Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Thomas Frank: Don’t Believe Anything You Were Told About Populism

On this week's episode of "Scheer Intelligence," the journalist examines the history of American populism, and how it was distorted by Democrats and co-opted by Republicans.
A portrait of Thomas Frank by Mr. Fish.

The word “populism” gets a bad rap these days as corporate media warns of its alleged dangers and President Barack Obama goes so far as to blame Sarah Palin for its recent rise. But, according to Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and his new book, The People, No, a detailed account about the history of populism in the United States, true populism is a force for good, not evil. On this week’s installment of Scheer Intelligence, the journalist and historian joins Robert Scheer to discuss in-depth how the Democratic Party chose to quash populism, while the Republican Party decided to use its stripped-down ideals for its own nefarious means.  

“Today you open up something like The Atlantic magazine and populism is [billed as] this dreadful phenomenon, this thing to be deplored,” begins Frank. “It’s paranoia, it’s anti-intellectualism, it’s all these appeals to bad motivations in humans. And of course it’s always defined as being Donald Trump–that’s populism. 

“I’m here to say that that is not the case at all,” says the author. “That the correct definition of populism is a great thing, a hopeful thing. Populism is when ordinary people come together and work for economic democracy. That’s the definition of the word, and it’s something that we should be aspiring for, not something that we should be fearful of and try to stamp out.”

Reminding listeners of what became of the Populist Party or People’s Party, Frank goes on to trace populist roots through more recent American history, like the Civil Rights movement, and argues that many of the country’s current political troubles stem from a distortion of populism which bolstered the ruling elite by fragmenting the working class. He also puts to bed the misconception that populism is somehow anti-intellectual, pointing to the important tradition of pamphleteering that aimed to make texts by ancient philosophers but also left-wing thinkers accessible to all Americans. Listen to the full conversation between Frank and Scheer as they pinpoint the turning point that still defines American politics to this day. 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, no question, I think maybe one of the top two or three political writers we have in this country now, Thomas Frank. Most famous–and I always blow the titles of books, but the–what is the Kansas book about, and the title?

TF: It’s called What’s the Matter with Kansas, and it’s about the sort of rise of the, you know, culture-war right. 

RS: Yeah, and that’s the book that I think made you, clearly brought you to great prominence. And you’ve gone on with a number of books; I’m not going to go into all that now, because I want to hype, actually–let me use the word–I want to get people to read your current book. And let’s talk about it. The title itself is interesting; it’s The People, No. And as I understand it, it’s a play on a Carl Sandburg–for people who don’t remember Carl Sandburg, the people’s poet, when I was growing up he was the most famous popular poet, and he wrote The People, Yes. And he also was famous for a poem, Chicago, which again celebrated the strength of the populace. And he brought up the whole populist tradition in America, particularly the period just before the turn of the twentieth century, 1895 around, when populism was popular. 

And so this is a book where you are basically in this fraught moment where Donald Trump, a pretend populist of the right, has been defeated, but almost 72 million Americans voted for him. And he’s been derided. And most recently, the word populism came into play in an interview with Barack Obama about his new book, A Promised Land, in which Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, used it derisively–again, once again this idea of populism. And in the account I saw, “Obama said the populist wave was ignited by Sarah Palin, whose rallies ‘hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.'” 

So populism has been given a bad name. And your book is basically a celebration of what you think is really the most important strain in American democracy, the democratic experiment. Which is an anti-elitism which asserts that the common folk–farmers, workers, people who are not products of the elite school–actually should have their say, and they contain the basic font of wisdom. A kind of a Jeffersonian version, as opposed to a Hamilton one. 

TF: That is exactly right. That is exactly–[Laughs] you are exactly right, Mr. Bob Scheer.

RS: Well, tell me about the book! The whole point is to get people to read the book, so please–

TF: Yeah. Well, let’s see, where should we start? You know, Carl Sandburg–yes, he wrote this great book-length poem in 1936 called The People, Yes, and it is a celebration of the way ordinary people talk, and the kind of work that they do, and the way they view the world, and all those sorts of things. But that was–that was a great decade for that kind of thing. They called him “the people’s poet,” as you mentioned. And I think of the 1930s as the decade of the common man; it was, that kind of symbolism and that kind of talk were everywhere in American culture and in American politics in those days. And it is funny how far we have gone from then. I mean, when I say in culture and politics, I mean in politics–Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, you know, in the economy; organized labor, this was their great decade in the arts. You know, you think about the WPA murals that are always showing ordinary working-class people from all different racial backgrounds engaged in some massive industrial project. Or you think of the movies of someone like Frank Capra, which are all about the genius of the common people. And how far we have gone from that–that today, you know, you open up something like The Atlantic magazine and populism is this dreadful phenomenon, this thing to be deplored. You know, it’s paranoia, it’s anti-intellectualism, it’s all these appeals to bad motivations in humans. And of course it’s always defined as being Donald Trump–you know, that’s populism. 

And I’m here to say that that is not the case at all. That the correct definition of populism is a great thing, a hopeful thing. Populism is, you know, when ordinary people come together and work for economic democracy. That’s the definition of the word, and it’s something that we should be aspiring for, not something that we should be fearful of and try to stamp out.

RS: Let me just say something about that personally. I think that you have hit upon the most underappreciated factor of American life, which is about its liberation of individuals from the confinement of class. And the assumption–and yes, the founders were flawed in their vision; yes, there were a lot of contradictions, so white males and property owners benefited. But throughout–or, and others were excluded; I don’t want to minimize it in any way. But there was an assumption–I know it inspired me as a kid in the Bronx, with garment-worker parents working in factories; my father was a knitter mechanic, keeping knitting machines going and so forth. And I remember at that time being most inspired by Tom Paine, and the idea that this guy who’d come over from England and was working as a–what, I don’t know, a corseter’s apprentice or something–he had all these like kind of crummy jobs. But he could get someone who had a letterpress and publish a pamphlet, and that informed the whole revolution. 

And I read about Tom Paine in a pamphlet that was designed for workers, and I was pleasantly surprised at the end of your marvelous book–and I say “marvelous” because it captures a reality I experienced as a kid. I was born in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a god in my family. And I remember thinking at that time, I wanted to–I was inspired by Tom Paine, that anybody could write, anybody could read, anybody could understand. And that wisdom came to me by somebody you celebrate at the end of your book, but you identify with the populist tradition: Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. And he published something that ended up being published in 500 million copies around the world–

TF: [Laughs] Yes.

