Thomas Frank’s Essential Insight – True Populism Is Transracial: An Interview + Review of The People, No! A Brief History of Anti-Populism

This is the second of two essays, but, before we begin to consider Thomas Frank’s new book, I want to exhort you to support Naked Capitalism. To support it because it’s a rare reliable source of truth in a very dark time in history, a time in which truth is surrounded, is suffocated, really, by a disloyal bodyguard of propaganda, theory, narrative, lies, damn lies, and bullshit. You can fight the lies and donate here.

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And as I read it again and again I found myself beginning to look to Naked Capitalism for more pieces like it, for more brilliant insight. For more truth. And there was truth to be found. Coffee and Naked Capitalism became my two main morning priorities, though not necessarily in that order. And soon enough, as a Concerned Citizen in a Small Town, I felt compelled to do my Patriotic Duty and Volunteer to serve, somehow, some way, in this Noble Endeavor.

So I bought a bus ticket to New York City, where, as I had read, I could find Yves and Michael Hudson in an Irish pub somewhere in the East Village. And there they were, glad to meet me! Yves had wonderful tales of Harvard and Goldman, and Michael told me how, when he was an infant in Mexico City in 1939, his aunt was tricked into supplying the murder weapon (an ice axe) to the assassin Stalin had sent for Trotsky. Now this was fun!

But what could I do to help such illustrious personages? I told Yves that Chris Hedges and Thomas Frank, two of America’s most important and coolest authors, had new books coming out — this was in 2018 — and that I’d be glad to track them down and review their books and interview them. Have at it! she told me. And so I did and so I continue to do.

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And now, two years later, here again is Thomas Frank, who, once again, has published a book full of revelatory insight into why we Americans must rediscover the lost promise of democracy. 

By John Siman, a classicist

In his new history of anti-populism, Thomas Frank’s most stunning insight is this: In the 1890s, in the states of the Old Confederacy, the threat of “a political union” between poor black Republicans and poor white Populists so panicked the ruling post-Reconstruction Bourbon Democrats that their official, narcotizing lie ofwhite solidarity  was weaponized into the inhumanly degrading dogma of white supremacy.

“The South in the 1890s,” Frank writes, “was filled with poor farmers both white and black, and keeping these two groups at each other’s throats was virtually the entire point of the region’s traditional politics” (p. 42). Hence the usefulness of the lie of white solidarity: For a generation or more after the Civil War poor whites were propagandized to believe that their true interests lay with those of their wealthy Lost Cause betters. But the advent of the Populist movement shattered this lie. “In 1892,” Frank continues, “the Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia declared in a national magazine that ‘the People’s Party will settle the race question’ by addressing the common economic interests [italics mine] of black and white farmers” (p. 43).

Frank proceeds to quote Watson: “‘You are kept apart,’” with remarkable eloquence did Watson address the poor farmers of the South, “‘that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both’” (p. 43).

And poor whites and poor blacks, as Populist leaders like Watson exhorted them, did indeed begin to make viable political alliances — to the horror of the Bourbon Democrats.

This is all very exciting to learn, but Frank cautioned me not to get too excited. “Its important to understand that the Populists were not racial liberals by modern standards,” he told me. “Even though the Farmers’ Alliance had a black wing, the two units were formally segregated. Their leaders often said blacks and whites should come together politically, but not necessarily in other ways.”

That qualification having been duly noted, it is still amazing to read of the explosion of progressive energy unleashed during those few years in the early 1890s when blacks and whites could and did come together politically, and, in turn, of the viciousness of the Bourbon suppression of it. Frank was particularly enthusiastic when he told me to read W.E.B. Du Bois’s summary of Tom Watson’s career (in Du Bois’s 1924 essay on the state of Georgia in the anthology These United States: “Suppose a man of the people, that is, of the white people,” Du Bois wrote, “arose in Georgia and said, ‘We are being exploited, tremendously and shamelessly…. It is worth while to arouse the workers and get them to vote in better industrial conditions.’ What would happen?”

