Thomas Frank: Liberal Elites Will Create Conditions for Another Trump

Yves here. On to the last part of Thomas Frank’s discussion of his new book, The People, No. Here Frank focuses on the danger to the US of demonizing populism.

By Paul Jay. Originally published at TheAnalysis.news

Paul Jay
Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to the Analysis.news podcast. This is Part Three of my discussion with Thomas Frank about his book, ‘The People, No’.

So, Thomas, talk more about the mindset and how origins of this, at least modern origins, of this mindset within the elite of the Democratic Party and amongst the elites of the oligarchy, much of it actually on Wall Street, who kind of position themselves as being the anti-right, but really hate the left popular movement.

Thomas Frank
There’s this fascinating moment, Paul, where the word itself, populism, gets flipped and it goes from being a positive thing, you know, the sort of left-wing worker, farmer/worker movement in the 1890s, it goes from that to be a very negative thing to being, something fearful and dreadful. You know, something that’s paranoid and suspicious, and pathological and anti-Semitic. And that moment when that happens is in the 1950s. It’s a really fascinating place where the writing of history intersects, with history itself, with the making of history.

And the man who is probably single-handedly most responsible for this is Richard Hofstadter, the greatest American historian of his day, probably of the 20th century, and aside here. I got a Ph.D. in American history, that’s what I had meant to do with my life when I was young. I was a big admirer of Hofstadter when I was younger and really looked up to him. He’s an elegant writer and an elegant thinker. You know, he brings together these two, these sort of two great functions of a historian, and I thought he was absolutely wonderful. I really looked up to him when I was younger.

But now I’m an adult, and I look back at his masterpiece, which is a book that came out in 1955 called, ‘The Age of Reform’, and now as an adult see very clearly what this book is. It was meant as a history of different reform movements in American life. And, you know talking about which ones succeeded and which ones failed. And it was a vicious attack on populism, on the populist movement of the 1890s. But now, as an adult, I can see that it was something else at the same time. It was a manifesto for Hofstadter’s generation, so it was these two things at the same time.

And let’s begin by saying this is the book that really turned the tables on populism and made it into a negative term, a term that you applied to authoritarians and to people like Donald Trump. Hofstetter went back and looked at the original populist movement and said it was, “it was pathological. It was an expression of status anxiety. Farmers were people who were on their way down, and because they were on their way down, they imagined all these scapegoats for their problems, and, you know, they were cranks. They rejected expertise, they were anti-intellectual, and above all, they were anti-Semitic”.

And he actually tried to blame anti-Semitism in America, all of it, basically, on populism, which is ridiculous, which is utterly fatuous, but he said that. This book was massively influential, it was a big bestseller. It won the Pulitzer Prize, it has been described as the most influential work of American history ever published. And Hofstadter’s larger idea, as I said, it was a manifesto for his generation and his sociological cohort.

What I mean by that is he said there are two models for reform. One of them is the populist model, a mass movement of working-class people. And that’s how you get reform by bringing together people at the bottom, and he said that doesn’t work. We can see that doesn’t work because populism was a pathological movement that was delusional. They were all hypnotized demagogues, anti-Semitism, scapegoating, et cetera, all of which turned out to be wrong.

But he said there’s another way to do reform, and that other way is to bring highly educated people together and put them in charge of all the different “organs” that go to make up government and society and business and the military. And they will all get together and sit around a big mahogany table in Washington, D.C. and come to an agreement with one another. And that’s how you get things done. And he said this at the very moment, of course, this is how things work in, as we know in the world of ideas.

That was, in fact, what was happening. That his generation of intellectuals was coming out of the Ivy League schools, top flight schools and were taking over the corporations. Up until then, corporations had been run by people who inherited them or people who built them, entrepreneurs, that sort of thing. But now they were going to be run by people with MBA’s. people with economics degrees. People with advanced degrees were running the big departments of the government. People with advanced degrees were running the Pentagon.

And Hofstadter and his friends, if you think of the other intellectuals of the time, such as Daniel Bell, that’s what they were celebrating. Remember Daniel Bell had a famous book called. ‘The End of Ideology’. You didn’t need ideology or you didn’t need mass movements, you didn’t need millions of people in the streets like you had in the 1890s and the 1930s. You needed people like Daniel Bell, sitting around a big table and making decisions on your behalf. That was the model in the 1950s and Hofstadter’s great book, ‘Attacking Populism’. By great, I mean spectacularly influential book, ‘Attacking Populism’, was a manifesto for that way of understanding the world. You know, The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, you know what I’m talking about.

And so this book is hugely influential. All sorts of other intellectuals at the time start copying it. They start writing about populism and the word takes on this life of its own. It becomes a stereotype. Now, here’s what Hofstadter never admitted in his book. His stereotype comes directly from the democracy scare of 1896. Remember, we talked about that in the last episode. All of the elites in American society getting together and denouncing William Jennings Bryan. Hofstadter just basically took that picture that they assembled and said, Yeah, that’s what populism really was. It really was a bunch of crazy farmers who really had no idea what they were doing and were rejecting the consensus expertise of their day.

Paul Jay
And then they look at the rise of Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship.

Thomas Frank
Right. That’s the same thing.

Paul Jay
Although the truth is Hitler is given birth to mostly by the German elites,

Thomas Frank
Of course, what happened was that Hofstadter was, within five years after this book came out, this triumphant manifesto for his generation. His attack on populism is completely, crushingly refuted by the American history profession. All of these people who are actual scholars of populism, who dig in the archives and read the Congressional Quarterly. What is it called, though? You know, the speeches in the House of Congress. People who have done the granular, the real research on populism and know what it actually was. These people come back at Hofstadter and within a very short amount of time have completely refuted his understanding of populism. So, like the idea that populism was the fount of anti-Semitism in America is utterly disproven. I mean that’s completely wrong.

As as I learned myself in my own research, Paul, anti-Semitism is all over the place in American life, especially among the people who hated populism. They were deeply, profoundly anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant and racist, anti-Black. He’s got the picture completely backward in all sorts of ways, and this is proven. We learned this when I studied, when I was a graduate student in American history, one of these classic tales of someone with a daring, Hofstadter comes forward with this thesis and the thesis is crushingly disproven.

OK, nobody knows that. His thesis was completely destroyed. And yet, this stereotype that Hofstadter embraced, that he took from the 1890’s and from the 1930’s and was then sort of grounded in the social science of the 1950s, that stereotype takes off and his redefinition of the word populism takes off. And in fact, that is how we get this modern discipline that I referred to in an earlier episode, the discipline called Global Populism Studies. It takes its baseline definition of what populism is from Richard Hofstadter, who’s getting the American populist movement completely wrong, who’s using the establishment attack on populism as a definition of what populism is.

This is what I’m saying, Paul. Long story short, this whole redefinition of populism that we see around us every day is a pedagogy that is based on a mistake, a famous historical mistake made in the 1950s. This whole pedagogy that has departments, big-name academics, they get tenure, they publish books, they write articles, they have conferences, TED talks. All of that is based on a famous mistake.

Paul Jay
Or rationalized with a famous mistake.

