Democracy Scares, from the Destruction of Bryan to the Abdication of Bernie: Why America Desperately Needs a Second Populist Movement but Ain’t Gonna Get One an interview + Review of The People, No! A Brief History of Anti-Populism by Thomas Frank

Yves here. Welcome back to award-winning John Siman, who gives us the first installment on Thomas Frank’s new book on the populist impulse in America and why decades of liberalism have pushed it even more into the wilderness.

By John Siman

(This is the first of two essays.)

The incandescent but brutally short-lived Populist movement of the 1890s was, as Thomas Frank writes in his new book, The People, No!, “our country’s final serious third-party effort, the last one to stand a decent chance of breaking the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats” (p. 19). Indeed, the very real possibility of William Jennings Bryan’s being elected President in 1896 as the Populist + Democratic “Fusionist” candidate so panicked the nation’s elites that they coalesced with unprecedented amounts of media vituperation and corporate money to destroy both Bryan’s candidacy and the perceived Populist insurrection. (Bryan nevertheless carried 22 states to McKinley’s 23 and won almost 47% of the popular vote.)

Frank describes the hysterical elite opposition to Bryan and the Populists, which was organized with military precision by McKinley’s genius campaign manager Mark Hanna, as America’s first Democracy Scare. After all, as Frank explains with his uniquely penetrating wit, “[D]emocracy must be controlled … before it ruins our democratic way of life” (p. 3). A class war really was fought and won in the USA in 1896, but it was an upside-down class war, waged, that is, from the top down, the absolute reversal of a Marxist revolution, like the plot of an Ayn Rand novel.

And yet, in spite of the efficient smashing of the Populist movement, an optimistic spirit of what can be called populism with a small p abides permanently at the heart of our democracy. “The populist impulse,” Frank argues, “has in fact been a presence in American life since the country’s beginning. Populism triumphed in the 1930s and 1940s, when the people overwhelmingly endorsed a regulatory welfare state. Populist uprisings occur all the time in American life, always with the same enemies — monopolies, banks, and corruption…” (p. 14). Thus Frank entitles his third chapter “Peak Populism [sic] in the Proletarian Decade,” and he explains why the seeming anachronism is appropriate: Franklin Roosevelt was, of course, a Democrat, and he did not call his New Deal populist,but the lineage was clear to historians and popular writers of the day” (p. 87).

But what might the actual Populist Party have been like had it endured? Frank suggests that we imagine an energetic, forward-looking, home-grown labor party which would have embraced both black and white workers and farmers, which would have formed policy with a fundamental distrust of and even contempt for experts and elitists, yet which would have been unencumbered by un-American Socialist and Marxist baggage. Populism to Frank expresses the abiding promiseof democracy. Indeed Democratic Promise, a 700-page study by activist-turned-historian Lawrence Goodwyn (1928 – 2013), is the title Frank’s favorite book about the original Populist movement, or as Goodwyn’s subtitle has it, the The Populist Moment in America.

So how can we understand the Democrats of Roosevelt’s “Proletarian Decade” as essentially similar to the original Populists? Frank directs our attention to the elections of 1932 and (especially) of 1936, because he sees them as effecting the just reversal of the election of 1896. We observe that in his 1932 nomination acceptance speech Roosevelt reiterated, in order to condemn the false theory of trickle-down economics advanced by plutocrats, a stirring passage from Bryan’s 1896 Cross of Gold acceptance speech.

Bryan had said in 1896: “There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through [italics mine] on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

And here is how Roosevelt echoed Bryan’s words thirty-six years later, in 1932, as he went forth to defeat the incumbent President Hoover in a landslide: “There are two ways of viewing the governments duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, [italics mine] to labor, to the farmer, to the small businessman. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776. But it is not and never will be the theory of the Democratic Party” (p. 90).

So it was in 1932. When Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1936, we see that the hysterical Democracy Scare organized against him was essentially similar to the hysterical Democracy Scare organized against Bryan in 1896, that the politics and the rhetoric of anti-populism operate according to a kind of algorithm. “[The word] populism,” Frank told Matt Taibbi in an interview published on August 8, “becomes the generic term for idiots who refuse rule by the Professional Class.”

It is in the context of this algorithm that Frank describes the American Liberty League, which was the main propaganda front group for the elite corporate interests organized against Roosevelt: “With the lavish budget its wealthy backers furnished, the League followed the strategy pioneered by Mark Hanna forty years previously, producing speeches, radio broadcasts, pamphlets, and a blizzard of panic-screaming headlines” (p. 119). Furthermore, as Frank shows, almost all of the newspapers in the United States attacked Roosevelt with an orchestrated virulence: “[T]he newspaper industry came together against the would-be dictator Roosevelt the same way it had united against Bryan in 1896” (p. 120).

And so we come to Frank’s first fundamental, almost Newtonian, observation about American politics since the 1890s: Any outbreak of the optimistic spirit of populism is always and everywhere opposed by the carefully-organized pessimistic rage of anti-populism.

Corollary: The rhetoric of populism and that of anti-populism remain fairly constant over decades.

However: The spirit of populist rhetoric can be traced directly back to Jefferson’s lifelong defense of democracy against aristocrats like Adams and oligarchs like Hamilton, while the rhetoric of anti-populism is a rhetoric of would-be aristocrats and preening oligarchs. It is a rhetoric, in other words, fundamentally opposed to democracy (cf. pp. 32-33).

Why, then, is populism in some form not explicitly at the center of our national aspirations? For populism “may well be,” as Frank argues, “the key to turning our nation around” (p. 114). Why, then, while we as a nation endure what seems to be a second, more nightmarish Gilded Age — indeed, Frank notes “that we are living through a period of elite failure every bit as spectacular as that of the 1890s” (p. 52) — do we not cherish the memory of the original Populists?

Why? Because after thirteen decades of well-financed Democracy Scares, we Americans of the twenty-first century have inherited populism as a word not merely gutted but diabolically repurposed — repurposed to censure what it was invented to praise: Despite the historical memory of Thomas Frank (and only a very few others), the word populism is generally used now to express elite contempt for the people, those unwashed ignorant lunatic masses, those idiots who refuse rule by their betters, those low-SAT racist rabble, those deplorables.

And thus we cannot intelligibly utter the one word that would most precisely express what ought to be our permanent American hope to forever renew our original birth in freedom.

And thus we have been, insofar as we still aspire to be a democratic people, rendered mute.

Perhaps Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns would not have been such bitter disappointments had he been able to proclaim himself a proud populist in the deeply patriotic tradition of Franklin Roosevelt — had he been able, that is, to toss all his creepy Socialism talk and all his spineless concessions to woke, New York Times-style racism and hallucinatory Russiagating onto the ash-heap of history.

Sadly, however, as Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey wrote in their essay First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Collapse of the Sanders Campaign and the ‘Fusionist’ LeftBernie chose to surround himself with “… a left-wing intellectual firma­ment in which something as basic as revering the American flag would have been considered a shameful appeal to retrograde jingoism…. Any gesture which gave the faintest whiff of signaling national pride or love of country would be instantly denounced as a fascistic[italics mine] betrayal….”

C.J. Hopkins has a more cynical take on why Bernie folded — this delightfully sarcastic prognostication is from Hopkins’s 2019 essay Bernie, The Magic Socialist: Thats right, folks, Bernie is back, and this time its not just a sadistic prank where he gets you all fired up about his fake ‘revolution’ for fifteen months, gets cheated out of the nomination, then backs whichever corporate-bought candidate the Democratic Party orders you to vote for.”

