The People, It Depends
On left populism
Thomas Frank. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. Holt, 2020.
It may be difficult to recall today, after a right-wing riot in the Capitol and the installation of the personification of the Democratic establishment in the White House, but as 2021 began, the most polarizing figure in leftist media was the comedian Jimmy Dore. In the last months of 2020, Dore rallied a surprisingly broad group of leftist influencers around his proposal for “progressive” Democratic representatives to refuse to confirm Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House until she agreed to bring Medicare for All (M4A) to a vote on the House floor. Cornel West, Susan Sarandon, Bernie Sanders’s former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray, podcaster and TV host Krystal Ball, and Chapo Trap House cohost Virgil Texas were just a few of the figures who expressed sympathy with Dore’s plan to #ForceThe-Vote. The basic idea: by bringing Medicare for All to the floor, the movement would unleash a vast wave of hitherto muted grassroots support for the legislation — possibly even a general strike. The outcry, at best, would compel skeptical legislators to vote for the bill. At worst, there would be new momentum for primarying anti-M4A representatives in 2022.
This apparently minor moment in the horror show of recent American political history encapsulates a peculiar theory of the American electorate that has become practically common sense among wide swaths of the American left. In 2016 Donald Trump’s stunning victory led many people to conclude that American voters were actually less, not more, conservative than they appeared. As repeated in books by Matt Stoller and Chris Arnade, articles by Matt Taibbi, Michael Tracey, and Angela Nagle, podcasts by Katie Halper and the Chapo Trap House crew, and everywhere on Twitter, this theory centers on the claim that the typical American voter was a “populist,” ardently reformist on economics but vaguely conservative on social issues. According to this argument, Hillary Clinton lost because she failed to promise the sweeping economic reform that most voters, deep down, hungered for. Instead, voters had looked to the candidate who promised disruption of some sort, and they repudiated Clinton’s culture-war scorn for the politically incorrect views of “ordinary people” on race and gender. On a bumper sticker: bernie would have won.
Force the Vote shared this vision of political change as a drama whose main characters are the Democratic Party leadership and an electorate that is passionately social-democratic but weakly partisan. Positive change happens when Democrats are willing to embrace ordinary voters’ sweeping legislative ambitions; the progressive cause is thwarted when Democrats, out of cowardice or cynicism, choose culture-war condescension over economic reform. That mythical creature, the median American voter, is simultaneously motivated by deep resentment about cancel culture and a burning desire for a Green New Deal. And it is Democratic Party leaders who will decide which of these impulses ultimately prevails. Of course, not everyone on the left accepts the “populist” theory of the electorate and political change. Plenty of prominent Bernie Sanders backers responded to Dore and his followers with scorn. But Dore was not just an opportunistic clown; he channeled assumptions that, over the past four years, have grown increasingly foundational in leftist media.
The recent past should raise difficult questions for this left-populist narrative. If Bernie would have won, then why did Biden beat him in a basically fair Democratic primary — not only by securing key endorsements from party bigwigs, totally normal in any election anywhere in the world, but also by vastly outperforming him among working-class voters on Super Tuesday? If only ambitious leftist economics can defeat the repertory of cultural resentment mastered by Donald Trump, then why did Joe Biden defeat Trump by running almost exclusively on platitudes about common decency and the soul of the nation? Conversely, if only courageous Democratic politicians can ignite the people, why did the largest grassroots protest movement in decades erupt last summer without any prompting from Democratic politicians — in fact despite substantial opposition from Democrats in both national and municipal office? Perhaps there are convincing answers to these questions, and of course Bernie certainly might have won (which is why I spent hours upon hours canvassing for him in the New England cold). But the rhetoric of left populism does not just offer a debatable view of the present; it is also a theory of 20th-century American history.