Thomas Frank
No, it’s based on it. They build on Hofstadter. They don’t often refer to him anymore, but that’s where this whole idea of populism, as, you know, a nicer name for right-wing authoritarianism—That’s where it comes from. It comes from him. And he was completely in error about the populist movement.

Anyhow, what’s funny, Paul, is with so many of these questions, the facts don’t really matter. It’s the picture that Hofstadter painted. The stereotype is what really captured people’s imagination.

So you’ve got this emerging class. You know, he’s right about that. He and Daniel Bell and the rest of them, they’re right about that. There is this group coming up that is taking charge of the Pentagon, that’s taking charge of the Fortune 500, (The Fortune 500 is an annual list compiled and published by Fortune magazine that ranks 500 of the largest United States corporations by total revenue for their respective fiscal years. The list includes publicly held companies, along with privately held companies for which revenues are publicly available), that’s taking charge of the, you the branches of the government, the big law firms in New York, et cetera; that there is this new cohort that’s running things. And this cohort needs a word to describe who they are, not. To describe what they are displacing, to describe their enemy. And that word is populism. That’s the word they settle upon.

Paul Jay
You write: “It’s the current liberal ideal of Washington, D.C. It’s the philosophy of mainstream American journalism. It’s the strategic model for the cautious, scholarly, consensus minded Clinton and Obama administrations, extending their hands in friendship to fellow elites and Wall Street, Silicon Valley. This is where it all begins”. Talk about this kind of modern version of this anti-populism.

Thomas Frank
Yeah, it’s in some ways, what we’re living with now. It is very similar to 1896 and to 1936, except the political valence of it is flipped.

And what I mean by that is you see this great coming together of this great consensus of the elites. That’s happening all over again. The newspapers in this country, such as they are, there’s basically two of them anymore, The Post and The Times, and they agree on everything. The Post every day you open it up, and it’s the same thing; five anti-Trump editorials every day often denouncing populism, they do it constantly. New York Times, same thing. There’s this consensus among economists. They’re always doing these mass signing of letters. 400 economists say that NAFTA’s, (The North American Free Trade Agreement was an agreement signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, creating a trilateral trade bloc in North America), the greatest thing in the world or, you know, whatever the hell it is we’ve talked about, you and I have talked about this before. The consensus of the elites, the grand, what’s that word from European history that when they all came together against Napoleon, what was that called? The concert of Europe. It’s like that, it’s the grand concert of elites only in tones of utter hysteria. And that’s where we are now. Now, I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a real populist. I can’t stand Donald Trump. I think he’s a demagogue and has done incredible damage to this country, into the lives of millions of people.

But the hysteria and the way that the sort of liberal elite of this country has reacted in the last four years is exactly analogous to the way conservative elites reacted against Bryan in 1896, and the way conservative elites reacted against Roosevelt in 1936. These are elites that that were either threatened or could feel themselves being displaced. And they used, at least in one of those cases, the word populist to describe the people who had displaced them.

Paul Jay
Your fundamental argument, if I get it from early in the book, is you actually cannot fight this kind of right-wing movement that backs Trump if you don’t really get what the history of progressive populism is. But you also, as you write the absolute fear, even hatred of working class mass movements, especially of the left, actually, or of the right, especially of the left, this disbelief that controls the Democratic Party is going to keep reproducing the conditions for the rise of a Trump.

Thomas Frank
Yes, because they deny that it’s that. You remember, Paul, I think it was when you and I first met, I had written an article for The Guardian saying, you know, this is early in the days of the of the Democracy scare of 2016 when people were hysterical, that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican nominee. And I said, you know, you look at his speeches. The guy is a bigot. No question about that. And, yeah, a lot of his supporters are racist, no question about that.

But he’s also saying these other things. You know, he is reaching out to people on other grounds that are legitimate or sound legitimate. Trump is always full of shit, you know this. He’s always wrong. Even when he’s talking about something, even when he’s, like, superficially correct. His deeper understanding always turns out to be based on something that’s completely wrong. You know this, right?

But I said, his criticism of the trade agreements, for example, he’s right about that. That was a legitimate complaint. And the Democrats blow this off at their peril. And you know, give him credit, the guy was saying these endless—-He was criticizing these endless wars. Well, it’s about God damn time somebody criticized these endless wars. He was criticizing Wall Street all the time for bullshit reasons. He doesn’t really understand what happened in the financial crisis. But he at least made a big show of criticizing these people. And then again, remember, he’s done very, very little about it.

But he harnessed that anger just as the Tea Party did before him, which is also a bullshit movement, if you ask me. But the right does this again and again and again. They harness legitimate public anger and bend it to their own, like Citizen Kane, well, he failed, but they tried to bend it to their own purposes. And Trump has succeeded in doing this.

But if you just blow it off, now, here’s the thing, if you just blow it off and ignore it, as so many of the Democrats were doing back in 2016, you’re going to remain completely clueless how to stop these right-wing, these sort of backlash flashes that happen again and again in American life. The key idea here, and this is what you know, I’m reading all of these, these anti-populist books and articles that have come out in the last couple of years. There’s a huge outpouring of them, all of them using the word populist to mean racist authoritarian demagogue.

And I’m reading these books, and one of the things they’re most upset about is that say populists are anti expert and populism represents the overthrow of legitimate expertise by people who don’t know what they’re doing.

And I keep waiting, every time I read one of these, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s like, yeah, but the experts screwed up, you know. What about Vietnam? You know, what about the Iraq war? What about, you know, go down the list? What about the financial crisis? What about the bailouts?

Paul Jay
What about Covid-19?

Thomas Frank
Or what about my favorite example, the Hillary Clinton campaign, run by the greatest experts in the business? These people are — There’s just a elite failure after elite failure, after elite failure. So I’m reading these books who are deploring the rise of people who criticize elites, and I’m saying, when are you going to deal with the fact that elites keep failing? Where’s your theory of that? I want to hear your theory of that. They never have one, they never talk about it. It’s as though this is impossible. It’s like it’s ruled out by definition, elites do not fail.

Paul Jay
These elites, particularly these liberal elites because they take zero responsibility for the rise of Trump in the election of Trump. But the fact that you had the greatest inequality gap in the history of the United States under the Obama- Biden administration. I mean, duh, that has no relationship to why there’s a Trump?

Thomas Frank
Absolutely cannot be acknowledged. Absolutely cannot be acknowledged. And even if you make them do it, they’ll find some way to say “It’s not really our fault. There was some legislation from the Bush administration, and we were dealt a bad hand, et cetera, et cetera”. Obama’s heart was in the right place. And maybe it was, but I mean, come on.

The whole—-I spent four or five years writing about nothing else but elite failure. And for them to just, you know, pretend as though none of that happened is just absolutely extraordinary. It’s funny because what we’re talking about here, Paul is largely academic literature. These are supposed to be people who are peer-reviewed. This is supposed to be scholarly excellence in action, and if anybody can refute this stuff. Not to mention the fact what I said earlier, it all goes back to Hofstadter’s based on a famous mistake.

