Perhaps no work of U.S. history published during the middle years of the 20th century remains more widely read—and more widely maligned—than Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Age of Reform aimed to assess the political lineage of turn-of-the-19th-century radical and reformist impulses that had, as Hofstadter saw it, both presaged and ultimately culminated in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In particular, Hofstadter was interested in assessing the relative legacies and impact of the so-called Populist movement, led by farmers and centered on the Agrarian Party of the late-19th century, versus the Progressive movement, whose heyday Hofstadter dated to the first two decades of the 20th century, led primarily by urban elites.
The book is perhaps most famous (or notorious) for its depiction of the Populists. In a tone of condescending sympathy Hofstadter represented the Populists as atavistic losers in the process of modernization, quixotically aiming to turn back the clock of history to a simpler time when farmers had supposedly retained a modicum of independence from city life.
As in Arlie Hochschild’s recent sociological account of Trump supporters in rural Louisiana, Hofstadter was not unsympathetic to the socioeconomic plight of those who supported the Populists: “Any account of the fallibility of Populist thinking that does not acknowledge the stress and suffering out of which that thinking emerged will be seriously remiss,” he averred. But if their suffering was real, the Populists were also emblematic of two other, more malign political phenomena that would become Hofstadter’s signature historiographical concepts, namely, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (the title of Hofstadter’s 1963 book that won him his second Pulitzer) and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (the title of a famous 1964 essay in Harper’s magazine). Hofstadter depicted the agrarian reformers of the Midwest and South as afflicted by irrational resentments, drawn to a politics of Mythos (specifically, what Hofstadter referred to as “the Agrarian myth”) over Logos. “To discuss the broad ideology of the populists does them some injustice,” Hofstadter wrote, explaining that it was “in their more general picture of the world that they were most credulous and vulnerable.” If Hofstadter’s book was subtle enough to recognize the political ambiguities of the original Agrarian Party, in the end there was no doubt where his sympathies lay.
Hofstadter’s representation of the historical Populists emerged out of his own concerns about populism as a general political phenomenon in his own time, as well as the political experiences of the 1930s. For mid-century liberals like Hofstadter, populism meant the street level of mobilizations of Italian fascism, the torch-lit rallies of Nazi Germany, and the malevolent crowds of the anti-New Deal America First movement. While mid-century liberals acknowledged the existence of “Left” versions of populism, like Louisiana’s Huey Long, these were hardly more encouraging from their perspective. Reflecting the deep suspicion of mass politics that pervaded what his good friend Arthur Schlesinger called “vital center” liberalism, Hofstadter and his fellow postwar intellectual elites basically regarded populism as anathema.
If Hofstadter considered the Populists to be a warning about “the ugly potential of frustrated popular revolt,” he looked with favor on the reformers of the Progressive movement, who in his interpretation had taken the best of the ideas of the Populists while rejecting the irrationalism and politics of resentment. Here, too, Hofstadter’s historical interpretation reflected the contemporary political commitments of postwar liberals. If populism as a general political phenomenon was a byword for the wrong sort of politics, anti-Communist liberals at the apogee of their mid-century technocratic self-confidence believed that “the right kind of revolution” would be elite-led and technocratic—precisely what Hofstadter believed he saw foreshadowed in the Progressive movement, with its commitment to scientific management, evidence-based public policy, credentialing and professionalization, education as a mode of social control, and the idea of best practices (then called “one best system”). Progressivism understood thusly had culminated in the New Deal, Hofstadter suggested, and the technocratic form of democracy that had emerged represented a Cold War-ready fighting faith.
To put it mildly, Hofstadter’s thesis about the original American Populists has not fared well among academic historians. Over the past four decades, several alternative interpretations of the historical Populists have emerged. Arguably, however, each of these interpretations has reflected the contemporary political commitments of their authors at least as much as Hofstadter’s did his. Consider three prominent examples in which we see a scholar re-describing the historical Populists as a means for creating a “useable past” for his preferred form of contemporary politics.
The beginning of the revisionist accounts is usually attributed to Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment (1978). Goodwyn argued that the original Populists were not simply resentful losers of the modernization process but instead represented a movement of democratic promise. These were forward-looking radicals seeking a democratized industrial system and a transformation of social values in order to help the individual protect his humanity as his autonomy slipped away from him in a rapidly industrializing society. Like the popular movements of the 1960s, Populism was important less for its programs and organizations than for its “actions” in bringing thousands of ordinary citizens in contact with each other in what Goodwyn described as “a self-generated culture of collective dignity and individual longing.” As a movement “it was expansive, passionate, flawed, creative—above all, enhancing in its assertion of human striving.” Here was an interpretation of Populism suitable for the New Age politics of the 1970s.