The ur-text of this narrative predates the Trump era. Published on the eve of George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? drew the now familiar strategic conclusion that if Democratic politicians dropped the hip consumerism, stopped buddying up to CEOs because they said the right things on social issues, and doubled down on an ambitious program of economic reform, blue-collar voters in Kansas and elsewhere would reassess their allegiance to the GOP. Frank was arguing that Bernie would have won when Bernie was still in the House of Representatives. Frank returned last fall with a new book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, his first since the 2016 election. The book served as a reminder of the left-populist media’s enduring enthusiasm for Frank, earning him a number of glowing reviews and podcast appearances from many of the same figures behind the Force the Vote campaign. (Frank had already gone on Dore’s show in 2017 to plug his 2016 book, Listen, Liberal.) The People, No also embedded Frank’s account of turn-of-the-millennium politics in a master narrative of US history stretching back to the 19th century. Embraced by a new generation of left-populists, Frank’s latest salvo is a useful window into the set of flawed assumptions that have calcified into today’s strategic dogma.
As its title suggests, The People, No is more about antipopulism than it is about populism itself. Frank imagines populism as a native force that sprouts perennially from the American soil. What changes is the extent to which elites accommodate themselves to the populist spirit or attempt to repress it. Frank sees the Gilded Age as the first major departure from the prelapsarian egalitarianism of the American founding. The consequence was the capital-P Populist movement, which he depicts as a multiracial coalition of farmers and industrial workers primarily unified by economic demands for railroad nationalization and an end to the gold standard. At first, elites succeeded in crushing Populism — first, by creating Jim Crow in the South to divide white and Black activists, and second, by spending lavishly on William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign against the Populist hero William Jennings Bryan.
This account falls apart from the start: Frank completely elides the origins of the United States in the violence of African slavery and Indigenous genocide. Readers will wait in vain for any acknowledgment of the mechanisms built into the Constitution to protect the ability of a small elite to own human beings. His treatment of the late 19th-century Populists is little better. Frank depicts Populism as a seamless expression of egalitarian principles, but the movement always had its own internal contradictions. Frank elevates short-lived instances of cross-racial solidarity in movements like the Farmers’ Alliance, a group of organizations that brought together midwestern white farmers and Southern Black sharecroppers to challenge predatory agricultural lending practices in the 1870s and ’80s. He acknowledges examples of racism and nativism among white Populist leadership — hence the success of Jim Crow in dividing the movement — but he insists that Populist racism was all just par for the course for the time, or a failure to live up to the “real” ideals of the movement. Black farmers in the South were always junior partners in the white farmer-dominated Populist coalition; so too were industrial workers, concentrated in Northern cities. While these movements overlapped with Populism in their aims and their social base, socialist leaders rejected Populism’s quasi-religious reverence for small property owners and its fixation on the large corporation — rather than capital as such — as the source of the working class’s troubles. Not for nothing did Daniel De Leon, cofounder of the Industrial Workers of the World, pronounce Populism an “exhalation of the dead past.”
Nonetheless, Frank privileges the Populists as the font of all subsequent American egalitarianism and dismisses explicitly socialist and Marxist movements as un-American imports that lack populism’s roots in national tradition. The New Deal is the ultimate horizon of Frank’s political imagination. In the 1930s, Frank argues, the Great Depression finally forced the American ruling class to rethink its unabashed elitism, leading inevitably to the rediscovery of the virtues of the populist tradition. The New Deal was at its heart, then, a cultural and rhetorical phenomenon with downstream economic consequences. He devotes orders of magnitude more attention and detail to poets like Carl Sandburg (whose epic The People, Yes gives the book its title), filmmakers like Orson Welles, and the oratory of FDR at his most fire-breathing than to the substantive economic policy of the President and his postwar successors. Frank even quotes, approvingly, labor secretary Frances Perkins’s remark that the New Deal was “basically an attitude.”
Defining the New Deal this way allows Frank to avoid reckoning with the tensions of the actually existing New Deal and with the material underpinnings of the postwar “middle-class society” that he aspires to re-create. (What Frank wants, above all, is to “reform capitalism from the bottom up and distribute its wealth more evenly,” his gloss on populist perennial wisdom.) Appeals to the economic vitality of the American people abounded throughout the New Deal — one word for the economic nationalism of the era might well be populism. But the details are less consistent with Frank’s romantic account. To the extent that the New Deal inherited the Populist legacy, it also inherited those contradictions and internal divisions Frank ignores.
