The term ‘Populist’ was coined in Kansas in 1891 to describe members of a brand-new American farmer-labour party who demanded a modern currency, a war on monopoly, and the nationalisation of the railroads. The movement caught fire, and the people who called themselves Populists seemed poised to succeed at first. Instead, their party fizzled out by the end of that decade. Still, Populism’s influence lived on for decades; its ideas can be traced through the American Socialist Party, the New Deal of the 1930s and 40s, and the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020.
The rise and fall of the American Populists — again, the people who invented the word — has long been a favourite subject of romantically inclined historians. The Populist party’s principles and its leading figures are well known to scholars and are the subject of many books.
A curious fact that is repeated often in those books: the Populists were not opponents of science or learning. On the contrary: Populists produced homages to technology and scholarship and education that were so earnest and ornate that they are embarrassing to read today. They thought their own ideas about regulation and the welfare state were in full alignment with the scientific advances of the late 19th century.
At the same time, the Pops fought endlessly with the business and academic elites of their day — experts who regarded the established order as the work of God. Populists regarded all special privilege with suspicion, including the prestige that props up the professional class. A clear illustration of this theme can be seen in the famous Garden of Eden sculpture garden in Lucas, Kansas, which was built as a primer on Populist/socialist principles. One of its focal points is a rendering of ‘Labour crucified’ and the people who can be seen torturing the working man to death are society’s honoured professionals: banker, lawyer, doctor, preacher.
The Populist way of looking at things was radically democratic: the people came first. The correct role of experts, the original Populists thought, was to serve and inform the people as they went about their lives as citizens of a democracy.
Our Robber Barons, by Bernhard Gillam, from the June 14, 1882, issue of Puck, with Jay Gould as r. road monopolist, William H. Vanderbilt as corporations, Cyrus W. Field as telegraph monopoly, Russell Sage as stock jobbing, and George M. Robeson as congress robbing a tax payer of his income. Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington[Essay] The Pessimistic Style in American Politics, by Thomas Frank And its eternal war on reform from the May 2020 issue Download PDF
Just a few short years ago we Americans knew what we were doing: making the world into one big likeness of ourselves. We had the experts; we knew how it was done. Our policy operatives would deradicalize here and regime-change there; our economists would float billions to the good guys and slap sanctions on the bad; and pretty soon the whole place was going to be stately and neat, safe for debt instruments and empowerment seminars, for hors d’oeuvres in the embassy garden and taxis hailed with smartphones. Democracy! Of thee we sang.
Now we stand chastened, humiliated, bewildered. Democracy? We tremble to think of what it might do next...
“Populism” is the word that comes to the lips of the respectable and the highly educated when they perceive the global system going haywire. Populism is the name they give to the avalanche crashing down on the Alpine wonderland of Davos. Populism is what they call the mutiny that may well turn the supercarrier America into a foundering wreck. Populism, for them, is a one-word evocation of the logic of the mob: it is the people as a great rampaging beast.
What has happened, the thinkers of Beltway and C-suite tell us, is that the common folk have declared independence from the experts and, along the way, from reality itself. And so they the learned must come together to rescue civilization: political scientists, policy wonks, economists, technologists, CEOs, joining as one to save our social order. To save it from populism.
…As Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, put it in the summer of 2016: “Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.”…
Denunciations of populism have been commonplace for years, but they flowered into a full-blown panic in 2016, when commentators identified it as the secret weapon behind the unlikely presidential bid of the TV billionaire Donald Trump. Populism was also said to be the mysterious force that had permitted the self-identified outsider Bernie Sanders to do so well in the Democratic primaries. Populism was also the name of the mass delusion that was leading the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Indeed, once you started looking, unauthorized troublemakers could be seen trouncing rightful ruling classes in countries all around the world. Populists were misleading people about globalization. Populists were saying mean things about elites. Populists were subverting traditional institutions of government. And populists were winning.
In basing our civilization on the consent of the plain people, it suddenly seemed, our ancestors had built on a foundation of sand. Democracies end when they are too democratic, blared the title of a much-discussed essay by Andrew Sullivan in which the author applied his grad school reading of Plato to the 2016 campaign. Around the same time, an article in Foreign Policy expressed it more archly: it’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses...
A 2017 global report from Human Rights Watch was titled, bluntly, the dangerous rise of populism. In March of that year, former British prime minister Tony Blair rang the alarm with a New York Times essay titled how to stop populism’s carnage. He also founded the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an organization whose website announces that populists “can pose a real threat to democracy itself.”
The Democracy Scare has been impressively pan-partisan. The liberal Center for American Progress came together in 2018 with its Beltway nemesis, the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to issue a report on “the threat of authoritarian populism” and to outline “the task facing America’s political elites,” which was to beat it back.…
The People’s Party was the official moniker of the organization these men nicknamed, and it was one of America’s first great economic-political uprisings, a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans learned to think of the country’s inequitable economic system as a thing they might change by common effort. The party offered a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, could react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements was no longer tolerable.
It was also our country’s final serious effort at breaking the national duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. In the 1890s, the two main parties were still largely regional organizations, relics of the Civil War; the People’s Party’s innovation was to make 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 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, and “their enemies are identical.” By which the party meant those who prospered while making nothing: bankers, railroad barons, and commodity traders, along with their hirelings—corrupt politicians who served wealth instead of the people.
