Thomas Frank: Populism is Not Mob Rule

Yves here. The fact that Thomas Frank has had to write an entire book to salvage the good name of populism demonstrates how reactionary the US has become.

By Paul Jay. Originally published at

Paul Jay
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to podcast.

Born in Kansas, Thomas Frank, author of, ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas’, has with great insight revealed the disillusionment of large sections of working people in rural and urban America with the liberal elites that run the Democratic Party. In his recent book, he takes on the contempt that this liberal aristocracy feels towards what they call, populism. Here’s a quote from the book, ‘The People No’, “Opponents of the right should be claiming the high ground of populism, not ceding it to guys like Donald Trump. Indeed, this is so obvious to me that I’m flabbergasted. Anew every time I see the word abused in this way, how does it help reformers, I wonder, to deliberately devalue the coinage of the American reform tradition? It is my argument that reversing the meaning of populist tells us something important about the people who reversed it. Denunciations of populism, like the ones we hear so frequently nowadays, arise from a long tradition of pessimism about popular sovereignty and democratic participation, and is that pessimism, that tradition of quasi aristocratic scorn that has allowed the paranoid right to flower so abundantly”.

That, again, is from the book, ‘The People No’ by Thomas Frank. Thomas is a political analyst, a historian, a journalist. He co-founded and edited The Baffler magazine, and he’s written several books, most notably, ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas’ in 2004, and ‘Listen Liberal’, in 2016. I did a long series of interviews with Thomas about ‘Listen Liberal’, and I can attest to the fact that the liberals did not listen.

At any rate, his most recent book is, ‘The People No’, and I guess that speaks to the same point. Now joining us is Thomas Frank. Thanks for joining us, Thomas.

Thomas Frank
You got it, Paul. It’s great to be here.

Paul Jay
So we’re going to divide this interview into three parts. Part one, we’re going to talk about the history of populism and especially in the American context. How did this word begin to be used to describe a political movement? Part two, we’re going to talk about getting into the heads of these liberal elites and the Trump version of populism, if that’s even how one wants to use the word. And then part three, we’re going to talk about what would a democratic populist movement look like if one imagines what it should be and what it is today. But let’s start with the history, but before we do, let’s talk just a little bit about the title of the book.

What was your thinking behind ‘The People No’?

Thomas Frank
So it’s a reference to an American classic that’s not widely read anymore. It’s a book-length poem by Carl Sandburg called, ‘The People Yes’, and Sandburg was you know, they called him, in his heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, they called him the poet of the people. And his whole career was about making poetry out of the language and the experiences of ordinary people.

There’s something of a tradition of this in America. So Walt Whitman did the same kind of thing, and there’s many others who have done it as well. But Sandberg was in some ways the best known and most popular poet who sort of worked in this particular vein. And he wrote this book in 1936, ‘The People Yes’, it was a populist book in a populist era. I mean, the 1930s were the great period of celebrating ordinary people, you know, folk traditions, painting WPA murals of average working people. And also at the same time, the labor movement was growing and taking power and the American government was shifting dramatically to the left. And none of those things are the case anymore, Mr.

Paul Jay
I mean, the elites in this country are fearful of democracy. We just came out where, you know, just a few years ago we had an election which the Democratic candidate, in other words, the legatee of Franklin Roosevelt referred to ordinary people as ‘deplorables’. And one of the most shocking statements of the campaign, actually that was Hillary, of course, Hillary Clinton, she apologized for it, but the damage was done. That is the mindset of leading liberals nowadays is that there is something wrong with ordinary people. I mean, they say this, by the way, you know, your listeners might think that this is just so much rhetoric, they say this, the first chapter of the book is made up of quotations of these kinds of elite liberals in Washington, D.C. denouncing, and wringing their hands over ordinary people and how they have abandoned the elites. You know, the people are in the grip, they think of some grand delusion.

Paul Jay
Often when they attacked Bernie Sanders, meaning the Clintonesque, and Obamanesque, one should add, a section of the leadership of the Democratic Party. They often equated Sanders with a kind of Trump, denouncing him two forms of populism. That’s because it’s outside the institutional control of them.

Thomas Frank
Yeah. Of them and their Beltway doppelgangers in the Republican Party. Yes, that is exactly right. So in my definition, which begins, you know, where it should begin with, the people who coined the term, Bernie Sanders is very much in the populist tradition, and I’m sure we’ll talk about him and what happened to him at some point. But Donald Trump is not, Donald Trump is something else. Donald Trump is a classic demagogue, which is another interesting sort of thread in American life, the problem of the demagogue. But it’s not the same thing as populism.

Paul Jay
Well, they, as you point out in your book, in their minds, because populism just means a politics out of the normal control of institutional two-party politics and causing normal two-party politics. I’m not sure the current Republican Party itself falls into that, but they see anything like that, it’s just mob rule.

Thomas Frank

Paul Jay
And it’s out of control, it’s scary, and these people are defying the normal historical process.

Thomas Frank
Yes. Now, just so your listeners know, this is not just one or two people here. There’s an entire academic discipline now, or it’s sort of a quasi discipline, you know how academia is. There’s these sorts of places in between departments, but it’s called global populism studies. And that is their definition of populism is more or less it’s mob rule. It’s when the people are out of control and they start following these racist demagogues would be authoritarians who want to overthrow rule by rightful elites and by rightful elites. Of course, I mean people like themselves, them and their friends.

Paul Jay
Yeah, you have a good line in the book. Populism is simply another word for mob rule, a headlong collapse into the tyranny of the majority that our founding fathers so dreaded.

Thomas Frank

Paul Jay
And that’s the whole point of Electoral College, which is, as you say, rather ironic that people that don’t like populism wound up losing to an institution that was there to fight populism.

