Author/Historian Thomas Frank On Why The Democratic Party Needs To Reclaim Populism From Republicans

Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than five million votes, but still squeaked out a relatively narrow victory in the Electoral College. And he did it against one of the least popular candidates in history, in the midst of a pandemic, while his party was losing seats in congress.

Whether Democrats will come to see this as a glorious victory for the Third Way or as a belated wake-up call will, to some extent, determine what they do for the next four years. That even amid a steady drumbeat of “appealing to the white working class is inherently racist,” Biden’s support among minorities was less than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 should be a big red flag.

From his first book, What’s The Matter With Kansas (2004) through Listen, Liberal (2016) to this year’s The People, No, author and historian Thomas Frank has been documenting the way the Democratic party has been increasingly shedding its New Deal, working-class coalition roots to become the party of the educated professional class: a largely non-ideological coalition of effective managers who evangelize the meritocracy. This seemed like a brilliant strategy if judged only by election victories for Bill Clinton(*) and Barack Obama(**), but, as Frank points out, it was the Democratic party’s rightward lean in the 90s that “coincided with a period of ever more conservative governance” and set the stage for Trumpism in the first place. (*Who won in 1992 with just 43% of the popular vote, thanks to Ross Perot) (**Who campaigned as a transformative progressive, at least in the beginning).

As Frank recently wrote in The Guardian, “It turns out that when the party of the left abandons its populist traditions for high-minded white-collar rectitude, the road is cleared for a particularly poisonous species of rightwing demagoguery. It is no coincidence that, as Democrats pursued their professional-class ‘third way,’ Republicans became ever bolder in their preposterous claim to be a ‘workers’ party’ representing the aspirations of ordinary people.”

In The People, NO: A Brief History Of Anti-Populism, Frank attempts to explain a few interconnected stories: the history of the populist movement in the United States, the elitist (and usually racist) language used to denigrate it, and the way racist demagogues eventually co-opted some of the original populists’ language. Finally, he connects it to the environment of today, in which Donald Trump, in unconsciously parroting the co-opted, “anti-elitist” talking points of demagogues past, has inadvertently convinced a significant swath of the media and the political class that populism is racism. When in fact, it has a strong tradition of anti-racism and trans-racial solidarity.

I spoke to Frank this week about whether — with another centrist, third-way Democratic president on the way — the party can still reclaim some of its old coalition and harness some of the forces of “populism” for good, not to mention nostalgia and even religion.

What is your take on the election? Will Democrats see any impetus for improving their messaging or is this just going to be four years of arguing about whether this was or was not a massive victory?

Wow. That’s a good question. Messaging is a chronic problem for the Democrats, but it’s also a way of acknowledging that they did a bad job with messaging, which they will often do. It is a way of brushing off the deeper problem of the Democratic party, which is that they’ve abandoned their base and their identity. That’s a much bigger problem that has consequences for society. It’s like we’re running a 30-year experiment here in America in what happens to a middle-class society when the party of the left decides it doesn’t want to be a party of the left anymore, which is what they decided back in the Clinton days. That has been as consequential for the big change in our society as has the radicalization of the Republicans. The two go hand-in-hand. As Republicans push further to the right, the Democrats concede more, and sort of reimagine themselves and emerge as another party of the market, of the elite. So, there’s two parties of the elite in this country. It’s a curious situation.

In terms of the Democrats’ shift to the center, that was kind of the Clinton third-way thing, and then we sort of interpreted that as this winning strategy, but didn’t Clinton only win in the first place because Ross Perot screwed up that entire election?

Yeah, that’s right, and then screwed up the election in ’96 too. When I was writing Listen, Liberal, a lot of it is a sort of study of the Clinton years. I decided to do that part of the book by reading the pro-Clinton literature, the books that regard him as a great president, and there’s a lot of them. They admire him, they’ll tell you why they admire him, and you go down the list and it’s these five things: bank deregulation, NAFTA, the great crime crackdown, welfare reform. Every single one of them has ended in disaster. All of them were Republican agenda items that Bill Clinton got done.

It’s important to remember, American politics isn’t just about teams winning. There’s a lot of other things that go on — legislating, ruling, and the things that third-way, new Democrats have stood for have all turned to ashes in their mouths.

But now we’ve elected another third-way-type Democrat-

That’s right. We sure have.

–so now, I feel like a lot of Democrats are just going to see this as, “Well, we won.” Do you have an answer to why we need to move away from the third-way even though it won?