And in the end, Bernie did endorse Biden, even as Biden promised unwavering opposition to medicare-for-all. In the end, just as Hopkins had predicted, Bernie was happy to shill for neo-liberalism, that is, for anti-populism.

So who’s to blame for this utter and debilitating debasement of the vocabulary of our democracy? Frank’s answer is disturbing, to say the least. It’s easy to condemn Mark Hanna and the Republicans’ brutal smears of Bryan and Populism in 1896, just as it’s easy to condemn the murderous white supremacy of the anti-populist Democrats in the South (who were panicked by the possibility of an emerging Populist alliance between poor black farmers and poor white farmers). Skipping ahead forty years to the Great Depression, we can see that it’s easy to condemn the DuPonts and the American Liberty League and the Republicans for smearing Roosevelt and the New Deal. But all of their anti-populist rhetoric was the predictable blowback of oligarchs who sensed an imminent threat to their privilege.

So who’s really to blame? The establishment Democrats are, that is to say, the Liberal Class. They are. At least for the past nearly seven decades. For the official Liberalism of the Democratic Party has become, as Frank has been telling us for years, the politics of an elite, of the properly-credentialed Professional Class, a class devoted to advancing its own interests with aggressive moral smugness — “moral narcissism” is the deliciously ironic term Frank used in one interviewto describe this elite orgy of moral superiority — and thus with undisguised contempt for the working class.

That their party, the Democratic Party, once the party of the common people, once the party of, well, democracy, has become the party of the high-achieving winners— of the conquistadors of the meritocracy — of the newfangled hipper-than-thou smarter-than-thou richer-than-thou woker-than-thou Silicon Valley + Wall Street oligarchy — is the great theme of Frank’s work since he published What’s the Matter with Kansa sin 2004. A great theme it is, yes, but a very bitter pill for many sympathetic readers to swallow.

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Frank’s super-cheerful, super-optimistic, beyond Midwestern-nice persona may provide the spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down. I chatted with him via Zoom just a few days after I received my review copy of the book in July, and he was broadcasting then from his old boyhood bedroom in Kansas. This was very trippy to see, for things looked very early Reagan years on my screen. Back to the Future, in a way.

And as I watched him on YouTube over the next couple of weeks, it seemed that Frank became more and more articulate and unabashedly passionate with every interview he gave. By the time he got to Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper’s show, boy, was he on his game! (I strongly encourage the reader to watch this interview in its entirety: Thomas Frank on Useful Idiots, Interview Only.) So let me share my transcription of the delightful way in which Frank introduced Taibbi and Halper’s audience to the ugly reality of the liberals’ longstanding contempt for working people — to the ugly reality that there is, right now, no party in the USA for non-elites.

Frank introduced the topic by imagining a very likely future — in order to show how very bleak the present is: “Let’s just assume that things keep going as they are,” he told them, “and the Democrats continue along the same trajectory and become more and more and more the party of the educated elite. And the Republicans continue to become more and more and more the party of capitalists, the Koch brothers, that type. And the rest of us just get to fit in…. I mean, where do we go? There is no party for — us.”

“Right,” Taibbi agreed, nodding. What Frank has said is very profound.

“But isn’t your thesis … that the Dems wanted this?” Halper asked. “I mean that’s the thesis in Listen, Liberal.” (I assume she had a passage like this one in mind: When the left party in a system severs its bonds to working people — when it dedicates itself to the concerns of a particular slice of high-achieving affluent people — issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns” [Listen Liberal, p. 30]).

“Yes, exactly,” Frank said, “and I repeat it with more detail it in this [book]. They actively turned against working-class issues — and working-class people— in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This is kind of the alarming part of the book. You all remember the last scene in Easy Rider — they’re riding along on their motorcycles — they’re in Louisiana….” Pause.

Taibbi didn’t remember. This is embarrassing. Halper teases him.

“What?!” Frank exclaimed, blushing.

Gee whiz, I thought. Having to explain the context of Easy Rider to Matt Taibbi is, when you get right down to it, a lot like having to explain Hell’s Angels initiation rites or Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD and crank to Hunter Thompson. Such a weird hermeneutic task will be gracefully accomplished only by means of the extra gentle irony of Thomas Frank. From his old boyhood bedroom in Kansas.

“I saw it when I was like ten,” Frank said. “They showed it on TV. It was a big big deal. But you have to first go back to that movie version [1940] of The Grapes of Wrath starring — Henry Fonda, Peter Fonda’s dad [as Tom Joad; here is a link to a clip of his sublime “I’ll be there speech.

And it ends with the Joads, remember, the people from Oklahoma, the migrant workers, the tenant farmers, and they’re driving along in their crappy little truck, and Ma Joad says, and this is the great, classic line of ‘30s populism: ‘We’re the people. We keep on a-comin’.’ Movie ends. And they’re in their shitty little truck.”

“Mmhum,” agreed Taibbi, back in high gear.

So Frank continued: “OK, Easy Rider— made [in 1969] by Peter Fonda, Henry’s son. And it’s often regarded as a generational slap-back — it’s the comeback at The Grapes of Wrath: They’re going the other direction across the country — they drive through Oklahoma. The same scenery, basically. They’re in Louisiana somewhere, driving along on their motorcycles — they’ve got the awesome choppers, you know, and the Steppenwolf soundtrack…. And they’re just driving along, and these two, basically, rednecks — I mean they’re total stereotypes — driving along in a pickup truck [emphasis his] going the other way, for no reason at all pull out a shotgun and kill ‘em.”

Taibbi chuckled grimly. “Great.”

“It’s the inversion, the direct inversion, of the ending of The Grapes of Wrath. And that was the attitude in the late ‘60s: That the white working class were the foes now, the problem. These were the people — we basically had to do something about them. And you go back and look at the countercultural classics like The Greening of America [written by Charles Reich in 1970, one of the Clintons’ professors at Yale Law School; the book first appeared in excerpted form in — radical chic! — The New Yorker], … the Archie Bunker stereotype comes up at this same time. This incredible stereotype gets built in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — that union members are the biggest problem in our society, and the Democratic Party turns away from them. And this is conscious: They talked about it all the time, they wrote books about it: We are the party of highly-educated kids coming off the campus, in other words, of the Professional — of the proto-Professional Class. Yes indeed. This is where all that begins, and they have never looked back from that moment.”

In the book Frank turns to the work of historian Jefferson Cowie (the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class) to provide chilling additional detail to the Fonda vs. Fonda story. Cowie quotes Easy Riders creenwriter Terry Southern on what it meant for the stock rednecks in the pickup truck to blow the shit out of the Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper characters: Southern said that he understood the film’s horrifying final scene as, “‘an indictment of blue-collar America, the people I thought were responsible for the Vietnam War.’”

“Which is to say,” Frank resumes, “Southern thought the people serving in the Vietnam War were the people who got us into the Vietnam War.”

And thus did a new generation of college-educated and morally narcissistic American liberals reimagine the salt-of-the-earth Joads as deplorables, as irredeemables — “as fascists” (pp. 190-191).

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But the people who actually got us into the Vietnam War (and kept us there) were — to recall the deliciously ironic title of David Halberstam’s monumental history, The Best and the Brightest — not a bunch of violent white-supremacist meth-head rednecks. No, not at all. They were rather the cream of the cream of the new, post-World War II American elite: they were the technocrats, the new meritocracy.