There’s something really disturbing and disheartening about all of this. It’s as though, well, it’s not as though, it is. We’re living in the middle of this debate where it’s between two false ideas. You’ve got one, an elite that has screwed up many times over and is saying that the only possible opposition to us is racist assholes, bigots with guns driving around in pickup trucks are the only possible alternative to us. And then you’ve got, rump, who is, you know, this deceiver, this demagogue.

Paul Jay
One of the best examples of what you’re talking about is how Obama turned all the Treasury Department, all his economic policy to the expertise of Wall Street because only they could understand the complexity of global finance. Only they would know how to dig out of the hole of ’08. And of course, they did in a way that it totally enrich themselves and created the conditions for a Trump.

Thomas Frank
Everything that we’ve said in this episode in the last 20 minutes, Paul, you can summarize it and I hope your listeners have watched the other interviews that you and I have done, because you and I have talked about this subject many, many times, and I keep coming back to the same theme, which is that experts tell us, you know, the sort of people who call themselves experts, the professional class, let’s put it that way, people with advanced degrees who basically make the world that you and I live in. They are the ones who make our laws, who design our buildings, who set up our corporations, the people that Richard Hofstadter thought he was writing a manifesto for, this class of people presents themselves to us as neutral, disinterested experts. They will make the right decision on our behalf.

And what I have said again and again and again is that like any other social cohort, these people will act in their own self-interest and they will help each other out, and they will help themselves when the chips are down. And you saw that in the financial crisis, in the most extraordinary way, where one set of elites bailed out another set of elites and there was zero accountability. There is zero accountability for these people who had crashed the global economy. None of them got “canceled”. They’re all still there, they still have theIr goddamn jobs. It’s the most amazing thing.

Paul Jay
And there’s talk that Biden is going to bring them back into run the Treasury Department.

Thomas Frank
When you go back to Hofsdtatter and Co., and he was writing a manifesto for social class. OK. So again and again my message is that these people act as a class, think as a class, and they’re doing it. They’re manifestly doing it in a way that is so patently obvious right now. Anyhow, that’s my joyous message under the world.

Paul Jay
Well, just just before we conclude.

Thomas Frank
I am so negative, Paul. I want to conclude on a hopeful note. What are we going to say?

Paul Jay
Well, what do you make of this kind of new progressives that are getting elected? Of course, AOC is sort of the most prominent face, in the Sanders campaign. But there’s been progressives running all over the place, many in, I know in New York, quite a few are actually winning and overturning— some of these anti-populist Democrats are losing seats. There is emotion here. And I’m wondering, what do you make of this pandemic moment where both the sort of shift in popular opinion to do with Black Lives Matter, the fact that Biden’s up 15 points? I’m no fan of Biden, but the American people get that this maniac, Trump, has to go.

Thomas Frank
Well said. It’s been a catastrophe. His handling of the epidemic, I mean, the unemployment is, what, 15%? You don’t get re-elected when you deliver results like that. No one does.

Paul Jay
So what do you make of what is this left of the Democratic Party and also the left not in the Democratic Party?

Thomas Frank
Oh, I’m very excited about it. I think it’s a hopeful sign. And I’m also very excited about Black Lives Matter, because you think about that name. You think about what they’re about, and it’s the sort of the ultimate. It’s a fantastically populist slogan, you know, about —But the thing is that they have to turn this corner. Their main issue is, of course, police brutality. But when this movement, if this movement, starts taking on economic inequality, as well, and starts taking on capitalism, start going after modern, this financial system, this economic system that we live under, if and when they start taking that on, that’s a genuine populist movement. And all of a sudden, you’ve got a real force to reckon without in the streets. And I hope that happens.

Now, we haven’t seen it yet. Paul, what’s going on right now is kind of the opposite. You’ve got sort of woke capital reaching out and trying to take advantage of this moment. You know, all of these corporations trying to cloak themselves in the righteousness of Black Lives Matter. But this could go the other way in a hurry, and I hope it does. I think it would be absolutely wonderful to see.

Bernie Sanders, by the way. You know, we haven’t really talked about him. He represents the populist tradition, I think very clearly. I’ve met Bernie Sanders, and I think uniquely among American politicians that I’ve met, has a historical sense of how of the importance, the significance of mass movements, and also how you build a mass movement. Not many politicians, like a lot of Democrats, don’t give a damn about mass movements. They just want people to go out and vote for them. And, you know, if they have a movement or don’t have movement, they don’t really care.

But Sanders understands that if you want to make a change, it’s not just about the leader. You’ve got to have a force. You’ve got to have a mass movement in the streets. I mean, that’s how the 30’s happened. That’s how the 1890’s, that’s how the 1960’s happened. That’s how change really happens. And Sanders knows that. He understands that.

Now, unfortunately, he was beaten and his efforts to build a movement have been, well, it’s a work in progress, let’s put it that way, I hope it works. But anyhow, you know, we’re in such a crazy time. Never has the need for universal health care been so obvious in this country. And yet we just nominated Joe Biden, who has sworn to veto universal health care if it crosses his desk. Now, I don’t want to be too negative about Biden. You know, Sanders really likes him. Did you know this?

Paul Jay
Yeah, it’s interesting. I take him at his word that he thinks Biden is kind of a genuine character. Larry Wilkerson knows Biden and worked with him on the Iran nuclear deal. And he says, Biden kind of will go where the political winds take him. But he’s not a bad guy. So that all goes back to the point.

Thomas Frank
Oh, everybody in D.C., they’ll love him. You know, everybody’s met him and they all love him.

Paul Jay
It goes back to the point you made, which is if this mass movement takes on a broader vision of, the Green New Deal kind of vision, some variation of that. That really demands a shift in power. And me, I think that means a shift in how things are owned.

Thomas Frank
Of course.

Paul Jay
You can’t without, for example, public banking on a large scale. You can’t weaken Wall Street and so on.

But if that movement doesn’t take that shape and I say, you know, if we don’t all try to make it so, humans are doomed as grandiose, maybe I shouldn’t use that word about Biden’s climate plan, even what he’s proposing is never going to happen. If the mass movement that’s in motion now doesn’t get much bigger and put on even more pressure once Biden is elected, not less. Our future is not going to be very bright here. But I think it’s very possible that it will. I certainly hope so

So I wanted to end on a happy note. And I don’t know if I’ve got it in me anymore. But let me just put it this way, populism, when I look back at the different populist movements in American history and the populist tradition in American life, and it’s a very optimistic tradition, to do what these people did and keep trying against all odds and to try to build them. Oh, my God. The stuff these people did. It requires a faith in humanity that is very rare nowadays, and it’s really hard for me, even, to summon up nowadays. But I certainly hope that— I want to be an optimist. Paul, you know me. You’ve had me on your show many times. I’m always a negative guy, always the most cynical guy in the room, you know. But the populist side of me wants to believe in the American people.

Paul Jay
Thanks for joining us, Thomas

Thomas Frank
And thank you for having me. Mr. Paul Jay.

Paul Jay
And thank you for joining us on the Analysis.news podcast.

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79 comments

  1. Basil Pesto

    boy, if Tom Frank think he’s the arch-cynic, he should spend more time in the NC comments section!!!