This bid for reform came during a period of unregulated corporate monopolies, in-your-face corruption, and crushing currency deflation—and also during a time when everyone who was anyone 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 uglier—a matter of deception and exploitation, bankruptcy and foreclosure, of cabinet seats for sale and entire state legislatures bought with free-ride railroad passes.
At the time, America was still largely an agricultural nation, and in many places farmers made up overwhelming majorities of the population. In the South, they tended to be desperately poor and heavily reliant on bankers, landowners, and shopkeepers. In the West, farmers 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 the 1880s, these farmers started signing up by the millions for a cooperative movement called the Farmers’ Alliance. To such people the 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. The Alliance also promised real results for farmers, by means of rural cooperatives and political pressure. It demanded the regulation of railroads, federal loans to farmers, and currency reform of a kind that would help debtors.
Along the way, something profound took place. The farmers—men and women of society’s commonest rank—figured out that being exploited was not the natural order of things. So they began taking matters into their own hands. In Kansas and a few other Western states, members of the group went into politics directly, and the People’s Party was born.
The farmers’ revolt against the existing two-party system quickly spread to other states, and other labor-oriented reform groups began signing on. This brings us to that auspicious day in May of 1891. Early that month, a delegation of Kansans had attended a convention in Cincinnati and formally launched their People’s Party at the national level. By the time those reformers boarded the train home to Topeka, their movement looked to have a promising future: they had a platform, a cause, millions of potential constituents, and the ringing Jeffersonian slogan “Equal rights to all, special privileges to none.”
One thing the insurgent party did not have, however, was a catchy word to describe its adherents, and so, on that fateful train ride—and in conversation with a local Democrat who knew some Latin—they came up with one: “populist,” derived from populus, meaning “the people.”
The name’s likely debut in print followed immediately. The May 28, 1891, edition of the American Nonconformist and Kansas Industrial Liberator, a radical newspaper out of Winfield, used the new word as part of its excited coverage of the Cincinnati proceedings:
There must be some short and easy way of designating a member of the third party. To say, “he is a member of the People’s Party” would take too much time. Henceforth a follower and affiliator of the People’s Party is a “Populist”; for a new party needs and deserves a new term.
At the time of its premiere, “populist” was a term without ambiguity. It referred to economic radicals like Leopold and Henry Vincent, the two brothers who ran the American Nonconformist. Populists were those who supported a specific list of reforms designed to take power away from “the plutocrats” while advancing what the Vincent brothers called “the rights and needs, the interests and welfare of the people.” In the same issue of the paper, the Nonconformist spelled out the grievances of the People’s Party: it protested poverty, unbearable debt, monopoly, and corruption, and it looked ahead to the day when these were ended by the political actions of the people themselves. “The industrial forces have made a stand,” the paper declared of the events in Cincinnati. “The demands of the toilers for right and justice were crystallized into a strong new party.”
In fact, the Populist revolt against the two major parties would turn out to be even more momentous than that grandiose passage implied. The People’s Party was one of the first in a long line of political efforts by working people to tame the capitalist system. Up until then, mainstream politicians in America had by and large taken the virtues of that system for granted—society’s winners won, those politicians believed, because they were better people, because they had prevailed in a rational and supremely fair contest called free enterprise. The Populists were the ones who blasted those smug assumptions to pieces, forcing the country to acknowledge that ordinary Americans were being ruined by an economic system that in fact answered to no moral laws.
Not everybody thought Populism was such a wonderful invention. Kansas Republicans—whose complacent rule over the state the People’s Party rudely interrupted—insisted that a better term for their foes was “Calamityites,” because they complained all the time. The Kansas City Star, an influential regional paper, surveyed the Cincinnati convention where the party was born and sneered that it “bore a much closer semblance to a mob than to a deliberative assembly.” What’s more, the Star’s editorialist continued, “The conference, from beginning to end, was distinguished for its intolerance and extreme bigotry.”
The judgment of the Topeka Daily Capital, the leading voice of Republican rectitude in Kansas, was even harsher. The paper’s lively front-page news story on the gathering in Cincinnati was headed as follows:
Cincinnati Rapidly Filling Up With the Disgruntled Ravelings of the Old Parties
kansans to the fore
In Large Numbers and Making Themselves Ridiculously Conspicuous by Their Gab
hayseed in their hair
Kansas Alliancers Proclaim Their Politics by the Uncouthness of Their Personal Attire
This is how the Establishment welcomed the Populist revolt into the world, and this is pretty much how the establishment thinks about populism still.
From the very beginning, then, “populism” had two meanings. There was Populism as its proponents understood it: a movement in which ordinary working people demanded democratic economic reforms. And there was Populism as its enemies characterized it: a dangerous movement of groundless resentment in which demagogues led the disreputable.
The specific reforms for which the People’s Party campaigned are largely forgotten today, but the insults and accusations with which Populism was received in 1891 are alive and well. You can read them in best-selling books, watch them flashed on PowerPoints at prestigious foundation conferences, hear the long-ago denunciations of the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Daily Capital echoed by people who have never heard of Topeka: Populist movements, they will tell you, are mob actions; reformers are bigots; their leaders are blatherskites; their followers are mentally ill, or ignorant, or uncouth at the very least. They are cranks; they are troublemakers; they are deplorables. And, yes, they still have hayseed in their hair.