The “middle-class society” of Frank’s midcentury memory is strangely placeless.Tweet
Today we tend to remember the New Deal era as a triumph for organized labor. Frank certainly shares this perception, which is not exactly wrong but is misleading. Particularly during Roosevelt’s first term, the New Deal did see an explosion of union membership and militancy. The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935 signaled a new era of unity and determination among industrial workers, compared with the status hierarchy endemic to earlier craft-based union federations. Labor leaders reacted with enthusiasm to the prolabor legislation of Roosevelt’s first year in office, Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933). Although Roosevelt initially opposed the most important piece of labor legislation of his political career, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), he eventually came around in the aftermath of the great 1934 strike wave, once the act carved out the disproportionately Black domestic and agrarian workforces in order to secure the support of Southern Democrats. The result remains the basic framework for American labor law to this day, and the energized CIO responded by helping deliver the 1936 election to Roosevelt.
But while labor continued to back the New Deal Democrats at the polls, it was an increasingly one-sided romance. Roosevelt always distrusted CIO president John Lewis, and during the war production ramp-up of the late 1930s and early ’40s the President opposed a series of pivotal CIO strikes. This ambivalence was not the result of any particular antilabor animus. Labor was simply not Roosevelt’s priority. Many New Deal liberals understood the Depression as a consequence of the exhaustion of the first phase of American economic development, concentrated in their minds in the industry of Northern cities. To overcome the Depression, these New Dealers believed it would be necessary to kickstart the process of “modern” economic development in the rest of the nation, in the mostly rural South and West. It was one thing to take action that benefited workers in the industrialized north, particularly in order to integrate them into a national consumer market. But the firms that employed those workers were not imagined as the future of the American economy. When the interests of labor came into conflict with employer profits in the South and West, as in the debate over the exclusions built into the Wagner Act, the Roosevelt Administration was willing to side with employers — not simply as a matter of political expediency, throwing a bone to racist Southern Democrats, but as a consequence of the Administration’s bedrock economic commitments. The left wing of the New Deal brain trust did believe that it was possible to industrialize the Sun Belt by raising wages and encouraging employers to adopt productivity-enhancing industrial technology. But when push came to shove, the Administration and its congressional allies were all too willing to allow Sun Belt capitalists to dictate terms.
The New Deal’s fundamental political vision was, in short, not based on class politics; it was a politics of national economic development. Roosevelt could rail against monied interests when they came into conflict with this vision, with their skepticism of nationalized electrification enterprises and opposition to redistributive policies aimed at juicing aggregate demand. But in the eyes of the New Deal’s leaders, labor and capital were equally capable of selfishly putting their own interests above the interests of the developing national economy.
For their part, congressmen from rural districts in the New Deal coalition deployed Populist rhetorical tropes about the virtues of small farmers to extract massive farm subsidies from the federal government. It was no accident that these funds did far more to bolster the power and profits of corporate agriculture than they did to help small farmers. To forestall this outcome, some liberal New Dealers then worked to deregulate the emerging long-distance trucking industry in the hope that small-proprietor truckers, many of them former farmers, might counterbalance the power of dominant food producers and their friends in the railroad industry. The deregulated trucking industry, however, did not break up the farm trusts. Instead, as the historian Shane Hamilton has shown, the new trucking industry provided an escape valve for small truck-owners who found Populist dreams of autonomy and proprietorship realized on the open road, even as they hauled loads for corporate behemoths. The result was corporate welfare for huge companies — one of the classic legacies of the New Deal, completely ignored by Frank — and a new constituency of reactionary anti-union small-business owners.