And no one alive writes about the American meritocracy with more insight than does Thomas Frank. His summary of their ways is worthy of memorization: “For them, merit is always synonymous with orthodoxy: the best and the brightest are, in their [own] minds, always those who went to Harvard, who got the big foundation grant, whose books are featured on NPR” (Listen, Liberal, p. 39). These are the men and women who, for going on seven decades now, have formed the Professional Class, the Expert Class, the Liberal Class, the Creative Class, the Learning Class, the Opinion Class, and so on and so forth — they are, in short, the hipper, cooler (and now woker) half of the American Ruling Class. Bottom line: Not only are they way richer and more powerful than you, they are way better than you, both intellectually and morally. At least they see it that way.

Most non-elite Americans, however, because they have, at this point in our history, endured over two generations of breathtakingly spectacular meritocratic failures — including the unending trillion-dollar wars that the elites never fight in and never win, including the elites’ financialized ransacking of the once-industrial American heartland, including the elites’ perversion of medical care and higher education into grotesque unaffordable rackets — would, if asked, give a more precise answer to the intriguing question of class nomenclature — Liberal Class? Creative Class? Learning Class? — by describing the ascendant meritocracy as our gleefully parasitic Fuck-Up Class.

Quite fittingly, the foundational belief of this class, as Frank shows, is anti-populism. For they believe that democracy is far too important to be left to the dēmos(δῆμος being the Greek word for the plebeians, the class of commoners). No, democracy, as they teach and are taught, requires the subjugation of the dēmos. Democracy actually means aristocracy, but with the well-credentialed technocrats of today taking the place of the well-bred aristocrats of yesteryear.

Frank traces the genealogy of the American meritocracy back to its origins in the 1950s and even identifies its father. This is, by far, the most brilliant part of the book. “Up until this point,” Frank writes, “its [anti-populism’s] prime constituency had been comfortable and conservative business interests lashing back at radical troublemakers. But now anti-populism was taken up by a new elite, a liberal elite that was led by a handful of thinkers at prestigious universities” (p. 147). And who was, among these elite thinkers, the one true father of our anti-populist meritocracy? It was the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970).

Hofstadter, Frank explains, “retold the story of the 1890s People’s Party in his enormously influential 1955 book, The Age of Reform…. [In it] he accused the Populists of losing faith in progress…. He argued that the Populists despised immigrants — indeed, that ‘everyone remote and alien was distrusted and hated’ by them. Also, that they were ‘profoundly nationalistic and bellicose,’ … [and] they were ‘chiefly’ responsible for anti-Semitism in America, blaming Jewish bankers for the farmer’s problems” (pp. 154-155).

None of this was true. Hofstadter had “cherry-picked his evidence,” Frank told me, in order to promote an ideology that would legitimize elite technocratic rule over regular people, over the dēmos. Hofstadter’s purpose, obviously, was not the uncovering of historical truth but rather (to use the apposite Nietzschean terminology) the creation of meritocratic values. Within about ten years, as Frank points out, all of Hofstadter’s narrative inventions had been properly exploded in the relevant academic journals. But so what. Hofstadter’s smearing of the Populists — and by extension of any mass movement in America that might rise up in the populist spirit and challenge the new meritocracy — caught on like wildfire.

A wildfire that continues to burn fiercely in the hearts of our meritocratic elites. Hillary Clinton, as should be obvious but for various creepy reasons isn’t, guaranteed her loss of the 2016 presidential election when she spoke in the spirit of Hofstadter: Trump’s supporters were “deplorables” and “irredeemables,” she said. In so doing she made her anti-populist contempt for regular Americans indelibly obvious: “[Flyover] America,” as Frank interprets Hillary’s Hofstadterian heart, “was a wicked land and its people were bastards: racists, sexists, facilitators of evil who actually deserved the postindustrial and opioid-saturated bleakness of their red-state lives” (p. 236).

Yet Hillary’s calamitous loss did not force her into permanent political exile — quite the contrary! — it further endeared her to her meritocratic Chosen People: “‘I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product…,’” Frank quotes her (p. 231), “‘the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.’”

At the opposite end of the elitism spectrum from Hillary and Hofstadter is Frank’s historiographical hero, the big-hearted Texan Larry Goodwyn, who wrote of the “ideological patience” that is required of citizens who would join a mass movement. Lots of patience. Because non-elites, the people, the plebs, the dēmos, are inevitably rough around the edges, cantankerous even. Of course they are. And more often than not they exhibit very poor fashion sense. Thus the promise of democracy is simultaneously its painstaking challenge.

Yet, since the age of Hofstadter, the establishment Democratic Party has become not merely impatient with Americans, but smugly dismissive of and hostile to them. Frank describes this possibly fatal crisis of democracy with his characteristic gentle wit: “What is certain,” he writes, “is that the liberalism of scolding will never give rise to the kind of mass movement that this country needs. It is almost entirely a politics of individual righteousness, an angry refusal of Goodwyn’s ‘ideological patience.’ Its appeal comes not from democratizing the economy but from the satisfaction of wagging a finger in some stupid proletarian’s face, forever” (p. 241).

Frank told me that he is doing his best to remain optimistic as he moves onto his next book (which may not even be about politics!), and though I admire his deeply charitable disposition, everything he so eloquently writes would seem to indicate that our national predicament verges on the hopeless. But Frank has just emailed me: “I wish there was a way to end your essay on a hopeful note.” Hopeful?? Well, Thomas Frank, yes. Given all the brilliant books you have written for us Americans, you certainly merita happy ending.

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So let’s go back in time, back to the future, as it were, further back even than Thomas Frank’s Reagan-era boyhood home in Kansas. Quentin Tarantino has blazed a trail for us here. Consider his 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which Brad Pitt, whose martial arts skills are intensified with a dose of hippie-chick LSD, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who is armed with a Hollywood-enhanced Nazi-frying flamethrower, relive August 8, 1969 in order to destroy the murderous Manson family members who would kill the beautiful flower Sharon Tate, a fair damsel in distress if there ever was one. Now that’s a happy ending!

And so Tarantino, yes! And Taibbi, who, crucially, wherever he goes, carries a copy of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, seems to owe Frank a favor now, after the Easy Rider lesson. My own copy of Thompson’s book has a new introduction by Taibbi himself. In it, as I reread Thompson’s account of his sharing a tab of black acid with the bespectacled, genial, midwestern journalist John Chancellor, a Frankian figure if there ever was one, I realize that Taibbi could do for Frank now what Thompson did for Chancellor back then … and launch him on a trip back to … May of 1972.

For in May of 1972 Thompson’s hero George McGovern, now remembered as an embarrassing failure, as the archetypal pie-in-the-sky elitist liberal, had recently won the Wisconsin presidential primary because of the labor support —  because of the populist support — he was attracting. “[McGovern’s chief pollster Patrick] Caddell,” Thompson writes, “then got up to analyze the blue-collar support. Both McGovern and [arch-segregationist Alabama Governor George] Wallace, he said, draw on the same pool of extremely alienated blue-collar voters, a group that is constantly getting deeper into bitterness, cynicism, and resentment about the current government” (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72,p. 162).

We should note that McGovern, like Thomas Frank, was a trained historian, but not part of the Hofstadterian “Consensus” school. Quite the contrary. McGovern wrote his 1953 doctoral dissertation about the American labor movement — specifically, about the Colorado coal strike of 1913-14.