    Reply
    1. Anarcissie

      Frank is cynical because he spends most of his time looking at the elites and the people who are still deceived by them. It’s not only that the elites are evil, but also that they’re incompetent and failing and thrashing about as they go down. Even though these people are the enemies of most of us, it’s still a sad spectacle.

      Elsewhere, some things are moving in another direction than Biden and Trump and company digging an ever deeper pit in the ground. Fortunately, they still seem to be off the ruling class’s radar. Going to leave it that way for the moment.

      Reply
      1. Watt4Bob

        It’s not only that the elites are evil, but also that they’re incompetent and failing and thrashing about as they go down.

        The elites are doing just fine from their perspective, they’ve been getting radically richer as the rest of us go broke.

        There may be some sort of thrashing, but it’s not because they’re going down.

        Reply
    2. Darius

      If cynicism is the opposite of principle, then I disagree with you. I will allow that NC commenters are hyper-skeptical of society’s elite. But if you aren’t hyper-skeptical, you aren’t paying attention.

      Reply
  2. skippy

    This is just too … there must be a French phase for it … or Russian

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-31/former-us-presidential-hopeful-herman-cain-dies-of-coronavirus/12510414

    In the spirit of this post I would offer that what has transpired during the neoliberal period has bastardized so many terms to seek a desired outcome that most are meaningless to the great unwashed in ways that not even Bernays could understand.

    E.g. most media is a morass and disconcerted from reality because of profit motives and BSD looking for a pay day in the bear pit.

    Reply
  3. Fritzi

    The liberal elites will create the conditions for something immeasurably worse than Trump.

    There, fixxed for you.

    Reply
      1. Kurtismayfield

        They will hold zero accountability or responsibility, and they will think it will help them. At first.. then when the wars start and the rounding up starts….

        Reply
      2. Off The Street

        and the poor dears can’t even get a table at their favorite bistro now, either, what with all those bothersome, inhale, restrictions on their PMC lives.

        As a class, they seem to want to act out their inner Marie Antoinette, where life is a type of hameau for their amusement, in between diversions to shield their delicate sensitivities from, you know, real life of other real human beings.

        Frank could say: Those others are watching, and are believing way too much of their own lying eyes for the corrupt PMC BS system to continue much longer. The 2016 election was a shock the PMC didn’t expect, but nobody really expects the American Inquisition.

        Reply
        1. Mike

          PMC? Which one of these acronyms do you have in mind?
          PMC
          Permanently Manned Capability (Space)
          PubMed Central (a free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM))
          Tepual airport (code) (Chile)
          http://acronyms.silmaril.ie/#qform

          Reply
          1. ambrit

            Professional Meddling Commenter.
            (I can talk. I am one myself. Though the renumerative aspect of the Professional appellation escapes me yet.)

            Reply
      3. benign

        Yes, Thomas Frank has been a voice crying in the wilderness for a *long time* now; and the elites have been so selfishly implacable one wonders if that segment of humanity hasn’t devolved into a lesser, but deadly, life form.

        Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    Got side tracked by an interesting question. OK, Richard Hofstadter was very influential even though his own prejudices got in the way of his historical interpretations. Thing is, he was a member of the Young Communist League in college and in April 1938 he joined the Communist Party of the USA. So how exactly did he get to skate through the McCarthy years and still remain an influential figure in the public sphere?

    And if Paul Jay is prepared to give Biden a pass based on Sander’s assessment, then I can recommend a link to them to disabuse them of this notion-

    https://www.youtube.com/thejimmydoreshow/search?query=Biden

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      I’ve read that a lot of the neo-cons started out as Young Communists. There is nothing quite so formidable and frightening as a ‘convert’ to a religion, and the higher levels of political movements partake of the qualities of religious cults.

      Reply
    2. flora

      Frank points out that Hofstadter’s book was the influential voice that changed public opinion about what Populism was; it changed the perception of populism from a normal grassroots movement into a dangerous mob movement in the public mind. Frank say’s only that Hofstadter was mistaken and Populism was the driving force in much of the New Deal.

      It’s easy to speculate the financiers and wealthy hated the New Deal and never stopped demonizing Populism. During the cold war and esp. the 1950’s it’s not hard imaging Hofstadter could have been following the professionally safe Wall St. and cold war crowd in demonizing Populism.
      His writings proved useful to anti-New Dealers and to people in his own class of PMC experts. Frank says Hofstader’s book was very much a book about class – the new class of highly educated PMC workers.

      Frank also hilariously and correctly points out how govt-by-pmc class has failed in big ways. ( The joke about ‘the best and the brightest’ still gets a laugh.)
      my 2 cents.

      Reply
      1. SAKMAN

        I would have liked for this article to provide a more detailed assessment of what “Hofstadter got wrong”, and the reason is that the counter points that I have read regarding the “history from below” are not convincing to me.

        In other words we have “populism gave us Nazi Germany”, OK. So exactly how was he wrong about populism? When I look at populism, I still see a mob. The mainstream is a nice big mob throwing names and labels at the things they are marketed to not like. Perhaps a leader periodically arrives that directs that mob at something good, perhap not. I’m still not sure what’s “wrong with Hofstadter”.

        Reply
        1. Anarcissie

          When an intelligent, willful being comes into the world, it has to deal with the fact that there are other willful beings who have different wills and interests. There are different ways of dealing with this problem. One is to fight all comers and try to conquer the world. Yet another is to try to cooperate with the other beings on a basis of freedom, peace, and equality, if they can be convinced this might be a good idea. Yet another is to combine with some other willful beings in a social structure which will dominate and exploit the rest. This third alternative is what we observe in the many various forms of classical slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Of course it necessitates (1) endless war upon those outside the privileged structure, (2) forgoing a good deal of one’s own possible freedom, and (3) an elite, which tends to degenerate over time. In order to secure its own position and continue to enjoy the associated powers, privileges, and wealth, the elite teaches that there is no alternative to governance by a class of superior beings of which they happen to be the representatives. Hofstadter is one of those teachers. This view of things is hardly above question. Indeed, it has been challenged constantly since it was invented, and strong means have been used to suppress those challenges. Those who challenge the view, then, find something ‘wrong with Hofstadter.’

          Reply
        2. Mike

          The history behind Hitler’s rise to power is more complicated than “populism gave us Hitler”. In the only vote held gave him only 34%, and a senile Hindenburg, under pressure from advisers, appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Among other moves, he then used the Reichstag fire to acquire dictatorial powers.

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          1. flora

            +1. See also the parts 1 and 2 of William Shirer’s book ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’, published 1959.

            See, for instance, the then German elites in business and old aristocracy supported herr Mustache because he promised to always respect them and put down the troublemaking trade unionist and socialists and other ‘malign group’. H was no populist.

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            1. Fritzi

              And he kept his promises to them, for the most part.

              Unlike his promises to the working class, that he pissed on.

              Why is nobody ever mentioning (among the elitist anti populism crowd), that old man Adolf was pretty much the king of privatisation in his time, as only one of hundreds of examples of him being the traditional elite’s best buddy through and through?

              Oh, right.