The “middle-class society” of Frank’s midcentury memory is strangely placeless. His relentless drive to sort ruling political attitudes into pro- and antipopulist bins leaves him incapable of imagining a political-economic regime that enriched some “ordinary people” but not others. But that was the nature of the program for national economic recovery, and later for war mobilization, begun under the Roosevelt Administration and continued by his successors. At the same time that New Deal economic policy led to the rise of the South and West, it triggered the onset of the deindustrialization of the Midwest and Northeast — a process that began in the ramp-up to World War II, not, as Frank tells it, in the late 1970s, when it merely accelerated. Regional boosters in the South and West took advantage of federal investment in infrastructure — for distribution, water, and electricity — to attract private investment and lay the foundation to benefit from the massive defense outlays of the 1940s and 1950s. In the postwar years, especially after the Taft-Hartley Act gutted labor law in right-to-work states, industrial giants based in the Midwest and Northeast shuttered their enormous factories and relocated production to smaller plants scattered across the “friendly business climate” of the Sun Belt. Meanwhile, new federal policy initiatives ensured the supply of cheap credit to white men, the small business leaders that Lisa McGirr calls “cowboy capitalists.” These deeply conservative entrepreneurs, typified by the Silicon Valley founder and eventual Nixon deputy defense secretary David Packard, frequently led specialized high-tech firms that supplied parts and research to larger manufacturers on a subcontracted basis. None of these businessmen were really fleeing the New Deal, even if their executives voted Republican and engaged in de rigueur histrionics about Rooseveltian socialism. They might not have wanted to admit it, but their rise was a product of federal policy.
The postwar prosperity that Frank yearns for, always unevenly distributed, rested on direct federal subsidies for immense corporations in the defense and agricultural sectors and the selective drafting and application of labor law and business regulation along the fracture lines of race and gender. Was this populism? The rhetoric was there: an Eisenhower-era propaganda campaign supported by the nascent Ad Council christened the new order “People’s Capitalism.” Middle-class consumers of the era certainly benefited from low prices and cheap credit. But if it was populism, it was not one that Frank has the conceptual tools to come to terms with. Nor, for that matter, is it one that we should aspire to re-create today.
Because Frank narrates the New Deal as a matter of attitude and mood, it is unsurprising that he narrates the dissolution of the social system created by the New Deal — what historians call the “New Deal order” of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — in similar terms. In Frank’s anti-elitist vision of the 20th century, it is still the elites who drive history. According to this account, something strange happened during the postwar decades: liberal intellectuals began to evince sympathy for the anti-Populist rhetoric of late-nineteenth-century reactionaries. Populism lost its capital P and became a catch-all synonym for anti-intellectualism and resentment as embodied by Joseph McCarthy. By the 1970s, the Democratic Party establishment had tricked itself into redefining elitism as progressivism.
In reality, the mid-century United States was unstable and racked by contradiction throughout the New Deal order; liberal elitism was hardly key to its dissolution. Beginning in the 1960s, several broad nonelite constituencies began to push against the limits of the consensus — particularly workers of color, whose fortunes had been deliberately sacrificed to make the New Deal function. California farmworkers, excluded from the Wagner Act, unionized and won contractual protections under the leadership of César Chavez and Dolores Huerta, despite the opposition of growers and some establishment unions. Black manufacturing workers, relegated to what William Seabron described as the “meanest and dirtiest jobs” even in union plants, revolted in radical rank-and-file organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Activists in the Black Freedom Movement also confronted the militarism that fueled the mid-century economy. Martin Luther King Jr. called for an end to the Vietnam War so that its budget could be redistributed to fund welfare programs and public-sector employment. Through one lens, these struggles might be regarded as attempts to secure inclusion within the New Deal order while leaving its political economy unexamined. But it was precisely because full inclusion in the New Deal order was structurally impossible that these movements pointed beyond themselves toward more radical horizons — a trajectory that both their most revolutionary allies and their most fearful conservative opponents understood clearly.
The New Deal order was simply too fragile for its winners to prioritize solidarity with less-protected workers.Tweet
Vietnam was the flash point that catalyzed King’s transition from an uneasy ally to an outspoken critic of Lyndon B. Johnson — and his move to explicitly reject capitalism in favor of socialism. If his initial critique of the war aimed to perfect the New Deal order, the Johnson Administration’s obduracy exposed the system’s broken foundations for all to see. King’s opposition to Vietnam, however, is entirely absent from Frank’s lengthy discussion of him in The People, No. In general, Frank treats the antiwar movement with dripping contempt. In his telling, ending the war was a preoccupation of the white student elite, who justified their disregard of ordinary people “because those poor folks often turned out to think America needed to fight communism in Vietnam.” (Whether the Vietnamese victims of the American defense economy count as ordinary working people for Frank remains unclear.)