RS: –and they were little blue books. The Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books. I bring it up because, you know, I just thought there was such a vitality to that. And I remember reading about Tom Paine, but I also remember reading about Plato. And the reason I bring it up is that the attack on populism is an attack on a really uninformed basis that assumes that it was anti-intellectual. That it was against thought, it was against ideas. No–it was against the idea that working people could not entertain deep thought and deep ideas. When I was a kid, my father gave me a pamphlet not only on Tom Paine, but he gave me one on Plato published by Halderman Julius and told me to read it when I was just a kid. And my father was a factory worker. So why don’t you bring up that sort of expectation, that ordinary people can have big ideas and be responsible, and the current meritocracy, the elitism. That to my mind is the power of your book: it is an attack on what has happened to liberalism, its abandonment of trade unions, of working people, and embrace of a technocratic elitism that dominates, really, the Democratic Party. And then as you point out in your book, on the Republican side they have a faux populism, and they now invoke images of populism and anti-elite power to justify basically the same crowd that the Democrats are justifying, which is big concentrated wealth on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, et cetera.

TF: Yes. Oh, my god, Bob Scheer, how am I ever going to–that is one hell of a question. [Laughs] But let’s talk about that–[overlapping voices]. Let’s just start, you know, Tom Paine–the greatest, one of the greats of the founding fathers. I just want to–I just want to, you know, I don’t really talk a whole lot about the founding fathers of this country in the book. But I do want to emphasize that there is something profoundly democratic about America, and has been since the very beginning, in a way that you don’t see in any other country in the world, or any other country that I am familiar with. And that, you know, even though of course in those days when they wrote the Declaration and the Constitution only a small, tiny minority of the population was even allowed to vote, slavery was legal and was practiced by a whole lot of these guys, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, someone like Tom Paine reminds us–and the things that he was saying in the 1770s remind us that the democratic impulse has been here all along, in that populist, pamphleteering tradition. 

Now, the Populist Party was–I mean, the word was actually made up. Let’s talk for a second about where the word comes from. It was actually–you know, it’s not just a word that fell from the skies that we get to use however we want. The word was consciously invented by an American political movement in the 1890s. It was a classic farmer labor movement, with the emphasis on farmers. And it was, the word was made up–it’s close to my heart, because it was made up on a train traveling between Kansas City and Topeka, and I’m from Kansas City and I’ve spent a lot of time in my life in Topeka. [Laughs] And this is where the word was made up, and it was invented in 1891 to describe this farmer labor movement that was then coming up and starting to challenge the other two parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. 

This was–the Populist Party was the last great effort to launch a third party in this country. And it was, of course, supposed to be a left-wing party. And it was a left-wing party that was based not on, you know, having the president of Harvard University sit in your cabinet and tell everybody what to do, and having a whole lot of fancy technocrats here in Washington D.C. sort of twisting the dials. It was a party that was based on the idea that ordinary people understood their situation, and understood their predicament. And that ordinary people, you know, are the ones who are best placed to understand what’s going on in their country, because obviously it’s their business to understand that. 

Populism was not anti-intellectual, regardless of what everybody says about–the way everybody uses the word today. But it did defy the orthodoxies of its age. The great orthodoxy of that time was, the great economic orthodoxy was the gold standard. You couldn’t–you know, how dare you question the gold standard, it could not be done. But populism did; populism dared to say, we should get off the gold standard and have a modern currency where the value is determined by the government rather than by the price of a precious metal. And the populists went against the, you know, Ivy League economists of their time when they said this. And yes, they were a bunch of cranks out on the prairie, but the joke is ultimately on the elites, because the populists were right about this stuff. 

So let’s talk about the pamphlets for a second, if it’s OK with you, Bob. The populists loved pamphlets. They would set up these lending libraries of their sort of populist movement literature, which included all kinds of different left-wing authors and different thinkers. And it included people like Tom Paine. And one of the newspapers–populism was a movement of newspapers; every small town in the plains–by the way, this was true in California as well. Not so much in the Bronx, I don’t think. But all, you know, in big parts of the country, populist newspapers would challenge the sort of mainstream media of their day. And one of the most successful populist newspapers was called The Appeal to Reason. And it was published in a small town in Kansas called Girard, Kansas, and it later, when populism died, the newspaper went over to the Socialist Party and becamse this enormous socialist publishing operation. It’s not, you know, remembered much anymore, but it had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which is kind of extraordinary. 

But anyhow, when socialism died, the publisher of the paper who was the guy you mentioned before, Haldeman-Julius, the publisher of this newspaper said well, what am I going to do? I’ve got this huge printing plant, I’ve got all these employees, I’ve got this great capacity. What am I going to do? And he hit on the idea of, you know, sort of going back to the populist pamphleteering, the populist mania for pamphlets, they loved pamphlets. And he started issuing pamphlets–he started out doing sort of classics of the left, but then he branched out and just did classics of world literature, classics of philosophy. You know, you mentioned Plato; he put out Goethe, he put out Schopenhauer, you know, in these pamphlets that cost five cents. And they were five cents apiece, so you would mail him a dollar to his headquarters in Girard, Kansas, tell him which ones you wanted, and he would send you 20 of these booklets, you know, in a box. And it was an incredible success; these pamphlets went all over the world–well, you know this, Bob. You were telling me earlier about how you read them when you were young. 

RS: Let me just put a footnote on that, by the way. My family, my father was a German Protestant, it was a family of welders and machinists and so forth. And my mother’s family were also working in garment working, and were basically the working class, and they were from Lithuania and they were Jewish. And I was born in ’36, and it was, you know, fascism issues, and what Germany was going to do, Russia, and came to be unfortunately one of the great tragedies of human history. And yet on both sides of my family, they were progressive, they were enlightened, they were anti-fascist, including the German protestants, and a few Catholics in that group. And I think the library, the actual total library in both houses, were these Haldeman-Julius pamphlets. 

TF: [Laughs]

RS: So here you had two ethnically different groups, I would go from one to the other, and the reading library–I mean, I only came to think a lot about it when I finished your book, because you have Haldeman-Julius at the end as a denial that populism means being anti-intellectual. Because my relatives–and it’s not true you didn’t have it in the Bronx, you say–

TF: No, no, I’m sorry, Bob, there’s two different things here. There’s the populist political movement in the 1890s, which caught on basically everywhere in the country except for the Northeast–

RS: Oh, but you still had many newspapers. Your point was people challenging the establishment. When I was growing up, of course 40 years later, in New York City, you had like 25 newspapers, and quite a few of them were on the left, and some were on the right. But there was no question that they were challenging the orthodoxies of the elite. And I want to get to that in a minute–

TF: Yes. And that’s–by the way, just let me interject, that’s populism. Not, like, you know, Sarah Palin peddling conspiracy theories or something like that, but what you just described. When you have all these different voices, and you have people trying to, you know, saying that–well, challenging the orthodoxies, and saying that knowledge cannot just be monopolized by higher education, it can’t just be monopolized by people that went to fancy schools. It has–this is a democracy, it has to be the property of everyone, and it has to be accessible to everyone. That’s what they were saying. 