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            2. flora

              from the above interview:

              Thomas Frank
              …. Hofstadter just basically took that picture that they assembled and said, Yeah, that’s what populism really was. It really was a bunch of crazy farmers who really had no idea what they were doing and were rejecting the consensus expertise of their day.

              Paul Jay
              And then they look at the rise of Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship.

              Thomas Frank
              Right. That’s
              [the demonization claim] the same thing.

              Paul Jay
              Although the truth is Hitler is given birth to mostly by the German elites,

              Paul Jay and Thomas Frank not going deeper into details of very complicated episodes in history to stay on point about Frank’s book’s central idea isn’t surprising. There’s a time limit in these interviews.

              Readers can find a lot the the relevant secondary material themselves if interested. my 2 cents.

              Reply
          2. David

            I wish it wasn’t necessary to keep saying this, but in the November 1932 parliamentary elections (the last genuine ones) the vote for the Left (Socialists and Communists together) exceeded that for the Nazis, who by then were starting to lose support. Read Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw to get a sense of how improbable and counter-intuitive the Nazi seizure of power was. It had everything to do with stupidity and cynicism on the part of the traditional Right, and almost nothing to do with populism.

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          3. sierra7

            Mike:
            And, G. Bush 2nd after the 9/11 attack gave us the US Patriot Act…..and the endless war on “terrorism”. Does anyone remember PNAC???? “Project for a New American Century” written by some of the most notorious right-wingers of history????

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        3. The Historian

          I think you need to re-listen to what Jay and Franks were saying. Hofstadter said populism gave us Nazi Germany, which, as Jay and Franks point out, isn’t true. Demagoguery and the elites gave us Nazi Germany – not populism. You really need to look at what populism is because I think you are just accepting Hofstadter’s definition as fact. It isn’t.

          What we have going on in this country right now is not populism – it is just various sects being used to divide us to benefit the elites. Don’t you think the elites understand that dividing us over social issues keeps us from dealing with economic issues? And that if we in this country do not tackle the economic issues, the social issues can never be adequately dealt with? Don’t you think that is the point?

          Bernie Sanders came closest to forming a populist movement but too many people just wanted him to be their demagogue. To them following a leader was more important than being a part what he was trying to build, and so they abandoned the movement, and Bernie, when Bernie was knee-capped. The few people still staying true to the movement are the populists that are left, NOT the people who abandoned Bernie. Sorry Susan Collins, but a real populist movement does not need THE Mockingjay – it needs many, many Mockingjays.

          Like Jay and Franks, I have great hopes for BLM and the other protests going on because as messy as they are now, I too hope they will morph into something bigger and better – and hopefully into a real populist movement. Wouldn’t that just pay the elites back for their constant interference and attempts at divisiveness!

          Reply
          1. Lambert Strether

            > Bernie Sanders came closest to forming a populist movement but too many people just wanted him to be their demagogue.

            Most of the diehard Sanders supporters I knew (and know) were that way for policy reasons. I’m not sure what you mean by “wanted him to be their demagogue.” Needs evidence.

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            1. The Historian

              I’m sure that most people were for Bernie for policy reasons – not just the diehards – but a movement is much more than tacit approval of a person’s policies. It takes work by those same people to get out there and fight for those policies. That is what the true populists were – and are still doing. But too many of Bernie so-called supporters were sitting in their armchairs. Bernie’s message appealed to them – as long as he was the one doing the heavy lifting, but once he could not longer do it, they abandoned him as well as the movement. And what is even sadder in my mind, is that many of those armchair Bernie supporters that I’ve talked to have now become Trump supporters. How does that even make sense? Nobody is saying that they had to switch allegiances to Biden, but to quickly make the transition to Trump? That seems to me like they just wanted a demagogue to follow.

              Reply
              1. flora

                Not sure about this assessment.

                … they abandoned him as well as the movement.

                Need some clean data to verify ‘they abandoned the movement’. Dem Primary and Caucus fiddling and closing polling stations in areas likely to vote Sanders (younger, minority) isn’t proof of anything much other than Dem estab voter suppression where it suits the Dem estab, imo.

                And what is even sadder in my mind, is that many of those armchair Bernie supporters that I’ve talked to have now become Trump supporters.

                And, again, need more proof of this claim than an assertion.

                Shorter: Frank’s book Listen, Liberal. ;)

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        4. Swamp Yankee

          If I recall correctly, Hofstadter’s _Age_of_Reform_ was the first book I read in my college career as a freshman undergrad, for History 290: American Politics from Populism to the Present (early 2000s). What a great course!

          I’d have to go back and look at it more closely, but I do seem to remember Hofstadter treating the New Deal with great sympathy, essentially arguing it was doing what Populism wanted to in the 1890s but couldn’t because of its own internal flaws and contradictions. Seriously, look at the Omaha Platform of the Populists from 1892 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omaha_Platform). It calls for public ownership of utilities and railroads, loans for farmers, a pro-debtor silver currency, direct election of US Senators, a progressive income tax, and nationalization of the banks, inter alia. It is the Progressives in the 1900s and 1910s, and then the New Dealers in the 1930s and 1940s, Hofstadter argues, who actually accomplished these things.

          But I think Frank is right that Hofstadter seriously mischaracterizes the Populists. He focuses on the tragic case of Georgia’s Tom Watson, who starts his political career as a trans-racial working class warrior and eventually devolves into a vicious and bitter racist by the end of his life.

          But Hofstadter ignores precisely how much of a moment of possibility the 1890s were. Take the infamous coup d’etat in Wilmington, NC, in 1898. A black-white alliance of poor farmers and workers take electoral control of the city on a Populist platform. They are literally driven out of office with guns and clubs by an armed militia set upon them by local elites, who re-take control of the city, one of the most prominent ports in the Low Country South. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilmington_coup

          It’s also notable, and I am surprised that Frank didn’t mention this, that Hofstadter is author of the famous “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter argues that a taste for conspiracy theories and fears of internal or external subversion are central to the American political tradition, going back to the anti-Masonic party and continuing up to Barry Goldwater (the piece was written in 1964; he’d have included QAnon or anti-vaccers today). It’s of a larger piece with Hofstadter’s deep suspicion of mass movements.

          For what it’s worth, one of my professors in grad school was Richard Hofstadter’s graduate student at Columbia in 1968. She said the grad students really struggled to try to get him to understand the protests that year and the occupation of campus by (mostly) undergrads; he was truly terrified they would usher in a police state, she said. Despite (or because of?) being a liberal Democrat.

          That said, I think it’

          Reply
          1. flora

            Thanks for your comment. Great to have a well-read US historian’s perspective.

            And, while this a day late, I think your comments yesterday wrt the electoral college are true.

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        5. Olga

          It is really twisting history to say that ‘populism gave us Nazi Germany.’ Completely wrong and reflects not understanding that period. If you replace populism with ‘propaganda’ you may get closer to the truth.

          Reply
          1. Harold

            According to Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, Germans conservatives, including the Catholic Centrist party, regarded left parliamentarians as a populist mob with pitchforks who had sold them out to the Allies in WW1 and were coming for their property. And the Social Democrats regarded the German Communists with similar horror, to the point where large numbers of them voted for the hyper-conservative monarchist Hindenburg, who was their sworn enemy. I was amazed to read that after Hitler came to power, the far-right former Chancellor Bruening, who had imposed censorship and austerity during his chancellorship under Hindenburg, was given a professorship at Harvard to teach government.

