- American politics deserves a new populism, rightly understood, that builds on the best of the American populist tradition and emerges from the challenges and possibilities of America’s diverse working class. Tweet This
- Instead of seeing populism as a danger to the American experiment, we should recover the best of the American populist tradition and look for ways to include more citizens in building our communities and the political process. Tweet This
- Should we really assume that populist movements driven by working-class people are a threat to the future of American democracy? Tweet This
Populism endangers the future of American democracy, warn many writers and experts today. The primary people driving the current populism, goes the analysis, are White, working-class Americans said to be driven by economic anxiety and worries about being replaced by immigrants and racial minorities.
But what is populism? And should we really assume that populist movements driven by working-class people are a threat to the future of American democracy?
Two recent histories of populism, one by a noted progressive and one by a historian of American conservatism, challenge the conventional narrative of populism.
In his 2020 history of populism in America, In Defense of Populism: Protest and American Democracy, historian Donald Critchlow seeks to rehabilitate populism by recalling both forgotten grassroots movements like the Townsend Movement and recognized movements like the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism.
One of the most fascinating sections is about the Townsend Movement, a movement I had never heard of before. But in the early 1930s, before the New Deal, Critchlow writes how a sixty-something failed entrepreneur, poor public speaker, and unemployed physician from Long Beach, California, struck upon a simple but radical idea: $200 per month for every person over age 60. Francis Townsend invented the idea after he himself became unemployed during the Great Depression. After publishing a letter to the editor about the idea, within only two years “the Townsend movement” had more than 2 million members, almost one-fifth of Americans over the age of 60. By 1936, the movement had an estimated 8,000 Townsend Clubs.
“The size of the organization was larger than any civil rights or women’s movement in the twentieth century,” notes Critchlow.
Townsend members bombarded Members of Congress with petitions, and under pressure from the Townsend movement, the Roosevelt Administration proposed Social Security. Though the Townsend movement denounced Social Security as less than adequate to meet the needs of the elderly, recounts Critchlow, it was one of the movements that “gave impetus to New Deal legislation” like Social Security. And it all started as an idea from an ordinary guy in Long Beach City, CA, and through the energy of the mass movement he inspired.
It’s a story that has been oft repeated in American history, contends Critchlow: first grassroots protest, then reform and institutionalization of the grassroots energy. The “populism” that Critchlow defends in his history are these grassroots movements that arise and the democratic spirit those movements replenish in American democracy. “For the purposes of this book,” he writes, “populism is presented as grassroots activism expressed in social movements against established elites and a call for citizens to be given a larger voice in politics.”
Critchlow writes as an historian who has covered American grassroots conservatism extensively—his prior works include a sympathetic biography of Phyllis Schlafly and the grassroots movement she helped to lead.
But Critchlow’s definition of populism is in basic alignment with the progressive author and historian Thomas Frank’s definition in The People, No! A Brief History of Anti-Populism.
Frank gets his definition from American history: specifically, from May 1891 on a train home to Kansas from Cincinnati, Ohio, where a group of Kansans had just helped to launch the People’s Party. They were mainly farmers with a set of economic demands. And on that ride home, they invented a punchy word to describe their adherents: populists, derived from the Latin word populus, meaning “people.” Frank quotes the word’s first appearance in a radical, small-town Kansas newspaper soon after that historic train ride. Describing the Cincinnati convention, the paper wrote.
There must be some and short easy way of designating a member of the third party. To say, ‘he is a member of the People’s party’ would take too much time. Henceforth a follower and affiliator of the People’s Party is a ‘Populist’; for a new party needs and deserves a new term.
Those farmers, Frank argues, understood themselves as part of “a movement in which ordinary citizens demanded economic reforms.” And that’s what populism meant to the people who founded the term. Moreover, Frank explains, they resisted getting pulled into contemporary culture wars about prohibition, for example, in order to keep the focus on economic demands. But their early critics—whom Frank labels “anti-populists”—blasted populists as resentful, racist, uncouth, and ignorant—charges against populism that have always followed populists down to the present day, as Frank details.
But while examples of bigotry exist within early populism, Frank argues that they were typically tolerant, and offers examples and quotes from early Populist leaders to prove his point. For Frank, there exists a more or less pure and original populism characterized by tolerance and openness. Moreover, he asserts that populism is a progressive phenomenon that cannot legitimately be taken up by the Right.
This strikes me as too convenient: take what you like and call it populism, take what you don’t like and blast it as obviously the opposite.
But I accept the basic points of both Frank and Critchlow, who both recover the actual history of populism and remember it as the democratically powerful force it has been in American life.
Indeed, American politics deserves a new populism, rightly understood, that builds on the best of the American populist tradition and that emerges from the challenges and possibilities of America’s diverse working class. To achieve mass scale, this new populism would do well to take its priorities from a working-class coalition that reflects America—Black, Brown, and White, conservative, progressive, and independent.
The possibilities for what a multiracial, bipartisan working-class coalition could address are many. Here is one possible three-part agenda: supporting families and marriages, strengthening worker rights, and making policy creation and politics more accessible to ordinary citizens.
Supporting families and marriages could mean guaranteed paid parental leave and child allowances. Bolstering worker rights could mean union reform and expansion and increasing the minimum wage. Reforming policymaking and politics so that it’s more accessible to ordinary citizens could mean citizen-run town halls in every district and reducing the influence of money in politics.
If we had more and better ways for the ideas of ordinary citizens to come forward, who knows what ideas could emerge and lead to reform, a la the Townsend Movement helping to lead to Social Security? Instead of seeing populism as a danger to the American experiment, we should recover the best of the American populist tradition and look for ways to include many more citizens, not fewer, in building our communities and the political process.
David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.