RS: Well, I want to get from that to a really provocative point in your book, not that the other isn’t. But the whole eradication of class of ordinary people, and this idea that somehow only through a certain kind of elite education and meritocracy will we get leadership. That becomes the big challenge. And it’s interesting, because in your book you mention Seymour Martin Lipset, a well-known sociologist. I happened to be a graduate student at Berkeley when he was a professor there, and some of us were really admirers of C. Wright Mills, who certainly introduced notions of class. But Seymour Martin Lipset, who had come out of this kind of left working-class background in New York City and so forth, was denying it now, and others. Meanwhile you had Michael Harrington and other great writers asserting it. 

And one of the really interesting things in your book is your discussion of the Civil Rights Movement, and the role of labor and labor unions in making America a better place. And in fact you bring up this question of professional economists–well, the New Deal, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was basically attacked by most of the professional economists and the elite. And places like where I went to school, City College of New York, we didn’t respect Harvard. We knew they were a sellout for the elite, and we were going to get it straight, you know. And we had professors who would challenge that narrative, you know, and then some became neoconservatives and ended up betraying that tradition. But you have gotten hold of really the most important challenge of the democratic experiment: what is the role of the mass of people? 

TF: Exactly. And–

RS: Deriding the mass of the people, the attack on the very idea of democracy, and surrendering it to the meritocracy, is the strength of your book. And I want people to read it, because in no place was that clearer than what happened with Barack Obama. That first of all, under Bill Clinton, you really had the shift of the Democratic Party. In the Republican Party, that was clear; they were for the plutocracy, they were for Wall Street. But it was Bill Clinton who ushered in the deregulation of Wall Street, and really created the basis for the great housing meltdown, the Great Recession. That’s one marker in it, and the whole argument was the smart people know what they’re doing. Lawrence Summers in congressional testimony attacking Broseley Borne, a member of the administration who really sounded the alarm about this deregulation, attacked her–they know what they’re doing, he was getting $6 million a year from Wall Street at one point as an advisor to the D.E. Shaw company and so forth. But the whole professionalism of the meritocracy, we’re going to select the best and the brightest, and then we’re going to get them to defend us, defend power and so forth. And with Barack Obama, you have the personification of that in that administration, because the bailout of Wall Street, the surrendering of Main Street, was really the theme of ’08. And so why don’t we talk a little bit about that, what you call the “historic inversion,” and how elitism came to define liberal and Democratic Party politics, and then this absurd parody of populism comes to define the Republican Party.

TF: Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly where we are today. You know, Bob, I’ve been talking about issues of economics and social class my whole career, and I have never felt less optimistic about my message getting through. Nowadays, people think there’s something wrong with you if you even talk about this; it’s not even like part of–you know, I live here in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. And one of the things–and I know you know what I’m talking about here–these yard signs that you see, that try to list all the liberal causes to be as comprehensive–you know, and to the people who live around me, it’s very natural that the affluent and highly educated would be the rank-and-file of liberalism. That makes perfect sense to them. You know, that’s what liberalism is; it is an appeal to the smartest, the most able, the best members of society. 

And they have these yard signs that describe, that try to comprehensively give a little shoutout to all the different branches of what they take to be the liberal faith. And so it’ll say like, ah–these are all things I agree with, by the way–they’ll say things like, women’s rights are human rights; no human is illegal; you know, respect science or whatever, science is truth or something like that; water is life. Like a whole, all these different issues–but they never say anything about work. Or working-class people, or you know, like that every job should be a middle-class job. [Laughs] Or that the minimum wage should be $15, or you know, something like that. Or like everyone should have health care. They don’t mention these things. It’s as though that has been deleted from the liberal consciousness. And it’s just–it’s just natural and normal to liberals now that that’s not part of liberalism, that’s something else. That’s not part of the left. You know, the left is about being really, really moral, and being really, really good, and being really, highly educated, and knowing the most words. And you know, and knowing the science, and keeping everybody else out. That’s what liberalism is. 

And when I try to explain to them–you know, this is why I had to write this book, by the [way]. Because populism, the populist tradition in America is the tradition of working-class politics. The Populist Party that I mentioned before, in the 1890s, was emphatically about working-class people, and taking a stand against industrialization and against plutocracy, you know, against the corruption and the concentration of wealth in the 1890s. That’s what they were all about, and that’s what–and you know this is true, Bob–as you look around, that’s what parties of the left all over the world used to be about. You know, respecting science? Sure. Of course. You know, water is life? I mean, yeah, we don’t like pollution. But to just delete what used to be essential, you know, to delete that part of the identity–to delete the populist aspect of the left is, that is where we are today. And I’m afraid that it is a recipe for disaster. 

RS: Well, it’s not just a recipe for disaster, ultimately electorally and so forth, because you’re alienating–you know, there are still almost 72 million people who voted for Donald Trump, and if you think they’re all deplorables, the way Hillary Clinton described them, you’re dismissing half the–actually just, you know, Biden got supposedly the most votes anyone has ever gotten, Trump got the second most votes. But you know, what’s interesting about this is there’s a conceit that informs it that your book unmasks. And the assumption is the masses get it wrong, and therefore you have to have an elite, and yes, the elite should be drawn with the best and the brightest, from the masses as well as from the people of privilege. And there should be opportunity, a level playing field, and so forth, you know, and what have you. But that somehow excellence is what you want to reward. That’s the assumption of the meritocracy. 

And what your book unmasks so clearly, and applies to the argument about populism, is actually the people who were derided unfairly as being anti-intellectual, which they weren’t–this is why I bring up the Haldeman-Julius pamphlets. There was a great emphasis on knowledge, on studying the experience of others, on getting informed. These people wanted more public education, they wanted more money spent on educating the working class, and so forth. But the conceit that somehow the elite, technological elite, professional elite, they get it right–well, they got it wrong about the populists, because the populists thought the gold standard was madness. And yet the economics profession thought it was absolutely necessary to stability. In fact, it was holding back spending money on things that needed to be spent. It was holding back on notions of fairness and equality and opportunity. And now, if you’re arguing for the gold standard, you’re Ron Paul or somebody, you know? [Laughter] You’re considered a nutcase. You know, and that’s what the populists did. 

But I want to take this on, this meritocracy thing, because I think you’re dead right. First of all, I never have met any working person–and I certainly, coming from that kind of background, had my own share of jobs that I didn’t particularly like–who didn’t welcome technology. I worked in the Post Office for, you know, all through college, and every single working day, and that’s how I went to college. And boy, I tried to invent the ZIP codes. I was an engineering student by that point; I had all sorts of ideas of how you could make the–I’ve never met anybody working at a supermarket, working in a factory, who didn’t think–my own father loved machinery. You know, he was a machinist, and he loved figuring out better ways to produce things so you didn’t have to use labor. Labor has never been against technology; what they’re against is technology that replaces their value. And if it replaces their value, there ought to be a method of compensation. 