Thomas Frank
I know, so everything is riddled with contradictions and ironies, in the Electoral College. The founding fathers obviously didn’t have the word populism, but they did have that fear of the majority. That is all that runs right through the Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention. Alexander Hamilton, famously, well, it’s actually not clear whether he said it or not, it’s one of these apocryphal quotes, said things like it all the time. But the quote itself, he denied saying it.
And that is, at one point was in an argument with his arch-enemy, Thomas Jefferson. He said, ‘your people, sir, are a great beast’, and that’s anti populism. That’s kind of the core doctrine of it, that the people are this uncontrollable wild animal. And by the way, there’s these great illustrations of that idea in, well, I say they’re great because I’m the one that found them and put them in the book. But if you go to my website, if you go to, you can look at a lot of them, of these illustrations of the people as a great beast and with the word populism inscribed on the people and this is from the 1890s, and it’s the same idea today, of course.

Paul Jay
I’ve made this point in discussing modern slavery that in the context of America and the slave enslavement of black slaves, black African slaves, but that in England, the enslavement was of the Irish and the Welsh and of child labor, which essentially was like child slaves who were white Anglos. The idea of dehumanization, the working class, especially the poor working class, as really being subhuman, it’s connected to this idea that if those people ever got in charge of or supported the kind of politics that serve them, that’s to be feared.

Thomas Frank
Yes, and that is one of the themes that runs right through the history of populism, is or I should say, of what I call anti-populism, is this fear that if you were to actually succeed with what the populists wanted to do, which is to make a grand appeal to working people on class interest rather than on, you know, racial interest or something like that, race discrimination or white supremacy or something like that if they were to ever do that and succeed with that, there would be hell to pay. And they have succeeded in American history there have been instances where that sort of thing appealed and all my life I’ve been waiting for it to work again.

Paul Jay
Talk about the history in the United States. So where there actually was a movement that self-identified as a populous party. So what is the history?

Thomas Frank
Yes, and so this is one of the funnier things, Paul, with launching this book is, you know, I got there and put it on Twitter and on Facebook, and there’s all of these people who are like, you know, everybody says they’ve got this model for populism, but nobody knows anymore that there was an original–there were people who made up the word, consciously invented the word, and there was an original populist movement. For me, this is a very familiar history because I’m from Kansas. I’m sitting in Kansas right now as I’m speaking to you, and I’m about 20 miles from this spot where the word was coined, okay. And it begins in the year 1890, well, begins before that. There was a group called the Farmers Alliance that started organizing, far back then, the majority of the U.S. population were farmers. Kansas is a farm state, and the farmers were in deep trouble, deep economic trouble, and there’s a group called the Farmers Alliance started bringing them together and organizing them to figuring out ways to do something about their terrible predicament. This group was enormous. One of the biggest mass movements of all time in American history.

And they didn’t succeed using the various political methods at hand, and so they went into politics themselves and they started a third party, and it was the last of the great third party efforts and also the most successful of them. And they were able to take power in the state of Kansas and in a bunch of other places as well. Overnight became it this sort of prairie fire, this huge movement. This is in the year 1890. And when my story begins, it’s 1891, the Kansas populists have just gone to a convention in Cincinnati where they have launched their movement on the national level. And they’re on their way back to Topeka, and somewhere between Kansas City and Topeka on the train, they were sitting around with a local Democrat and trying to invent a name for a word to describe people who are members of the People’s Party, that’s what they call themselves, the People’s Party. And they came up with the word populist and they appeared in a newspaper a few days after that and caught fire. The word caught on and the movement caught on, and the movement grew by leaps and bounds over the next few years. And they ran a guy for president in 1892 didn’t succeed, but they won a lot of other offices. They had a delegate, you know they had a bunch of them in Congress, a bunch of U.S. senators, a lot of governors, mayors, et cetera. And you want me to just keep going with the story?

Paul Jay
Yeah, go ahead. The only question I’d ask at this point is in the United States to some extent and certainly many other parts of the world, a kind of conscious socialist movement was also developing around this time.

Thomas Frank

Paul Jay
How influenced was this populous movement with socialist ideas?

Thomas Frank
Very! If you want to put aside whatever doctrinal differences they might have had with other Left-Wing parties at the time, the populist party in America was basically the equivalent of the Labor Party in England or in Australia and there were other Left-Wing parties cropping up around the world. One of the things that historians often talk about is why there is no socialist or Democratic Socialist Party in America. The reason is that we did have one, it was populism and it failed. And we’ll get to that part of the story, it failed or was suppressed, depending on how you look at it. But there was an effort to start one, and it was these guys in Kansas and their grand idea, they wrote a manifesto in 1892, it’s really something, it’s well worth looking up on the Internet and reading, their grand idea was to build a huge a union of all the working-class reform groups. So unions, together with farmer groups, et cetera, and build a gigantic coalition of the working class to challenge the well, the capitalist system.
That was the idea, and for a while in America, it looked like it might succeed. Farmers had been having a hard time for 20 years for all sorts of different reasons, because of railroad monopolies, because the currency was contracting, all sorts of other reasons. And then the country went into a terrible economic depression. And in 1894 in America, you had one of the first big nationwide strikes, a railroad strike that was called the Pullman strike, led by Eugene Debs. You had a march on Washington of unemployed people it’s the first time that had ever happened, it was organized by a populist. And it looked like the populist party was perfectly situated to take advantage of the depression that the country was going into.

Paul Jay
How large was that march on Washington?

Thomas Frank
I don’t remember how many people participated. Maybe 10000, probably less. It wasn’t in terms of numbers, it wasn’t like the one in 1963 or the one in the 1930s, but it shocked people. It was incredibly shocking. They called it Cox’s Army and it was headline news all over the United States and was regarded as deeply shocking, and they threw the leader of it in jail once he got to Washington for walking on the grass.

You know, this is the the the people in charge in America at the time, you got to remember where you know, it would not be right to call them extreme right-wingers because, by the standards of their day, they were it, they were the center, they were the left, they were the right, they were the only thing, the only game in town. But by our standards today, they were extremely conservative.

You know, they believed in government having no role in the economy except to prop up banks, to get banks out of trouble, never helping out unemployed people, the government should intervene to put down strikes, should intervene to stop any kind of protest movement that rises up, these elite that I’m describing who ruled America were incredibly racist. And that’s just how they thought about the world. They thought there should be no taxation of incomes or fortunes, no regulation of railroads or monopolies, that’s just how they viewed the world.