Michael Kazin’s Populist Persuasion (1995) extended and generalized Goodwyn’s favorable assessment of the original Populists. Kazin proffered the original Populists as the first salvo in a century-long sequence of historical episodes of “patriotic Americanism” in which a nation of hardworking producers, independent and self-reliant, stood up against an economically parasitic elite forever threatening to exploit them by undermining the democratic system. For Kazin, a former leader of the Harvard Students for a Democratic Society and chastened former member of the Weatherman faction, populism as a transhistorical phenomenon represented above all an authentically American form of democratic leftism, one uniquely capable of holding the feet of feckless, centrist liberals to the fire of economic egalitarianism. Here was a version of the Populists well suited for critiquing the neoliberal inclinations, or compromises, of the Clinton years.
Finally, in The Populist Vision (2007) Charles Postel took direct aim at Hofstadter’s account of the original Populists as resentful, backward-looking losers in the process of modernization, asserting that the Populists were not ignorant, traditionalistic farmers, but well-connected commercially and intellectually to the wider world. Rather than backward-looking yokels, these Populists were simply looking to ensure that as the world changed around them, it would retain a place for their own forms of localism and solidarity. In Postel’s view, writing on the eve of the financial crisis, the original Populists were critics avant la lettre of globalized and financialized capitalism. Here was a version of Populism suitable for contemporary (Left) movements favoring “local and sustainable” forms of economic association.
Whatever we make of this intramural debate among historians about the original Populist Party, there is no denying the clarity and contemporary relevance of Hofstadter’s understanding of populism as a general political phenomenon. Even if Hofstadter’s interpretation of the historical Populists is debatable, it is clear that he was right about one essential theoretical point regarding populism as a general phenomenon: that it is fundamentally about political style and reaction. Just as some film critics observe that film noir is less a genre in itself than a set of formal techniques and stylistic elements that can attach themselves to genres ranging from comedy to science fiction, so populism is not about a particular ideology as it is a set of political tropes and modes of expression that can attach themselves to a variety of ideologies, from far Left to far Right.
We don’t have to buy into Hofstadter’s modernization theory-driven account of the original Populists as disgruntled losers in the process of modernization to nonetheless recognize that populism as a form of political practice represents something dangerous to the effective functioning of technologically advanced and organizationally complex modes of collective organization. Hofstadter wrote in the wake of fascism, with the memories of Father Coughlin and Huey Long still warm, with communism on the march, and with the then-present example of Joseph McCarthy to hand: All these gave him good reason to defend the small-l liberal values of rationality, scientific inquiry and the ideal of a deliberative politics led by responsible, self-abnegating elites.
Rereading Hofstadter today, we can recognize that our present generation of elites has failed without accepting the populist view that non-elites possess some political virtue or social insight that elites qua elites lack. Today, in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, in a time of the Italian Five Star Movement, in a moment where we see the repression that flows from populist politics in Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Recip Erdogan’s Turkey, these sunnily positive takes on populism once again see a bit naive. Might it be a time for counter-revisionism?
What defines populism as a general political phenomenon? In my view, three fundamental features are key:
- Appeals to the people: Populists invariably point to the wisdom and virtue of the “true” people (while sometimes conceding that the people have been corrupted or enfeebled) as opposed to the perfidy of elites and outsiders. These appeals are almost always anti-institutional, often conflating elites with the institutions that house them. Which elites populists are against can vary dramatically, however.
- Grievance rather than program: Populists are generally far more articulate and passionate about what they’re against than what they’re for. It’s not that populists never have programs. It’s just that the programs are not the essence of their appeal. The essence of their appeal is a protest against a system and elites who are failing the people.
- Experience over knowledge: There’s no such thing as a populist intellectual, or a populist scientist, or a populist expert. What people see with their own eyes is accorded higher value than whatever the pettifogging facts that the bean-counters may trot out.
Because of these general features, the political significance of populists depends above all on the array of power they position themselves against. The only common feature of populism is a general (and always highly passionate) sense that the masses are more virtuous than “the elites.”
So anti-elitism is the essence of populism, but populists are often mercurial about which “elites” they are angry at. Is it union-busting industrialists? Wall Street bankers? College professors? K-Street lobbyists? Prep school snot-noses? Jews? Other usual suspects? Of course, in a pluralist society—that is, one in which different elite factions are not unified but compete with one another—the political meaning and impact of any given populism varies dramatically depending on which elites are the subject of attack. Thus, to take a U.S. example, an attack on “Jews” feels (to the elite commentariat) like a very different thing than an attack on “bankers.”
The targets that populists choose may shift (often rapidly); they are uncommitted (indeed, often hostile) to intellectual consistency; they have instincts and interests, but no real ideology; and they regard institutionalization and rule-making with suspicion—which is one reason you don’t meet a lot of populist lawyers. This makes populists easily subject to manipulation, and inherently volatile. We only need to look at Trump’s Twitter outbursts in response to Fox and Friends to get a sense of what all this looks like.
This creates strategic communications ambiguities, and demagogic opportunities. Consider the attack on Washington “swamp dwellers”: Some heard in this an attack on K-Street lobbyists and politicians in safely gerrymandered seats, when Trump’s fans understand him to be attacking “the tyranny of so-called government experts.” But that is an elite perspective. From the point of view of a non-elite subscriber to “populism,” all these various elites are noxious in their own ways, and which one hates most at any given moment has mainly to do with which of them seems to be winning most, and most unfairly. Thus, after the 2008 financial crisis/bailout, populist ire turned above all against Wall Street and to a lesser extent corporate elites (something Obama ran on but largely failed to do anything about).