The name I give to this disdainful reaction is “anti-populism,” and when you investigate its history, you find its adherents using the same rhetoric over and over again. Whether defending the gold standard in 1896 or NAFTA in 2016, anti-populism mobilizes the same sentiments and draws on the same stereotypes; it sometimes even speaks to us from the same prestigious institutions. Its most toxic ingredient—a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans—is as virulent today as it was in the Victorian era.
The first item in anti-populism’s bill of charges is that populism 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 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.”
Obama’s understanding of “populism” as a politics of pointless pining for bygone glories—exemplified by Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”—is unremarkable, but as a description of the agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century it would be largely without foundation. As modern historians remind us, 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 its 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.
Anti-populism is similarly misleading on the 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 among the defining features of populism, because populism 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” and that all forms of populism stand “against foreign goods, foreign immigrants, and foreign ideas.”
Were we to apply these arguments to Gilded Age America, they would be almost entirely upside-down. If you examine where the parties stood on the issue of tariffs, you find that the era’s great champions of protectionism were in fact big business and the Republicans. William McKinley, the man responsible for crushing the People’s Party, 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. And it was Populist leaders who dreamed of building a publicly owned railroad running from the Great Plains to the Texas Gulf Coast so that farmers could export to the world without having to pay the high freight rates imposed by private railways.
So it goes time and again with our contemporary anti-populists: when their denunciations are compared with the ideas of the people who invented the P-word, the stereotype of populists in general collapses. It does not describe historical reality. The Pops did not fear government, as we are often told populists do; they wanted it to grow big and strong. The Pops did not hate ideas; they meant to spread knowledge to the farthest corners of the land. The Pops were not socially regressive; they were unique among the major parties of their time in boasting numerous female leaders. Again and again, upon investigation, the hateful tendencies that we are told make up this frightful worldview are either absent from historical Populism or are the opposite of what it stood and stands for, or else far more accurately describe the people who hated Populism and who have opposed it ever since the 1890s.
Of course, language is mutable. Merely figuring out the intentions of the people who coined a given word doesn’t tell us a whole lot. But while the People’s Party is no more, the political philosophy that the Populists embodied did not die. The idea of working people coming together against economic privilege lives on; you might say it constitutes one of the main streams of our democratic tradition.
The populist impulse has been a presence in American life since the country’s beginning. Populism triumphed in the 1930s and 1940s, when the people overwhelmingly endorsed a regulatory welfare state. Populist uprisings occur all the time in the United States, always against the same enemies—monopolies, banks, elites, and corruption—and always with the same type of salt-of-the-earth heroes. The most obvious embodiment of the populist tradition today is certainly the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, whose principal likes to describe it as a “grassroots movement” rising up against the nation’s grotesque economic inequality.
That is the word’s historical meaning, and when we use it as a handy term for demagogues and would-be dictators, we are inverting that definition. Populism in its original formulation was profoundly, achingly democratic; it was also, by the standards of the time, anti-demagogic, pro-enlightenment, and pro-equality. In its heyday, and alone among American political parties of the time, the Populists stood strong for human rights. Populism had prominent female leaders. Populists despised tyrants and imperialism. Although not entirely immune to the racialism of its era, Populism defied the poisonous idea of Southern white solidarity.
In these days of feverish anti-populism, my mind often goes back to a 1900 speech by one of the very last Populists in Congress, a Nebraska lawyer named William Neville. His subject was America’s imperial rule over the Philippines, and his party’s opposition to it. But first he denounced both Southern Democrats, for trying to “exclude the black man from the right of suffrage,” and Republicans, for “shooting salvation and submission into the brown man because he wants to be free.” Then Neville said this:
Nations should have the same right among nations that men have among men. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is as dear to the black and brown man as to the white; as precious to the poor as to the rich; as just to the ignorant as to the educated; as sacred to the weak as to the strong; and as applicable to nations as to individuals. And the nation which subverts such right by force is no better governed than the man who takes the law in his own hands.
Of course, scholars and pundits have a right to ignore such statements and to divorce any word they choose from its original meaning. It’s legitimate for them to take the term “populist” back to its Latin root and start all over again from there, to pretend that the train from Kansas City never arrived and the farmers’ revolt never happened.
But why do that? Why use such a fine, democratic word to mean “racist,” to mean “dictator,” to mean “anti-intellectual”?
The answer is that denunciations of populism like the ones we hear so frequently nowadays are part of a long tradition of pessimism about popular sovereignty and democratic participation. And it is that tradition of quasi-aristocratic scorn, rather than populism itself, that has allowed the paranoid right to flower so abundantly in our time.
Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that modern-day thinkers who attack what they call populism only rarely bother to consider the movement that invented the word. Far more frequently they attach the term to the deeds of European politicians like the Le Pen family or the rhetoric of certain South American demagogues. Some of these experts seem unaware that the People’s Party of the 1890s existed. Others mention it only in passing.
What these present-day thinkers cannot escape are the roots of their own anti-populist tradition. Whether or not they have ever heard of Kansas Populists like “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, they are embracing a political philosophy that was pieced together long ago to stop radicals like him.