That’s really the issue in all of these trade agreements. You know, send the jobs elsewhere, but don’t send it because those people are working for next to nothing. And one of the ironies, by the way, is in Donald Trump’s rewrite of NAFTA there’s actually for the first time some protection of labor. And if you’re in Mexico and you’re assembling cars, 45% of the workers have to be paid 16 bucks an hour. It’s not enough, you know, but it’s a start. And the irony is these trade agreements did not factor in environmental protection, but then factored in working protection. We now are using all these gadgets from China, we’re thrilled, Chinese production is back on track, Apple could come out with one line after another, very successful. And as your book mentions, really, no one cares about what are we paying workers in the Apple plants. What right do they have–and you mentioned about those lawn signs. Why aren’t there–you even gave me an example in your book from a young woman in school, everybody’s talking about what’s important and she holds up labor. Why isn’t there a demand now, instead of pushing around China because they’re going to steal our secrets through TikTok or something, when we have led the world in surveillance technology, of course. Why is there no demand that China meet our minimum wage? Or that they have a decent standard of pay, or that their workers have the right to form unions? You know, that doesn’t even come up, that’s not even considered a human right internationally, that you have the right to organize into a union or free speech to defend workers’ rights, or the right to a minimum wage. 

You know, and I think that is the power of your book. You cut through this basic conceit that the elite first of all gets it right–they don’t get it right. But David Halberstam had the best title of a book about Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. And the elite there–it was Robert McNamara, as you mentioned in your book, who brought in this whole idea of the professional, technocratic class. Well, his best and the brightest got it all wrong. You know, and they got it all wrong about banking deregulation under Clinton, and they got it all wrong about how to save the economy in the Great Recession under Obama, because they went to Wall Street. The great revelation of Julian Assange, who’s now sitting in prison in England waiting for extradition–maybe the Democrats will finally get their hands on him–was what Hillary Clinton told Goldman Sachs: I have to go back to Washington to fix these problems, and I need the smart people in this room to go with me. That was the whole argument. You know, so I think the conceit, (a), that the best and the brightest actually get it right is not true. You know, we’ve had one disastrous error after another. And the other is that somehow empowering ordinary people means a loss of quality and smartness and accountability, when just the opposite is the case. In your book you point out example after example. So give us some of those examples. 

TF: OK. So, wow. [Laughs] This is a huge subject, this is the subject of the book, and it’s hard to put it all in one, you know–

RS: Take your time, we can go longer, and at least one–you mentioned that NPR and PBS, they don’t have you back, and television doesn’t have you back–

TF: Yeah, they’re not interested anymore, yeah. 

RS: At least for this week, I can’t guarantee it’ll go on forever–

TF: [Laughs] OK.

RS: –but I will go as long as you want to tell us about–

TF: OK. So–

RS: I think it’s a really important book, and it will be on KCRW, the NPR station that’s one of the most famous in the country, and it will be picked up elsewhere. 

TF: OK, fantastic.

RS: So you have a megaphone right now.

TF: All right, here I go. So I mentioned what populism actually was. And so your listeners are probably saying, well, how did the word get flipped? How did it come to mean, remember that quote that you gave at the very start of the show–how did it come to mean paranoid, racist, you know, anti-intellectual? How did it come to mean that? And the answer is that in the 1950s, there was a sort of generation of scholars. You mentioned Seymour Martin Lipset. He was one of them. They were, this was the consensus school of intellectuals. And these guys, some of them had, like Lipset, had been involved with organized labor. But as a group they became immensely suspicious of working-class movements–for a lot of different reasons; bad reasons, basically. Like they were, you know, they decided that McCarthyism was a working-class movement, which it was not. But they became really frightened by the prospect of mass movements of working-class people, and they decided that mass movements of working-class people were by their nature authoritarian, anti-intellectual, demagogic, you know, foolish; they did everything wrong, racist, xenophobic, you know, right down the line. And the word that they started to use to describe these mass movements was populism. Now, this was–the reason they started doing that was because of a famous work of history that came out in the 1950s that said that’s what the populist movement was in the 1890s. That work of history turned out to be completely wrong. It was debunked by other historians; it’s a very famous story if you go to graduate school and study American history. This, you know, this guy famously got populism exactly wrong. But–

RS: Well, mention it, it’s Richard Hofstadter–

TF: It’s Richard Hofstadter, yeah, the most famous historian of that period. But his redefinition of the word, and the way that he turned the word into a generic meaning–meaning, you know, mass movements of working-class people that are xenophobic, anti-intellectual, et cetera–that caught on. And so people like Seymour Lipset were using it, Daniel Bell was using it, Edward Shils was using it. And their argument was that all movements of working-class people, all mass movements of working-class people were similarly dangerous. You know, even when they said they weren’t dangerous. Like you take something like organized labor in the 1950s, which said it was antiracist, and said that it was very civically minded–and in fact it was. [Laughs] But they said no, even though they say that, and even though they are that, we can do these personality studies of their members and discover that in fact they harbor these really ugly sentiments, and in fact they’re guilty of all these terrible things. Even though they say they aren’t, and in fact they really aren’t, we can still say that they are. 

And this is Lipset’s famous essay, the–what is it called–I’ve actually got a copy of it right here, I’m going to look it up, I’m going to flip it open to that chapter, and it was called “Working-Class Authoritarianism.” That was the argument. Working-class authoritarianism, basically that’s what working-class politics always is. And that’s a really pessimistic way to think about we the people. You know, in this country that had this great tradition, this Tom Paine tradition, this Haldeman-Julius tradition of believing in the intelligence of the common man–all of a sudden we’re saying, no, these people are dangerous, they’re puppets in the hands of a slick demagogue, they’re authoritarian. And what do they, why do they say this, why did this catch on? Why is this such a powerful idea? Because it was also flattering to a different group of people. It was insulting to, you know, ordinary Americans, but it was very flattering to a different group. And that group was, of course, the sort of managerial class, the professional class; it was just then starting to feel its power in American life. 

You mentioned Robert McNamara; he was kind of the poster boy for this class, he was the great genius behind the Ford Motor Company. They put him in charge of the Pentagon. He could run the Vietnam War with a big computer. He could deliver victory over communism without, you know–all through his mastery of these amazing managerial techniques of the 1950s and 1960s. And similarly, the argument was that managerialism could deliver prosperity; it could deliver–well, it could deliver whatever you chose, as long as you put people like Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, Lipset, you know, this generation of intellectuals–you had to put them in charge. Once they were in charge in Washington, once you had experts and leaders and lobbyists and people with PhDs and people with MBAs sitting around the big mahogany table in Washington, D.C., then you’d get results. Then you’d get reform. Then you’d get social progress. 