Paul Jay
It’s kind of ironic because so many of the working people now in Kansas and other parts of rural and suburban America who are supporters of Trump for the Republican Party, you know, they have this idea of the good old days. I think the good old days, their equals we’re part of this progressive, populist, socialistic movement. That’s what the good old days were.

Thomas Frank
Well, Paul, yes, you’re right. One of the, you know, like recurring features of American life that makes everything possible, that makes the whole thing tick, is that we don’t remember the past.

Paul Jay
Well, you know Gore Vidal’s line on that, right? You know, the USA, the United States, he changed it to amnesia and from amnesia, he changed it to Alzheimer’s.

Thomas Frank
Studs Terkel once said that to me, in different words, but that’s what he thought was our great problem, we couldn’t remember anything.

Paul Jay
Well, you can thank the education system for that.

Thomas Frank
Yes, but you can also thank the powers that be. I mean, you think you look at the most highly educated people in America running The New York Times and they use the word populist in this negative sense all the time, they have no recollection of it. They hated it then, they hate it today. Anywho, the story comes to an incredible climax here in just a second, which is this. So the country is in turmoil, populism looks like it’s the wave of the future, it’s the coming political party, and then as often happens in American life, one of the two major parties decides to capture this reform sentiment, this protest sentiment that’s out there in the country, and in this case, it’s the Democratic Party.

And the Democrats meet for their convention in 1896 and they toss the incumbent president, Grover Cleveland, overboard. They’re not going to renominate him, he’s out. They turn against the gold standard, the gold standard is the great sort of religious faith that props up American capitalism at the time. And the Democratic Party says if we get in, we’re taking the country off of gold. And then they nominate for their presidential candidate, a 36 year old from Nebraska named William Jennings Bryan, who’s completely unknown, never heard of and who has just given this incredible speech attacking the gold standard. And they choose this guy for their presidential nominee.

And then a few weeks later, the populist party, which has made its convention, says, OK, Bryan’s not perfect, we have all these other issues, too, everything from women’s suffrage to nationalizing the railroads, to the eight hour day, you know, all these other issues, and he’s not on those. But we’ll get on board with him because he looks pretty good and it’s probably the best we can hope for. And so they endorsed him also.

And when these two things happened, the elite of the United States went crazy. They went into a kind of hysteria and I call it a democracy scare. The leading newspapers of the country, combined with the leading academics of the country, the millionaires, the captains of industry, all of them, joined hands and went hysterical together, hysterical that this was happening to them. That one of the two major parties had been, as they saw it, captured by radicalism and they proceeded to denounce William Jennings Bryan in the most outrageous, shocking terms.

And I have a really, in my mind, kind of amusing collection of this. It makes up a whole chapter of the book, I call it, ‘the democracy scare of 1896’, their war on William Jennings Bryan, which is really quite incredible, this airtight consensus among the American elite that this man had to be stopped. He could not become president.

And they rolled out every rhetorical device against this guy, every kind of Election Day corruption that was sort of available to the 19th-century mind was used against him, and they defeated him. By the way, they raised, the Republican Party raised, and spent an extraordinary amount of money, by some standards, bigger than has ever been spent. To this day, you got to remember, it was unregulated back then, there is no regulation. The Republican candidate was a guy named William McKinley, a senator from Ohio, and his campaign manager was a tycoon from Cleveland called Mark Hanna.

Mark Hanna is legendary. Karl Rove imagines himself as a kind of, you know, in Mark Hanna. Karl Rove has written a biography of a book about this moment, this election.

Paul Jay
JP Morgan must be at the center of most of this.

Thomas Frank
Hannah was the organizer. I don’t remember if Morgan-

Paul Jay
He’s telling, he’s dictating to a large extent his real rights and others, he’s creating these monopolies.

Thomas Frank
I think Morgan was immediately after this election was his heyday or it might have been right before, but his heyday was right after this. But there were, the other tycoons. Vanderbilt was in full effect, of course, you know the other tycoons, Rockefeller, of course, Standard Oil was up and running, Carnegie was probably the richest man in the world at the time. You know, U.S. Steel called Carnegie Steel at the time. But, you know, all of these guys, of course, hated, feared, loathed populism.
And Mark Hannah would go, at one point in the campaign, went door to door to the headquarters of the great American corporations in Manhattan and said, it’s incredible that this happened, he said to them, “Open the books”, and they did. And he said, “Here’s what your profits were last year, we the Republican Party, the Republican campaign is taking, you know, whatever percent of those profits. That’s what you’re giving to this campaign. It is part of the class war to stop William Jennings Bryan”.

And they paid they anted, and here’s the kicker of it, the word that they use to describe Bryanism, the fear that the danger of Bryanism, the one word that they settled upon was populism. It said this is populism, it’s mob rule, it’s the danger of the mob. That they’re going to come in and overthrow the legitimate government. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re crazy, they are mentally ill. The whole sort of stereotype that we see nowadays, they want to destroy norms the way this country has always been run. But above all, what their idea of populism was, is that it represented people who had no business ruling, who had no business making laws.

Paul Jay
They must have been particularly concerned, you write in the book in the 1880s that the Farmers Alliance, which was sort of the underpinning of this proto populist. Yeah, that there was also a Colored Farmers Alliance that was in alliance with White Farmers Alliance. That must have really scared the elites.

Thomas Frank
In the South it did. Yes. So that’s a sort of a related story, but slightly different. So populism had, its stronghold was the Plains states, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, the Dakotas, where it pretty much-swept everything before it. But they also were very strong in the South and the South, obviously a very poor part of America at the time, obviously, everyone, the vast majority of the population there are farmers, largely tenant farmers. And populism is their proposal to the farmers of the South. The South, by the way, was a one-party system, the one-party being the Democratic Party, which was the architect of white supremacy. And the way the Democratic Party held power in the South in those days was by appealing to whites, saying that your interests, your racial interest is greater than your class interests, your racial interest, and they did this in a thousand disgusting, loathsome, racist ways.

And it’s kind of hard to write a history about this period because it involves reading really vile stuff. But this was what they called the bourbon Democrats, the people who ran the South, the ruling elite of the South, and populism rose up against these people. And the proposal that populism made to the farmers of the South was that ‘No, your class interest is greater than your racial interest’. And so populism very famously made an appeal to black farmers as well as white farmers to come together in their common class interests and to do something to improve their position in life. And this was not idle. This actually had a chance of succeeding. And, yes, that was absolutely terrifying to the masters of the South, absolutely terrifying.