Du Bois proceeds to answer his own question: “There was once such a man in Georgia, Tom Watson. He tried to unite labor. He organized the Populist Party in Georgia and invited the blacks to help. It was a critical situation that developed in the early nineties when it was increasingly difficult to keep the Negro disenfranchised illegally and yet not possible to disenfranchise him legally…. [T]he captains of industry mobilized…. Internal dissension in the labor ranks followed…. The whole movement swung into intense Negro hatred; and the net result was that the white labor vote was swung into a movement to finally and completely disenfranchise the Negro labor. The mob shot down Watson’s Negro leaders in their tracks…” (Du Bois, “Georgia,” pp. 339-340).

And Frank’s own account of the dramatic success of the Populist + Republican Fusionist coalition in North Carolina provides for us an especially vivid encapsulation of both the potential political power of such transracial coalitions — and the barbaric violence of the white supremacist response.

For in North Carolina the new Populist Party, “… in ‘fusion’ with the local Republican Party,” Frank explains, “actually captured the government in 1894 and ‘96 and then made reforms that allowed blacks to sometimes gain political power in places where they were in the majority” (pp. 79-80). Interestingly, in the 1896 presidential election, the (non-Bourbon) Democratic + Populist Fusionist candidate William Jennings Bryan won North Carolina’s eleven electoral votes, which were also, quite remarkably, split between his two running mates: the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Arthur Sewall of Maine, won six of North Carolina’s electoral votes, while the eloquent Georgian Watson, as the Populist vice-presidential candidate, won the other five. Such Populist and Fusionist shows of strength constituted a Democracy Scare(to use Frank’s term) to end all Democracy Scares, and the ensuing blowback was savage, even murderous.

And so in 1898, as Frank writes, the Bourbon Democrats mounted a “white supremacy campaign” of “… anti-black hysteria to defeat forever their political rivals. The supremacist leaders played in particular upon the nightmarish threat black empowerment supposedly posed to white women” (p. 80). Frank continues: “Amply funded by the state’s business class[italics mine], they issued an amazing assortment of racist cartoons, newspapers, and pamphlets…. Then they used paramilitary gangs of so-called redshirts to intimidate Populist and Republican voters” (p. 80).

The bloody culmination of this white supremacist campaign occurred in Wilmington, at that time the largest city in North Carolina, on Thursday, November 10, two days after the 1898 election. A tightly-organized gang of Bourbon Democrats, calling themselves the “White Man’s Party,” led a mob of about 2,000 vigilantes through the black neighborhoods of Wilmington, where they destroyed black businesses and attacked black citizens with the expressed intent of killing “every damn n – – – – r in sight.” At least sixty were murdered, perhaps many more. The massacre then became an actual coup d’état: The leaders of the mob forced, at gunpoint, Wilmington’s Fusionist-Republican mayor to resign, as well as the police chief and the board of aldermen. The mob then installed a new, unelected, white-supremacist government.

Both the violence and the coup in Wilmington were lauded throughout North Carolina — and throughout the South. The resurgent Bourbon Democrats proceeded to — unconstitutionally — disenfranchise black voters (and to a lesser extent their poor white potential allies), and by 1904 black men had been entirely eliminated from the voting rolls in North Carolina. “A similar mania for disenfranchisement,” Frank continues, “swept other southern states at about the same time — a movement that historians have attributed, in part, to elite fears aroused by the Populist threat to white solidarity” (pp. 81-82).

I do not want to oversimplify Frank’s case by saying that the Populist Party was the direct cause of the Democracy Scare that was in turn the direct cause of the white supremacy campaign; indeed Frank explained to me that   “[in] some states disenfranchisement happened before Populism, in some as a direct response to Populism, and in others as a delayed response to Populism.” Nevertheless, we can fairly observe, I think, that, throughout the Old Confederacy, the demolition of the transracial Populist movement ca. 1898 segues into a seven-decades-long nightmare of American apartheid and one-party rule. Here originated the utter disenfranchisement of all black citizens in the South; here originated the Jim Crow laws which enforced their brutal segregation, their universal ostracism and constant degradation.

And as if all this were not tragic enough, Frank tops it off with asickeningand demoralizing detail. Quoting the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999), who had written his 1937 University of North Carolina doctoral dissertation on Tom Watson, Frank describes how, after white supremacy had conquered the South, Watson reinvented himself as a vicious racist, an enthusiastic advocate of flogging and lynching, whose “‘… tirades against his onetime allies of the Negro race … were matchless in their malevolence’” (p. 45).