So the idea was that populism, this appeal to the masses, this appeal to the common man, this appeal to the working class–you couldn’t do that anymore. If you wanted progress, if you wanted reform, if you wanted to win the war against communism, you couldn’t do that anymore. You had to put the managerial class in charge. And so it is the meritocratic class, the people who scored well on the SATs, the people who understood how the world worked–they had to run things, not mass movements of working-class people. And just to put the message of–you know, that’s the attitude and the philosophy that dominates the Democratic Party today. That’s the attitude and the philosophy that gave us the Vietnam War, that gave us the housing bubble, and that gave us the financial crisis, and that gave us the Wall Street bailouts, et cetera, and gave us the opioid epidemic. You know, those pills didn’t prescribe themselves. [Laughs] 

And so the message of my book is that this philosophy is entirely upside-down. It’s entirely backwards, and it’s entirely wrong. And the real genius of America still resides in the hearts of ordinary people. The rank-and-file, the common man. And you know, government by geniuses, they always wind up doing–they act as a class, Robert. You know this. They act as a class. They help each other out, they get each other off the hook when they get in trouble, they bail one another out. You know, they make sure that their colleagues never face any consequences. And they also endlessly tune out the voices of the common people. Always. So that’s the whole nature of professional economics, that they don’t have to listen to voices from outside their profession. That’s the nature of political science; they don’t have to listen to you. You know, they only have to listen to one another. 

And this is a philosophy of government, and a philosophy for running a society, that is so profoundly misguided. And nevertheless, that is–my word for it is anti-populism. And yet that anti-populism is precisely what is, you know, the dominant philosophy in the Democratic Party today, the party that you and I, Bob, have spent our lives supporting and cheering for. OK, I have, anyways. I know you hate it when I say things like that, I’m sorry.

RS: You hate it? No, I don’t hate it. It’s true, I have voted for the lesser evil–[Laughs]

TF: I know.

RS: All of my life. But let me, I want to make a point about this, because again, listeners–OK, we’ve had this big menace of Donald Trump, and thank god, you know, Joe Biden is now president. And hopefully, you know, he’ll do a better job. If not for the pandemic, by the way, I think Donald Trump would have been reelected, probably by a big majority.

TF: Yes, I think that’s probably right, yeah.

RS: You know, he didn’t get us into any new wars, and he actually, the economy seemed to help a large swath of people, certainly better than his predecessor’s in many ways. But having said that, I think the real problem here is recognizing that this class of the elite, some of them become very rich. Some of them make a lot of money. But the main group that they benefit are coupon-clippers, the very same people that the populists were attacking. People who happen to have a lot of wealth, and can parlay that wealth into a lot of income. And that’s what happened with–Bill Clinton is a very good example. I remember interviewing him when he was still governor of Arkansas, and on the eve of his winning the nomination. And I met his mother, I met a lot of people around him. And the fact is, Bill Clinton had a sense of what it was like to be poor and white in Arkansas, a very poor state. And the ticket into the meritocracy–the same for Obama, who had some reality in his life, having a father from Africa. Who, ironically, I spoke at an anti-war thing where his father–

TF: Really?

RS: –evidently spoke at, according to some clippings that I found in Honolulu.

TF: That’s amazing! [Laughs]

RS: But the key to the meritocracy is to abandon the people you grew up with, and to abandon what you observed. And so Bill Clinton, just like Ronald Reagan–after all, you mentioned WPA; his father worked for the Works Progress Administration under Roosevelt. And Ronald Reagan in his own autobiography, [Where’s the Rest of Me?] or whatever it was, said you know, without the New Deal–Roosevelt was a god in his house–without the New Deal, they would have starved. OK, which was true in my household. But the trick to the meritocracy is to forget where you came from. And what Bill Clinton did is he embraced the monied elite, the very people who had left Arkansas such a mess. And he ended the main federal poverty program, the very thing Martin Luther King was fighting for, which was helping not just people of color, but of any color. Bill Clinton, who knew what it was like to be poor, presided over the end to the–

TF: AFDC, yes he did.

RS: Aid to Families with Dependent Children; 70% of the beneficiaries were children, a significant number were people of color; he ended it. He empowered the banks through deregulation, and let them go do their business. So the problem with the intellectual elite is that they get these handouts from the foundations and the big money, but they also serve the interests of the most powerful. And one of the poignant examinations in your book–and maybe we’ll wrap it up with that–is the idea that somehow populism was at its heart racist, was anti-feminist, all of these things that’s hurled against it. In your book you document how in fact the situation of women, because of the war and women going into the workforce, was very much advanced by labor. And so is the condition of people of color, particularly by the development of the CIO, as against the old trade-union basis of the AFL. And that you point out that the heart, really, of Martin Luther King and of the Civil Rights Movement were people like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph. In your book you say A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Sleeping Car Porters union, was the most important visible civil rights figure before Martin Luther King. It was Bayard Rustin who basically organized the March on Washington. They came out of the labor movement. And that the labor movement, you had for instance the longshore on the West Coast, they had Ford Local 600 under a guy named Carl Stellato. These were the first big unions that opened up to people of color. And at a time when the U.S. military was segregated during World War I, Black workers were being welcomed into mass industrial unions, the United Electrical Workers, and so forth. 

So this whole idea that organized labor, that the labor movement in this country only favored privileged, white workers, and was racist, is a total distortion of history. The labor movement was the main agency for ending segregation in work opportunity well before we had the recognized Civil Rights Movement. And Martin Luther King, who you deal with very seriously in your book, was the first person, would be the first to acknowledge that. And after all, he died defending janitors in Memphis, Tennessee, in a labor dispute in which the workers were Black. So why don’t we discuss that, because the cheapest argument against populism, progressive populism, is to accuse it of an inherent racism and misogyny and whatever. Those are always thrown up against it as a convenient way of smearing it. 

TF: Well, that’s–I’m really glad you asked me this question. Look, you know, we’ll talk about two things. The populist movement in the 1890s, the Populist Party, and the populist tradition, sort of the, you know, what I call the populist tradition, organized labor and things like that. The Populist Party in the 1890s was the only party, of the three big parties at the time, it was the only one that had women in leadership positions. And it was the only one that endorsed women’s suffrage. The other, you know, the Republicans and Democrats did not. It would be truly bizarre to think that this was a misogynist undertaking. So in Kansas in particular, Kansas was populism’s biggest state; it’s kind of hard to believe, but it was true. In Kansas, populism was very closely identified with the adventures of this woman named Mary Elizabeth Leese, who would travel around the state giving speeches, and it was regarded as pretty racy at the time. What she would say is, “You farmers need to raise less corn and more hell.” [Laughs] This was supposed to be shocking. Populism actually secured women’s suffrage in two states, in Colorado and Idaho. This was, what, 30 years before women got the vote nationally. So they were way ahead of the curve on that one. 