And you mentioned, what’s now referred to as, the Black populists, and they were not insignificant. They made up a big part of the populist vote in southern states. At the time, African-Americans could still vote in a lot of the southern states, and so the populous said, we’re going to go out there and compete for their votes and we’re going to do this obvious thing, which is we’re going to give them a better deal than the Democrats are.

Oh, my God! This story is famous, because of how the bourbon Democrats reacted, which is to roll out every imaginable kind of racist device to scare the whites back into line, and when that failed to use every kind of Election Day skullduggery to count them out, to make sure that populace did not get elected, they did prevail in one southern state, that’s North Carolina. The story there just is so incredibly awful, how the Democrats finally got them back, but they did

Paul Jay
So in 1896, you’ve got this Democratic Party convention, they dumped President Grover Cleveland, they nominate William Jennings Bryan and the elites go nuts. So what happens?

Thomas Frank
They pull out every stop and they outspend Bryan in the most, we don’t really know because they didn’t have to report, there are no reporting requirements or anything, probably 20 or 30 to one. Bryan had, virtually, no campaign funding at all because obviously, he’s promising to take the country off the gold standard, which would have ruined, you know, the banking community and small town every with everyone down to small town merchants, you know, would have been in trouble. So they come together as a class to stop him. He’s going around the country, he’s kind of a novelty because he’s won the nomination of the Democratic Party on the strength of his oratorical ability, and so huge crowds come out to see him.

Paul Jay
So why did this getting off the gold standard appeal to the populous?

Thomas Frank
Good question. So this is one of these forgotten little chapters of American history. The gold standard is what’s called ‘deflationary’ because the supply of gold doesn’t grow very much every year, but at the time, in 1890, the population was growing by leaps and bounds, the economy was growing by leaps and bounds, but the currency was not. And so what that means is that it’s deflationary, so the value of the dollar goes up and up and up every year, its the opposite of inflation. If you are a banker or a bondholder or a capitalist, this is wonderful for you. If you are someone who borrows money, which farmers did at the time and still do today, farmers, they’re always in debt, right, they have to borrow to make ends meet. This is crushing. You have to pay off your debts in dollars that are worth far more than they were when you borrowed them.

So the price of, say, corn goes down and down and down and down, but your debts, the burden goes up and up and up. And so you have farmers in the West and farmers in the South are basically approaching a state of debt peonage. In the South, that’s where they are, that is what has happened. So yeah, getting the country off the gold standard was, a huge part of the problem, and we eventually did do that. You know, we don’t have the gold standard anymore. The same is true in Canada.

But the public embraced this issue in a way that is difficult to understand nowadays and said now what we should have is a silver standard because silver is inflationary. There’s a lot of it. You know, it comes out of the ground every year. And so it became what they called ‘The Battle of the Standards’, where Bryan supported silver and McKinley supported gold.

Paul Jay
And voters actually understood the implications of this?

Thomas Frank
Yes, oh, absolutely. Well, they did very much so. And they also embraced it in a symbolic way. So gold was symbolized by great wealth, gold was supposed to be the currency of the rich, and silver was supposed to be the currency of average people. Yes, they definitely understood this.

Now, for a time in the beginning after the convention, Bryan seems to be this man of destiny. And everybody thought he was going to win, it seemed obvious, look what’s coming, it’s his tidal wave. But the Republicans were with the campaign that I describe in the book. And the sort of hysteria among the ruling elite of this country. We’re able to beat him back, I mean, they used every kind of crooked method that you can imagine. But they did it, they beat Bryan and staved off the challenge of populism.

Paul Jay
And the movement kind of fizzled after that. But you write in the book that even if the movement fizzled, many of their demands actually came true and not that much longer. Go about what kind of changes arose out?

Thomas Frank
Oh, well, so like if you look at the what the populists wanted to do, almost everything on their list later became law via other politicians and other parties. So, for example, the direct election of senators, they wanted to do that, that happened. The secret ballot, you wouldn’t think that’s a kind of an obvious reform, that happened. We have that everywhere now. The initiative and referendum, we have that. Votes for women, that happened. Populism was the first party to endorse that. On their economic issues, we did start breaking up monopolies, took a couple of years, but we started doing it. We regulated other monopolies like the railroads. We are very strictly regulated in this country. We did go off the gold standard, it didn’t happen until 1933, but we did do it. Right down the list, almost everything they wanted to do eventually happened

Paul Jay
You’re right that rich people got the income tax, that wasn’t true before there.

Thomas Frank
The first income tax was passed by populists in U.S. Congress, working with Progressive’s from the other two parties right before that election, I think 1895, it got struck down immediately by the Supreme Court, very famous Supreme Court decision. They said that the income tax was an act of class war, right. This was the worst elements of society, voting a tax on their betters.

Paul Jay
You’re from Kansas and because of the book, you’ve made an extra effort to get to know and talk to people of Kansas, do people understand that the current right-wing politics that so dominates in Kansas and places like there. That the history of their own families there is so different than so much of what they condemn these ideas began through their ancestors that.

Thomas Frank
So, Paul, I don’t know what to say. No, we don’t know that that knowledge is lost. There are no monuments to populism except for private ones. If you go on eBay, it’s incredibly hard to find any kind of ephemera associate, they didn’t have any money. I mean, these were very poor people. There’s nothing, nut as you saw in the book, I was able to hunt down all kinds of hilarious ephemera from the campaign against populism. That’s very easy to find, you could buy it on eBay, that sort of thing. But, no, there’s no collective consciousness of that. And, you know, this is one of the problems in American life is that the way that we remember the past is so distorted now, we should probably come back to this in episode two or three, the way the word populism got distorted by historians who deliberately decided to twist the word for their own reasons.

Paul Jay
And I think the other thing in terms of when this movement started to fizzle out, it’s really the beginning of the 20th century is the real rise of finance and the real beginning of financialization. And by the 20s, everybody’s being sucked into buying into the stock market and borrowing money to buy stocks, and this whole frenzy of speculation and everyone was going to be a wealthy capitalist.