But Frank’s elision of left-wing labor militancy during the same period is an even more revealing analytical failure. His neglect of the split between the labor establishment and rank-and-file radicals allows him to set up a misleading opposition between relatable, culturally conservative hard hats and elitist white-collar eggheads. But stretching back to FDR, the political-economic framework of the New Deal order relied on union leaders to modulate wage demands to constrain inflation and safeguard corporate profits. Workers had been expected to sacrifice for the overall stability of American capitalism, and the beginning of the 1970s — marked by inflation (due to federal Vietnam expenditures) and a squeeze in corporate profits (due to imports from Germany and Japan) — was exactly the kind of conjuncture in which things were supposed to play out the same way. This time, though, labor leaders proved largely powerless to contain the demands of the insurgent, often Black-led rank-and-file movements, who began engaging in wildcat strikes in unprecedented numbers.
What these movements represented was the supersession of the supposedly populist consciousness of the postwar era by a new consciousness of class struggle. Postwar leaders of the New Deal order had depicted economic growth as a positive-sum game: there was no need to fight over how the pie was divided so long as everyone’s slice was getting bigger. Squeezed by inflation and international competition, the radical labor movements of the 1960s asserted that the working class deserved a larger slice, whether the overall pie was growing or not. If corporations passed on the bill for wage hikes to middle-class consumers in the form of rising prices (arguably the most popular explanation at the time for the inflation of the 1970s), that might be regrettable, but it wasn’t the responsibility of workers like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement to deal with it. They had sacrificed enough.
The radical labor movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s ultimately failed because they proved unable to overcome the divergences in short-term interests that the postwar political economy had established among a working population divided by geography, race, and gender. Over the course of the 1970s, many blue-collar white workers in the deindustrializing and rural US chose to ally with small business owners and corporate plutocrats rather than to join with a cross-racial, working-class movement that seemed to threaten their short-term livelihoods. When the unionized truckers in the Teamsters collaborated with growers to bust the United Farm Workers union in 1970, or when 200 white UAW members broke up a largely Black wildcat strike at three Chrysler plants in 1973, or when the AFL-CIO organized one thousand union construction workers to attack an anti-war rally in the aftermath of Kent State, they were not simply troubled by their opponents’ cultural elitism, as Frank suggests. These groups perceived — correctly — that their already tenuous middle-class livelihoods depended on precisely those features of the New Deal–order economic edifice that the radicals were attacking: racist labor market stratification, wage increases carefully managed by union leaders to avoid provoking capital flight, and torrents of federal defense spending.
Over the course of the 1970s, these conflicts sparked not only resistance to the radicals but a more profound reassessment of the New Deal order among those who felt they had the most to lose: the white, blue-collar workers who were once junior partners in the New Deal coalition but had seen their fortunes slide, beginning later in the Roosevelt Administration and intensifying after 1965. The New Deal order was simply too fragile for its winners to prioritize solidarity with less-protected workers. In turn, escalating white resentment and the failure of the project to topple the racist hierarchies of the New Deal order only deepened the racial segmentation of the working class, driving many former Black radicals toward a centrist or even conservative suspicion of the possibility of multiracial political progress.
Meanwhile, the Sun Belt cowboy capitalists who had profited from the New Deal were gripped by a similar fear that the radical left would upset the delicate equilibrium that had allowed them to thrive. The small businessmen of the Sun Belt had come to a limited détente with the New Deal order in the 1940s and 1950s because it appeared that they would be able to benefit from government largesse without having to concede to government control. But in the 1960s, if the federal state was even considering bowing to activist pressure to fill in the gaps of New Deal–era labor policy or redistributing defense spending to the welfare state, that bargain no longer made sense. To the horror of the Republican establishment, cowboy capitalists propelled the ultraconservative former Phoenix Chamber of Commerce leader Barry Goldwater to the top of the party’s ticket in 1964. Goldwater got crushed, but two years later a similar constituency put Ronald Reagan in the California Governor’s Mansion and the national political limelight. He would pick up where Goldwater left off. Whether the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations were ever as intimidated by radical movements as conservative businessmen feared is dubious at best. But the instability of the status quo was there for all to see, and it was by no means as obvious at the time as it is in retrospect that the ultimate conclusion to the crisis would be conservative in nature.
