Populism for Social Democrats

One familiar with Thomas Frank’s work—notably his 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas?—might expect him to be circumspect about populist movements. His entire thesis in that book, after all, was that conservatives had tricked the common Kansan into voting against his own best interests. It would be reasonable to expect Frank to adopt the position, apocryphally credited to Winston Churchill, that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The people are bigoted rubes who do not know what is good for themselves, much less the whole country. 

Yet Frank’s new effort, The People, No, champions “popular sovereignty and democratic participation” as the cure for our political ills. Frank unabashedly celebrates “the populist impulse”: the belief that the working man is victimized by elites; that a majority of “the people,” rather than the law, is the most important source of political authority; and that political elites’ job is to do the majority’s bidding. ‘More democracy!’ is the clarion call for a better America.

How can Frank be so optimistic about “the people” despite his familiarity with their right-wing bigotry? His answer lies in the difference between political substance and political procedure. Right-wing anti-elitist speak-for-the-people-ism, you see, is not really populism at all. “The English language has a great many solid choices when someone wishes to describe mob psychology,” he writes. “‘Demagogue’ is an obvious one, but there are others – ‘nationalist,’ ‘nativist,’ ‘racist,’ or ‘fascist,’ to name a few.” Mob fervor, the basest form of political procedure, is not itself the problem, as long as it is in the service of substantively good ends.

Real populism, he argues, is substantively left-wing because it is procedurally democratic; it demands distribution of wealth and state interventionism because that is what a majority of the people want.

Put in historical terms, real populism forever belongs to the Populists, the late-19th century upstart political party advocating greater inflation and economic regulation. The Pops, as they were known, gave the term populism “its original meaning” and Frank mocks those who would “take this particular word back to its Latin root and…start all over again from there” as “inverting” the proper “historic meaning” of populism.

No True Populist, therefore, could endorse deregulation (though one is reminded of the kosher butcher arrested for violating New Deal regulations testifying that, “in my business, I am the expert,” a mantra of the common man if there ever was one) or support strongman rulers. How could it be otherwise, if the Populists “invented the term”?

This is a clever sleight-of-hand. The phenomenon we call populism predates the Populist Party and its tenets, which belong to neither the left nor the right, persist. Those who have warned against excesses of democracy—the “anti-populists” who are really the focus of Frank’s study, who indulge in what he calls “the Democracy Scare” —from the founding to President Lincoln to today, were right to be suspicious of politicians who would do whatever they felt “the people” demanded.

The need to control “the people” —to restrain the worst impulses of a democracy—is at the heart of our constitutional system, reflecting a healthy skepticism towards pure majoritarianism a century before the rise of the Populists. James Madison worried about populism when he fretted in Federalist 10 about “factions…united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Majorities of the people, banded together with some common interest, would trample minorities and the rule of law to get what they want.

In Federalist 51, Madison wrote that “a dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government,” but cautioned that the people could themselves become dangerous. He concluded that “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions” to “enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” With these concerns in mind the Framers fashioned institutions, such as the Senate and the Supreme Court, that would check the passions of the people within a democratic system.

Abraham Lincoln adopted an anti-populist stance well before the Populists organized politically when he rejected the centrality of popular sovereignty to the debate over slavery’s expansion. He was more explicit in his 1838 Lyceum Address, denouncing “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” When masses of people gather to enact their will by sheer majority and fail to submit to the mediating forces provided by law, they act as a “mob.” (Conversely, when the people are powerless before nine unelected judges, as Lincoln noted in response to the Dred Scott decision, democracy has ceased to be meaningful; a functioning constitutional republic balances the two.) Populism is what we call the removal of the constitutional filter that normally distills and refines popular sovereignty.  

The same fears—not of reform but of political right made only by majority might— animate today’s anti-populism. Frank misses this point because he refuses to call Trumpism a populist movement, dismissing the 2016 election as a cataclysm that “only happened thanks to the Electoral College, an anti-populist instrument from long ago.” While that is true in some sense—we don’t actually know how an election decided by popular vote would have gone—it also downplays the role of mediating institutions such as political parties in keeping rabble-rousers out.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ attempted hostile takeovers of both political parties, enabled by primary systems that empower “the people” rather than elites in smoke-filled rooms, were the manifestations of populism that so disturbed the anti-populists. Yet Frank ignores the role played by deference to the common man in elite-run institutions, as if populism could only rear its head in electoral politics. Had Republican gatekeepers defied the majority of their primary voters and acted in the best interests of the party—as they might have done in a less-democratic past—Trump would never have received the nomination. But such defiance is unthinkable in a populist age that prizes the will of the people above all.

Then, on January 6, a mob seized with conspiratorial fervor descended on the Capitol to take back the people’s house from the elites they believed had rigged the election. The President, an outsider who throughout his presidency insisted on speaking as one, egged them on with reckless disregard for constitutional norms. Frank would contend that this is an entirely different phenomenon—he would probably call it “fascist”—but that only frames fascism as populism taken to its logical conclusion. Regular people, feeling wronged by elites and eager for drastic mass action, spurned the rule of law and the Constitution, insisting that they alone were the legitimate source of political power. 

