Review of Thomas Frank’s “The People, No”

The pundits love to denounce populists. They are the ignorant people who rally to the standards of far-right fascists like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil or Marine Le Pen of France. Or to a supposed leftist demagogue (but in fact democratically elected) Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. In the US, they are Donald Trump’s loyal “deplorables” or Bernie Sanders’s “Bernie Bros.” They are racist, sexist, xenophobic, suspicious of expertise, contemptuous of those who disagree with them, resentful of privilege, backward-looking, quick to mob violence. In short, populists represent a rising danger to democracy.

(Team Crazy Wins the Sane State, Daily Beast Feb 10, 2016)

Taking his title from Carl Sandburg’s book-length Depression-Era poem, The People, Yes, Thomas Frank proposes that anti-populists pose the real threat. Modern scholars and media have the story backwards.

Frank begins with the largely-forgotten Populist political party. The Populist, or People’s Party, founded in Kansas in the early 1890s, was the last serious effort to form a national third party. It drew together the Farmers’ Alliance, which promoted collective action by farmers, the Greenbackers, who sought a fiat currency instead of the gold standard, labor organizers like Eugene Debs and Terence Powderly, advocates of votes for women, followers of utopian novelist and activist Edward Bellamy, and followers of economic reformer Henry George.

Most of the reforms on the Populist platform sound familiar today and would eventually happen. The Populists called for regulation of the banks and public ownership of railroads. They proposed to end the gold standard, which harmed farmers and other debtors by causing steady deflation. They called for direct election of senators, votes for women, a graduated income tax, and the eight-hour work day. To achieve these objectives, the Populists sought to create a coalition between midwestern farmers and city workers. Even more radical, poor white farmers in the south allied with organizations representing poor black farmers. Far from disparaging knowledge, the Populists believed in education, publishing millions of pamphlets and setting up reading and discussion groups among farmers and workers. Above all, the Populists believed that an alliance of ordinary working-class people could take control from the moneyed elite.

In the 1892 presidential election, won by gold-standard supporter Democrat Grover Cleveland, the Populist candidate won four states. In 1896, responding to the growing Populist movement, the Democratic Party dumped Cleveland and nominated a passionate gold standard opponent, the young William Jennings Bryan, to run against Republican William McKinley. The Populist Party with some trepidation threw in behind Bryan. That simply terrified the railroad magnates, bankers and other robber barons. It petrified the bourbon Democrats who ruled the South. As Bryan barnstormed across the country on a platform of free coinage of silver, the Republican establishment mounted a massive campaign of disinformation and intimidation that would have made Karl Rove proud. Bryan and the Populists were murderous beasts, they said, seeking mob rule like the French revolutionaries a hundred years before. (Frank has posted some great cartoons.) Bryan lost disastrously and the Populist Party collapsed, though it continued a while competing in local elections. The first anti-populist campaign succeeded magnificently.

While the Populist Party foundered, populist ideas nonetheless filtered into the Progressive movement, and into corners of the major parties. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) began to enforce the 1990 Sherman anti-trust act. He supported labor unions and denounced big business. Under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Congress established the income tax (affecting only the wealthy), created the Federal Reserve to tame the boom and bust cycle and passed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. Populist enthusiasm and lawmaking reached a peak in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era from 1932 to 1940 with the establishment of a host of regulatory agencies, strong labor laws, Federal deposit insurance, Social Security, vigorous anti-trust enforcement and decisive reining in of the banks with the Glass-Steagall Act. Anti-populists complained bitterly that Roosevelt had betrayed his class, but to no avail.

In the broad prosperity following World War II, populist enthusiasm waned while anti-populists quietly regrouped in the US Chamber of Commerce, University of Chicago, and new right-wing think tanks. By the 1970s, as Frank documents, many scholars were reinterpreting populism in negative, pessimistic terms. These included historian Richard Hofstadter, famous for his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Following the shocking election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, liberals and centrist Democrats increasingly became a party of the educated elite. They clucked their tongues at the benighted and bigoted classes who listened to Republican racist dog-whistles and hypocritical religiosity, wondering why these people couldn’t see their economic self-interest.

That was the question Frank posed in his 2004 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? and again in Listen Liberal (2016). His answer remains the same: Democrats have forgotten that they were the party of ordinary working people. That was painfully obvious in Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” and before that in Barack Obama’s excruciating remark to wealthy donors about how residents of Midwestern small towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them…” In true populism, ordinary folks stand together against powerful and unaccountable elites. Centrist Democrats have joined those elites. They have become scolding, condescending anti-populists. In so doing, they have left the door wide open to Republican faux-populists of whom Trump is only the latest and worst.

Frank quotes historian Lawrence Goodwyn that to build a movement like the Populists of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” (Emphasis in original.) Only by practicing “ideological patience,” said Goodwyn, can one build a hopeful and powerful movement. Let’s pray the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party can develop more of that patience.


In his account of the Populist Party, I wish Frank hadn’t omitted an important part of the story. The Populists substantially overlapped with the Georgist movement, starting in 1879 with the publication of Henry George’s worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. That was one of the main books that those Populist study groups were reading. It was George who gave the Populists their sophisticated understanding of economics and helped convince them they could change their lives by taking control of government through the ballot box. The anti-populists were equally enemies of George, making sure that his classical economics were replaced by new-fangled neoclassical economics which put working people back in their lowly place.

Interested readers may want to check out the three-part interview Paul Jay (formerly of The Real News Network) did with Thomas Frank about his book:

Originally posted on Dollars and Sense, July 29,2020

Comments are closed.