Thomas Frank
Yeah, the eternal dream. Well, there’s a famous article, on The Time. What is it? Oh, my God. ‘Anyone can be a millionaire’ or ‘everyone could be a millionaire’. I’m sorry. I wrote a book about this long ago called One Market under God about this kind of the pseudo-populist promise of that kind of capitalism, and every time it just continuously suck all these people in and then pull the rug out from under you. But when they did that in the 20s, it led to a great moment in American life, which is the rise of the New Deal and the labor movement and real reform.

Paul Jay
OK, that’s gonna be part two. So we’re going to end this part of the interview. And part two we’ll keep going historically for now and deal with what populism looks like in the 1930s and the New Deal. And, you know, if you read some of the speeches of Roosevelt, particularly this very critical year of 1936, Roosevelt sounds more radical, frankly, than anything you even heard from the populist movement.

Thomas Frank
Oh, yes.

Paul Jay
All right, so join us for part two with Thomas Frank on podcast.

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  1. WobblyTelomeres

    “Mob rule” is the language of a man who views government as his personal piggy bank.

    1. .Tom

      Yes. And there are a lot of clever ways of expressing this without being so obvious.

      A friend recently used the one that describes Trump voters as people who voted against their own interests. Apart from being condescending and arguably incorrect, it’s a way of expressing fear of mob rule: that only people who can be trusted to vote for maintenance of the status quo should have a vote.

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        Not quite sure what your point is. Should I be more clever? Wear more comfortable shoes?

        1. WS

          I believe he meant that other people disguise the message in clever ways order to obfuscate their disdain, and he provided an anecdote as illustration. We’re all on the same side here!

        2. .Tom

          My point was that the phrase “people who voted against their own interests” expresses the same base fear of ordinary people having an equal role in democracy as the phrase “mob rule” does.

          Talking of mob rule is blatantly alarmist while talking of people who vote against their own interests is more palatable.

  2. shtove

    Is it true the gold standard was necessarily deflationary? There were cycles of high inflation in the USA in the 19thC.

    1. Mel

      The trend is deflationary. As the article says, gold is slowly being dug out of the ground, but uses for money, investment opportunities, can expand very quickly — development/exploitation of America is an example.
      It might be that if you examined episodes of 19thC inflation you would find that gold had been drained from other parts of the world, causing deflation there. Definitely part of the financial turmoil after World War I happened because USA had cornered a lot of the gold and wasn’t recirculating it. (The Lords of Finance, Ahamed Liaquat). (Though post-WWI is not what you’re discussing.)

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      It’s absolutely true it was and is deflationary. I’m shocked you are even questioning this.

      Economic historians even call a period of the 19th Century “The Great Deflation” or the “Great Sag” from 1870 to 1890.

  3. JustAnotherVolunteer

    The actual title of the new book is “ THE PEOPLE, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism”

    The double entendre will be intentional but the transposition in the transcript could make it a bit harder to find –

    1. juno mas

      From reading the interview transcript, ti appears that algorithm (AI) is being used to create the text. It can’t distinguish between the sound of “know” and “No”. This occurs regularly with there, their, and they’re.

      1. Samuel Conner

        also “populous” for “populist”. Definitely would help to have a human edit the transcript.

  4. Watt4Bob

    There’s a great PBS documentary about the Nonpartisan League, a populist movement in the northern plains of the US and Canada;

    The Rise And Fall Of The Nonpartisan League

    They had some impressive successes, notably in the state of North Dakota, where they started a state bank to avoid the predations of the Chicago and Minneapolis banks that had a strangle hold on the farmers of the northern plains.

    To this day, North Dakota is the only state that has established a publicly owned bank.

    The Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party grew out of the Nonpartisan League, and the Union Labor Party in Duluth, Minnesota, and was very successful in Minnesota’s electoral politics in the 1920s and 30s, electing three Minnesota Governors, four United States Senators, eight United States Representatives and a majority in the Minnesota legislature.

    The Farmer-Labor party was a particular success because the alliance of farmers and laborers, which was not a natural match for many reasons, the rural-urban divide in particular, which if you think about it, is evidence of the age-old divide and conquer strategy employed by the elites.

    The Farmer-Labor party was absorbed by the Minnesota democratic party in 1944, and to this day the Minnesota democratic party bears the name, Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, or the DFL.

    The DFL, like most of the democratic party has lost much of its historic commitment to class solidarity, and the urban-rural divide is currently as strong as ever in Minnesota, with much of the rural population firmly in the grip of republicans, and the cities run by democrats, resulting in a divided legislature, and all that entails.

    1. flora

      Both rural and urban have to deal with the big banks. That could be a point of alignment.

      I’m focusing on local and state elections this year. Changing the corporate control of D.C. has to start at the local and state levels, imo. I can know the candidates real backers and positions, either D or R, at the local level. Are they Wall Street-ists or MainStreet-ists? (for lack of a better term) Both nat. parties block any MainStreet-ist from winning a national election primary, as far as they can.

  5. The Rev Kev

    I notice a suspicion timing of events here. William Jennings Bryan lost the election in 1896 which was a major defeat. But what may have finished the People’s Party off was the Spanish-American war about two years later. Remember that this was a deliberate war to seize Spain’s empire and to turn it into the American empire as Spain was too weak to resist. The whole country united in a patriotic fervor and even William Jennings Bryan back this was initially. So was this one of the real unspoken aims of this war? It is tempting to think so and the timing is a bit suspect.

    1. Rod

      and from that war, Teddy Roosevelt resigns as Navy Secretary, forms his own Expeditionary Force and Legend, becomes McKinley’s VP, and two years latter the POTUS.
      and begins(with a depression onset and bailout beg from Morgan/Carnegie) contradicting his own Class.

      I had never truly understood the Silver Movement against the Gold Standard, and Franks reasoning was clarifying.
      Seeing the way JimCrows big push for Poll Restrictions in the late 1890s made a lot of sense for the White Democratic Party in the South, particularly in light of Party of Lincoln backlash and Jennings the Dem Nominee.