The main response is because the third-way has yielded policy disaster. It’s led to soaring inequality. There’s no labor movement to speak of. Kids coming out of college are routinely $100,000 in debt. The bill of grievances, the decline and disappearance of the middle-class, all that is due to the third-way. On the one hand, I don’t really care if they succeed at winning elections here and there. It’s really not a great accomplishment. We have a two-party system locked in by law. Neither party is ever going to go extinct, and even with the biggest scoundrel in the world, Donald Trump, at their helm, the Republicans showed us that they can still win an election. So, [winning] was really not that great an accomplishment.

But the bigger problem is that their way of governing basically gave us Donald Trump. Obviously, Donald Trump’s base, as they’re now referred to, is the white working class. That’s how journalists refer to them. He talks about the Republican party as a worker’s party. If you watched his convention and his speech at the convention, he talked constantly about all the great things that he’s getting done for working-class people — which is a tremendous exaggeration, and in my mind, he hasn’t done very much for them at all — nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that he is trying to move the Republican party into that market niche. This is only possible when the Democrats have abandoned that market niche in the first place.

I would actually go further, Vince, this is the story of our lives. This goes back to Nixon. This is not just Donald Trump. This has been gradually building for years and it’s only just come to a head.

So Newt Gingrich had the “Contract with America” with a specific list of demands, but didn’t that sort of start in the populist movement and with FDR, where there was a specific workers’ bill of rights?

Oh, yeah. Well, there’s been many examples of people having an agenda like that, but yeah, Roosevelt had the Second Bill of Rights, is what it was called. I don’t think any of that ever got passed. Then you had Martin Luther King had this thing called the Freedom Budget, which was very similar. It’s basically calling for a massive expansion of the New Deal or Great Society stuff. People have been proposing things like that for a long… Well, nobody’s proposing that anymore. People like me are, but none of the leadership is.

I guess the big question is why don’t the Democrats bring up FDR as much as the Republicans bring up Ronald Reagan? I got into an argument with someone the other day who said that the New Deal was only popular because it excluded black people.

That’s hilarious. What’s the only New Deal program that’s ever been repealed? It’s AFDC, welfare. The reason it was repealed is because it was perceived as being too generous to black people. So, the exact opposite is the case. Black voters, up until after the Civil War, were loyal Republican voters, and they remained loyal to the Republican party up until 1936. This is the year that they, by and large, and it’s not universal, it’s not a monolithic group, of course, but by and large, they shifted over to the Democratic party. It’s a famous story and it’s because of the New Deal. With The New Deal, black Americans were able to get jobs through the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps and stuff like this. Now, there were parts of the New Deal that were poorly crafted. Sharecroppers were not able to take advantage of the farm programs, but there were a lot of white people who were sharecroppers too back in those days.

The worst part was redlining. In their home loan program, the New Deal people, they accepted the real estate industry’s redlining — something that had existed for a long time, but they accepted it as part of their program for giving loans, and it was a terrible mistake. We now that know, but I don’t know how apparent that was at the time. It led to terrible consequences because white people were able to build wealth through real estate and black people weren’t. Nevertheless, there are those aspects of it that were bad, but it wasn’t perceived that way at the time. In fact, there were all these racist attacks on the New Deal and on Roosevelt, with the eugenics people and stuff like that. There’s a whole chapter on it in the book.

I mean, the book is about the anti-populism movements.

Anti-populism bleeds over into racism all the time. For a really simple reason: they’re both about maintaining social hierarchies. So, anti-populism, the hierarchy usually is the hierarchy of social class, but back then, that also meant racial hierarchies. That was an important element to it. The two were cross-fertilizing each other all the time, the racism and the anti-populism.

Was also painting populism as racist, was that part of the anti-populism strategy?

You didn’t see that until years later, the 1950s. So, Richard Hofstadter famously said that populism was anti-Semitic. That was debunked very quickly afterwards. When it started being called racist was with George Wallace in the late 60s. That’s when people decided that that’s what the word meant. It’s really weird how these things move. First, they defined him as populist, then they said, “Yeah, he’s a real bigot,” which he was. Then it just became a hop, skip, and a jump to say that’s what populism is. Nevermind that it actually wasn’t that.

What was the populist tradition in America? I know that’s what the book’s about, but in a nutshell.

To put it really, really briefly, populism is trans-racial working-class movements that are looking for economic democracy. So, the Farmers Alliance, back in the 1890s, the Labor Movement in the 1930s, I would say, and then Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, there was a big populist flavor to that. He was working on that when he died, on moving the Civil Rights movement into the economic realm.