And Wallace’s presidential campaign slogan in 1976 would be “Trust the People.”

But on May 16, 1972, the racist Wallace was shot by a nut with a gun, at a campaign event in a parking lot in Laurel, Maryland. Wallace was paralyzed for life.

And who came to visit him in the hospital in May of 1972 (where we can visualize his inert legs covered with a confederate-flag bedspread)? Shirley Chisolm, the first black woman to run for president. She did. Wallace’s rival in the deepest possible sense. She said that’s what her belief in democracy required of her.

Enter Thomas Frank, with Matt Taibbi by his side, as his guide. George Wallace would in later years amazingly and sincerely repent of his racism — see the late Congressman John Lewis’s breathtaking account in George Wallace Repents — but in order to save McGovern’s populist crusade, Wallace needed to repent then, right there from his hospital bed, and not to John Lewis, but to Shirley Chisolm. And so Frank calls on the magic of Hunter Thompson and Larry Goodwyn, of Brad Pitt and Sharon Tate (now 29 years old) and summons the spirit body of Wallace’s dear deceased wife Lurleen, who, cancer-ridden, had given her life to make Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign possible.

And what had Lurleen (brilliantly played by Mare Winningham in the 1997 TV mini-series — with Angelina Jolie playing Wallace’s second wife Cornelia) learned in four years in the Afterlife? Well, what do you think she’d learned? Love thy neighbor. And she tells this to George Wallace, and he knows she’s right. Trust the People.

And so when Governor Wallace emerges from the hospital in his wheelchair, he has already undergone the change of heart John Lewis would tell us about so many years later. Wallace speaks eloquently throughout the USA about the evil of racism, the evil of Vietnam, and the renewed populist message of his new friend George McGovern.

And what happened next? Well, Hunter Thompson’s hero George McGovern beat old Nixon that November — of course he did — and began an era of lasting peace and populist prosperity and racial harmony. An era that continues to this day. Plus President McGovern asked Sharon Tate to persuade Peter Fonda and Terry Southern to redo the bleak, anti-populist ending of Easy Rider: The film now winds up with those crusty rednecks in the pickup inviting Fonda and Hopper over for a veritable feast of Louisiana crawfish étouffée. And they all lived happily ever after. Trust the People.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    It was nice to see the hat-tip to Hunter and McGovern. Yes, the role of Wallace’s shooting in ’72 has been ignored if not buried.

    About this:

    Bryan had said in 1896: “There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through [italics mine] on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

    Bryan focuses on the political rationalization/cover for what is really a more fundamental split. Some see the goal of society as being the elevation of an elite to the highest point possible, e.g. Egypt used slaves to build pyramids for their pharaohs. The masses must suffer so that a few humans can reach new heights.

    The opposing view is that society exists to lift all humans in it so that no one is suffering. As we have learned more about humans’ effect on the Earth, it’s become clear that this goal must be expanded to include living in harmony with the world around us, including our fellow living things on the Earth.

    Who still believes in trickle-down even though the Kudlows of the world still push that garbage? It’s just too stark to come out in the open and say, “The hoi polloi matter only insofar as they contribute to the glory of our billionaires” so they continue to repeat that eventually workers benefit from pro-rich policies as well.

    1. flora

      Yep. Hoover was a successful mining engineer before making the mistake of running for president. Here’s a quote from a 1932 Will Rogers’ weekly newspaper column :

      “This election was lost four and six years ago, not this year. They [Republicans] didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellows hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.”

      1. Anonymous

        “They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.” Will Rodgers

        Hopefully, Rodger’s concern is only for the captive depositors who lost their deposits and not for the little sharks themselves.

        Thanks for a great quote!

    2. v

      No, the pyramids weren’t accomplished by slave labor. That’s an ever-recounted myth. Most of it was done by corvée labor with feasts in between. Lay down your Asterix comics.

  2. pjay

    Thank you for this. I can’t think of two more accurate and clarifying analysts of US politics than John Siman and Thomas Frank.

    The one thing often missing from these discussions, however, is acknowledgement of John and Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on the Professional Managerial Class — in the 1970s! They coined the term, and discussed many of the social and political contradictions so eloquently illustrated by Frank in later years. They opened my eyes to many of these issues as they were emerging way back when. I think perhaps their work was — somewhat ironically — “academicized.” It became the focus of an academic debate on Marxist theories of class. But their original impetus was practical and political: trying to understand the hostility of the working class to those leftist activists purporting to represent them; “old left” vs. “new left” etc. The Easy Rider reference was very relevant to this context.

    Anyway, thanks for the very timely discussion.

      1. John M

        I have loved much of Ehreinreich’s work and she is definitely a symbol of smart, streetwise, embedded writing.

        However, after reading that her daughter Rosa Brooks is serving the military industrial complex in her scholarship (human rights, international terror, and failed states) while serving the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC, one wonders if Frank has more information than many of the rest of us. Feminist critiques are important and required reading for us all, but lets not forget how feminists propagate Neoliberal and Neofascist policies too.

        Reading the recent takedown of Naomi Klein (someone who I’ve admired for decades) by Max Blumenthal on her response to Jeff Gibbs/Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans, not only causes me great distress but we are starting to see the great ruptures in the fabric of populists and progressives in ways like never before….

        Sad and angry are just the beginning.

  3. Watt4Bob

    “What is certain,” he writes, “is that the liberalism of scolding will never give rise to the kind of mass movement that this country needs. It is almost entirely a politics of individual righteousness, an angry refusal of Goodwyn’s ‘ideological patience.’ Its appeal comes not from democratizing the economy but from the satisfaction of wagging a finger in some stupid proletarian’s face, forever”

    Remarkably like this quote from Orwell’s 1984;

    But always— do not forget this, Winston— always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.
    If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever. ”

      1. Watt4Bob

        I think you’re right.

        And that highlights what is probably at the root of the working class’s perception that the ‘supposed left’ represents the fascist impulse.

        It takes a bit of effort to explain that the PMC does not equal ‘the left’, and to date there are remarkably few working on that front.

        1. flora

          When T accuses Biden of radical socialism and the Dems of Marxism,… well… it is preposterous. At the same time, if T’s trying to create a mental picture equating commie mobs – trampling small business owners and city streets and the homes of working class people in the name of some new politically narrow ideology – with the Dems apparent support of riots in US cities… T’s equation sort of works politically. It doesn’t have to be right to work politically. my 2 cents.

          1. Watt4Bob

            You see what I see.

            And JB being an obvious weasel makes the dim’s offering him as our savior just as preposterous as T’s MAGA shtick.

            The DNC has fallen victim to the dangerous mistake of believing their own hype.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Perhaps the Catfood Dems are secretly planning to throw the election on purpose in such a way as to set up SanderBackers and YoungerVoters for being accused of causing that loss.

              What else would explain the constant Catfood Dem insults and rejections of the Sanderbackers? What else would explain the Catfood ObamaDems selection and coming coronation of the two most despised and mocked ( or at least mockable) of the whole PresDemNom-wannabe field? ( I suspect some Catfood Dems not part of that field, such as Nancy Pelosi, are even more deeply hated and rejected by all who are not themselves Pink Pussy Hat Clintonites).

          2. EoH

            T never plays with facts, that is to say, he always plays with facts. They are there to be manipulated, not to orient the world by. So, for T, “socialism” and “Marxism” are epithets, not real things. American politics is largely center to well right of center. There’s not much on the left, certainly nothing like socialism, let alone Marxism.