Reading Woodward’s dissertation eight decades later, one would more likely describe Watson’s “malevolence” as not merely “matchless,” but as dumbfounding, as truly incomprehensible to our current sensibilities. Woodward quotes Watson thus: “‘Negroes,’ [Watson] observed, ‘simply have no comprehension of virtue, honesty, truth, gratitude and principle.’ ‘In the South we have to lynch him [the Negro] occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.’ [Watson] defended lynching both in principle and in specific instances…. [Watson] wrote, “Lynch law is a good sign: it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people.’ As for himself, he would no more hesitate to lynch a Negro rapist than to shoot a mad dog” (C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, p. 374).

Has there been a betrayal more vile since the time of Judas? “A friend betrayed,” Woodward concluded, “is the enemy most despised” (p. 374).

Yet here Frank exhorted me not to stop at Woodward but to reread the stunningly beautiful concluding paragraph of Du Bois’s essay on Tom Watson’s Georgia — and I feel obliged now to quote in full: “I am in the hot, crowded, and dirty Jim Crow car,” Du Bois writes, “where I belong. A black woman with endless babies is faring forth from Georgia, North. Two of the babies are sitting on parts of me. I am not comfortable. Then I look out the window and somehow it seems to me that here in the Jim Crow car and there in the mountain cabin lies the future of Georgia — in the intelligence and union of these laborers, white and black, on this soil wet with their blood and tears. They hate and despise each other today. They lynch and murder body and soul. They are separated by the width of a world. And yet — and yet, stranger things have happened under the sun than understanding between those who are born blind” (Du Bois, “Georgia,” p. 345).

Perhaps Du Bois had in mind Watson’s words: “You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both [you poor white laborers and you poor black laborers].”

                                                  *          *          *

Woodward’s youthful study of the tragedy of Tom Watson provided the foundation for his most important book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which he published in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court had unanimously decided in Brown v. Board of Educationthat segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Woodward’s book appeared, that is, at the beginning of the formal national legal assault on the unconstitutional edifice which had been built upon white supremacy. Woodward’s essential insight in the book was this: The universal Southern policy of disenfranchisement and brutal segregation — of American apartheid — was notput into place decisively until the early years of the twentieth century.

In other words, since segregation was an evil done in the recent past, one could envision its undoing in the near future. Segregation had to be understood as an ugly, freakish but temporary anomaly, not an enduring expression of our deeper human nature. Woodward’s insight here was so great that Martin Luther King called TheStrange Career of Jim Crow “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” Racism, argued Woodward, the biographer of Tom Watson, was an historical aberration that had to be opposed and corrected, not an undying, ineradicable demon in the souls of white people!

So now let us reconsider Frank’s essential insight in the context of Woodward’s. Both Woodward and Frank place the origins of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the years following the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. For both of them, I think, make it clear that, as the Populists began to advance their program of class solidarity (which was of necessity transracial, as Frank repeatedly emphasizes), the Bourbon Democrats,recognizing only too well the existential threat that Populist-inspired class solidarity posed to them, crushed it with their campaign of white supremacy and then kept it down with their Jim Crow segregation laws. Laws which, however brutal, could be undone. Betrayals which, however Judas-like, could be forgiven.

Woodward’s great insight enabled Martin Luther King to articulate with great clarity the feasibility of ending the Jim Crow segregationist regime. Frank’s great insight enables any or all of us to hear, as with new ears, the transracial, that is, the populist, source of King’s liberating words.

Thus Frank quotes, at great length and to great effect, from Kings “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March” of March 25, 1965. These are, I think, the most revelatory pages in his book, for in them all of Frank’s analysis comes together, and one can therefore hear King’s words with a fresh understanding of their historical context: “‘The leaders of [the Populist] movement,’” King said in Montgomery, “‘began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South….’”

Hence the Bourbon Democrats’ campaign of white supremacy.

King: “‘Then they directed the placement on the books of the South laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together at any level. And that did it. They crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist movement of the nineteenth century….’”

And thus arose the nightmarish regime of segregation.

King: “‘They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and the segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society [italics mine]: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality’” (pp. 169-171).