It seems like part of that tradition was, “here is what you get out of voting for us, we’re going to fight for X, Y and Z.” Now, I’m not sure what the Democratic message is. What do you get when you vote for us?

Yeah, well, you get inspirational figures. I was just reading the New York Times this morning and there’s a big op-ed about how inspirational Kamala Harris is. It doesn’t say anything about what Kamala Harris believes in but what an inspiration she is as a person. So, you get that. Look, it depends on who you are. If you’re Silicon Valley, you get all kinds of favors from them. You get everything you’ve ever dreamed of. If you’re a big donor to the Democratic party, you’re going to get all sorts of neat things. I don’t want to be too negative. At least we’ll get competence.

Yeah, a competent manager is, it seems like, the pitch now. Trumpism seems to confuse Progressives, but it seems like what he is offering is this in-group solidarity, even if it’s this really reactionary nationalistic version of in-group solidarity. Why can’t the Democrats seem to be able to build in-group solidarity the same way?

Do you mean in the sense that his base didn’t desert him?

I mean, I think people are confused about why he’s popular, but his pitch seems to be that you get the sense of belonging to a group, that you’re tough and no nonsense and anti-snowflake. I feel like the Trump rallies are kind of like, it feels like, Comic-Con, where they’re kind of dressing up and they get this sense of being together…

Okay, that is a good comparison. I’ve never heard that one before.

Anyway, I feel like the Democrats haven’t been able to build a sense of belonging in the same way. I was just curious whether the populist tradition did that and how you could recreate that.

It definitely did. Populism is about solidarity, it’s about people coming together around shared economic interests despite other things that would ordinarily divide them. My best example is the Labor Movement in the 1930s, which was, again, an enormous movement that tripled in size in the course of the decade. Before the ’30s, organized labor, by and large, had been about organizing skilled craftsman. What it became in the 1930s was reaching out to everybody — a lot of these people were immigrants or first-generation Americans — and bringing them together. That sense of solidarity was just overwhelming back then. It goes further than that. It’s kind of a cliché and kind of schmaltzy to even talk about it, but that sense of solidarity that you see in World War II movies where you’ve got all the different guys from different ethnic backgrounds and walks of life going to fight the Nazis. It’s a cliché, but that sense of solidarity was real and persisted for years after World War II. That really was identified with the Democratic party, with Roosevelt, with Truman. That’s really who we were and who the Democratic party was.

You say, “Well, where has that gone today?” Well, they don’t have that message anymore. It all came apart in the late ’60s. That’s the pat, historical answer, is that America was coming apart.

I don’t know if you’ve gotten to this part in the book yet, but there are all of these intellectuals from the late ’60s, they turn on organized labor and on working-class people in a really shocking way, including, among other things, blaming them for the Vietnam War. Which is a really remarkable thing to do because the Vietnam War is basically a product of the Harvard Political Science Department. I’m sorry, that’s a really mean thing to say. But yeah, the ’60s, this is when you have the rise of identity politics, though they had a different word for it at the time. Anyway, it’s manifestly anti-solidarity. You do see solidarity in the upper reaches of the professional elite in this country. They’re very respectful to one another. What’s funny is you don’t see any of that expressed by Democrats towards ordinary rank-and-file Americans anymore.

It seems like one of the things that this shift away from populism allowed the Republicans to do is it allowed them to own nostalgia. The “Make America Great Again” is like a recycled nostalgia-pimping slogan from Reagan.

Well, the master of that was Ronald Reagan. In some ways, that social solidarity from World War II and from the ’30s and ’40s, he repurposed that as his own selling point, this sort of Readers Digest, Frank Capra solidarity. This is the same president that basically de-industrialized this country, but he was very good at evoking that nostalgia. That was his calling card. He was kind of a nostalgic figure in a nostalgic period. This is also the time when people were watching Happy Days and The Waltons. Of course, he didn’t bring American back together again. Economically he tore this country apart. But [nostalgia] was the superficial appeal.

It seems like [Republicans] weaponized that yearning for a simpler time. But in reading about your history of the populist movement, it seems like the left could use that. FDR was wildly popular. It seems like they run away from it because they’re just used to attacking nostalgia on the grounds that it’s racist.

Yeah, which I don’t really understand because there’s also progressive nostalgia, nostalgia for a middle-class society where everybody could afford nice things. The society of the ’50s and ’60s. 30% or whatever of the country, of the working population, was in labor unions. Healthcare was affordable. College was affordable. You hear liberals talk about things like that, but you’re right, they don’t want to embrace nostalgia. I think I’m the only one that does. I’m like the only nostalgic liberal.