Downwardly mobile white blue-collar workers and upwardly mobile white small business owners met in the grassroots of the conservative movement. The most substantial failing of The People, No is that it adheres to Frank’s thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas: that elites manipulated “ordinary people” into the movement with pseudo-populist culture-war rhetoric while enacting their real economic agenda behind the scenes. In fact, when rank-and-file conservatives repudiated the New Deal order, the economic and cultural were so thoroughly intertwined as to be inseparable.
Before they were loyal to national politicians, many workers were loyal to particular firms and employers. The economy that replaced the New Deal order was built by industries that kept alive the capital-P Populist dream of small proprietorship and dignified, autonomous work, even as good jobs in manufacturing and family farming became increasingly scarce. “We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited,” Populist leader William Jennings Bryan thundered in 1896. “The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer” — that is, if his work was productive and self-directed. For many ordinary people, heirs to the Populist tradition, “business man”–style wage work was an appealing alternative to the welfare state dependency — or union dependency — that the contemporary left was depicted as pushing. For all of Frank’s rhetorical sympathy for white “working people,” he is oddly disinterested in the places where they actually worked.
Displaced small farmers had moved into long-distance trucking since the early New Deal period, but it was in the 1960s and 1970s that independent trucking came into its own as one of the great blue-collar romances. An apparent alternative to the corporate bureaucracy and heavy-handed Teamsters union that dominated the industry, the independent trucker burst onto the scene, innumerable country ballads extolling him as one of the last species of American male who truly worked for himself. (“I’m independent,” Kris Kristofferson’s trucker character proclaimed in Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 film Convoy. “There ain’t many of us left.”) Pressure from rank-and-file independent truckers then complemented the manufacturing and shipping lobbies’ successful attempt to deregulate transportation during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The siren song of right-wing working-class populism was not only heard in trucking. Franchised fast food, another artifact of the New Deal order’s investment in auto infrastructure, offered the promise of rapid advancement from menial work to management or even bona fide small business ownership — one of the excuses for keeping wages for entry-level work at poverty levels. Even as corporate franchisees emerged to buy up licenses for dozens of locations at a time, the franchise structure distanced particular sites from the international brand and preserved a simulacrum of community embeddedness.
Up-and-coming retail firms like Amway also used organizational methods to offer employees a taste of what the management literature sometimes called “simulated entrepreneurship.” Amway’s multilevel marketing structure flushed its liability downstream to its often-indebted sales force, but this organizational approach did, at least on paper, provide the opportunity to “build your own business.” Amway’s intensely evangelical Christian internal culture is infamous today. But it’s not as if — extrapolating from Frank’s story about Republican Party culture-war tactics — Amway used Christianity to get unwitting employees in the door to do its economic bidding. On the contrary, Amway’s history is a reminder of the deep intertwining of American Christian culture with economic values of hard work, personal responsibility, and self-ownership. At the end of his life, William Jennings Bryan himself was most famous not for his Populist advocacy but for his outspoken biblical literalism.
The most important post–New Deal retail firm was Walmart. Here too, as the historian Bethany Moreton has written, economic and cultural populism were inseparable. Walmart’s leaders understood the anxieties about proletarianization that its predominantly rural workforce had inherited from the Populist period. Managers worked diligently to encourage employees to conceive of themselves as “associates” rather than workers. They would not simply sell products but would “serve” customers, in an explicitly Christian fashion. Walmart’s practice of hiring wives to work in sales and husbands to work in distribution sought to reforge the family as an economic unit, as it had been before the late 19th-century wave of industrialization and incorporation. Wages were low, but the result was “always low” prices for the stores’ community-based clientele — including its workforce.