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      2. Michaelmas

        As Flora writes: Paul Jay and Thomas Frank not going deeper into details … (and) stay on point about Frank’s book’s central idea isn’t surprising. There’s a time limit in these interviews.

        Exactly. To discuss Hofstadter without getting into a reductionist, cartoon approach like Jay and Frank take here would mean getting into discussing the very different world and era in which Hofstadter wrote his book.

        In that forever-ago era, corporations existed in a U.S.-centric social frame where the New Deal still largely obtained. This was the heyday of the post-WWII ascension to power of the PMC of that pre-neoliberal era, when the likes of John Galbraith wrote The New Industrial State, Peter Drucker wrote The Concept of the Corporation, and William H. White wrote The Organization Man.

        What Hofstadter — like Galbraith, Drucker, Whyte, and all the rest — were promoting to a greater or lesser degree was the idea that now the technocrats — the scientific managers — were in control and the corporations were going to be run for the general social and commercial good of everyone.

        Yes, it was ultimately BS. Yes, it eventually produced MacNamara and the rest of the Best and Brightest. It also was often stultifyingly oppressive as much American literature of the time, from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road to the Beats, testifies to.

        But it wasn’t yet a neoliberal world where the idea that corporations should be run only for shareholder value dominated. Thus, a somewhat different PMC to that of our own era

        Reply
        1. Chris Harris

          A very good point and one that is often overlooked. In those days the word “neoliberalism” was actually in use, but it meant the idea that the corporation should be run for a broad coalition of stakeholders. IIRC, Peter Drucker’s ‘Concept of the Corporation’ (1945), which I read about twenty years ago, reads very much like J. K. Galbraith. Then, of course, the meaning of the word “neoliberalism” underwent a complete reversal, just to add to the confusion.

          Reply
    3. Darius

      In Goliath, Matt Stoller goes into great detail on Hofstadter’s triumph in winning general acceptance of the gross mischaracterization of populism and anti-trust as movements of ignorant, prejudiced, white Protestant rubes. He was assisted by John Kenneth Galbraith. I would say a combination of arrogance and abject kissing up to power. Actually, sounds a lot like Obama.

      Reply
      1. Chris Harris

        Perhaps one issue of substance is that Galbraith felt that there was a strand of hostility to big business that was based on the anachronistic idea that bigness was a creation of lobbying and the state and that if only the state and the regulators and planners and experts all butted out and the scientists stopped making things seem so complicated, etcetera, small business and the simple life would prevail once more. That’s actually what Friedrich Hayek contends in The Road to Serfdom and a similar strain of anti-intellectualism can be found in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Though superficially egalitarian, this kind of populism wasn’t progressive on balance: it persistently got ‘owned’ by false friends from the free-market Wall Street right who had their own reasons for opposing regulators and planners, in much the same way that the bootlegger Nucky Thompson donates money to prohibitionists in the HBO series ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Back in the fifties, people like Galbraith thought that this sort of politics of nostalgia was on the way out (it wasn’t!) and I suspect that this is what Hofstadter understood more specifically by populism as opposed to leftism or being a New Dealer.

        Reply
    4. juno mas

      It appears he disavowed his communist inclinations soon after the Stalinist show trials. McCarthy was focused on pounding political rivals in the mid-40’s and disappeared by the mid-50’s. (See: Wikipedia)

      Reply
  5. Rod

    Thanks for all three.
    Mom said kids need hero’s to see what’s possible for them and I got introduced to WJ Bryant and he became one of my childhood heroes.
    Then, lately, he and Populism been getting the bad mouth. This scrambled my eggs.
    This series with Frank has unscrambled them back into their shell.
    However, now I have begun spontaneously combusting after a read like above, and must hurl myself into the dew laden grass of the back yard and flail spasmodically until the fire of frustration is smothered. Which is dizzily disorienting, mercifully.
    Until another such bit of thinking arrives and a repeat occurs.
    But I do prefer the hot over the cold.

    Reply
    1. juno mas

      WJ Bryant had his flaws. He was part of the prosecution in the famous Scope Monkey Trial. Clarence Darrow got the best of him, but the jury still convicted John Thomas Scopes of teaching evolution. (I played the District Attorney in the theater production in college.)

      Reply
  6. Carolinian

    But the hysteria and the way that the sort of liberal elite of this country has reacted in the last four years is exactly analogous to the way conservative elites reacted against Bryan in 1896, and the way conservative elites reacted against Roosevelt in 1936. These are elites that that were either threatened or could feel themselves being displaced. And they used, at least in one of those cases, the word populist to describe the people who had displaced them.

    Frank is getting dangerously close to the truth in this segment and, like Taibbi, could risk being tossed into the outer darkness. I too think the current upper class hysteria is a result of their almost total ignorance about the country they aspire to rule. The current notion that Trump might try to cancel the election and that his supporters would approve of this is but one example.

    But they have to make the poor and working class into villains to justify their own rapacity, a story that is about as old as it gets–much older than McKinley and Bryan. Given the degree to which the country is under an upper class thumb–with the usual no choice election looming–it’s hard to see any cure short of a systemic collapse. Perhaps that is now happening with Covid but they will man the barricades to the last.

    Reply
  7. The Rev Kev

    In this series of interviews, the name of William Jennings Bryan has come up a lot. Well serendipity reared its ugly head today and I came across a snippet of information that makes me wonder if he was who we thought that he was-

    ‘…on December 17, 1914, US marines, acting on the orders of US Secretary of State, forcibly removed Haiti’s entire gold reserve — valued at $500,000 — from the vaults of Banque Nationale. The bullion was transported to New York on the gunboat Machias and deposited in the National City Bank.’

    And the name of this US Secretary of State was of course William Jennings Bryan. Makes me less sorry to know about how he ended his days.

    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/07/monroe-doctrine-1915-occupation-duvalier

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      Bryan got a real trashing back in Hofstadter’s era with 1960’s Inherit the Wind about the Scopes “monkey trial.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inherit_the_Wind_(1960_film)

      The play/movie is a blast aimed at ignorant rustics. Although it should be said that the teaching of evolution was considered controversial in my Southern school system decades later and perhaps even now in Texas.

      The prob is many big city folk think we are still living in 1960 whereas “rural” these days often means country roads lined with McMansions. In the Southern towns would be hipsters aspire to be Brooklynites–at least until Covid. Things have changed.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        I don’t know if it is true or not but I once read that the advent of air-conditioning changed the South immensely along with its culture. With being able to live comfortably through the excessive heat of some of the States, lots of people from the north moved south into the Sun Belt as manufacturing moved there.

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    2. flora

      Bryan was acting on the orders of Pres. Wilson and the Congress.

      And Bernie has said he’ll vote for whatever give away to the mil and Wall St. stimulus bill that comes out of the Senate.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Thereby, as Jimmy Dore points out, totally giving away any possible leverage that he has in the Senate.

