign and, if anything, is the ultimate legacy that Trump left imprinted on the GOP.

The behavior of the GOP after Joe Biden’s ascent to the presidency demonstrates that it has learned a valuable but perhaps short­sighted lesson from the 2020 election defeat: Republicans can cling stubbornly to libertarian economic policy, despite its deep unpopularity, as long as they speak to the frustration of millions of Americans opposed to the march of cultural leftism. The overwhelming feeling among ordinary people that corporate America, combined with progressive popular culture, is attacking their way of life will surely be a central point of Republican campaigns for the foreseeable future. Campaigns based on these cultural concerns alone may not necessarily be capable of winning the presidency, or allow for effec­tive governing, but they are likely enough to occasionally secure slim majorities in Congress capable of blocking the worst excesses of ruling-class cultural overreach.

The Right’s discovery of “cultural opposition” populism demonstrates the futility of trying to tie populism to a specific set of policy prescriptions. Populism is simply a tool for electoral success and a style of campaigning that focuses on the concerns of those cut off from elite power structures and institutions. Once this flexibility of populism is recognized, it is easy to understand how a neoliberal populism in the style of Ronald Reagan might emerge if a failing left-wing government is in place. Or a socialist populism of Bernie Sanders might appear if free market excesses prove conspicuously destructive. And if a significant segment of elites are pushing values obviously out of step with the vast majority of their populace, an “own the libs” cultural populism can likewise be successful. Finally, an FDR-style populism might also appear, which seeks to redistribute economic power in an unequal society in the manner of the agrarian farmers or the New Dealers whom Frank idolizes. None of these forms of populism are mutually exclusive, however, and critically, none of them constitute the sole definition of the term.

Populism Is a Campaign Tool, Not a Policy Solution

The final argument of Frank’s book is that populism is necessarily the solution to the problems plaguing American society today. A compel­ling rebuttal to that claim, however, is offered in Michael Lind’s book The New Class War (2020):

Will populists in Europe and North America succeed in overthrowing and replacing technocratic neoliberalism? Almost certainly not. Populist voters are a substantial and enduring part of Western electorates, but they are only one constituency in pluralistic societies with increasingly fragmented political sys­tems.

Moreover, populist demagogues tend to be charlatans. They are often corrupt. Many are racist or ethnocentric, though these traits are exaggerated by establishment critics who compare them to Mussolini and Hitler. While demagogic populists can win occasional isolated victories for their voters, history suggests that populist movements are likely to fail when con­fronting well-entrenched ruling classes whose members enjoy near monopolies of expertise, wealth, and cultural influence.

In response to populist rebellions from below, the managerial elites of various Western countries may turn to outright repression of the working class by restricting access to political activity and the media by all dissenters, not populists alone. As an alternative, the managerial ruling classes may try to co-opt populist rebels by making minor concessions on immigration, trade, or domestic policy.

Lind’s rebuke of most populist politicians was vindicated on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol for a completely fake and ridiculous cause. That Trump main­tains broad support among the Republican base, and won more votes than any president before him, only further demonstrates that popu­lism itself is policy-neutral, if not totally contentless. For all of Trump’s bluster against the ruling class, his actions throughout his presidency only served to solidify the rule of the American elite in their united opposition to him. The thoroughgoing devolution of populism into charlatanism is effectively an in-kind donation to the oligarchic elite insofar as the populists’ incompetence provides elites with the ultimate mandate to maintain power and squash any poten­tial threats.

Given the stranglehold that the overwhelmingly left-liberal ruling class possesses on America’s most powerful institutions today, the earlier forms of left-wing populism that Frank celebrates appear to be relics of the past. Whether an effective challenge to existing elite power will emerge—nominally populist or otherwise—remains to be seen. But debates over the meaning of populism likely won’t make much of a difference either way.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 2 (Summer 2021): 204–12.

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