As Walmart expanded, the middle-class consumers of Sun Belt suburbia also came to benefit from its always low prices. For the cowboy capitalists, low prices were a hedge against government dependency. By supporting supply chain deregulation and resisting unionization and minimum-wage hikes, consumers could continue to enjoy the “American standard of living” without having to rely on government handouts or high wages attained through class struggle. Behind middle-class consumerism lay the producerism of the Populists’ favorite scripture verse: “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” Low prices were prices that the middle class could pay, ostensibly, with the sweat of their brow.
Walmart workers and shoppers were not loyal to Walmart “because of” Walmart’s cultural conservatism and “despite” its economic conservatism. Rather, Walmart formed a nexus where economic and cultural conservatism were inseparable and even indistinguishable. As with Amway and McDonald’s, Walmart’s strategy was masterminded by elite leaders capable of astonishing cynicism. But the cynicism of elite leaders does not entail, as Frank and other contemporary left-populists often imply, that the commitment of “ordinary working people” to institutions like Amway, McDonald’s, and Walmart — or the Republican Party — is shallower than it appears. Rather, conservative populism fed on the powerful compatibility between widely and firmly embraced cultural values and the economic interests of particular capitalists.
It’s Hillbilly Elegy for social democrats.Tweet
Like many white blue-collar workers, middle-class Sun Belters also dreamed the Populist dream of family capitalism. Instead of the independent trucker, their cultural heroes were the new class of billionaires that historian Steve Fraser calls “populist plutocrats.” These men were not anonymous corporate overlords but charismatic leaders of empires that they religiously kept in the family. Some of them, like Charles and David Koch and — yes — Donald Trump, inherited their fortunes. But others, like Sam Walton and Amway’s Richard DeVos, could convincingly mythologize themselves as self-made.
What the populist plutocrats held out was simultaneously cultural and economic. They offered a seductive glimpse of an economic order where even the most successful captains of industry were hardworking, personally invested owner-operators, not parasitic money manipulators. “Family values,” as Melinda Cooper has emphasized, were neoliberal economic values, and vice versa. Post–New Deal capitalism, its boosters argued, would be controlled neither by out-of-touch Washington bureaucrats nor by robotic, gray-flannel-suited managers, but by families embedded in their communities. This same logic functioned on the level of public policy: even icy-veined technocrats like the Chicago “human capital” prophet Gary Becker justified rollbacks to the welfare state on the grounds that families would have no choice but to pick up the slack, through debt if necessary, returning the family to the central place in the economic order it once occupied. These same family values were at the heart of the renewed plausibility and attractiveness of the conservative vision of work and success. When Sam Walton drove his old Ford pickup truck around Bentonville every day, it represented a promise that any Bentonville Ford driver could become Sam Walton. It was a cynical move, to be sure. But Walton’s gesture worked not just because liberal elites offered no alternatives but because it perfectly played on his employees’ deepest anxieties and beliefs.
Populism, Frank writes in the closing pages of The People, No, “is an idea whose time has obviously come, and the place it must come first is the Democratic Party.” Consistent with his historical theory of change, stretching back to his account of the New Deal, Frank’s goal is not to prompt more organizing at the populist grassroots but to convince political elites to change their attitudes. The way forward is for the Democratic Party to adopt a rhetorical posture and policy platform that can tap into the reservoir of authentic populist sentiment lodged in the hearts of the American people.
It is because his theory of change operates entirely from above that Frank must maintain that “ordinary people” have never really been conservative on economics. Frank insists that the grassroots have been ready for the last fifty years to vote for sweeping social-democratic economic reform — the only problem is that such a prospect was never presented to them. If the Democratic Party builds it, the people will come. “Populism wins,” Frank asserts. It is an “incurable itch,” the “classic, all-American response to hierarchy and plutocracy” — indeed, the “supreme rhetorical weapon in the arsenal of American politics.” This is Bernie-would-have-won as political ontology. There is, always has been, and always will be a ready-made majority that is conservative on social issues but leftist on economics, content to vote for Republicans as long as the economics are a wash but ready to come over to the Democratic side if the party’s leaders ever stop fighting the culture war and present a sufficiently robust vision of economic reform.