      A treat of a read with thought snacks for later–thank you for this.
      This here NC is the best handful of something else…

      1. flora

        And when T. Roosevelt becomes president after McKinley’s assassination he starts busting the trusts as much as possible and making other reforms the Populists campaigned on. When Wilson became president he, too, implemented a lot of progressive reforms the Populists had campaigned on. Looking at the pres election map from 1896, Bryan running as a Dem/Populist swept the middle part of the country. He carried 22 states to McKinley’s 23 states. I think that had a “clarifying” effect on both parties; the Dems and GOP shifted their own policies by absorbing a lot of Populism’s reform policies as their own, for the time being, as Frank notes.

        1. JBird4049

          Many, like me, want to see the current one party state die, or at the very least see the parties adopt the progressive-socialist-MMT-heathcare ideas being advocated. So I have been thinking about what might happen a lot.

          The last major national party to fold was the American Whig Party as it was trapped between the Northern insistence that slavery not expand and the Southern insistence that it expand into the West and Southwest, as was done effectively de facto, everywhere including the North under the Fugitive Slave Act. (One could plausible claim any dark skinned individual as an escaped slave and send him south as escaped “property.” The legal system was very corrupt and usually approved it.) They just could not go one way or the other. Much, maybe the most, of the membership formed the Republican Party. In disgust, I do think.

          The Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party had the strength to make a decision for or against and so they survived. Even though the Democratic Party did split into a northern and southern party, it did reform partly because the leadership had made decisions. Decisions that met the expectations of the members even if they did not agree with them.

          The current feckless political leadership is just like the Whigs were, and yet, the current system of co-option combined with so far effective police interference means that effective reform is increasingly difficult. It is a race between the pressure to reform before the house collapses and burns down and the well armed “owners” holding the carpenters and firefighters at bay.

          1. Samuel Conner

            Just a clarifying point — “MMT” does not belong in your list, as it is simply an objective description of how monetary sovereigns function. MMT clarifies that progressive policy agendas are not “unaffordable”.

            But MMT also implies that reactionary policy agendas are not unaffordable, either. Tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for the poor are perfectly compatible with MMT.

            And our rulers already functionally, if not rhetorically, embrace MMT concepts, in that there is never a shortage of funds for wars or corporate and bank bail-outs. The “deficits are dangerous” rhetoric is reserved primarily for programs that benefit most or all the populace , things like Social Security and Medicare, which are perennially under threat on the rhetorical theory that they are “unaffordable”.

  6. Oh

    Thank you for posting this. Thomas Frank is an astute observer and reader of the political scene in the U.S. His books are well written and very good. He knows the two parties for what they really are and that’s why the MSM keeps him out of the mainstream reporting.

      1. KLG

        Yes! Going all the way back to One Market Under God and The Baffler. When he took leave of the Guardian, or more likely the Graun took leave of him, to “write a book,” I wondered what he would write…my copy will be read this weekend.

      1. Dirk77

        I had never heard him speak before this interview. He struck me as very buoyant. To see unflinchingly the flaws in people and history, and not feel despair is a great quality. I wonder how hard was his journey to get to that.

        1. Jeff W

          Thomas Frank is always very ebullient. It’s one of the reasons I find him very pleasant to listen to (even if I disagree with him on rare occasions).

  7. edmondo

    The Populist Party may have been unsuccessful electorally but most of their agenda was co-opted by either or both of the two parties, so in that sense, they won. Bernie and the progressives playing around in the D Party is a waste of time and resources. If you want your program turned into policy, you have to run Third Party. With the electorate so closely divided between the two, showing that your policies are popular with even a marginal 5 to 7 percent of the voters will guarantee that one or both of the legacy parties moves closer to your positions to get your voters. It’s not rocket science. Bernie running as a Democrat was there to make sure this never happened. He succeeded.

    1. Oh

      You’re right. The only way we can get anything for the people is to get a populist third party. It takes time but we can succeed. Almost 40% of the voters claim they are independent. It would really work if we can nurture and support a third party. Bernie running again was a nice setup for suckers.

    2. JEHR

      Canada had a populist party called the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) or (“Canadian Calf Feeders”) which became the NDP (New Democratic Party) and it is from this organization that we achieved universal health care.

    3. flora

      Most of the populist parties of the 1890s were state parties. That’s much of why I’m paying more attention to state and local races’ candidates this year than to the national races. It starts at home, as the saying goes. ;)

  8. Montanamaven

    The great populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease is credited with the phrase “Raise less corn and more hell!” There were many women speakers . Unfortunately from an organizing standpoint, many of them were prohibitionist and Protestants. So the Catholic urban workers weren’t inclined in their direction.

  9. David

    The first part of this analysis, at least, is pretty transferable to other countries. My generic one-paragraph summary of the populist “problem” usually runs as follows:

    ‘Populism’ comes from the Latin “populus” meaning “people”, and is cognate with the Greek “demos” that gives us “democracy”. Thus, “populism” essentially means “democracy”, and thus “rule by the people.” Because the kind of populist democracy practised in Athens is logistically difficult at the level of large nations, then, when entire adult populations were able to vote, professional political parties arose to represent different class, and sometimes regional, interests. So long as these parties broadly reflected political divisions in the country, this system was workable. But these parties have today become almost indistinguishable, representing and serving the interests only of the Professional and Managerial Class. The people are thus unrepresented and populism is the demand that they be represented once more. Populism is therefore inherently neither Right nor Left: it is a challenge to the structure and processes of the current electoral system.

    1. flora

      The young complain the old out vote them relative to their population size. That is because, imo, the old are mostly retired and don’t have to miss a day of work to vote. Maybe election day should be a day off work for everyone still in the workforce. A national democracy holiday. Then the young could take time to vote without fear of losing pay.

  10. Mikel

    A pinnacle point in this national nervous breakdown will be after the faux Nov elections and nothing changes…and that goes for whoever wins the selection. It’s next year that will be the wake up call.

    I don’t buy and never have bought the idea that Trump is a threat to this country’s “institution”…he’s a testament to them (and no that is not any compliment toor any kind of worship of the “institutions.”)