The anti-populist tradition came into its horrific own during the 1896 Democratic National Convention, when working-class unrest appeared to triumph in the person of William Jennings Bryan, then a young former congressman from Nebraska, who won the presidential nomination on the strength of his oratory against the gold standard. Bryan talked a lot like a Populist, and a short while after the Democratic convention, the Populists nominated him as well. To the Establishment, there could be no doubt about what this signified: one of the nation’s main political parties had been captured by radicalism, and the shock was as great as that of a stock-market crash. Before 1896, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic questions had been small; the two parties orbited each other within a tight system of limited government, gold-backed money, and friendliness toward big business. Bryan’s nomination signaled this arrangement’s collapse.1
The country was in a recession that year, which was the inescapable theme of the campaign, but the candidates addressed it via the proxy issue of the U.S. dollar. Democrats and their Populist allies blamed the deflationary gold standard for the unhappy fate of farmers. William McKinley and the Republicans believed the gold standard to be the central pillar of civilization itself, and regarded the threat to dismantle it as a deadly peril. The Republicans were wrong on this issue, but nevertheless they prevailed. They contrived to crush Bryan’s challenge and, in so doing, to build a lasting stereotype of reform as folly. The word with which they expressed that stereotype: “populism.”
Let us open the Judge magazine of August 8, 1896, to get a glimpse of how respectable Americans regarded the radical threat. Judge was one of the country’s premier humor magazines, with several large, beautifully drawn political cartoons in each issue. The rest of its pages typically featured grotesque caricatures of blacks, Irish, Jews, immigrants, and farmers. Between the jokes at the expense of these subordinate people, one could also catch glimpses of the demographic for whose amusement the chuckles were collected: refined, upper-class whites—people of manners and education and bank accounts—saying witty things about the burdens of good taste.
With this particular number of Judge, however, it is clear that something terrible has happened: the usual tone of genial mockery has given way to panic. At the magazine’s center is a foldout illustration of stark American disaster, brought on by a gigantic figure labeled populism. This colossus is rustic and tattered, but we are not meant to laugh at him: he glares with predatory eyes, he is armed with a brace of pistols and knives, he wears a Phrygian cap—the liberty cap of the French Revolution—marked anarchy, he wields the torch of ruin, and he towers terrifyingly over his fellow Americans. From this monster flee the sort of tidy white people who made up Judge magazine’s readership: banker, capitalist, honest citizen, respectable democrat. One of them cowers on the ground beneath Populism’s onslaught; another clutches his head in disbelief. “Has It Come to This!” blubbers the caption.
This was the Democracy Scare, 1896 version: our system was unraveling, with society’s worst elements rising up against its best. Similarly frightful images appeared that year wherever people were dignified and accomplished together, always expressed in the vocabulary of hysteria and hyperbole. Populism wasn’t merely menacing “norms”; it was bringing the country face-to-face with anarchy and repudiation.
On July 10, the New York Sun declared that the Democratic Party had been given over to “Jefferson’s diametric opposite, the Socialist, or Communist, or, as he is now known here, the Populist.” A lead editorial that ran in the Sun a few days later declared that there was no real Democratic candidate that year. Instead, “there are Populist-Anarchist candidates nominated on a Populistic-Anarchist platform.” Similarly, in a pamphlet distributed by the Republican Party that fall, the novelist and statesman John Hay claimed that the Democrats no longer existed: “The enemy which confronts us is the Populist party,” which had swallowed the Democrats “as a python might swallow an ox.”
Then as now, consensus among elites was the primary weapon of the anti-populist resistance. Thanks to William Jennings Bryan and “his new Red Circus,” something miraculous had happened, the Sun proclaimed: “the business interests of the country are all arrayed on one side.” E. L. Godkin, then the conscience of American journalism, clucked in The Nation that “no man has ever yet been elected President whom the business interests of the country . . . distrusted and opposed as unsafe; these interests in the controlling states are substantially unanimous against Bryan.” Godkin was pleased even better by the harmony with which the nation’s press came together against the Democratic challenger. Similar unanimity reigned in fashionable churches and in prestige academia.
From the heights of this consensus the men of quality denounced the rabble. Bryan’s campaign aroused “the basest passions of the least worthy members of the community,” announced an editorial in the New–York Tribune that ran on the day after the election. “It has been defeated and destroyed because right is right and God is God.”
Populism represented the world turned upside down. It came from a dark place where democracy’s guardrails were gone, where wealth and learning and status counted for nothing. “Populism” was a word used to express the horror of seeing hierarchies collapse and the lowly clamber to places where they did not belong. Populists, John Hay wrote, valued nothing, throwing “their frantic challenge against every feature of our civilization.” They longed to bind the hands of government “where it is inclined to protect order and property.” They appealed “to the openly lawless.” They waged a “shameful insurrection against law and national honesty.” Their plans for funding the government were “the merest babble of the loafers around a rural livery stable.” For the plumèd knights of the Republican Party, it was, he wrote, “as if a champion at a tourney, awaiting the onset of a chivalrous antagonist, should suddenly find himself attacked by a lunatic in rags.”
The familiar identification of populism with demagoguery, a core doctrine of modern-day punditry, is also descended directly from this original Democracy Scare. It began on the very day of Bryan’s surprise nomination. An editorial in the Evening Post declared the Nebraskan to be the Democrats’ “chief demagogue,” a man “who took the mob of repudiators off their feet by a speech of forty-blatherskite power.” It wasn’t so much Bryan’s arguments that won the Democrats over, the editor continued, as it was “his wind power, which is immense.”
A favorite trope of the anti-populists of the 1890s was the masquerade or the put-on. Bryan and his followers were not real Democrats, the men of quality agreed; they were “masquerading in the Democratic garb,” as Cornell’s president, Andrew D. White, put it. In a more gothic vein, Leslie’s Weekly depicted Bryan’s face as a mask, behind which lurked a hideous howling anarchy in a boar’s hide and bat wings. This was, as the caption put it, “The New (Not the True) Democracy Unmasked.” One of the monster’s hands held its name tag, a second gripped the throat of a working man, a third used a knife to cut the dollar in half.