And they were also–I mean, in my opinion, significantly less racist than the other two parties of their day. In fact, they did something really interesting in the Southern states. Populism had a lot of appeal in the South because it was, you know, obviously a region of farmers and agricultural workers. And populism had a–there was a Black wing of the movement. The historians refer to it as, refer to this group as the Black Populists. And so they, you know, what they tried at the time–this was in the 1890s in the South–in a lot of the Southern states, Blacks could still vote; they hadn’t been disenfranchised yet. But the sort of white rulers of the South kept a lid on the situation, and kept themselves in power by manipulating racist sentiment. And the term that was used for this at the time was “white solidarity.” The idea being that your interests as white people–

RS: And this is the Democratic Party.

TF: Yeah, I’m sorry, this is the Democratic Party in the South, yep. And the–

RS: It was totally dominant, totally dominant.

TF: Absolutely dominant, yep. And it was a one-party region, and they had a doctrine called white solidarity. The idea was that your interests as a white person–they would go to, you know, this is, again, a region where farmers are overwhelmingly the majority of the population. They’re also extremely poor, and they’re getting poorer, and it’s getting worse all the time. And they would say to these people, your interests as white people are, you know, outweigh your interests as farmers, your interests as someone who’s watching their way of life get destroyed, et cetera, et cetera. So you have to keep voting for the Democratic Party. You have to put your economic interests aside and you have to keep voting for the Democratic Party. That was what the Democrats said. The populists came in with a really novel proposal, which was that your interests as farmers, as working-class people, are actually more important than your interests as white people, and so therefore you white farmers should get together with Black farmers and vote for the Populist Party instead, and we’ll get some measures enacted to–you know, we will do something to help farmers out, to help you people out. 

Now, this is not to–I don’t want to exaggerate this–this does not mean that they were like racially enlightened in the way we are today, or that they were antiracist in the way that we are today. But by the standards of the 1890s, to go out there in the South and say this was extremely radical, and extremely threatening to the social order of the time. And you can imagine how that played out: the sort of masters of the South, the democratic ruling class of the South, came down on the populists like a ton of bricks. And there were, you know, gunfights and gangs; armed gangs would go around intimidating people. You know, people would shoot each other all the time. And it was, they basically, they defeated populism. And so to miss–I mean, it’s a long story, and it’s an awful story, what happened to the populist movement. But basically, to misunderstand that and think that the populists are the bad guys in that situation is just, it blows my mind that anybody could misread history that badly. 

And then, you know, you take the populist tradition; what you just said about the CIO, you know, this was the great labor-organizing campaign of the 1930s, and their idea was that they were going to organize everyone. The AFL had only organized craftworkers, or highly skilled people in certain trades. And yes, a lot of the AFL unions were racist. But the CIO said, no; we are going to organize everybody, that is the only way to do this thing. And they were, I mean, if you put aside things like the NAACP, the CIO and their unions, this is the great antiracist force of the 1930s. You know, and they talked about it all the time. It’s in their literature, it’s in their propaganda, it’s in their speeches, it’s everywhere you go. This is what they were about. You know, and it’s funny, I talk to audiences–well, I don’t talk to too many audiences these days, because of COVID. But I talk to people about this all the time, and they can’t get their heads around the idea that organized labor was antiracist. This is just, it’s almost impossible for them to understand, because they equate the white working class with Trumpism.


    1. This is one of the most interesting essays/interviews I’ve read in a long time. Probably, because I’ve been jarred by the seeming conundrum between the innate meaning of populism and its connotations today. I also appreciate the historical clarification of how it became demeaned. A psychologist, I’m fascinated by the “abandonment” dynamic -in both Clinton and Obama – of the father. Which led to their compensating love affairs with Wall Street money.It makes me wonder about the role shame played. Contrastingly, LBJ’s political compulsivity to win at all costs was born from a youthful decision to never repeat the failures of his father which had landed his family in an embarrassment of poverty. Unlike Clinton and Obama, his thrust – domestically – was in remediating the conditions of the poor. (Please correct me if my historical understanding is inaccurate. )Thank you very much for clearing up some historical puzzles I’ve had. And the image of those rather politically correct signs in the lawns of the liberals always seemed pretentious. Now I know why. Because of the absence of their necessary twin – the workers, the People. Emblematic – isn’t it – of the neoliberal mindset. Having a cool head shorn of the beat of the four chambered heart.

    2. I’ve lived long enough to recognize that “the system” has been undermined not by a piece of the collective coming together in the strength of numbers to assert their righteous existence and needs be met but rather by those relative few enamored by and then obsessed by the calls of the Powell Memorandum to dedicate great wealth in the service of the 1% and its systematic drive for control and dominance of levers of power to ultimately manipulate and thwart the collective claim to decent living conditions. Such a whacked out imbalanced “system” is unnatural in the scheme of biological existence. If you view Bernie’s populism as an effort to “undermine the system” then how do you explain those who attack him for sabotaging the righteous aims of his followers for his “working with the system” rather than breaking from it to lead a 3rd party and fighting for his candidacy instead of capitulating to the choice of the Old Guard/Corporate Democratic Party? On a not so side note, Inverted Totalitarianism must be undermined. It is to Democracy what that tree plague was to the chestnut tree. This “God” of a tree was completely wiped out in this country with the exception of a few pilgrims scattered distant from their main populations.

    3. Patrick Powers….I appreciate the content and the friendly way you write. Yes. I felt like you were a friend sharing with me your experiences and your feelings. And, I could feel the sadness rise again, the impatience too, at the mention of Schumer and Pelosi, like too old shoes, no longer fitting, no longer protecting the Body and Soul of our People and Land.

  1. The evidence suggests that capitalism, the cause of climate change, loss of species diversity, war, homelessness, fake democracy, and atheism, cannot be stopped.
    This is largely because the mass media are owned by capitalists, and even government-owned media such as the BBC and the CBC are controlled by capitalism through their governments, which are in the hands of capitalists.

  2. Not sure how many other countries have deliberately maligned populism like America has, that it has become a “dreadful phenomenon” and deplorable as Frank says. But then again when American Nazi culture is allowed to run rampant and therefore co-opt it, of course it gets warped and disfigured.

    Populism, like democracy, should be defined in its ideal form but Americans won’t allow it. After all, democracy has come to mean freedom to go where you want, buy what you want & do what you want inside the capitalist boundaries, regardless of the fact its original intent is rooted in direct empowerment of each person in the political sphere to have a meaningful say in how society is organized and run.

    I’ve always liked Frank but this disconnection is perfectly embodied when he says that, since the beginning (!), America has always been “profoundly (!!) democratic” yet mere seconds later correctly says that only a tiny minority was allowed to participate in politics and that slaves, women, the poor were Constitutionally excluded. This is what irritates, hearing smart, well-read people regress into political myth. At least Frank seems to get populism right. But if you can’t get the far greater issue of democracy right…

    However if one of populism’s big “contributions” was to get money off the gold standard and onto that of government decree, then it laid the foundation for fiat currency and we all should by now see how that’s turned out. But I think there were far bigger forces that turned American money fiat in the early 1970s (Vietnam War, stiffing the UK when it wanted its gold back, rise of the Economic Hit Man to indenture developing countries, etc).

