Friday 17 July 2020

Populism became a derogatory term completely by mistake

Thomas Frank sounds an exceptionally interesting and fun person. He talked on a Spectator podcast about his new book “The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism”, which contains these lines.

“From the very beginning . . . populism had two meanings. There was Populism as its proponents understood it, meaning a movement in which ordinary citizens demanded democratic economic reforms. And there was populism as its enemies characterized it: a dangerous movement of groundless resentment in which demagogues led the disreputable.”

He blames Richard Hofstadter for making populism a by-word for demagoguery and racism in his influential book “The Age of Reform” (1955), which praised paternalist managers running the world while depicting the originally populists, the very radical American farmers' party of the 1890s called the People’s Party, as low-IQ racists and proto-fascists. Does this sound familiar?

Hofstadter's ideas helped consolidate what Paul Gottfried calls the managerial state. Dr. Frank summarises Hofstadter's view as
“When reform came from the bottom up, in other words, it was moralistic, demagogic, irrational, bigoted, and futile. When reform was made by practical, business-minded professionals — meaning lobbyists and experts who were comfortable in the company of lobbyists and experts from other groups — prosperity was the result.”
Hofstadter was not a serious historian, his book was all wrong and his book was ripped to pieces by real historians, but though the book sank the word populist remained a derogatory term. 

As Thomas Frank says, the bad name that populists have is all a mistake.

Dr Frank was a Republican who gave up on the party in the time of George W Bush (as did many of us) and  said amusingly (but it's sad, really) that when the Democrats gave up on the white working class they told themselves it was because the working classes had gone bad. 

He now sounds like an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, who ran three times for the presidency for the Democrats and the fledgling Populist party that also supported him. He was disliked by the media, big business and academia as Donald Trump is today. 

This is not Dr Frank's analogy - he dislikes Donald Trump and thinks Steve Bannon interesting but lacks substance. He thinks Trump cannot win because of his handling of the pandemic and the economic situation.

He could be right though I still feel BLM will frighten many voters away from the Democrats. And by November voters might be grateful to President Trump for having urged people to go back to work. But what do I know, typing clumsily in a room in Bucharest?

Dr Frank has called President Trump "the worst politician ever", which is true in an obvious sense but untrue in other ways. He was quoted in 2018 as saying

“All over the world left parties forgot why they existed and became parties of the professional class and the innovation economy. They lost their reason for being, and they got whooped, and all around the world you have these quasi-fascist movements springing up, which is quite alarming.”

The left has lost its belief in the working class, which had proved itself since Marx's day to be essentially conservative, but fascism is dead - as Douglas Murray said, the demand for fascists by the left far exceeds the supply.


  1. The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents.

    Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, just out with Bloomsbury

    1. a remnant of spiritual health
      the warm and fuzzy concentration camp
      our benevolent bureaucracies
      marginal dissident
      stupefying mimetic docility

  2. "Like the Protestant Reformation, the Revolution was, in the words of de Maistre, Satanic in its essence. To like it is to move away from God....I hope that these sentiments will be perpetuated by my descendants" - Henri de Gaulle, father of Charles.

    1. "...if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one."