      1. Massinissa

        When I try to bring up economic collapse to my friends these days, most of them ask something along the lines of, didn’t that already happen this year?

        Oh boy, do they not know what we’re in for if they think this is as bad as its going to get. Hell, I don’t know what we’re in for either, to be honest.

        1. Edward

          Most supermarkets hold about 2 days worth of stock. I don’t understand how the U.S. is supposed to avoid an economic crash. Large numbers of Americans are facing eviction and unemployment. How many critical industries will halt when their supply chains are interrupted? The U.S. depends on imports. How much is that at risk? Trump is focused on his re-election, but seems curiously blasé about the situation.

  11. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Trump and Sanders are why we have race riots. FIRE sector ruling caste is hiring one half of the working class to kill the other

    1. Massinissa

      I honestly have no idea how Sanders or even Trump play into this. These problems are systemic and have been around for much more than four years. Also for the most part they aren’t really ‘riots’.

  12. Pelham

    Bernie Sanders may have been a populist in 2016. But in 2020 he adopted much of the tiresome language and agenda of the appropriately despised Professional Managerial Class. So I don’t know where that places him now.

    1. JWP

      Not sure we could recognize real populism without thorough digging to see who is funding what. Elites have their paws in everything, so a truly populist movement might be hard to discern. especially when many small time ones get picked up by big donors and parties for their own benefit.

      I feel betrayed by Bernie’s populism given his work with Biden lately and surrendering during the cycle. will be much more careful with my support going forward.

  13. Lee

    Democratic Indications – Article 50

    All topics
    All can propose
    All can discuss
    All can vote

    It is up to you.
    Elites will hate it.
    A proper voice for the little people.

  14. JB

    David: My understanding is that in the brief Athenian democracy only male property owners voted –roughly 1/10 of the population– and half the population of Athens were slaves. This model fit the needs of ‘founding fathers’ of the USA, and the demography and economy of the Southern Colonies in particular. The appeal of democracy was that a government by elite consensus avoided the risk of tyrannical rulers and uncertainty of royal succession.

    While I have not read Thomas Frank’s book, I must say I prefer writing of Howard Zinn or Richard Wolff to Frank’s verbal narrative of the fate of the Populists, and I strongly disagree with Frank’s claim that many Southern whites put their racial bias ahead of their class interests by not supporting the Populists.

    In the former Confederate states after the Civil War, the new supply of low cost–and often highly skilled– African American labor was a clear economic threat to working class Whites, who were already struggling in an economy devastated by war, and successive depressions. This inclination towards racism among many whites in the South mirrors widespread working class and populist nativism, and suggest that the threat of economic competition is ‘the horse that pulls the cart’ of racist and xenophobic baggage, not the other way round.

    1. deplorado

      Totally agree about the “horse that pulls the cart”… but talking about that and its modern dimensions (which most definitely exist across the labor spectrum) is a no-no anywhere on the left that I know.

    2. Massinissa

      Sort of the same way that alot of blacks, or at least ones that I’ve known, have a moderate degree of anti-latino sentiment that most liberals don’t care to notice. Not because they’re racist, but because of competition for the same sort of low wage working class work that all but the poorest of whites don’t really bother with. But bring this up to PMC Liberals who believe in ‘Coalition of the Ascendent’ sort of rhetoric about latinos and blacks being natural allies, and one gets dismissed as being racist. Make no mistake, they *can* be allies, but its not ‘natural’ and it requires effort.

      Also, to bring back up the 19th and early 20th century, at least part of the reason early unions and workers movements were not particularly friendly to black people was the frequency that black workers were commonly brought in as Scabs when there were strikes (And its hard to blame them, considering they probably had an even harder time finding good work than the white workers did). Probably not the primary reason, but one of them. Playing one group against the other like that can create long lasting animosities.

      1. Massinissa

        To clarify, I can’t think of a broad political coalition that simply occurs naturally without any kind of organizing forces. The Obama Coalition did not just appear ex nihilo out of a void, it required at least some successful organizing on the part of the Democrats. Like any other political coalition with a diverse makeup, there is a potential of it fracturing in the future, and to believe otherwise is to believe the major demographic components of the coalition do not have agency. This myth works narratively for the Dems, however, because it means they don’t have to campaign outside of their comfort zone, even less so than they did in 2008 and 2012. I don’t think anyone could argue that Hillary had as good an organizational ground game as Obama did in either of his campaigns.

      2. nodecentrepublicansleft

        And how many “blacks” have you known?

        There’s around 42,000,000 in the USA.

        You must realize how ridiculous this sounds, right?

        1. Massinissa

          You could be right: I may be over-generalizing from my high school experience in metro Atlanta about a decade ago. For what its worth, my last name IRL is Ruiz. So you are right this is mostly anecdotal evidence, and if you have statistics or other evidence that contradict my statements then you are free to share them.

          More importantly, I said that anti-latino sentiment was ‘moderate’, which may have come across as more severe than I meant to portray. By ‘moderate’ I meant it was more of a distrust than, say, the racism you might see from white southerners in rural areas, which is obviously more severe than distrust. Which is why I attempted to clarify things with a second post a few hours afterward, because I realized on rereading that my original post may not have come across quite in the way I had intended. Apparently what I was trying to convey was still unclear. I will attempt to be more concise in the future.

        2. Massinissa

          You know what, I’m just going to apologize. My original comment didn’t say what I had intended it to say, and I misspoke. I made more of a generality than I had really intended to. I do realize how ‘ridiculous this sounds’, but I didn’t realize it until after I had made the comment, and what I intended to say was more in line with my attempted follow up comment, which I made in an attempt to salvage the original comment. Unfortunately, it appears I flubbed.

            1. JBird4049

              Massinissa, it can be hard to communicate both accurately and unoffensively in writing especially in the comments. By necessity, we are forced to speak in broad strokes, and honestly, some people refuse to accept that especially in touchy subjects like race.

              Anyways, antipathy does often arise when one is unable to pay the rent do to the actions of others. That they too are also trying to pay their rent often doesn’t matter. That having such antipathy because food, shelter, and clothing are being denied is often conveniently and falsely, sometimes deliberately so, to hate and racism should be noted.