  4. SufferinSuccotash

    Note the date on Hofstadter’s book, which gives us a clue about the origins of the liberal elitist worldview that Frank describes: 1955. This was right at the tail-end of McCarthy’s four-year rampage–the Army-McCarthy hearings and Joe’s subsequent censure by the Senate had just happened the previous year. As Richard Rovere and other biographers of McCarthy have pointed out, one of the more upsetting (to liberals) feature of McCarthy’s movement was its support from blue-collar working class America. The working class, which educated liberals had placed on a pedestal during the New Deal era, now seemed to be stuck in the ideological gutter, ignorant, intolerant and reactionary.
    The ensuing cultural & political gap between the Avocado Toast Liberal and Joe Six-Pack would probably have emerged anyway. But the initial catalyst was the anti-communist hysteria of the late 40s and early 50s, symbolized by Tail-Gunner Joe.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I see this somewhat differently, namely the 50s saw a lot of pusillanimous union leadership join with Uncle Joe to save their own asses, thereby denuding the labor movement of an indispensable component, something that became more and more evident into the 80s.

  5. Bruno

    Probably more important than Hofstader’s screed as effective anti-populist propaganda was the celebrated novel by Robert Penn Warren “All The King’s Men.”

    1. flora

      Yep. Warren’s novel is fiction. The real Huey Long -The Kingfish – was hated by the Dem elites of his day, including FDR iirc.

      1. km

        Look at Huey P. Long for an example of a populist who actually got things done. A man who marshalled resources and allies and set about achieving what he promised to.

        Not only that, but Long faced an entrenched and established political opposition that was not shy about using blackmail, intimidation, bribery, and when necessary, outright violence to get what it wanted. He didn’t respond with excuses, the way so many Trump cultists and Obama groupies do.
        Say what you want about Long’s methods, or even his goals, but nobody cared because Huey P. Long, delivered results. Not “hope and change”, not “triggering the libs”, but results in the form of concrete material benefits (roads, bridges, schools, libraries, literacy classes, voting rights, bank regulation, etc.) for the average frustrated Louisianan.

        And Long won elections and got laws passed in the face of the KKK. In the Louisiana of his day, that would be like getting a number one hit single when every radio network in the land and also YouTube and Spotify were determined never to let your song be played.

        Long not only got things done, he got so much done, he transformed Louisiana in only a few years. For generations after his death, people named their children after Huey Long, and the Long name was all it took to get a politician elected in Louisiana. And yes, the Team D establishment of the day, St. FDR in particular, hated Long with a white hot passion.

        Trump could have been a sort of Huey P. Long. Instead, he is a buffoon, a man has fixed nothing, improved nothing, and who is making populism into toxic radioactive Kryptonite for generations to come.

        1. John Zelnicker

          Great comment km

          I’ve long thought that Huey Long had one of the best political lines of the modern era:

          “The only way I can lose is if they find me in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”

  6. Bob Hertz

    Great article, thanks for posting.

    My caution:

    The union hard-hats did beat up anti-Vietnam war protestors in New York.

    The working class cops did attack young protestors in Chicago in 1968.

    The rednecks in Little Rock did spit on black children going to school in 1956.

    My feeling is that Thomas Frank glides over these memories a little too quickly. Maybe the Democrats should have held their noses at these outrages and kept the Roosevelt coalition together….but that is easier said than done.

    1. John Wright

      But there was willingness to support LBJ’s “War on Poverty”, pass Medicare and start the EPA.

      The difference between then and now may be that 1960’s median families were less concerned about their economic prospects, their educational prospects and their medical care.

      Families had a perceived surplus of economic well-being.

      Now US families have to choose between two uncaring Presidential candidates who have done well for themselves and their families via connections/financial rescue operations.

      The precarity of much of America may be a big driver of behavior and fears now.

    2. Watt4Bob

      My feeling is that Thomas Frank glides over these memories a little too quickly.

      I was a teenager visiting my home town of Chicago in ’68’, the political divisions rooted in that time, still exist in my family to this day.

      My father went to his grave believing I had been brain-washed by egg-head liberals.

      Most of my cousins, (I’m the oldest of my generation) are cheering for Trump, and of course, the cops.

      My mom thinks T is a blessing, and my sisters might as well be DNC board members.

    3. pjay

      Yes. Good points. Indeed “easier said than done” – the real world is pretty messy. As Siman says above:

      “At the opposite end of the elitism spectrum from Hillary and Hofstadter is Frank’s historiographical hero, the big-hearted Texan Larry Goodwyn, who wrote of the “ideological patience” that is required of citizens who would join a mass movement. Lots of patience. Because non-elites, the people, the plebs, the dēmos, are inevitably rough around the edges, cantankerous even.”

      I’ve known my share of hippie-punchers and racist red-necks. I don’t blame their victims for lacking “ideological patience.” But I don’t think they are really Frank’s target.

    4. Starry Gordon

      The Democrats, holding their noses or not, would still have to dance with the ones who brought them to the party. That is, if they were still going to remain allegedly democratic. The hard-hats, the working-class cops, the rednecks were all behaving tribally, and tribal behavior is evidently still pretty widespread. Altering tribal customs is not an easy task and could not be done overnight. And it’s hard to dance elegantly while holding your nose!

      Instead, of course, the Democrats of the Established Order exploited and encouraged tribalism to run off their wars. And are still doing it.

      1. Bob Hertz

        FDR refused to support an anti-lynching bill because he did not want to break up his Democratic coalition. He felt that he needed Southern legislators in order to pass the New Deal programs.

        So, he did hold his nose at behavior that was actually worse than just being deplorable. Did he do this for a good cause?

        Interesting question.

    5. lyman alpha blob

      Problem is every time the people really start to get together, the elites start spewing divisive propaganda.

      Go back a little further in US history to the railroad barons. Hiring Chinese labor was a deliberate act by the railroad owners to foment racism against the Chinese at a time when 19th century European immigrants and ex-slaves were starting to get ideas about being paid decently.

      That doesn’t excuse people for believing racist BS, but race was pretty much invented in the 19th century by the elites as a way to divide and conquer the cheap labor the bosses wanted.

  7. William Hunter Duncan

    I very much enjoyed this. I tried to search for John Siman. There is no link in this article. I would like to read more from him, and keep up on progress. Thank you.

  8. jake

    So Thomas Frank lives in Kansas; when he leaves the room, he must encounter daily persons in love with America’s favorite past-time, punishment [of others] by the state, and possessed of natively acquired opinions which are as prejudicial and disheartening as anything coming out of a Koch think-tank.

    He’s also old enough to know that the nativist impulse has always been there, rotting away the soul of America. If only Hillary was the only sickness in the land.

    Damn the Democrats and the liberals, but Repubs sure get a lot of help from the heartland.

    1. flora

      Say what? TF grew up in a KC suburb and now lives in DC, still visits his family (aka parents’ house where he grew up) in KC. Your anti-midwest chauvinism is showing. /heh

    2. pjay

      Thanks for so nicely illustrating the attitude Frank condemns.

      I’m curious about where you come from, or now live? Perhaps this question should refer to class as well as geography.

      Like Frank, I grew up in Kansas (though my background was much more modest than his). Like Frank, I grew out of my narrow conception of the world in college. There was a time in my youth when I was bitter and disdainful toward the people and culture in which I was raised. I sounded a lot like you. But I eventually grew up.