    And once again, Hillary did not call all Trump supporters ‘deplorable’. She said about half of his supporters simply wanted to overthrow the system because it had screwed them (ironically like Bernie supporters), then said there’s the other half who are the ‘basket of deplorables.’ I have never liked her but she was correct on that particular point. It’s right there in the video, not hard to look it up. Hate having to constantly correct this leftist myth.

    The assertion that the old labor movement wasn’t racist nor sexist would be challenged by Howard Zinn had he lived today. Zinn does write about this in People’s History of the US.

    Great interview, I’ve always liked Thomas Frank and have him (and Robert) on my reading list. Question is which book to get first.

  3. Great article/conversation…Ive studied populism quite a bit and I just boil internally when I read all those attacks on modern “populism” because its equated with tcrumpass and his twisted followers who have made a mockery of political discourse in this country…nice to finally read someone address this bullshit…btw, I have T Frank’s “What’s the Matter…” on my book shelf and just loved reading it…and Robert Sheer, having grown up in the Bronx, the son of Jewish Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, I just need to know: Where did you go to high school? thanks for your life time of work!

  4. Great article/conversation…Ive studied populism quite a bit and I just boil internally when I read all those attacks on modern “populism” because its equated with tcrumpass and his twisted followers who have made a mockery of political discourse in this country…nice to finally read someone address this bullshit…btw, I have T Frank’s “What’s the Matter…” on my book shelf and just loved reading it…and Robert Sheer, having grown up in the Bronx, the son of Jewish Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, I just need to know: Where did you go to high school? thanks for your life time of work!

  5. I enjoyed Thomas Frank’s side of this conversation quite a lot.
    He nails an important point of our Orwellian world. Money, power, politics, affluence, educated idiots — they are all affecting our definitions of words, particularly how journalists use words.
    Take the definition of a chair. No journalist in his or her right mind would ever interview someone who said “all couches should now be called chairs,” unless that person happened to be a billionaire or a political figure who could destroy the journalist’s career if the journalist did not have a clear debate about what is a chair and what is a couch, giving both sides equal opportunity to express themselves even though it’s an absurd discussion.
    We see that with words now like “populism“ and “socialism.” Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. He has never called for the abolition of the owning of private property. He does not call for central planning of the entire economy. He is a democratic socialist, the same way our founding fathers were when they established public libraries and fire departments. But because powerful, wealthy imbeciles consciously misuse the term, and similarly semi-literate morons who vote as a bloc and don’t know or don’t want to know the definition of the word “socialism” — because of all this nonsense, even so-called liberal media outlets label Bernie Sanders a socialist. It is a freakish and scary state of affairs when even professionals use words for their connotative meaning and not their denotative meaning. Are we all poets or idiots? Perhaps both?
    I was dismayed during the 2016 campaign when journalists continually offered the false equivalency between Bernie Sanders’ populism and Donald Trump‘s populism. There is a huge difference. Donald Trump is a psychopath. He enjoys destroying people and destroying connections within society. He’s malevolent. He incites violence. Bernie Sanders seeks to bring people together and provide benevolent solutions to seemingly intractable problems. That was never discussed. Bernie is a populist. Trump is a populist. They are both the same. They are both bad.
    But in a nation where people say “terrific“ to mean good, where they say “incredible” to mean excellent, where people say “literally “when they mean figuratively, where educated idiots with MBAs frequently say “irregardless” when they mean irrespective, it is not surprising that our nation struggles with more abstract terms such as “populism” and “socialism.”
    It would be great, however, if all the people who rant about Bernie being a socialist and rant about socialism in general, if they could be identified and when their house catches on fire and they call the fire department, if they could be required to give a credit card number before the fire department comes over and put out the fire, that would be great. It might help them understand the difference between socialism and democratic socialism, between populism for the people and populism against the people.
    So, yes, thank you for publishing what Thomas Frank had to say. Quite insightful.

  6. amerikans villify populism in other nations–Hungary, Austria, Belarus, Russia, Argentina, etc, where it reflects a collective awareness of shared values and needs. Without this and ideology populism generally fails. the oligarch dim party most reflects this failure

  7. Hmm. The “correct” definition of democracy isn’t what most people today think it is. And the same can be said for the correct definition of communism, socialism, environmentalism and so on.

    Populism isn’t even the correct term to apply to Trumpism, which was (and still is), a bastardized form of fascism, self-interest, anti-intellect, anti-science, anti-fact, “false narrative” and grandiose fabrications.

    Trump fans hate facts, truth, science, research, experts, professionals, et al., and instead rely upon connedspiracy, fiction, fabrications and self-interest. Trump isn’t popular, he’s a cult leader, and Trumpism is the cult.

  8. The history of populism speaks for itself, regardless of the cognitive gymnastics of the pile of demagogic propaganda bile above, or any other Neo Progressive attempts to undermine democracy in the name of its agenda.

    Democracy is an institutional construct. Populism tires to circumvent that, and regardless of whether it emanates from the political right or the political left, the result had always been the same – an authoritarian attempt to destroy the very foundation that made democracy the only political regime that was able to instill significant improvement in the life of most of its participants , namely its institutions and processes.

    1. You clearly know nothing of the populist movement headed by William Jennings Bryan.

      1. Bryan was a progressive Democrat who worked through the existing democratic institutions, not a populist who tried to undermine and circumvent that system, which is what populists from both right (Trump) and left (Sanders) always try to do.

        Populism, rather than a variation of democracy, is its competitor, trying to impose its policies from outside the existing democratic institution.

  9. So there it is – yet ANOTHER website that censors critical commentary. Your bookmark is now removed. You are obviously not interested in the informed opinions of your prospective readership and you’re ensuring that none of the readership can communicate their opinions to each other. That makes you a fascist. Yes, this is a private blog, but there is no moral or valid reason for you to censor insightful commentary unless this just angered your confirmation bias. Goodbye.

  10. I remember listening to a speech by Bill Clinton, it might have been a State of the Union. He expropriated every current Republican talking point. I told a friend I could see why the Repubs were so unhappy with him, he just stole their platform. I had no idea what a disaster that would be. I also remember, in one case, Clinton saying that jobs would go to Mexico and that was why the unions were opposing NAFTA. Those would be the same unions that helped him win the election.

    I have seen some research showing that “progressive” policies like better schools and health care are supported by large majorities. But our governments categorically fail to pursue “popular” desires and needs. This is the essence of the support for Trump that would have been for Democrats. The Dems screwed them.

    The decades of shafting is also why right-wing propaganda finds such a receptive audience. A lot of what they are saying is true. But we hear: “Why are they voting against their own interests?” Actually they are not because the Dems aren’t working in the “people’s interest”.

    Give it what ever title you want, but the country needs the left version of the “Tea Party” to pull the Dem party back to the left. The “Squad” are a start. I believe there are a lot of Trump voters who would go with that.