But the lesson of the past fifty years of grassroots American conservatism is that there’s more than one way to promise economic prosperity. What people take to be an attractive vision of economic well-being simply cannot be separated from ideology and cultural values — and those values can’t be taken for granted. Of course it’s true, as Frank writes, that ordinary people “want their mortgaged farm or their postindustrial town or their crumbling neighborhood to be made ‘great again.’” Clintonian “It’s the economy, stupid” neoliberalism never disagreed. The question is what counts as “great again.” The New Deal–style social democracy that Frank prefers is not the self-evident answer for many “ordinary people.” Citizens do not sprout from the American soil with an innate thirst for economic democracy and worker power; their economic aspirations are shaped by their experience of the making and unmaking of class. Even the traditions of generations past — such as populism — that have been deployed to radical ends in particular contexts can animate a conservative economic vision in periods of working-class decomposition. When institutions of class struggle are dissolving, as they have been over the past fifty-odd years, reaching out for the lost possibilities of the past comes more naturally than embracing the uncertainties of the future. This is the lesson we must draw from the emergence of the powerful working-class conservative movements Frank dismisses as “pseudo-populism.” Political nostalgia, an uncritical turn to an unusable past, is among the greatest dangers for the left today.
But because Frank is so certain that mood and attitude drive political change, he seems to believe that the biggest obstacle to working-class politics in the 21st century is a conspiracy of silence around class among elite liberals. He bemoans the absence of “social class” from those in this house, we believe . . . lawn signs. He recounts a parable about a progressive teenager “in an affluent part of the Washington DC metro area” who is the only student in her political discussion group who cares about labor instead of “racism . . . sexism, and LGBTQ issues.” Even when talking about class, elite discourse is the motor force of history for Frank. If only suburban lawn signs talked more about class and less about racism and sexism, all of our problems would be solved.
The problem with this account is not only its callousness towards the political aspirations of antiracist and feminist movements but its incoherent understanding of class itself. If classes are not given premade, but are rather composed and decomposed in historical processes of struggle and relationship, then the most substantial obstacle to a revitalized working-class politics is not an excessive fixation on the hierarchies that segment workers politically and spatially and pit their interests against one another. What has to be addressed are the hierarchies themselves — and the dearth of institutions within which to build material relationships of solidarity across dividing lines. Liberal identity politics is hardly the most promising avenue to undo those hierarchies. But repeatedly exclaiming in frustration that “the people” would be poised to triumph if only they could put away their differences isn’t much better.
Perhaps it would be fairer to take such exclamations, as the phrase goes, seriously but not literally. The most sympathetic reading would understand Frank and others not to be insisting that populist victory is only ever a day away but simply that the possibility is there, that hope remains alive despite the seemingly dire straits the left finds itself in. Of course the movement isn’t fully assembled — but it can be built.
I do not want to encourage hopelessness. But in addition to the dangers of nostalgic conservatism, such gestures also risk overemphasizing the affective nature of the obstacles facing the left today, as if a morale deficit rather than decades of working-class decomposition is chiefly to blame for the left’s challenges. As with all exhortations to seriousness rather than literalness, there is also the danger that not everyone will get the memo. Maybe “we” don’t really believe that a general strike is only waiting for a Medicare for All floor vote to erupt, but just a few months ago Jimmy Dore, his fans, and his high-profile followers — many supposedly among the most in the know in the movement today — certainly seemed to.
The idea that the Democratic Party simply needs to get back in touch with ordinary people does have other uses besides inspiring hope on the left. Since 2016, Frank and his admirers — Matt Stoller, Matt Taibbi, Chris Arnade, and many others — have ridden a wave of guilt and confusion among educated liberals to a jackpot of book sales, think-tank sinecures, Patreon and Substack subscriptions, TV appearances, and Twitter followers. These neo-populist media figures help their audience feel connected to the worldview and aspirations of “working people” while espousing a political program that poses little real threat to the existing American class structure. It’s Hillbilly Elegy for social democrats. Who doesn’t want to hear that the political views they already hold make them gritty truth tellers, in touch with realities that others in their social milieu refuse to acknowledge? The patina of authenticity is a lucrative product. The Democratic Party may not be able to remake the American working class from above. But its internal soul-searching can still make a few people a lot of money.