But by now, ten years after the Lehman Brothers meltdown, the most common configuration is for populism and nationalism and the Right to be fairly aligned. The Left-populism of Occupy Wall Street has given way to the Right-populism of the Tea Party, which roiled and then hollowed out the Republican Party sufficiently to enable the Trump hostile takeover. Populist ire has turned against the elites who seem to have thrived even as much of the rest of the country stagnated: The coastal regions whose incomes have skyrocketed amid national stagnation; monopolistic but bien pensant tech companies; and so forth.
Unlike more ideologically rooted political movements and factions—like liberalism, conservatism, or socialism—that have traditionally been defined primarily around distributional issues or the proper relationship between church and state, the forms of politics that get labeled “populism” are what Cas Mudde calls ideologically “thin”—that is, defined more by the fervency of their oppositions and resentments than by the consistency of their programmatic solutions.
This thinness is one reason why voters who support so-called populists often seem particularly likely to “swing” in elections—for example, former strongholds of the French Communist Party swinging to vote for Jean-Marie LePen; AfD’s strength in the former East Germany; Italian ex-fascists joining the Five Star Movement; nearly ten million 2012 Obama voters pulling for Trump in 2016; and if one likes a bit of pre-war history, the avidity with which Left unions in Weimar Germany vaulted overnight into the Nazi camp. In the United States, a registered Democrat in 2016 whose defining political passion was hatred for corrupt self-dealing government insiders could quite naturally swing from voting for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary to Donald Trump in the general election.
To understand populism, one needs to analyze both the form and the content of politics seriously, and not treat one side of this as more “serious” than the other. “Low information voters” are a real thing, and what motivates them politically needs to be taken seriously. This is a difficult thing to grasp for people who consider politics as basically being about “policy” (technocrats, experts, wonks, intellectuals, and the like).
For many people, political choices are less about policy specifics than about expression and identity. When you hear Trump’s most fervent fans explain why they like him, it’s often precisely what makes elites cringe: his style. Aesthetics aside, this explains why Trump doesn’t get held accountable for his failure to deliver on the policy agenda he campaigned on: because that’s not why his fans voted for him, anyways. He may or may not deliver an Obamacare replacement, repeal NAFTA, build the Wall or do anything about the opioid epidemic “carnage”—but you know for sure he agrees with you about Mexicans, and he sure knows how to troll the Libtards!
Generalizing from the Agrarian party, Hofstadter noted that as a general matter populism appeals
to those who have attained only a low level of education, whose access to information is poor, and who are so completely shut out from access to centers of power that they feel themselves completely deprived of self-defense and subjected to unlimited manipulation by those who wield power. . . . One finds in Populist literature as well as among their agitators the following: the conception of history as conspiracy; an obsessive concern with the fabulous enjoyments deemed to be the lot of the plutocrats; cynicism about the two party system; the notion that the world is moving toward an immense apocalypse; the exclusive attention to the greed and other personal vices of bankers and other selected plutocrats, as opposed to structural analysis of the social system; anti-Semitism and xenophobia; the appeal to the native simplicity and virtue of the folk. . . . There are, moreover, certain types of popular movements of dissent that offer special opportunities to agitators with paranoid tendencies, who are able to make a vocational asset out of the psychic disturbances. Such persons have an opportunity to impose their own style of thought upon the movements they lead . . .
Reading this passage, many of these features bear uncanny resemblances to our own contemporary populists, not least those who believe in the existence of a supposed “Deep State.”
But there is also one crucial exception: A central feature of the older, historical populism that the Trumpian version has dropped (for obvious reasons) is the hatred of plutocrats. For the original Populists, hatred of financial capitalism and big business was axiomatic; by contrast, what is most historically distinctive about today’s American populism is that the movement is led by a playboy New York real estate developer and golf course magnate, who is backed by the wealth of other plutocrats, such as the Kochs, the Mercers, Peter Thiel, and Sheldon Adelson. More than anything, it is this alliance of populism with money that distinguishes (the success of) of our current crop of populists from (the political failures of) the original variety.
But perhaps this also points to an opportunity for those who oppose Trump politically: because in trying to drop the anti-plutocratic dimension of populism, Trump has left open the door for a different sort of populist politics: one rooted in a critique of not just of the lifestyles of plutocrats but of plutocracy as a social and political system. Indeed, we need only look at the surprising appeal that Bernie Sanders had in the 2016 Democratic primary season to understand what such an anti-plutocratic form of populism might look like. Sanders himself may have been an imperfect vehicle for such a message and platform, but the kind of Democrat who can conjure the same sort of fervid popular political passion in the Democratic base as Trump does in the GOP base will very likely be one who extends Sanders’s themes and style.