      1. jake

        I grew up in southern Illinois, before the “southern strategy” was in force, and obviously before talk radio, much less Fox, shaped national opinion. Folks came to their views honestly, as it were. In those days, it was John Birch society and the rotary club. At the time, the worst conceivable insult, fighting words, was n******-lover. There were other favorites I could mention.

        My “attitude” reflects the views of the people around me, well remembered, and evidently little changed, to judge by voting patterns.

    3. shinola

      Thomas Frank grew up in Mission Hills, Ks. which is across the street from Kansas City, Mo. The only “working class” people that live there would be live-in maids and/or nannies (or perhaps highly paid pro athletes if those would be considered working class).

      When it comes to “liberal elites” he knows of which he speaks.

    4. tegnost

      he must encounter daily persons in love with America’s favorite past-time, punishment [of others] by the state, and possessed of natively acquired opinions which are as prejudicial and disheartening as anything coming out of a Koch think-tank.

      Yes, the very same republicans that biden and schumer et al are trying to turn into “democrats”…(actually they don’t want them to be democrats, just to form a “coalition of the ascended” that can ward off any challenge to their status)
      Looks like it’ll be a tough haul…

      Oh and speaking of punishment kamala harris is a cop. She sent parents to jail for their children’s truancy..

      1. shinola

        “… the very same republicans that biden and schumer et al are trying to turn into “democrats”…”

        Yep – the Democrat candidate now running for the US senate from Ks. was a Republican until 2018. She won a Ks. senate seat in 2016 as a Republican. She & her husband are both doctors who live in Mission Hills, Ks. (reportedly the 3rd wealthiest municipality in the US). Her TV commercials consist mainly of “regular” looking guys spouting some version of “I’m a life-long Republican but I’m voting for Dr. Bollier.”

        Exactly the type Biden is trying to entice

        1. Katiebird

          And her biggest, perhaps only, issue is surprise medical bills. Because people who’ve been paying for health insurance their whole lives shouldn’t be treated like that.

          An amazingly empty candidate.

          1. flora

            Well, she’s not wrong about the surprise medical billing issue. But the notion that a single freshman Dem Senator can change the House’s Ways and Means long time committee chair Dem. Richie Neal’s opinion about surprise medical billing is either extremely naive or complete nonsense. Neal will fight to the last ditch to preserve surprise medical billing. It’s what his donors want and pay him for why they contribute to campaign. /heh

            1. flora

              She’s really running as an an “I’m not those guys” candidate. Her’s is a negative campaign. That’s not really enough, imo. What is she for?

              1. Katiebird

                Agree with above. (Also I am so tired of the parade of lifelong Republicans in her ads)

                I’m looking for a M4A candidate and it isn’t her. That a doctor can’t come up with a good lineup of issues this year is almost horrific.

                It’s not Sharice Davids either.

  9. Chas

    “Huey Long,” by T. Harry Williams is a far more honest portrayal of the Kingfish, who took his nickname from a black character on the “Amos ‘n Andy” radio show. Long was a real populist and not a faux-populist like FDR.

  10. Wukchumni

    The Panic of 1893 was nearly as bad as the Great Depression, both Bryan & FDR utilizing gold as the route of all evil. Each epoch included raids from afar on all that glitters. Europeans in 1893 only wanted Au backed US financial instruments, whereas the US banksters of the era in 1933 caught a fat hog by buying up $20 gold coins that contained nearly an ounce in content @ face value, and then shipped them to Europe where they took advantage of the arbitrage of the new fixed rate of $35 per oz, making a tidy 70% profit in the bargain.

    The amount of $20 gold coins that got exported to Europe was shocking, all my business life, everybody in numismatics knew that’s where they came from, you could walk into a bank in Brussels or Zurich and inquire if they had any 1,000 piece lots and expect they would. You never saw anything like that in the USA, lemme tellya.

    So why was Bryan a two time loser, FDR a 4 time winner, and Bernie an also ran that never made it to the show?

    It was a no brainer for FDR to exit the gold standard, as pretty much only France was still on board (the worldwide Au standard dies in 1936), and the aforementioned fiat raids were the very essence of Gresham’s Law.

    Bernie was more of the ‘free money’ (rather than ‘free silver’ with Bryan) persuasion in his embrace of MMT, becoming a footnote in future books written in 2087, if not forgotten altogether by then.

    1. Grant

      “Bernie was more of the ‘free money’ (rather than ‘free silver’ with Bryan) persuasion in his embrace of MMT”

      He hired Kelton at one point, I didn’t see much MMT at all in his campaign. His discussion on single payer would have been radically different with MMT insights, and I think stronger too. He accepted the frame of debate being determined by budgetary constraints which don’t actually exist. MMT allows for us to do many things a commodity based currency would not, and I personally don’t see the logic of a commodity based currency in the world we live in. We should expand or contract the money supply and effective demand with resource consumption and pollution generation in mind. Environmental and ecological impacts should be major factors in economic planning. If we have any chance at all, we will do just that, and we will think critically about allowing private banks to create most of the money when their money creation doesn’t and can’t include non-market impacts in investment decisions, at least to the extent I think it is warranted. In my opinion, MMT does the best job of describing what is and what can be, if we free ourselves from pretending we still are on gold when it comes to state money creation. I wish Bernie included MMT in his campaign, but lets also not mistake what existed in the late 19th century with the late 21st century. They did not have an environmental crisis that is global in scale, and I don’t assume there will be a well functioning society in half a century unless things radically change. If Bernie is a footnote in history, it is more than anything a lost chance to change course when we desperately needed to. The notion though that money creation in half a century will in any way resemble, or should resemble, money creation in the late 19th century or early 20th century is off in my opinion.

      1. Wukchumni

        I expect around 7/8’s of us to not be here in the not too distant future, the situation that gets us there to be determined. Climate change was not an issue in 1900 when a little over a billion of us were scattered on this good orb, and the very industrialization you mentioned really only came about greatly because of all that fiat money floating around, as in no limits.

        There’s only so much Mother Nature Money out there for a reason, and it was perfectly in tune with the times back then and will once again fill an important role.

        I realize how difficult it is for many to look back at how things have gone in a financial vein, as unlimited fiat money was seemingly a good thing, but was it?

    2. Darthbobber

      Perhaps because the Democrats had been in control of government for the panic of 1893 and its aftermath. Even repudiating their own president and nominating Bryan couldn’t change that. And the response of the Cleveland administration to the Pullman strike, among others (an issue generally left out of Bryan’s stump speeches) hadn’t exactly bolstered their status among the working class.

      Also worth remembering that Bryan adopted ONLY bimetalism, of the Populists’ much further reaching agenda. The fusionists carried the day at the Populist convention, against those who wanted to maintain independence, who hoped, but failed, to persuade Debs to run.

      And whatever Bryan’s rhetoric on some issues, backing him was also backing the Bourbon Democrats of the south, an odd sort of tribunes of the people.