  15. RJ McElroy

    Re Frank’s concern about the loss of our own history, the year was 1886 in small town Princeton, IN 40,000 Knights of Labor came to the Princeton Fairgrounds for a celebration not then called Labor Day. In the several years following in Princeton, Hosmer, Buckskin and Evansville 20-40,000 Knights would make the annual trip by train. These meetings were never mentioned in history class or elsewhere by the mid-1950’s.
    Probably forgotten is Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan naval historian who provided the roadmap for US naval imperialism and the Spanish-American War.
    Eugene Debs quote could serve us all well today: “Where there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element , I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

  16. Heraclitus

    The Bourbon Democrats were run out of power by the ‘Reform’ Democrats in my state of SC in 1890. Pitchfork Ben Tillman was elected governor under the ‘Reform’ banner, and went to Washington as Senator in 1894 promising to stick a pitchfork in Grover Cleveland’s behind. The 1895 SC Constitution which disenfranchised black voters was a product of the Reform Democrats. They put together a Constitutional convention to prevent the Bourbon, or conservative, Democrats from regaining power by pursuing black votes. Wade Hampton, the Confederate General who was SC’s first post-Reconstruction governor was the leader of the Bourbon Democrats until 1890. He sometimes pursued black votes, and sometimes suppressed them.

    According to James Agee in ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ poor whites who had been driven into the mountains in the early days of American independence drifted back into the mid-lands and lowlands after the Civil War. They provided the crucial voting power to put Reform Democrats into office.

  17. Altandmain

    Paul Jay
    I mean, the elites in this country are fearful of democracy. We just came out where, you know, just a few years ago we had an election which the Democratic candidate, in other words, the legatee of Franklin Roosevelt referred to ordinary people as ‘deplorables’. And one of the most shocking statements of the campaign, actually that was Hillary, of course, Hillary Clinton, she apologized for it, but the damage was done. That is the mindset of leading liberals nowadays is that there is something wrong with ordinary people.

    I think the issue is that “liberal elites” don’t want a legitimate democracy as Jay hints. They want a plutocracy pretending to be a democracy where the upper middle class, effectively an aristocracy or a “petite bourgeoisie” pull the strings.

    A real democracy would likely involve much higher taxes for the top 10%, among other things, and an economy that is more oriented towards benefiting the bottom 90%. We would likely see an economy closer to say, the Nordic nations, perhaps even more left wing in some areas. The well off don’t want that and use issues like identity politics mostly as a distraction from what the fear, class politics.

    A good article about this:

    The hand wringing about “populism” is because the rich and upper middle class are afraid that they will lose power, after mismanaging the nation so badly.

    It’s not about saving “democracy” as much as it is about power. The US, as the Corruption is Legal films point out, does not have real democracy.

    Populism bashing is more of a hatchet job by the existing establishment to maintain power. They know that neoliberalism sucks for the bottom 90%. They just want to hold onto power no matter what so however intellectually dishonest they are, they will try to cling to power.

    1. Alice X

      19:28 Frank: One of the major parties… It was the Democrats who absorbed the populists. – With the meme of the Democratic Party being where movements go to die. Andrew Jackson might also have some bearing therein.

  18. Kirk Seidenbecker

    In 1964 Henry Littlefield published an analysis of Frank Baum’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ –

    ‘Littlefield argued that the story of The Wizard of Oz was an elaborate metaphor for the Populist movement (a rising political force in the 1890s) and a critique of the complicated national debates over monetary policy.’

    The parallel today – MMT is the populist era’s silver.

    1. Massinissa

      “The parallel today – MMT is the populist era’s silver.”

      I’m not sure I agree, as I see a major difference: Gold vs Silver was a major part of the discourse of the time, whereas MMT is much more rarely discussed in the media. Though this might simply mean that modern media is much more under control… But then, I believe most Americans are not even familiar with the term, as MMT doesn’t have a populist movement behind it the way the Silverites did.

      Or at least, not yet.

      1. Milton

        Funny, no mention of the followers of the earlier Greenback party, which wanted a continuation of the Civil war year’s abandonment of the gold standard. Just my assumption, but it seems that the Dem’s adoption of silver was a compromise with those advocating purely fiat currency with a silver-backed currency not much of an improvement over gold.

  19. phichibe

    Yves, thanks so much for this. It would have completely slipped past me notwithstanding the grievously excessive amount of time I spend on the interwebs and YT searching for items exactly like this. I was wondering where TF had gone this election year, we sorely need his voice. I hope we’ll see more of him between now and election day as he promotes his book and sets straight the noxious classes – political, chattering, and professional managerial (hat tip Michael Lind) in the interests of helping the toiling one.

    I hope you and your mother are staying safe in Alabama. You’re the only person I know who lives there, and whenever I see it show up these days wrt Covid I think of you two. My money is on two Yankee dames from flinty Maine to make it if anyone can down there.



  20. hemeantwell

    The corruption of the term populism is a remarkable example of ideological erasure. I really can’t think of a better example of intellectual elite thuggery. Good to see Frank’s on the case, though he’s got company.
    Marco d’Eramo had covered much of this ground in a 2013 New Left Review article, “Populism and the New Oligarchy.”

    The repugnance with which the words ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ are uttered these days is a familiar feature of the political scene. The former Italian prime minister Mario Monti appeals to people to avoid ‘a return to the past and populism’. The French president, François Hollande, warns against ‘dangerous populist excesses’ (‘as in Italy’), while his finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, in his turn, expresses the fear that one-sided austerity programmes may ‘nourish a social crisis that leads to populism’. Other epithets used to describe populism include ‘aggressive’, ‘virulent’, ‘uncivilized’….Amid this anxious unanimity, one thing stands out: the concept of populism is regarded as self-evident, as if we all know what is being referred to. The truth is that political scientists have been debating its meaning for at least fifty years. In a famous 1967 conference on the question at the London School of Economics, the keynote lecture by the us historian Richard Hofstadter was already entitled ‘Everyone Is Talking About Populism, but No One Can Define It’.

    More recently, Anton Jager, who occasionally shows up at Jacobin, has also been at it. And, Marco Revelli had a book out last year, The New Populism, hitting similar themes.

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