        Reply
  8. oaf

    Thanks, Yves…another excellent post. A reminder that the elites look at us through a very narrowly focused lens…that is why they keep getting surprised. As in Judo, their inertia can work against them.

    Reply
  9. Paul Hirschman

    Frank’s story actually begins before World War II. In the 1950s, Hofstadter himself was building on the work of influential social scientists like Talcott Parsons. Parson’s Action Theory–his attempt to synthesize the insights late-19th century social thinkers–which began in the 1930s at Harvard, was about replacing class war with the professionalization of society, a change that would put “experts” rather than ordinary people “in charge.”

    Parsons: “Over a period of more than thirty years an empirical interest in the problem of capitalism came to a special focus on the nature and significance of the professions. A continuing interest evolved in the broadest categorization of the nature of modern society, but what no longer put in terms of capitalism, as such, or of the capitalist–socialist dilemma. Instead I am sympathetic to talk of the post-industrial society (Bell), but wonder whether it should not also be called “the post-democratic society.” (1977)

    And there’s more: “…a path out of the old individualism–socialism dilemma…had come to dominate thought about modern society; it concerned the phenomena of the professions, their position in modern society, and their relation to the cultural tradition and to higher education.”

    “Populism” was a threat to this new conception of “post-democratic” society, one in which elites would have the power, and in which everyone else was unqualified to exercise judgment about how to operate a modern society. Anti-Semitism just made this power grab more saleable.

    Parsons’ vision was the foundation of the Liberal Consensus of the 1950s. Hofstadter was one of its most charming voices.

    Reply
    1. flora

      “Populism” was a threat to this new conception of “post-democratic” society, one in which elites would have the power, and in which everyone else was unqualified to exercise judgment about how to operate a modern society. Anti-Semitism just made this power grab more saleable.

      Shades of Mises and Hayek.

      The Mont Pelerin Society was an international collection of intellectuals and scholars gathered to develop a neoliberal alternative to social democracy and social liberalism.

      Govt-by-PMC experts.

      Reply
    2. Michaelmas

      Talcott Parsons! Wow, that’s a name from out of the deep past.

      Thank you, Paul Hirschman. You get even deeper into the weeds of explaining Hofstadter than I tried to in my comment. It was a different world.

      Reply
    3. Harold

      According to Udi E. Greenberg, author of The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (2015), it was not the professors and students but the conservative board of Governors of Harvard who were profoundly anti-populist and hated FDR’s New Deal.

      In 1936, after FDR won by a landslide, they appointed Carl Joachim Friedrich to head a school of public administration. In Germany during the Weimar era, Friedrich had studied at Heidelberg under Alfred Weber (brother of Max) and been involved with the influential Sociology Institute there (another product of this school was Talcott Parsons). Friedrich had developed a theory that democracy (the idea that government legitimacy derives from the people), had originated in the 17th century as a product of the Protestant religion (specifically Calvinism) and had nothing to do with the hateful secular & humanitarian ideas associated with the Enlightenment & French Revolution.

      As a political thinker & policy adviser, Friedrich was not concerned with the welfare of the people, but rather with maintaining the stability of the state. He distrusted direct democracy because he felt that ordinary people didn’t have the necessary education or wisdom to govern. The purpose of his school was to identify & prepare “responsible elites”, charismatic leaders to control (or bypass) feckless plebeian legislatures (as Friedrich saw them) and to forge a nexus between universities, philanthropists, and the state bureaucracy (what could go wrong?).

      During WW2 Friedrich was an advisor on domestic American military propaganda, and after the war he returned to Germany as an adviser on de-Nazification.

      Among Friedrich’s students at Harvard were Judith Shklar, Benjamin Barber, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. His most famous student was Henry Kissinger.

      Reply
      1. Harold

        “During the 1930s and 1940s, from his office in Harvard’s Department of Government, Friedrich initiated a stream of projects that brought together academia, the U.S. government, and philanthropy, cooperation that transformed American academia into an organ of the democratic state. The programs that emerged from this collaboration revolutionized U.S. higher education. Far surpassing InSoSta’s work in Heidelberg*, they provided a model for the role of elite universities in decades to come.” (Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century (2015) p. 46.

        *[Institute for Social and Political Sciences, Heidelberg, directed by Alfred Weber] Post WW2 Friedrich’s projects received huge amount of government and foundation money.

        Reply
  10. Wally

    If what we’ve got now is ‘populism’ then I’m going with the liberal elites all the way. I think that, rather than populism, we see the dying embers of an obsolete and dismal culture of racism, anti-science, cheap consumerism and general personal decadence. Screw it. Write it off. Destroy it… its defining marks are name-calling, ignorance and obesity – decadence of ethics, mind and body.

    Reply
    1. hunkerdown

      No, what we’ve got now is neoliberalism of right and left flavors. The mainstream has been lying to you to control you since before you were born, because that’s how systems of rank work: believe my lies or I’ll exclude you from basic needs. Every hierarchy and system of rank, ever, is a variation on that theme, however mild and indrect and passive-aggressive.

      I recommend Phillp Mirowski’s “Hell is Truth Seen Too Late” keynote speech for an example of the techniques neoliberals use to sabotage the national discourse and overwhelm the commoners’ OODA loop. The inverted-totalitarian plea “iTs jUsT aN oPiNiOn” is, in fact, a primary component of neoliberalism designed to make people believe reason is optional.

      Reply
  11. sharonsj

    I can only hope that, when Biden and his ilk do nothing for the masses of Americans, we will finally see a real people’s revolution. We will have another 20 million jobless to add to the already 100 million jobless. We’ll have perhaps 20 million more homeless, and they’ll be living in tent cities because they also couldn’t make car payments. These folks might finally be ready to put their bodies on the line–because that’s what it’s going to take to effect real change.

    Reply
  12. JBird4049

    Just want to bring the Senate has left town today for the month August. At least 20% unemployment, a 10% contraction of the economy in just three months, 30 million people going hungry, and who knows how many are facing homeless.

    Frack, it’s like they want to have a civil war, revolution, civil unrest, riots, or whatever. I wonder if any senators have a house in the Hamptons?

    Reply
  13. Cuibono

    Why wouldn’t they do this? seems to me it is a PERFECT strategy.
    Just as Obama was the perfect foil to Bush.

    Lather, Rinse, Repeat

    Reply
  14. James McFadden

    “Our élite is primarily and increasingly managerial. A managerial élite manages. A crisis, unfortunately, requires thought. Thought is not a management function.”
    John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization (1995)

    Reply
  15. James McFadden

    The failure of the Professional-Managerial-Class, which Richard Hofstadter championed, was recently analyzed by Rob Urie in this article about the environmental movement. Elitism is alive and flourishing — and failing magnificently.

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/07/24/class-struggle-and-the-parable-of-an-environmental-victory/

    Unfortunately “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair

    Reply
  16. GettingTheBannedBack

    I think we look at influence the wrong way around. Hofstadter’s 1955 book that skewered populism was profoundly influential from then on we are told.
    But if it was influential because of the strength of its arguments and scholarship, it should have lost this influence when eminent historians debunked the premises on which his ideas lay. But the book did not lose influence, and probably most of those who used scholarship to debunk his ideas have been forgotten. Why?
    Because it was not the scholarship of Hofstadter’s book that garnered the 1955 Pullitzer Prize, it was the hatchet job he did on “populists” whom he tarred as out of date, racist luddites, effectively smearing also their critiques of Golden Age capitalism.