  11. Rod

    that Thomas Frank is a blessing to us all in America—helping us truly parse our own living history–a debt to him I cannot repay
    like many here, all this was in my ‘Formative Years’
    with the Draft/Decision looming for my future
    and “Populism” the talk of the supper table
    a foggy recollection burst into Technicolor reading of her visit to Wallaces Hospital bedside.
    that Shirley Chisholm was something special:

    “Unbought and Unbossed” the campaign Slogan.

    from an Interview with Rep.Barbara Lee (D-Ca)

    LEE: I said, “Miss C.” We called her Miss C. or Shirley. “How could you do that? I mean this man. First of all, he’s running against you. And secondly, he’s running for president. And thirdly, he’s a segregationist and he’s trying to maintain the status quo that you’re trying to change.” And once again, she shook her finger at me. She said, “Little girl,” she says, “C’mon now, you’re working with me in my campaign, helping me,” she said. “But sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something that he has not seen.” She said, “So you know you always have to be optimistic that people can change, and that you can change and that one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world,” she said. “So yes I know people are angry,” — it wasn’t just me. She says, “I know people are really angry,” she said, “but you have to rise to the occasion if you’re a leader, and you have to try to break through and you have to try and open and enlighten other people who may hate you.” And that’s what she taught me.—my bold

    1. John Siman

      John Siman here. Thank you so so much, Rod, for sharing Barbara Lee’s anecdote about Shirley Chisolm saying “that one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world.”

  12. Mikel

    A bit more on the Hollywood narratives:

    The implied message of Easy Rider mentioned is hammered home in another major way. Remember the Jack Nicolson character? The lawyer who was a wild child from a well-to-do family who joins Fonda and Hopper for a while? They pick him up after an overnight stay in jail for some kind of drunken bender. He would qualify as PMC more than the Fonda and Hopper characters (who’s trip was a drug deal after all). After a severe beating at a campsite, he is the first murder by the cinematic deplorables. It is after that beating, which the Hopper and Fonda escape, that they are killed.

    As for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – far from a happy ending if you really think about it. And it has often left me wondering what was really being said. They kill the attackers headed for the Sharon Stone house, but Charles Manson is still alive. How was justice served with that story in any way? The true evil power not dealt with in the story.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      No need to search too hard for the message of “Easy Rider.” It’s sitting in the middle of this dialogue between George (Nicholson) and Billy (Hopper):

      George: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.
      Billy: Huh. Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened, man. Hey, we can’t even get into like, uh, second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel. You dig? They think we’re gonna cut their throat or something, man. They’re scared, man.
      George: Oh, they’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
      Billy: Hey man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut.
      George: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.
      Billy: What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.
      George: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it – that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. ‘Course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
      Billy: Mmmm, well, that don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.
      George: No, it makes ’em dangerous. Nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik, nik – Swamp.

  13. Mikel

    A bit more on the Hollywood narratives:

    The Jack Nicholson character was the first murder by the cinematic deplorables (beat to death at a campsite). He may have been much more representive of the liberal PMC class at the time. He was a lawyer they befriended – a wild child of a well to do family that the Fonda and Hopper characters pick up after his stay in a jail for some kind od drunken bender.

    As for Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, it’s not really a happy ending. The true evil power Charles Manson is still alive and on the loose with that ending. What was REALLY being said? As a matter of fact if you knew nothing about the real story and thought it was somewhat representative of the situation then, one could walk away thinking Manson was just carried along by the followers.

  14. David J.

    This is a powerful book. I’m not quite finished with it yet, still a couple chapters to go. At first, I was a little disappointed with his recap of the People’s Party. He glosses over a few of the important political fights of that time, especially the free silver/hard money and protectionism/free trade issues, but as I got deeper into his presentation, I realized that even though there is more to be said about the complexity of the late Gilded Age, it isn’t central to his thesis. I finished this portion of his book thinking, “I need to review the process by which WJ Bryan transitioned from an outsider as a young politician into an establishment Secretary of State as an older politician.”

    It’s the latter part of his book which is really good, imo. His discussion of MLK, Jr. is downright inspiring and laden with insight. I’ll leave it at that as I suspect (at least I hope) that Siman’s discussion will take up this aspect of Franks’ book.

    If you do not have this on your reading list yet, I highly recommend that you find a place for it.

    1. John Siman

      John Siman here. David J. wrote: “[Frank’s] discussion of MLK, Jr. is downright inspiring and laden with insight. I’ll leave it at that as I suspect (at least I hope) that Siman’s discussion will take up this aspect of Franks’ book.” I say: Bingo! That’s where I’m going in the second essay.

  15. Alex Cox

    Regarding Easy Rider, it’s worth watching a second time (or a first, if one hasn’t seen it) because it’s easy to form or acquire misconceptions about the film. Who are its “heroes”? Two coke dealers, who, having visited Mardi Gras to get loaded, decide to head on to Florida and buy real estate there. They are murdered before their golden dream can become reality.

    The protagonists, in other words, are what Hunter S Thompson in his saner days called “superficial greed-heads.” Dennis Hopper (the film’s talented director) was a Republican who made a lot of money from the hippie thing and invested it in art and real estate.

    Terry Southern (who also wrote Dr Strangelove and The Magic Christian) was a very perceptive guy.

    1. Mikel

      Kind of what I was thinking. The one more representative of liberal PMC (for Frank’s purpose) was the Jack Nicholson character that they picked up who rode with them a few days before being murdered – Lawyer and from a wealthy family.
      And the ending was a murder to cover up the accident. The redneck with the gun says “let’s scare the hell out of them” and accidentally shoots Hopper then has to go back to kill the witness – Fonda.

  16. LifelongLib

    I haven’t read Frank’s book so none of this is directly in response to it.

    That said, I think we need a more nuanced discussion of “PMC” vs “Working Class”. Disclosure: I graduated from a state college and spent most of my employment life programming computers for a government agency. I suppose in some sense that made me a “knowledge worker” and a member of the “PMC”. But except for a brief temporary assignment I was never in a supervisor/management position. In terms of income I was closer to a carpenter or plumber than (say) a doctor or lawyer.

    Most of the “professionals” I know are in similar situations. So where does that leave us?

    1. flora

      “So where does that leave us?”

      My question: Did you identify with the unionized working class or did you identify with with the then PMC educated elite class?

      No, I don’t expect an answer. The question is significant, however. So many “college educated knowledge workers” were and are no more than the new working class in the new “IT factories”. They have been taught in college, however, taught to identify with their IT owners class even as there jobs are outsouced or they themselves are replaced by visa workers from overseas at lower wages.

      1. LifelongLib

        I suppose if I could live again in more-or-less this world, I’d choose to be a historian or journalist or maybe a scientist. I don’t consider those as superior occupations, just the ones that interest me. Besides, I’m afraid any attempt by me to be a carpenter or plumber would lead to fires and floods.

        In a better world, being a plumber wouldn’t preclude someone from reading poetry, and a poet could fix a leaky pipe. They’d be matters of personal interest and skill, not class or prestige.

        I don’t think you can decide economic class membership by who you identify with personally though. If you’re selling your labor (whether physical or mental) and you can be fired, you’re in one boat. If you can be comfortable without working and little short of a nuclear war could jeapordise that, you’re in a different one. I’m sure there are others but I’m starting to ramble…

      2. Oh

        I would say that anyone in upper of middle management who uses a nanny or other household help and/or uses someone to mow his lawn, run errands and cares little for the common laborer qualifies for the PMC.

  17. Michael

    Frank correctly gets the need for a new party centered on labor, but he dismisses having it be a socialist party. In wanting to (tortuously) support his pointth he completely misreads the prominent role of socialists and communists in the reforms of the 1930’s. His article includes his vision of a populist movement “unencumbered by un-American Socialist and Marxist baggage.” It may sell books, but it is bad history and will not deal with the fundamental need to overthrow capitalism.