Who was really in control of the uprising? Was Bryan some kind of mastermind, or was he merely the tool of sinister others? According to the New–York Tribune, Bryan was “not the real leader of that league of hell,” a verdict the paper handed down after the Democrat lost the election. “He was only a puppet in the blood-imbrued hands of Altgeld the Anarchist and Debs the revolutionist and other desperadoes of that stripe.”2
And if he wasn’t a puppet or a demagogue—if Bryan wasn’t fooling when he denounced plutocracy—oh my God, don’t even ask. “He is a dangerous man,” editorialized the New York Sun: “If he is sincere, dangerous even as a fool is dangerous when he raises a false alarm of fire in a crowded theatre; and if a demagogue, as he seems to be, doubly dangerous.”
Then as now, faith in the people’s wisdom was thought to be populism’s original sin. Bryan was mocked in The Nation for supposedly starting his speeches with empty salutes to the genius of the common people: “Your wisdom is inexhaustible and infallible,” he was parodied as saying. “I tell you that you are so great that you can ignore the rest of the world.” A cartoon in Puck imagined Bryan on his whistle-stop tour, blowing the same sort of bunkum out of a bellows at a crowd of happy farmers, snaggletoothed idiots wearing long agrarian whiskers. Bryan was driving them to ecstasy by saluting the wisdom of the hayseed:
Our people are capable of ruling!
They do not need the lessons of history!
They have nothing to learn!
They do not care for the experience of other nations!
They know it all! . . . Study and science are of no account,
the popular intuition is better than reasoning and what the people say goes!
That populism is at war with intellect, that it is an offense to meritocracy—these lasting axioms are also rooted in the original Democracy Scare, when Populism threatened to level both the hierarchy of money and that of credentialed technique. The institution where these two came together was the gold standard, the bedrock of both classical economics and the nineteenth-century banking system. For the Populists, the elites’ faith in gold was a favorite target for mockery. But for establishment figures like John Hay, the only legitimate way to settle the currency question was “by the investigations of the leading economists of the world,” gathered in solemn contemplation. The conclusion of such a gathering was certain: one couldn’t adopt a silver standard in just one country and hope to succeed. America’s economy was locked in an international system regulated by responsible expertise, Hay insisted, and upon this reasoning everyone who was anyone agreed. “All the intelligent bi-metallists of America . . . ; all those of England . . . ; all the German scholars . . . agree in this.”3
Many years later, the consensus-minded historian Richard Hofstadter would assert in these pages that Populism reflected status anxiety and even a “paranoid style.” His larger insight, which revolutionized social science in the 1950s and which persists in the anti-populism of our own day, was that mass protest movements in general could be understood as a reaction of maladjusted minds to the advance of modernity.
In truth, Hofstadter’s discovery had already been made back in 1896, when Populism was repeatedly diagnosed as a mental aberration. In September of that year, as the contentious presidential campaign unfolded, the New York Times announced the alarming discovery: William Jennings Bryan appeared to be clinically insane. It began with a letter to the paper from an anonymous “alienist,” or psychologist, who examined Bryan’s heredity, his heretofore mediocre career, and his behavior on the campaign trail, and concluded “without any bias” that “Mr. Bryan presents in his speech and action striking and alarming evidence of a mind not entirely sound.” Proof: the candidate was “an apostle of an economic theory without ever having a training in economics.”
It was a scary situation, the alienist continued. After all, having “a madman in the White House” would not only be dangerous, but would also damage democracy itself, since it “would forever weaken the trust in the soundness of republics and the sanity of the voting masses.”
Twenty Years After, by J. S. Pughe, from the November 19, 1902, issue of Puck
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, WashingtonAdjustShare
Further examples from the bitter, costly campaign of 1896 can be piled up almost without limit, but you get the point: we are in the grip of a remarkably similar distemper today. To be clear, I believe that President Trump richly deserves nearly any criticism he gets. He is not really a populist, and I have no intention of building sympathy for him. But the danger of anti-populism is that it goes far beyond objecting to one vile politician. This was demonstrated in March as the anti-populist establishment came together to pummel the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Whatever its target, anti-populism is always a brief for elite and even aristocratic power, an attack on the democratic tradition itself. That is ultimately what’s in the crosshairs when commentators tell us 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.”
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. Just as in 1896, such ideas 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.
Here is David Brooks, making the connection between “populists of left and right” in a New York Times column denouncing Sanders. The Vermont senator, Brooks asserts, embraces
the populist values, which are different [from liberal ones]: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.
And here is how The Economist made exactly the same point, whining that Americans may soon be forced to choose
between a corrupt, divisive, right-wing populist, who scorns the rule of law and the constitution, and a sanctimonious, divisive, left-wing populist, who blames a cabal of billionaires and businesses for everything that is wrong with the world. All this when the country is as peaceful and prosperous as at any time in its history. It is hard to think of a worse choice.
As it happens, the men of quality did their job, and working Americans will not face the ignoble prospect of voting for a candidate who takes their side against billionaires and businesses. The larger message of anti-populism, regardless of where it comes from on the political spectrum, is always one of complacency. Elites rule us because elites should rule us. They are in charge because they are the best.