    I recall that Bernie went to a group of Trump supporters a while back. He gave his usual spiel and he was applauded at the end. Now that scares the hell out of the Pelosis and the Shumers.

    1. “I recall that Bernie went to a group of Trump supporters a while back. He gave his usual spiel and he was applauded at the end. Now that scares the hell out of the Pelosis and the Shumers.”

      We know that Trump and Sanders share the same cult-like stock. Considering who Trump and his pro-fascist, pro-racist, pro-sexist, anti-choice, anti-public education, anti-regulation, anti-social security, anti-environment, xenophobic ignorant followers are, the fact that you think it is a point in favor of Sanders is bizarre at best. And if YOU are not afraid from what it says about Sanders and the US electorate in general, than you are truly from the same alternate virtual universe Trump’s hordes are from.

      And the names are Schumer and Pelosi. Even if you have no respect for them, they represent tens of millions of voters for many years. The idea that the disrespect your infantile and juvenile misnaming of representatives of more people than ever voted for Sanders is a political statement is another Trump-like and conservative-like bad habit Neo Progressive demagogues, propaganda buffs, and f@@ls like you have adopted from the right, aiding, abetting, and intensifying the decay of the political discourse here and around the globe.

  11. Robert, you articulated the core idea of America and the American Dream in my mind by saying “… you have hit upon the most underappreciated factor of American life, which is about its liberation of individuals from the confinement of class.” I would add, and I think this is part of human nature in societies that accumulate material wealth, from Babylon and Egypt until today, that freeing someone from the limits to their class, eventually gives rise to a new class system (“New Money”).

    However, I don’t think that the calcification of class we see today is something that will last. Just as agricultural or industrial societies are so different from nomadic tribes, with the advance of technology, society can evolve to the point where the hoarding of knowledge or material wealth are less and less justifiable or advantageous even. Think of something from popular culture, like Star Trek, and how war or material greed are almost obsolete in a society that could make anything. We are far, far from that, but the possibility may become more realized with advanced AI and robotics production.
    I do not see a better society, ultimately, until humans gain greater wisdom and compassion, but our behavior is shaped by our environment, and technology helps create that.

    Some in my circle believe that humanity will not change, that there will always be the rich and the poor. I don’t agree with that, as how we see ourselves today is very different from what humans were 1,000 years ago or will be 1,000 years from now.

  12. The little blue books that I remember were crudely drawn pornographic versions of popular comic strips, and I think they were very useful. You could do just fine if you never heard of Plato but it would be a real handicap not to know any sexual variations. It is hard to believe today, but at that time people were not supposed to talk about sex.

    1. In your view, apparently,dissent equals disrespect. Perhaps, it is odd for you to understand respectful dissent is a right in the USA that is constitutionally respected. Is it your view too that all those people who were absolutely convinced the earth was flat were “disrespected” when its roundedness was realized? And, too, is it your view that all those people who believed women should not have the vote were “disrespected” by the suffragettes who insisted and won it as a “right”? You, I sense, have a lot of bedfellows in this department. And, not at all surprising as Agent Chaos teaches us daily to be disrespectful of those who differ from us. Respect and decency in conversations between those holding different views (who disagree/dissent) requires a psychological and emotional development and a maturity of personal power that certainly skipped over Newt Gingrich, the master proponent of treating like dirt those with whom you disagree. A kind of chronic allergy to civilized discourse, a dis-ease seriously afflicting Tea Party adherents and their political spawn. No uncommonly a characteristic of adolescent development.

  13. Speaking of The Atlantic speaking of populism. . . My eyebrows raised several years ago to find one Frum at the editorial helm and recently to have found out Steve Jobs’ widow is now the largest shareholder of the enterprise. . . .
    Where do we go from here? Or do we?

    1. I forgot to mention what a rewarding interview this was as well; Thomas Frank is a ‘Good Guy” and most certainly the representative of Midwestern values that define a lad who was ‘raised right.’

      I would offer what may be a little bit of insight as to where labor and the Left got separated in the 60s was the emergence of the Hardhats as the 60s wound down and the hippies and antiwar radical leftists were gasoline for their ire and subsequent fire.
      Adding to the tumult were the series of profoundly affecting and violent divorcings of our national psyche were the assassinations, the riots, COINTELPRO, ad nauseum. So much ” what could have been.” But we can pick any number of dates in those decades, Henry Wallace getting the boot in 1944 remains a most significant one in my mind as an opening catalyst for what was to follow.
      And suddenly, “Jeepers!,” here we are. What’s left of us.
      Thanks again for this interview, Bob and Thomas.

  14. “I would offer what may be a little bit of insight as to where labor and the Left got separated in the 60s was the emergence of the Hardhats as the 60s wound down and the hippies and antiwar radical leftists were gasoline for their ire and subsequent fire.”

    “This is the essence of the support for Trump that would have been for Democrats. The Dems screwed them.”

    I remember the hardhats rushing to quell the antiwar protests in 1968, yet I never heard anything about their employers complaining that the hardhats were not doing the jobs they were well-paid to perform while they were out hippie-punching. The silence screams.

    I remember that Nixon won the support of most of the hardhats and their ilk in 1968 (except for those who found George Wallace more to their tastes).

    I recall questioning the juxtaposition these two ideas, and asking myself at the time how the hardhat types could be abandoning the “public position” (as it was known much later) of the Democratic Party when it was the Party which had made their unions (and the pay and benefits unions provided them) even possible in the first place, and instead backing Nixon and his overt program to take those benefits away from them.

    There is a book hiding in this scenario.

    But back to my thought: It’s clear to me with the bright light of hindsight that it wasn’t so much that the Democrats screwed Labor without provocation, but in reaction to Labor abandoning the Democrats and going to Nixon. It’s like the thought of the Party was, “Since you aren’t with us, you must be against us”. By 1976, the Party animosity toward Labor was overt, and with nowhere else to go, Labor went to Reagan in 1980. We all remember how Labor did nothing about PATCO, so that was clearly a huge error in judgment on the part of both the Democrats and Labor to have allowed this to become possible.

    Since then, the Democrats have only learned one thing: how to be a poor substitute for real Republicans. Labor has not learned anything, for when the Democrats snap their fingers the unions come running. The union leaders do the Party’s bidding and work to get their candidates elected – and get nothing for their efforts but empty promises that it might happen next time.

    But the rank-and-file vote Republican. And the Democratic Party now pursues support from Republican voters over the working class voters.

    It took an economic collapse to bring about the rise of the common man in the 1930s, and another such collapse is on the way. This time, however, all of the political power is in the hands of the employers, for nothing they do has discredited the class like the excesses of the 1920s did once the Great Depression erupted. There will be no rise of the common man this time, for fascism has no viable opposition strong enough among the people to withstand oppression.

    This time, America First wins – and We the People lose.

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