    At some point he will have to reckon with the intrinsic nature of calitalism and Marxian analysis, otherwise we’ll end up with a reformist Social Democrat party, and we see how easily they are undermined.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I may be wrong, but I think the point was not that socialism was necessarily un-American and Frank disagreed with it, but that it was largely portrayed as such by the elites. So if a person with socialist leanings were to run a campaign, they may want to call themselves a Populist rather than a Socialist since the latter term had too much baggage. Had the Populists won, the term likely wouldn’t have the negative connotation it does today that Frank is fighting to overcome.

      Of course now ‘populist’ has the same baggage. I believe that’s why many people with socialist leanings 15-20 years ago started calling themselves ‘progressives’ instead, to differentiate themselves from the run of the mill Democrats. And when that became a popular thing to do, the likes of Hillary Clinton simply co-opted that term for themselves, rendering it essentially meaningless.

      So now what do real left-leaning pro-labor people call themselves? Can’t say that I’m all that familiar with their platform if they even have one, but I do like the name this group has chosen for themselves – the Not [family blog]ing Around Coalition.

      1. Darthbobber

        Well, if one must abandon any term that elites will attempt to give negative connotations to, One must be nameless, I suppose.

        Or avoid the actions that threaten elites, since it is those and not the word that they object to.

        I don’t think there is an end run available here.

  18. km

    For them, merit is always synonymous with orthodoxy: the best and the brightest are, in their [own] minds, always those who went to Harvard, who got the big foundation grant, whose books are featured on NPR” (Listen, Liberal, p. 39). These are the men and women who, for going on seven decades now, have formed the Professional Class, the Expert Class, the Liberal Class, the Creative Class, the Learning Class, the Opinion Class, and so on and so forth — they are, in short, the hipper, cooler (and now woker) half of the American Ruling Class. Bottom line: Not only are they way richer and more powerful than you, they are way better than you, both intellectually and morally. At least they see it that way.”

    This is also why expecting the Supreme Court to change anything is a mug’s game. For the average frustrated Supreme Court Justice is nothing more than an authority-pleasing front row kid’s ultimate front row kid.

  19. Annus Horribilis

    Thomas Frank and John Siman have the 19th century fin de siècle appetite for reform backwards. It was the new school of journalists exposing fraud and recklessness that activated Midwest politics, often at the behest paper-owning industrialists exposing their rivals. Populist politicians like Bryan only capitalized on that energy to reach office, or at the very least, a podium. Perhaps a marketable shallowness or a literary hysteron proteron device might explain Frank’s understanding of the psychological territory of the populist phenomenon. At least in the above article, no consideration is given toward the ad nauseum pattern of those with the most wealth, of the largest manor-born, having an almost exclusive role in shaping the appetites of the populists: the Roosevelt’s, the founding fathers, the Trump’s, Fox News, MSNBC, are no exceptions. Populism rears its head when the masses are most ripe for manipulation, not when the masses are the most amenable to change. To side with the mob takes no courage nor structure, whatsoever. Yielding to mundane rage is not an organizational strategy nor is it reform.

      1. flora

        Yep. The midwest’s appetite for reform of bilking railroad monopolies and self-enriching bankers and Wall St. grain/commodities speculators was there before the muckrakers started reporting on various financial and RR monopolies gouging of farmers and small businesses.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, this is so wrong I won’t dignify it with a serious response. Go read he Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn rather than making shit up.

  20. Mr.P

    Watched the entire YouTube interview (while making dinner).

    I wish Mr. Frank hadn’t said near the end, wish-thinking, that BLM has a real chance of morphing into a full-on Populist Movement in the U.S.

    That may be the dumbest blinders-on statement a Leftist has ever made.

    It didn’t invalidate Mr. Frank’s (always) excellent critique of neoliberal corporatist PMC Democrats — but come on.

    A riotously violent Muslim Brotherhood-backed org devoted to negro worship and the genocide of white Indo-Europeans has the makings of a populist movement?

    Let’s hope not.

      1. Mr.P

        The death toll from the seven-month-ongoing St. George “The Immaculate Fentanyl” Floyd riots is a notch above 30 innocents killed. Not to mention $100s of millions, maybe more, in property damage.

        But, sure, (1) private property to a Marxist *is* violence and (2) the riots have been most peaceful.

        “I detect ….”

        I detect someone not paying attention to facts on the ground.

        1. EoH

          Speaking of paying attention to the evidence, a cite for your body count and property damage number would help readers assess your claims. Fox News doesn’t count. The reporting in that cite might also tell us from what constituencies come the body count. The odds are they will be people of color.

          Your description of BLM as directed at the memory of a single individual rather than at longstanding systemic discrimination and violence does not bode well for your evidence. Nor does that you use the modified “N” word. And whatever “Marxist” you fear probably hasn’t been seen in America since the last passenger pigeon.

    1. v

      Thomas Frank comes off like an anti-Socialist Liberal with a capital l.

      Listen Liberals!?
      Listen to yourself, Tom!

  21. JerryDenim

    Fantastic. Loved every word.

    And this-

    “Perhaps Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns would not have been such bitter disappointments had he been able to proclaim himself a proud populist in the deeply patriotic tradition of Franklin Roosevelt — had he been able, that is, to toss all his creepy Socialism talk and all his spineless concessions to woke, New York Times-style racism and hallucinatory Russiagating onto the ash-heap of history.”

    Ouch! In all fairness though this wonderful encapsulation of Sanders’ failures is more accurately applied to his 2020 campaign. 2016 Sanders shocked Ezra Klein by rightfully, but very unwokely declaring the idea of ‘open borders’ to be a nefarious Koch Brother’s scheme. 2016 underdog Sanders wooed the working class and was a stronger candidate for it despite having very little in the way of name recognition or campaign infrastructure. 2020 front runner, cash-rich, juggernaut Sanders chose to ignore the unwashed heartland populists and instead woo the liberal Twitterati of under-30 DSA MFAs and Critical Race Theory PhD’s. The results speak for themselves. Playing along with the Russiagating just to be Russia-gated himself, again, as we all knew he would be, really made him look like a chump.

    1. John Siman

      John Siman here. Yes, JerryDenim, I still have a BERNIE 2016 bumpersticker on my car, but the woke adjacent Bernie of 2020 just broke my heart.

  22. ArvidMartensen

    What a revelation, an absolute breath of fresh air, to read Hopkins’s 2019 essay Bernie, The Magic Socialist, on his eminence Saint Bernard.
    The past 4 years has been a rerun of the Emperors New Clothes, where most left leaning pundits in the media, blogs, etc have marveled at the exquisiteness of Bernie’s garments.
    Any childish voice proclaiming that the emperor is not wearing any clothes has been banned, silenced, rebuked for their small-mindedness and unfairness.
    Will Bernie start running again next year if Trump is announced as the winner? On a platform of Medicare “Now is not the time” For All ?
    Thanks to John Siman for his essay on Frank and for including the link to Hopkins.

  23. Justin

    Oh Democracy, how you tremble and quake before rhetoric and sophistry!

    If the People truly wanted a populist moment, they would demand one. Our wonderful quasi-democracy has done nothing more than validate time and time again the “elites” and “aristocrats.” If only that is what they were! On the other hand, they seem to know people and their nature better than they know themselves.

    1. EoH

      On the other hand, the elites might have preferential access to Madison Avenue. If advertising can sell Frosted Flakes and Marcie Frost at a premium, it can sell governments and methods of social organization and control.

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