And so we come to understand the real task before us today: to rescue from the enormous condescension of the comfortable the one political tradition that has a chance of reversing our decades-long turn to the right.
This essay is excerpted from The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, which will be published next month by Metropolitan Books. Thomas Frankis also the author of Listen, Liberal and What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Bernard Sanders Bernie Sanders Elite (Social sciences) Equality National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union Political culture Political parties Populism Populist Party (U.S. : 1892-1908) Presidential candidates Right and left (Political science) William Jennings Bryant
More from Thomas Frank
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
SUBSCRIBE FOR FULL ACCESS
Four More Years
AdjustShareThe Trump reelection nightmare and how we can stop itBy Thomas Frank
Let us think the unthinkable. Let us imagine Donald Trump’s potential path to reelection as president of the United States.
He is deeply unpopular, the biggest buffoon any of us has ever seen in the White House. He manages to disgrace the office nearly every single day. He insults our intelligence with his blustering rhetoric. He endorses racial stereotypes and makes common cause with bigots. He has succeeded in offending countless foreign governments. He has no idea what a president is supposed to be or do and (perhaps luckily) he has no clue how to govern. Of the handful of things he has actually managed to achieve, nearly all are toxic.
Donald Trump in the Oval Office, 2017 © Christopher Anderson/Magnum PhotosSubscribe or log in to read the rest of this content.Thomas Frankis the author of Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books). His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Swat Team,” appeared in the November 2016 issue.
2017- 2020 21st century Democratic Party (U.S.) Donald Trump Economic policy Election Free trade Infrastructure (Economics) Neoliberalism Political aspects Political participation Politics and government Populism Presidents Right and left (Political science) United States Wages
More from Thomas Frank
From the Archive
Timeless stories from our 170-year archive handpicked to speak to the news of the day.Email addressSign Up
- CURRENT ISSUEAdvertisingInternships
- THE LATESTContactClassifiedsFAQ
- ARCHIVEMastheadSubmissionsCustomer Care
© Copyright 2020Harper’s Magazine FoundationDo Not Sell My Personal Information
The original Populist movement didn’t have much to say about healthcare policy. In the 1890s, American medicine had not yet hardened into the supremely costly bureaucratic labyrinth we know today. But as the price of medicine grew out of reach in the decades that followed, farmers and unions and charities proposed all kinds of alternative, more democratic arrangements, and always with the same aim: to make healthcare an affordable part of life for ordinary, working-class people.
Elk City’s cooperative system
My favourite of these neopopulist efforts was launched in 1929 in the high-plains town of Elk City, Oklahoma, a state that once had a vivid Populist streak. The idea was a cooperative healthcare system in which farm families would pay a modest sum each year for guaranteed access to doctors, dentists and a modern regional hospital. Members of the cooperative — meaning ordinary people, farmers, mainly — would elect the board and run the business side of the enterprise. This system was the brainchild of one Dr Michael Shadid, who organised it with the help of the state Farmers’ Union.
The populism of the Elk City enterprise can be understood by a glance at its backer, the Farmers’ Union, a more or less direct descendent of the old Populist party. Doctor Shadid’s story is more interesting still. A Lebanese immigrant who spent his career practicing among dirt-poor American farmers, Shadid was once a member of the Socialist party. While the doctor had unusual political ideas, he was no quack; his medical standards were high. What set him apart from his peers was his criticism of the predatory way medicine was practiced in places like small-town Oklahoma. He understood himself as something different, a ‘Doctor for the People’ (4) who would solve the persistent American problem of costly healthcare and a sickly population — the same basic problem that afflicts us today.
‘In war times and peace times, panic and prosperity, fair weather and foul, these facts stand,’ Shadid once wrote. ‘Poor people get sick quicker, stay sick longer, need medical aid most, get it least. Some are poor because they are sick. Others are sick because they are poor’ (5).
Shadid wrote that he acted on behalf of ‘the American people’ in their struggle ‘to escape from the domination of special privilege, which is leading this country toward dictatorship and chaos.’ After quoting this passage in a 1939 book, the journalist James Rorty appended, ‘These are native slogans, populist rather than socialist, and they hit the Oklahoma farmers right where they live.’
By ‘special privilege’ Shadid was likely referring to the American Medical Association (AMA), the doctors’ professional group, which had essentially declared war on him for daring to open a cooperative hospital. They came after the neopopulist reformer in all sorts of diabolical ways. His enterprise was ‘unethical’, they said, because it placed laymen in charge of the business decisions. They tried to get Shadid’s medical license revoked, and then they reorganised the local AMA chapter without him in it, which had the effect of cancelling his malpractice insurance. Doctors he tried to recruit were warned not to sign up with his endeavour and they stayed away.
Science’s war on populism
Most of today’s pundits would no doubt cluck with grave concern over Dr Shadid’s populist war on science. But what happened to him could be more accurately described as science’s war on populism.
Science’s war raged on for many years, as the AMA fought and defeated proposal after proposal for democratising healthcare. Once, for example, its members organised a boycott of a dairy company in order to persuade a vaguely related charitable foundation to stop researching what was then called ‘medical economics’. On another occasion, according to historian Paul Starr, when a medical co-op was set up in Washington DC, on the Oklahoma model, the AMA ‘threatened reprisals against any doctors who worked for the plan, prevented them from obtaining consultations and referrals, and succeeded in persuading every hospital in the District of Columbia to deny them admitting privileges…’ (6).