Frank makes clear that the populist exhortation implicit in King’s words is as compelling in 2020 as it was in 1965 — and as it was in 1895. It is for us to do now what they were prevented from doing then: It is for us to unite and build a great society of justice and plenty and brotherhood.

This populist exhortation to join together for a greater good represents, I believe, the very finest hopes of the American people. Frank told me that he believes “that populism must be transracial— and every true populist and labor leader knows it — but historically speaking that has turned out to be difficult to achieve.” It is the great virtue of Frank’s book to provide the historical context to make this so evident.

Thomas Frank recommending more reading.

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  1. Heraclitus

    I find Thomas Frank’s presentation of late 19th/early 20th Century southern politics somewhat reductionist. In my home state of SC, the Bourbon, or conservative Democrats, were not in power in the early 1890s: the Reform Democrats were. The Bourbon Democrats had a plan to seek black votes and regain control of the statehouse, but the Reform Democrats beat them to the punch and called a constitutional convention, which they used to weaken the power of the governor (lest a black man ever be elected) and disenfranchise black voters through various means.

    Who were the Reform Democrats? They drew their members from the class of poor whites who had drifted out of the mountains after the Civil War to work as sharecroppers. By 1875, when US cotton production finally regained its pre-War heights, these white farmers, mostly sharecroppers, were producing 44% of that cotton on marginal lands. The Civil War was a boon for them, if they survived it. It allowed them to regain access to the economy. They were skeptical of labor competition from blacks. I doubt things were as rosy between the impoverished of both races as Frank paints it, and I wonder what he got wrong in other states.

    I generally like his books. However, his inaccuracy on this topic makes me question his assertions on other topics.

    1. Carolinian

      I agree that one shouldn’t get too carried away with the idea that the poor whites were consciously manipulated into all lynchings and other terrible things. Perhaps it’s closer to say that poverty itself provoked them to see the blacks as enemies and competitors to be dehumanized. But that’s still a systemic explanation that King understood and current race relations theories seem determined to reject. The poor are not angels simply due to their victimhood and are capable of villainy just like anyone else. But at the systemic level all of the above is surely valid. The class war continues and the upper classes are once again using race to divide and conquer the rest of us. Ironically this now seems to be working better in the North than in the South. Not many sharecroppers left in my corner of SC.

    2. KLG

      Well, one might also say South Carolina was largely a thing unto itself then. And now. Historical generalization is just that. But the history of Tom Watson of Georgia, told by WEB Du Bios and C. Vann Woodward has great explanatory power. And as told by his grandson, whom I met once in Thomson, Georgia, who really did not want to get into the later Tom Watson of his abject racist/Leo Frank phase. And yes, The Strange Career of Jim Crow probably is Woodward’s most important book. Short and to the point about a most important part of our history that is not generally understood.

      1. HotFlash

        And as told by his grandson

        Please ma’am, or sir (as the case may be), whose grandson, and do you have a link? Is there a book/essay/whatever?

        1. KLG

          Sorry. Tom Watson’s grandson, in personal conversation one afternoon in the mid-1980s. No link. Locals in his hometown soft pedal the later Tom Watson, for good reason. But having grown up hearing the tales, their understandable amnesia came late. The best book I know of on Watson as a populist before his fall, is Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel by C. Vann Woodward (1938). I have the 1973 edition published by Beehive Press of Savannah. Woodward addressed how historians of the 1950’s, Hofstadter being a prime culprit, in The Burden of Southern History, a collection of essays.

          The current local vision:

          A medical student of mine received a renewable $5000 scholarship from the Watson-Brown Foundation to attend college as a first-generation college student. That, along with a HOPE Scholarship allowed her to start medical school essentially debt free. They give $2.4M per year to students from the area surrounding Thomson, Georgia (~25 miles west of Augusta).

          1. KLG

            Edit: “Woodward addressed how historians of the 1950’s, Hofstadter being a prime culprit, willfully misunderstood Populism in The Burden of Southern History…” This is a big part of Thomas Frank’s book.

  2. The Heretic

    If someone could provide a quick summary of why did Tom Watson turn from populist to rascist, that would be greatly appreciated. It is puzzling and astonishing to see a man speak so lucidly about the effects of rich in both the poor whites and poor blacks, build an alliance, then to attack his black allies so viscously latter. Was Mr. Watson or his friends and family threatened or bribed by the Bourbon Democrats? Did some former black supporters threaten or harm him or his family?

