UNDERSTANDING AMERICAN POLITICS:
The Dual Nature of Populism
In my previous discussion of John Locke’s ideas on republicanism I said that his political philosophy is the basis of populism. Since Donald Trump’s electoral victory, populism has suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of political pundits and Sunday morning talk show hosts. A prominent critic has been Fareed Zakaria, a “Washington Post” columnist and sometime essayist for TIME. Zakaria’s most visible current attack on populism is an article titled, “Populism on the March: Why the West is in Trouble,” in the November-December, 2016, issue of “Foreign Affairs.”
This fear and distrust of populism among the elites has a long history, going back at the very least to the 1950s, when liberal intellectuals decried the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy. What all these media commentators seemingly fail to understand with their trash talk against populism is that populism is not a strange aberration of democracy that rears its ugly head during times of crisis.
Broadly speaking, populism is the belief that the will of the people should prevail over the will of privileged elites. Thus, populism is the concept of democracy itself, and elite fears of populism are actually fears of democracy. This fear of democracy has a tradition in this country that goes back to our founding as a nation when the Founders wrote the Constitution to curtail what they saw as the dangers of too much democracy.
Nor is populism the monolithic philosophy these commentators portray. It can be manifested as what might be called “Right Populism,” as exemplified by Donald Trump, and is the version of populism these pundits fear and decry.
But it can also be manifested as “Left Populism,” as exemplified by Bernie Sanders. Both versions are powerful. In the primaries, Donald Trump garnered 13.3 million votes with his version of Right Populism. But Bernie Sanders garnered almost as many votes, 13 million, with his version of a Left Populism that promised “A Future To Believe In,” and he won 22 states, including states that Hillary Clinton lost in the general election, such as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
Left Populism is a protest tradition, one that champions the common people against the rich and powerful, that has always been America’s dominant ideology of dissent.
Most American radicals, including working class radicals, have commonly thought of themselves as “the people ” instead of “the workers,” even though they may have been of the working class. Given the dominance of Left Populism in American protest thought, it should surprise no one that the all-time best-selling history of American radicalism, with well over one million copies in print, celebrates America’s Left Populist heritage. It is, of course, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Before the radical upsurge of the 1960s, the other great period of twentieth century protest was the 1930s. Despite what the Left might wish to believe about the legendary labor upheavals of the 1930s, it was Left Populism, not some variant of Marxism, that mobilized “the workers” in that earlier period of radicalism. Indeed, the labor struggles of the Thirties were part of a wider Left Populist movement at that time for inclusion of the downtrodden in the American Dream. This is why they rallied to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and made the Democratic Party the majority party in the New Deal Era. Journalist Bill Moyers recalls that FDR seemed to be the champion of all the “Forgotten Men” who were “Lost in America,” the entire dispossessed and tossed aside.
Bill Moyers was raised a Baptist in East Texas where his father had left school after the fourth grade to begin life as a cotton picker. His father bought a radio with his meager savings just so he could listen to FDR, “the aristocrat speaking up for common people,” during his “Fireside Chats.” And the message of FDR and his New Deal, said Moyers, the message his father heard coming over that radio in the East Texas cotton fields was this: “Class and power were not fixed by Nature; inequality was wrong and unemployment humiliating; runaway capitalism could be tamed, privilege checked, monopolies broken up, an end put to government by organized money. To people down and out, broken and feeling betrayed, Roosevelt talked of democracy. He made them think they had a stake in it and a responsibility for it.”
The common people Moyers spoke of embodied a down-to-earth, blue collar, multi-ethnic, populist ideal we find elsewhere in popular culture during the Thirties. This ideal is found, for instance, in the thousands of photos taken by the photographers sent out across America by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
From 1935 to 1943 Roy Stryker directed a team of some twenty FSA photographers who produced over 270,000 pictures of America’s “common people.” Stryker’s photographers took some of the iconic images we have of the Great Depression, such as Dorothea Lange’s Okie Madonna, broken down somewhere in a California farm field with her children hanging on her.
The reason these photos are so populist is because Roy Stryker deliberately sought pictures of “the common people,” the hard working survivors who built America. “I think it’s significant,” Stryker later said, “that in our entire collection we have only one picture of Franklin Roosevelt, the most newsworthy man of the era — this, mind you, in a collection that’s sometimes said to have reported the feel and smell and taste of the Thirties even more vividly than the news media…. you’ll find no record of big people or big events in the collection…. not a single shot of Wall Street, and absolutely no celebrities.”