For this outrage the AMA got hit with a Federal antitrust suit. But that didn’t even slow them down. These were, after all, the greatest medical experts of their day, and they demanded that society show them the deference to which they were entitled. Nearly every effort to reform healthcare, in the AMA’s view, was ‘unethical’. In 1938 the AMA’s president even denounced a federal inquiry on the issue as a perversion of the social hierarchy, with the laity demanding some quack remedy and bawling that the experts must prescribe it to him. ‘That is not scientific medicine and that is not scientific economics,’ he sneered.
It is amazing the things professional ethics forbid when professionals feel their status to be under threat. After winning the election of 1948 with a campaign far more populist than Donald Trump’s, President Harry Truman made universal healthcare his defining issue. He rolled out a plan for universal health insurance, acknowledging the achievements of modern medicine but pointing out that their price tag had put medicine out of reach. ‘It is no longer just the poor who are unable to pay for all the medical care they need,’ he said; ‘such care is now beyond the means of all but the upper income groups’ (7).
The forthrightly populist Senator Bernie Sanders is most closely identified with universal healthcare these days. And it is the forces of organised expertise and private power that have repeatedly torpedoed it
The AMA fired back, describing Truman’s plan as the ‘discredited system of decadent nations’, pointing out that it would put medical doctors — highly educated members of a highly honoured profession — beneath ‘a vast bureaucracy of political administrators, clerks, bookkeepers and lay committees’. To stop the unlettered Missourian, the group levied a special assessment on its (quite affluent) members, generated an enormous war chest, and hired the nation’s pioneering political consultancy — a California outfit called Campaigns Inc — to direct its forces in the field. This outfit rained down upon the country a veritable hailstorm of pamphlets and letters and mean-spirited cartoons denouncing ‘socialised medicine’ as the final extinction of human freedom (8).
By these notorious means the Truman plan was defeated, as has been every attempt to secure true universal healthcare in the United States. It was in Canada, however, that science’s war on populism came to a volcanic climax. In the country’s plains provinces, the historian Robert McMath has pointed out, the American Populist revolt of the 1890s continued on for decades (9). During the Great Depression the populist tradition culminated in a radical agrarian party called the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF); when this group finally swept the election in Saskatchewan in 1944, it famously formed the ‘first socialist government in North America’.
The CCF went on to win many elections, and for the 1960 Saskatchewan election this Canadian incarnation of the populist tradition declared that it intended to establish universal healthcare for the province. In that election, fought over that one big issue, the CCF prevailed again. By July of 1962 the CCF government in Regina was ready to launch what it called Medicare, its single-payer healthcare plan, the first in Canada.
In response, organised science dropped the big one. On the day single-payer healthcare began in Saskatchewan, the province’s doctors walked off the job. There were only roughly a thousand of them, but still, it was the ultimate Ayn Rand moment: a strike by the One Percent, with the brains and the money teaching an uppity peasantry to show respect.
A ‘democracy scare’
This particular showdown between science and populism — between a small but prestigious professional group and the working people of Saskatchewan — saw many of the AMA’s patented tricks rolled out before a new audience. The local doctors’ association assessed its members and built up a huge treasury for propaganda efforts. The province’s Chamber of Commerce backed the doctors’ walkout, as did other professional associations. The Saskatchewan press overwhelmingly took the doctors’ side, shrieking fear of communism and fear of disease. Far-right protesters made an appearance as well — the so-called Keep Our Doctors movement, which appeared out of nowhere to challenge the government’s single-payer scheme by means of public demonstrations, red-baiting, and racist innuendo — this last because the neopopulist government planned to replace striking doctors with medicos from other lands.
The real issue, of course, was the place of professionals in a democracy. In those days doctors held a monopoly on determining treatments and costs. They answered to no one but their peers. The CCF’s plan — like the Elk City plan, like Harry Truman’s plan — diluted this power, handing ordinary people a certain authority over society’s highest-ranking group. Doctors were ‘the “high priests” of our world’, an American journalist wrote of the Saskatchewan controversy. And ‘these “high priests” are not used to taking orders from government men.’
Stephen Taylor, the British peer brought in to mediate the Saskatchewan doctors’ strike put it in quasi-medical terms: the AMA, he wrote, was ‘hysterically opposed to Medicare; and it endeavoured, not without some success, to communicate its hysteria to the doctors and the public in Saskatchewan’ (10).
This is a precise diagnosis: a professional group deliberately spread hysteria across the Canadian prairie. The result was what I call a ‘democracy scare’, in which society’s high-status groups come to believe that their privileges have been placed in mortal danger by the actions of the vast, seething multitude. Symptoms of this recurring hysteria include depictions of democracy-as-tyranny; denunciations of the lower orders for meddling in matters they do not understand (economics, foreign policy, or in this case, medicine); and, of course, a near-airtight unanimity among the news media.
All these features were present, for example, in the great democracy scare of 1896, when the American ruling class, backed almost unanimously by the nation’s press, came to believe that it was threatened by a bloodthirsty proletariat, led by the seemingly radical Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had been cross-endorsed by the Populists. From the towering heights of the East Coast press, the learned men of the 1890s denounced Populism as an insane uprising of the crazy and the stupid.
These features were also present in 1936, when ruling elites again came together with the press to inveigh against the seemingly radical Franklin D Roosevelt. And all of them are present again today, as scholars and journalists recycle the hysterical rhetoric of the past for a modern audience.