    1. KLG

      Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, C. Vann Woodward: Chapter 19, From Populism to Muckraking and Chapter 20, Reform and Reaction:

      “As he campaigned the South in the forlorn (Populist) crusade of 1904, Watson was confronted in state after state with a revival of the Democratic dialectic of the ‘nineties. It varied not at all. An editor in Houston, Texas, saw behind Populism ‘the ominous shadow of negro domination, and an editor in Augusta, Georgia, saw the same apparition and described it in exactly the same words…(Watson) was not at all afraid of any negro domination in the South…(believing) that the cry that we are in such danger…is the most hypocritical that unscrupulous leadership could invent.”

      But this only sounds good? I haven’t read the book in over 30 years, but Watson was proposing at the same the de jure disenfranchisement of black voters in Georgia, to go along with most, or all, other Southern states at the time, Georgia having been late to that particular party. Watson later rejoined the Democratic Party. He dominated Georgia politics for 25 years, but his statue was removed from the grounds of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta in 2013, for good and sufficient reason (Leo Frank, for example). I have no idea where it is now.

      It seems to me that Watson took the route George Wallace took after his first, bitter defeat in Alabama 50 years later? But I’ll leave that for the experts. Wallace had been an unusual judge in Alabama (wiki) and was a populist of sorts in that first campaign, but he vowed to never be “out-n——-” again after he lost. And he wasn’t. He did ask for forgiveness before he died, however. Some believe he was sincere.

  3. John emerson

    A key point about the 1898 Wilmington Massacre is that even though the action hurt the biracial NC Republicans as well as the Populists, the national Republicans stayed hands off. They feared the Populists as much as the Bourbon Democrats did and were willing to give up the entire South.

  4. John emerson

    “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of SC is often thought of as a Populist, it he led one of the armed mobs that destroyed the NC Populists. But he was a demagogue and intense bigot with a country image who talked rough and folksy. so the Populists are often blamed for him.

    He is probably one of the Reform Democrats Heraclitus mentioned, though I didn’t know that.

    1. Big Tap

      It worse than you think. Booker T Washington asked for federal help to end the slaughter by president McKinley. He did nothing. So much for Republicans being the great emancipators. Jim Crow may have been administered by the Democrats but not stopped by the Republicans. Remember that most of the time the Republicans controlled the presidency in that era and the Supreme Court judges they selected.

  5. HotFlash

    This is an era of racial/US history that I know nearly nothing about. Well, actually nothing that I didn’t read here at NC. My (cursory) history courses portrayed all as an accelerating line to perfection!!! I have reserved Tom Frank’s book at my public library but it is in high demand — haven’t gotten my turn at it yet. Anyone give me more sources I should read?

    And. FWIW (or, more importantly for me), does anyone have any sources I should read about *real* Canadian history? We may be kinder, gentler, but we also are blinder, dumber, IMHO.

  6. Swamp Yankee

    My doctoral dissertation advisor, J. Mills Thornton, is one of Van Woodward’s students. I’d highly recommend his book — Thornton, _Power_and_Politics_in_a_Slave_Society: Alabama, 1800-1860._ It is generally regarded as the best book on antebellum politics in Alabama (Yves may find it of local interest, too!). Thornton lives in Montgomery, and also wrote a book on municipal civil rights in Selma.

    For Canadian history, these titles come to mind: 1. Gerhard J. Ens, _From Homeland to Hinterland_: The Changing World of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century. Ens looks at the creation of a unique Native-Franco-Scottish peasant society in what would become modern Manitoba — a very fine work.

    2. Alan Taylor, _The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderlands of the American Revolution._ Taylor builds off the work of

    3. Richard White, whose history of the fur trade — _The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes: 1650-1815_ is a classic and highly innovative piece of scholarship. White also served as one of my dissertation committee member’s doctoral advisor, so yes, I am partial, but it is marvelous.

    4. Gilles Havard, _The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701_, a useful and eye-opening look at Franco-Native diplomacy and the end of the great Iroquois vs. Franco-Algonquian Beaver Wars of the 17th century.

    Hope these are helpful!

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