It’s the idea of progress. Liberals are given to the idea of progress. You remember when Obama used to say, “The arc of history bends in a certain way,” or whatever it is? He fundamentally believed that things always got better. When you believe that, you believe that the past is a bad place. This is flatly not true. Things change one direction, things change the other direction. Lyndon Johnson was a great president in some ways and a terrible president in other ways, but on, say domestic issues, he was a hell of a lot better than anybody we’ve had since then. Harry Truman proposed the best healthcare program — a lot better than Obamacare — in 1948.

The idea that history only moves in one direction is one of the greatest popular delusions out there. The arc of history doesn’t bend itself. It does whatever we make it do.

Some of the early populists that you write about, there was a religious tradition involved there, too, wasn’t there?

Well, yes, some of them were, but it’s important that you put the emphasis on some. William Jennings Bryan was a very religious guy and later became this leader of the Fundamentalists. He had this very sad, embarrassing career trajectory where he became this leading Fundamentalist later on, but it’s important to remember that he was at the famous monkey trial in Tennessee. The guy who argued on the opposite side was Clarence Darrow. Darrow was actually a Populist candidate for Congress. Bryan was always a Democrat, but Darrow was actually a Populist. Darrow was a serious Agnostic. So, if you read populist newspapers, they dabbled in a lot of cultural radicalism. Their mass-meetings had a kind of Evangelical flavor to them. They were styled on religious revivals.

But a lot of their leaders were not particularly religious people. There’s a term that they have in Kansas — the town infidel, the town atheist. In those days, that guy would have been a populist for sure. You know, the guy who’s scolding the church-goers for being hypocrites or something. So they had both evangelicals and your kind of more questioning types. The way they resolved that was just by never talking about it. They tried to avoid it.

There are a lot of things that I think are understandable about Trump, but the one that’s most confusing to me is how fervently he’s been able to get the Christian/Evangelical vote.

That is something I don’t understand. I know what their explanation for it is. They say “he might not be a man of God but he’s a tool of God,” but that doesn’t make any sense. You look back over the years and they demand that politicians be these really pure people and then to suddenly suspend those rules for this really awful guy… I honestly don’t really get it either, except to just blow the whole thing off as, they’re all hypocrites. But that’s not right either.

Is it just maybe the structural church reasons? Like the churches have become so…

Well, he did make them all these promises having to do with, I don’t even remember what they are anymore, but he was going to get their judges confirmed. There’s some tax issue that they’re dealing with and he was going to resolve it. He did make a straight-up politician promises to [churches], but then again, he also promised to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act! That guy would say anything.

Was there anything surprising you found in researching the book?

Just a point that I think is important, that we mentioned earlier, that anti-populism, up until very recently, went hand-in-hand with racism. This kind of shocked me when I discovered this. I have a lot of fun with these humor magazines from the 1890s. They’re cartoons attacking populism. I did not realize how incredibly racist these magazines were — racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. They hate immigrants, mock immigrants all the time, mock their accents, mock their appearance. They’re incredibly mean to black people — just vicious, and incredibly mean to Jews.

It’s actually difficult to read them it’s so loathsome. What’s funny is that they just included in their hierarchy of the world, where the WASP elite were naturally at the top, and people like farmers and industrial workers were just naturally grouped in with these ethnic groups that they hated so much. So, what’s interesting to me is the way that the whole modern critique of populism completely misunderstands the nature of anti-populism in those days. You see it again in the 1930s where you have those anti-New Deal speakers referring to eugenics. I did not know they did that. That was a complete surprise to me. “Populism” is now defined as racist demagoguery. The definition is absurd, but there is this larger connection in liberal minds that working-class movements are automatically racist movements or there’s something authoritarian about them. I’m here to say it just ain’t so.

Now there’s this argument about whether saying “socialism” and “defund the police” were helpful or hurtful to Democrats and their election chances.

Well, I don’t know because I haven’t seen the research on it yet. I know this about the word “socialism,” that Republicans are going to call you that no matter what. They called Joe Biden that! This is a guy that’s done so many favors for banks over the years… The thing about defund the police, again, I have no idea if it was helpful or not. I just don’t know. But I will say this, I think that it’s a shame that we have poisoned the word populism because that’s what American socialism is. Populism is the American language of class, and we’ve poisoned that word, but this socialist tradition in America is pretty limited. The populist tradition in America is massive and powerful and strong. The Democrats need to get in touch with that. I’ve been saying that all my adult life.

Well, here’s to hoping it’ll work this time!

[laughs] Yes.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.