Sometimes democracy scares succeed in their purpose. In 1962 in Saskatchewan, however, the great strike of the One Percent was a resounding flop. After the first initial wave of fear, support for the doctors evaporated. The outrageous rhetoric of the allies of expertise — a radio priest called for blood in the streets — turned people off (11). Within a month the strike was over, and within five years every province in Canada had adopted a healthcare system like Saskatchewan’s; today, Medicare is one of Canada’s proudest civic achievements.
Privilege vs equality
None of the reformers I have described disputed the importance of research or any particular scientific findings. These neopopulists all admired modern medicine; they merely wanted it to be accessible to the lowliest members of society. Which is to say that these were battles of privilege versus equality.
‘The most important issue at stake in the battle between the Saskatchewan government and the doctors of that province is not medicare but democracy,’ declared the Toronto Globe and Mail a few weeks into the strike. ‘The professional, in whatever line, must always be subject, in the final analysis, to the laity, or democracy cannot function.’
This was exactly what was wrong with democracy, others screamed: it gave the unlettered ‘laity’ power over their betters. George Sokolsky, an American syndicated columnist, thundered his support for the striking doctors of Saskatchewan on the grounds that they were ‘fighting a battle for the professional men in this era of mobocracy’. Sokolsky, a ferocious anticommunist, saw the doctors struggling to keep their heads up as the rest of the world drowned beneath the waves of equality. ‘It used to be that human beings respected each other for their worth, but today the motto seems to be “I’m as good as you are”.’ This was a false and pernicious doctrine, the columnist raged. Everyone in a country like ours can speak their mind, but as the world grows more complicated, ‘only the expert can have an opinion on an increasing number of subjects.’
Sokolsky was an extreme right-winger, an enthusiastic McCarthyite. The Saskatchewan CCF, meanwhile, was a party of the farmer-labour left.
But now, here is the twist: today, everything is reversed. Harry Truman’s Democratic Party has become the bought-and-paid-for vehicle of affluent and highly educated professionals. It dutifully bails out the geniuses on Wall Street. It responsibly obeys the economists who tell us about the wonders of ‘free trade’. And when our modern Democrats propose healthcare reform, they do it from the top down, by convening experts from every affected field and asking them to redraw the system amongst themselves — and then are astonished when the public erupts in outrage.
‘Democracy is a problem’
The healthcare equation has changed as well. The AMA is no longer the mighty bulwark of medical professionalism that it once was; others have eclipsed both its power and its leadership in the fight against universal healthcare. Still, the hospital chains, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies that now hold the fort against single-payer do so on the same grounds as before: respect for what is now called ‘innovation’ and the professionals who deliver it.
The biggest change of all has been in the thinking of the anti-Trump faction. As their abuse of the term ‘populism’ indicates, they have turned strongly against liberalism’s democratic heritage. Today they remind us about the bright side of censorship (12) and pine for the days when bosses chose our leaders for us. Democracy is a problem, they tell us, because democracy allows the common people to ignore the authority of expertise. Disobedient democracy is to blame for Trump. Disobedient democracy is why we can do nothing about global warming. Disobedient democracy is the reason we can’t beat the Covid pandemic. And all of it is the fault of We the People.
The politics have been inverted but the fight remains the same. Expertise, identified now with the icy moral purity of the left rather than the Neanderthal anticommunism of the right, continues to rage against the insolence of those who defy its authority. The privilege of the expert is the real contested matter.
Put aside the self-serving fantasies of our modern punditburo, however, and the old political equation can still be seen through the fog of liberal self-righteousness. Squint and you can see that it is the forthrightly populist Senator Bernie Sanders who is most closely identified with universal healthcare these days. And it is the forces of organised expertise and private power that have repeatedly torpedoed it. In our awful current situation, a dose of authentic populism would be a remarkable tonic.
Thomas FrankThomas Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2016.Original text in English
Wherever you are in the world, you can subscribe to receive:
- ☛ The issue in digital, pdf, and ebook form.
- ☛ Online access to our English language archives since 1996
- ☛ Ebooks on topical themes.
- Subscribe now for independent, international journalism that comes right from the source.
(1) See Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science, New York, Basic Books, 2005.
(3) David Sirota, ‘Gilead is profiteering off a Covid drug we already paid for’, 30 June 2020.
(4) See Michael A Shadid, A Doctor for the People: the Autobiography of the Founder of America’s First Co-operative Hospital, Vanguard Press, New York, 1939.
(5) Michael A Shadid, Doctors of Today and Tomorrow, The Cooperative League of the USA, New York, 1947.
(6) Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine: the Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry, 2nd edition, Basic Books, 2017.
(7) Harry S Truman, ‘Special message to the Congress on the nation’s health needs’, 22 April 1949.
(8) Echoes of that campaign persisted for years. In the early 1960s, when Congress began debating old-age health insurance, the measure drew a famous rebuke from none other than Ronald Reagan. The future president, then a washed-up movie star, saw the proposal as a monstrous scheme to start an unsuspecting nation down the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
(9) Robert C McMath Jr, ‘Populism in two countries: Agrarian protest in the Great Plains and Prairie provinces’, Agricultural History, vol 69, no 4, autumn 1995.
(10) Quoted in Malcolm G Taylor and Allan Maslove, Health Insurance and Canadian Public Policy: the Seven Decisions that Created the Health Insurance System and Their Outcomes, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 2009.
(11) Gregory P Marchildon (ed), Making Medicare: New Perspectives on the History of Medicare in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2012.