As if to hammer home all of populism’s problems, Republicans in Congress were cowed by their constituents into letting President Trump off the hook for his role in stoking the riot. Had the impeachment vote been anonymous, most Republican representatives would have kicked Trump to the curb. But fear of reproach at the hands of “the people” —like that suffered by vocal Trump critic Rep. Liz Cheney—kept nearly all of them from voting their conscience. Accountability to democratic majorities has a dark side: its propensity to denude those who should know better of their good judgment, and their fidelity to the Constitution and principles of republican government.

Frank might counter that any good thing taken too far (or in service of the wrong ideals) can become a problem. Good people, often with legitimate concerns, can be prone to mob mentality, but there is nothing inherent in populism that leads inexorably to such a result.

A movement such as populism, which claims there is such an entity as “the people” without perfect unanimity, transforms majorities into totalities.

Populism’s defenders would be wrong to make such a case. Locating political authority in the great masses of the people and positioning their interests in contrast to those of elites naturally encourages conspiracy theories and violence. Only a thin line separates blaming the people’s woes on elites—whose machinations are intentionally made inconspicuous—from elaborate theories about who really controls the banks, the media, and the government. “Adversarian” politics, which pits the righteous masses against self-serving elites clinging to power and privilege, lends itself naturally to ends-justify-the-means violence, or to using strength in numbers to take back the reins of power in the name of the people. 

“The people,” as anti-populists understand well, are not always so virtuous. Majoritarian rule justified in the name of “the people” often tyrannizes minority groups who rely on the rule of law for protection from democratically-enacted injustices. Consider former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who Frank argues is No True Populist (because he was a “demagogue,” and “no rebel”) but whose rhetoric perfectly encapsulates what’s the matter with populism.

Not in the name of the Constitution, nor the rule of law, nor the dictates of conscience did Wallace insist on “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in his 1963 Inaugural Address but “in the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth.” He would frequently ground his positions in a “covenant with the people” to be their delegate, contrasting his political philosophy to elites who have their “little think tanks” and “who write in magazines.”

Frank adores the rhetorical populism of FDR, who “was one with the people” and “talked constantly about the urgent need to take power away from economic elites and return it to the average American” but refuses to see Wallace in the same light. (Never mind that FDR’s economic “reforms” were largely corporatist, bringing big business into bed with the government for price-fixing schemes and anti-competitive “industrial recovery” measures.) Why are FDR’s words populism at its best but Wallace’s rhetoric not populism at all? One possibility is that, just as Frank suffers a blind spot for mediating institutions, he is crippled by the all-too-common impulse to think of politics only on a national scale. The other is that he has gerrymandered the meaning of populism around historical figures of whom he approves.

The truth is that Wallace, as much as any other politician, was an adherent of the mantra allegedly coined by William Jennings Bryan, Frank’s paradigmatic Populist: “The people of Nebraska are for free silver. Therefore, I am for free silver. I will look up the reasons later.” (On his deathbed in 1991 Wallace laid his segregationism at the feet of Alabamians, arguing he “had to stand up for segregation or be defeated” before pivoting to attack Ronald Reagan’s tax policy for “crippling…the poor and middle classes.”)

Combine pure majoritarianism with the conceit that some self-interested minority of elites is out to get the common man, and it is easy to fashion an argument that the people of Alabama should stand firm in tyrannizing a minority. “The people” are sovereign, and by electing Wallace governor they have spoken against the outside forces who would undermine them.

A majority, indeed, speaks with one voice. Anti-populists have picked up on this feature and criticized populism for being “anti-pluralist.” That is, it treats “the people” as an “it” —usually personified in a single executive such as Wallace or Roosevelt—rather than a “they,” with dissidents whose rights matter even if they are a minority.

Frank’s response to this critique displays that he does not quite grasp his interlocutors’ concerns. He mischaracterizes pluralism as the value of welcoming people of various races and genders into the fold and then argues that populism is not “racist or sexist or discriminatory.”

What Frank has described is called “diversity.” Pluralism means living in peace among those who abide by customs, norms, and values unlike your own. It means not imposing one-size-fits-all laws and norms among a diverse population. Pluralism requires, for instance, cognizance that kosher butchers have religious requirements that should not be trampled by national “industrial recovery” policy that a populist President like FDR thinks is good for “the people.” It demands sensitivity towards the ways in which a majority cannot be allowed to speak with one voice.

A movement such as populism, which claims there is such an entity as “the people” without perfect unanimity, transforms majorities into totalities. 49.9% of Alabamians could have detested segregation–many of whom, of course, suffered its indignities–but so long as 50%-plus-one vote for Wallace, the dictates of populism require him to speak for “the people” and oppress the minority on behalf of the majority. It is necessarily exclusive. That is why anti-pluralism is endemic to populism.

Populism is, at its heart, a theory of political legitimacy that marries pure majoritarianism to pure delegate-theory of representation. That does add up to rule by “the people.” But such a mode of politics is not what our Constitution prescribes, and with good reason. Americans owe a debt of gratitude to those Federalists who ensured that we “enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Frank’s populism would prefer that it do neither.