This ideal was in the air. In 1936, in what he termed his own favorite poem, Carl Sandburg celebrated “The People, Yes!” In 1941, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet urged us to “Listen To The People.” These people included, “Paul Bunchick and the Greek who runs the Greek’s/ The black-eyed children out of Sicily/ All of them there and all of them a nation. / Our voice is not one voice, but many voices. / Not one man’s, not the greatest, but the people’s.”
In 1942 Aaron Copeland wrote a hymn of praise to “the common man” in his “Lincoln Portrait,” the most stirring portion of which is his triumphant beginning, the “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Copeland has a reader quote passages from Abraham Lincoln to the accompaniment of stirring music, passages such as “The spirit of slavery is the same as the spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from a mouth of a king, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
This was a theme also commonly expressed by radical labor unions in the Thirties, such as the Independent Textile Union of Rhode Island, which had approvingly published the very same Lincoln passage five years before in a 1937 issue of its newspaper.
But perhaps the musical genre that most closely reflected the spirit of the times was folk music. Americans have long composed and sung “traditional” songs such as cowboy laments, Delta blues, Kentucky bluegrass, and the hillbilly songs of Appalachia, with their roots in Elizabethan and Scots-Irish ballads. It was not until the twentieth century, however, that such songs came to be identified as “folk songs” of “the people,” a populist musical genre that cohered in the 1930s.
And it is no accident that the music we most closely identify with the Thirties is folk music, a genre which describes the lives, loves, and labors of the common people. It is also no accident, then, that the two periods that witnessed the proliferation of folk songs, the Thirties and the Sixties, were also the only two eras of the twentieth century that witnessed the emergence and flowering of significant populist and oppositional countercultures.
Even the obdurate Communist Party eventually adopted the Left Populism of the times with its 1935 “Popular Front” strategy. That year the party changed its official slogan to, “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.”
Meanwhile, the volunteers it sent to fight in Spain against the fascists in that country’s civil war did so as members of “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade.”
At the same time, the Communist-affiliated Composers Collective began including in its Workers Song Books indigenous folk music of all types, including songs of farmers, miners, urban workers, and African-Americans – songs of “the people.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Communist Party reached its most influence and its highest membership levels during this Popular Front period when it promoted Left Populism.
The most influential folk singer of the Thirties was no doubt Woody Guthrie. He was born into an impoverished Oklahoma dust bowl family and was closely associated with the Communist Party. Guthrie composed more than a thousand songs reflecting the decade’s spirit of Left Populist protest. Perhaps his most well known song is “This Land is Your Land,” which declared, “this land belongs to you and me,” not, it suggested, to the rich and the corporations.
In 1941 Guthrie joined Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and others to form the Almanac Singers, a popular folk group that sang for C.I.O. (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organizing campaigns and political rallies. After World War II, as America became more politically conservative, Guthrie, Seeger, and other members of the Almanac Singers kept the Left Populist spirit of folk music alive through such groups as People’s Songs. It was at a meeting of the People’s Songs Board of Directors that Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” which gained widespread popularity in the early Sixties after the folk trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary made it a hit. In the song, Seeger and Hays proclaimed that they would hammer out justice and freedom “all over this land.”
This Left Populist theme was also echoed in the films of Italian director Frank Capra, perhaps the most popular and successful film director of the 1930s, responsible for such films as “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “Meet John Doe”. Born in Sicily in 1897, Capra immigrated to Los Angeles with his parents in 1903. When America entered World War I, he joined the army. After the Armistice, Capra returned to Los Angeles, but was unable to find a job. He bummed around for several years, working at odd jobs, ending up down and out in San Francisco.
It was during those days that Capra came to believe that, “The rich have it all, but accomplish little.” The essence of Frank Capra’s Left Populism, reflected in his subsequent films, was that it was the decent, hard-working, “little guy” who really represented all that was most American — while the wealthy and the representatives of the powerful represented a venal corruption of the American ideal.
This struggle for more democracy – for more government of the people, by the people, and for the people, in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg – is, and always has been, the central conflict of American politics. Yes, right-wing demagogues, such as Donald Trump, can hijack this struggle and pervert it into something to fear. But it is also our only hope for “A Future To Believe In.”