Picking on the Populists

Taupe — Mexican speed bump

Merida   The original Peoples’ Party organizers and leaders more than 130 years ago who built a mass movement, called appropriately then, “populists,” would be rolling over in their graves if they could hear and read the sins being committed in their names today. Not that they would be surprised, because there was never a time that they got a good press in the United States except in papers that they organized and published themselves. Despite all of the confusion both in the United States and around the world about what a populist is – or was – it used to be simpler: populists stood with the people against the elites and big business. No matter how little we understand the world today here and abroad, let’s at least get the history straight.

All sorts of folks are trying to explain populism today in the wake of the right wing surge in the US and Europe, not so much hiding behind the banner as trying to fit the label to size. John Judis, a journalist I’ve long read, took a shot in a recent book, The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, at looking a movements left and right, old and new, foreign and domestic. I was disappointed in the book. It had the feel of one of those write-it-quick-and-get-it-to-the-booksellers current event things, and at 182 pages, at best it can’t pretend to be much more than a quick survey of the scene.  Judging by the great reviews I read after breezing through his treatment, it must have met a need, sort of the way snacks serve when you don’t have the time or money for a real meal. If only Lawrence Goodwyn, author of great classic, The Populist Moment, had not passed away three years ago, we might have had something meatier to sate the hunger many have to understand this moment and that movement.*

Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times about Populism: Real and Phony” doesn’t care much about the history books, but at least scores some points in his comparison of Trump-style populism with some of the Euro-brand, noting that at least in Poland and Hungary the poor and the working class got some benefits, writing,

…the movement that’s about to take power here isn’t the same as Europe’s far-right movements. It may share their racism and contempt for democracy; but European populism is at least partly real, while Trumpist populism is turning out to be entirely fake, a scam sold to working-class voters who are in for a rude awakening. 

Still somehow racism and nationalism becomes the hair shirts populists are routinely forced to wear.

I’ll admit to being sensitive about all of this. I found reading and thinking about the US populist movement an inspiration decades ago as a younger organizer. On a personal level my great grandfather on my mother’s side was elected a state legislator from Kosciusko, Mississippi on the Populist Party line, as a firebrand local populist newspaper editor. He was famous in our family’s history when my grandmother and great aunt would tell the story of taking meals to him in jail when the authorities were sorting out his claims of self-defense after killing the sheriff in a gun fight after he took offense at one of the paper’s  stories.

We need some new terminology. Let’s let the populists rest in peace.

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