    The intellectual ideas supporting those with money and power are easily amplified. A scholarship here, a prize there, mention in respected publications, invitations as keynote speaker to conferences, interviews in the media when there are events of note.
    The ideas and work supporting social justice slowly disappear, unread and unremarked. The books that aren’t reviewed in reputable journals and media, the scholarships not offered, the prizes not won, the interviews not given.
    And every new group of “populists” are muffled by this soundproofed ceiling. How often are the MMT crowd interviewed compared to “eminent” economists when commentary is needed.

    Every populist group finds their efforts subverted by the rich and powerful status quo which suppresses their voices and misrepresent their views. Occupy? Gone. BDS? Demonised. #MeToo? Fading? #BLM? Still going. Sanders? Beaten, a sheepdog now.
    Because populists, non status quo groups by definition don’t control the means of communication and the means of legitimacy. Legitimacy is given by the status quo. And then the people fall in behind the experts.
    How can this be changed?

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      In his recent three part interview in The Analysis Thomas Frank talked about Hofstadter’s book. He said it was also the man’s ability to write that also brings people in, which is no small thing as some writers are really hard read.

      For me, non-fiction writing style is usually like walking on a long, scene less road or stumbling on a deer trail through deep, thorny brush. You will eventually get there, but be miserable doing so. The former is too much like a book long newspaper article with its short paragraphs, modest vocabulary, and metronomic rhythm. The latter has long, confusing paragraphs of long, confusing obscure or very academic words that never. Gets. To. The. Point.

      So having a great writing style that is clear, entertaining, and on topic is just fantastic. It’s just too bad that Hofstadter used his abilities to lie.

      Reply
    2. Harold

      I agree with this. It was a “narrative” that pleased those who styled themselves “the guardians of democracy”, who saw themselves as gatekeepers against dangerous ideas.

      Reply
  17. Sound of the Suburbs

    In the US, a party of the Left has been stopped from ever developing.
    In the UK, we had two parties, until universal suffrage.
    The Liberal Party didn’t look after working class interests and so the Labour Party was born.
    The Liberal Party was more progressive, and did look for change, but not that much, and was still concerned with maintaining the mechanisms of wealth and privilege that they enjoyed.
    Looking after working class interests was not the name of their game.

    The US has struggled with a two party system, where the liberals, for a while, did concern themselves with the interests of the working class.
    The UK Labour Party was over-run with liberals, who were not that concerned about the interests of the working class, giving us two liberal parties.

    Reply
    1. GettingTheBannedBack

      Does the US have two parties, or one party with two factions? (Dremocans?)Perhaps people get to vote for factions every 4 years. Both factions have voted consistently for war, the looting of the treasury by the military industrial complex, and the continual impoverishment of most of the US population. Economically and philosophically they are one on the issue that counts, the provision of homes, jobs, education and medical care to allow decent lives for the citizens. They are against it.

      For a tiny, brief window the UK had 2 parties. Now it has one major party with two factions, the Conservative faction led by that raffish, tousled, lovable upper class scoundrel Boris, and the Labour faction run by that famous working class Oxford graduate in the pin striped suit, Sir Keir Starmer, now being groomed to take over as PM by the establishment. A safe pair of hands. Not like that Corbyn who wasn’t a team player, pip pip old chap. Very lower class.
      Political parties call themselves separate parties as political theatre for the voters because that gives the illusion of choice. Otherwise there might be inconvenient unrest. Let them burn off the energy at elections and then they will be manageable. Pretty much like we get our kids to play outdoors after school to burn off energy before dinner.
      There can be no choice when the 2 major parties are both working for the same people and to the same agenda.

      Reply
      1. JBird4049

        Throughout American history and into the late 1970s or perhaps into the 80s, the two American parties were very broad coalitions. Just which factions and just how many were in each party changed through the decades, were a reflection of their original platforms.

        Note: Do not use Wikipedia for information on this. I would not say that they lied by commission. I would say that they do lie by omission. There are the citations and links in Wikipedia articles that should allow a more complete and truthful explanation.

        My own greatly oversimplified explanation:

        The Republican was centered in the North, started by the anti slavery faction of Whigs and like the Whigs started as very pro railroad and public improvements like canals and roads. It expanded to businesses generally especially large corporations and Southern Reconstruction. It was also as pro Black as any national party be before the 1960. This last is why there are Blacks seniors who were, or perhaps still are, Republicans. The party of Lincoln gave them the vote, unlike the Democratic Party.

        The Democratic Party is the older party and centered in the South. Its primary focus was the South, agriculture, poor people including immigrants, unions, and a hatred of Black people.

        Both parties had factions that were similar as in the other party which meant that much or most people had some effective representation. People had to work together at least sometimes.

        After 1945, with the Red Scare being used to destroy the American left including removing the leftist leadership in the unions, in academic especially in economics, in the major political parties, and finally to destroy the three communist or socialist parties.

        After the Civil Rights movement and the social welfare programs of the Democrats under FDR, Republican President Nixon use the Southern Strategy. A mix of being anti-hippie and anti Black, use of coded words or dog whistling, plus War on Drugs to pull Southern voters into the Republican Party.

        After losing the South in the 1970s and then the White House three times during the 80s, under Bill Clinton and his ilk, the Democratic Party pivoted to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. It used social issues such as LGBT African American rights to cover its pivot as well as pseudo maintaining the welfare programs it had itself crippled in the 80s from further cuts by the Republicans.

        The Republican leadership under the blessings of very wealthy families and large corporations made an alliance with the leadership of the Protestant churches like the Southern Baptist. The Republicans would push anti LGBT rights and anti pro choice, plus other wackiness like Creationism. The Protestant leadership would deliver the votes.

        Then the Democratic Party, after pushing out the last of the actual left in the 1990s became Republican Lite by completely embracing Neoliberalism.

        On all issues regarding wealth, taxation, regulations, wars, and the police state both parties are roughly the same. The wealthy over everyone. All other issues are unimportant.

        Issues like civil rights, abortion, guns, religion, LBGTQ+, unions, poor people, etc are given pro forma support, but neither party is that interested in winning. So long as it exists it can be milked for money, ads, votes, and general excitement.

        So, yes we had two different parties, but no, we now have the right wing and the insane wing of the American Uniparty

        Reply
  18. Altandmain

    Here’s the thing. The Democratic Establishment serves the ruling class. Trump was absolutely right for criticizing the ongoing wars and free trade agreements.

    People were desperate for change, so they were willing to vote for anything in many cases, including Trump. The tragedy is that Trump proved to be little more than an Establishment Republican as President, a far cry from the much promised change.

    Thanks to Trump’s incompetent pandemic response, the Democrats may win, but the crux of the argument is that they will govern for the ruling class, and pave the way for a population desperate for change.

    The upper middle class that the Democrats represent have fundamentally incompatible class interests with the bottom 80% of Americans

    Reply

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