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Populist Persuasions

The promise and perils of left populism

Since 2016 a cascade of anxious op-eds, magazine articles, and books for popular audiences has poured forth on the perils of populism in the wake of Brexit, Trump, and far right victories across Europe. If we do not rush to defend liberal democratic institutions, they warn, pluralism, minority rights, the rule of law, and democracy itself will perish from the earth. The left’s response to these jeremiads is to argue that the great acceleration of inequality and the erosion of democratic rule enabled by liberal democratic institutions over the last few decades are what produced this historic upsurge in right-wing populism. Indeed, a range of voices across the left in the last two years—from the Sanders campaign to democratic theorists such as Chantal Mouffe and others, in magazines such as Jacobin and The Nation—has called for a left populism as the most effective counter to the rise of the far right.

But distinguishing the politics of right and left populism is not as easy as it might seem. In theory, a clean distinction should separate the excesses of right populism (chauvinist, exclusionary, authoritarian) from the virtues of the left variety (capacious, emancipatory, radically democratic). But populism is as populism does, and just as right-wing populism draws on democratic and egalitarian desires, left-wing variants can have a cramped notion of the people that alienates the politically vulnerable and marginal. Right-wing populists have long drawn on democratic and majoritarian positions (and dispositions) through a language of racial grievance. And homegrown left-leaning populism has a long and troubled relationship with questions of race and nation. As the populist right moves swiftly toward authoritarian nationalism, and even proto-fascism, we will need a left-wing populism that puts antiracism, immigrant rights, and refugee solidarity at the center of its politics.

Fears about the political upheavals that are providing opportunities for the emergent far right are well founded. There are fundamental shifts in the political order—particularly in Europe and the United States, but also in Latin America, as we saw just days ago with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil—that are novel, dramatic, and profoundly destabilizing. However, as a growing number of critics have contended, the status quo now under attack has itself suffered a radical decline in both democracy and equality in the last half century. Indeed, the core conditions of neoliberal rule across the globe share a great deal of blame for the emergence of radical responses. The demise of the Cold War era’s broad social contract between capital and labor, the rise of an extreme wealth gap within and between countries, the thoroughgoing privatization of formerly public functions of the state, and the accelerated financialization of economies have all rapidly corroded the very institutions and norms of liberal democratic states that ushered in these changes.

Distinguishing the politics of right and left populism is not as easy as it might seem.

In fact, in the United States, the Constitution that liberal scholars want to protect has itself always been a hindrance to democratic representation. The Madisonian structure of checks and balances, separated powers, the Electoral College, and staggered elections was designed, after all, to keep democratic rule in check. As political theorist Thea Riofrancos pointed out in a recent essay, it was this structure that thwarted the democratic will in the 2016 presidential balloting and placed Trump in the presidency.

Indeed, the moments of greatest democratization and political inclusion in the United States have come when movements have challenged and overcome settled constitutional arrangements and interpretations in the name of the popular will. The People’s Party of the late nineteenth century, which gave populism its name, created a culture of participatory democracy among farmers and workers across the South, Midwest, and West as it battled the rule of monopoly capital and political corruption that flourished under the plutocratic heyday of the Gilded Age.

Thus, instead of joining the call to defend liberal democratic institutions, left populists argue that the only way to defeat right populism is through popular challenges to the governing arrangements of neoliberal rule. This was the dream that beat at the heart of Bernie Sanders’s Democratic primary challenge in 2016, and in the Occupy movement that paved its way.

Maker and Takers

For all of its immense democratic promise, populism in the United States, as Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons have argued, has always been open to right-wing mobilization. The representative figure of the people in the United States since the Jacksonian era of the 1830s has been the virtuous producer. Politically, Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party coalition was made up of farmers, emergent industrial wage workers, and slave owners—all depicted as the “producing classes” of society. “Producers” understood themselves in contrast, on the one hand, to the idle rich such as bankers and land speculators, and on the other, to people of color, stereotyped as parasitic and/or predatory figures at the other end of the economic spectrum. Producerism was fundamental to the populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s in its resistance to monopoly capital, but it also furnished the basic template for the worldview of Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner, whose version of the Forgotten Man was the beleaguered small property owner forced by government to turn his hard-won wealth over to the undeserving poor. Producerism distinguishes the proper subject of democracy from both the so-called dependent poor below and the elites above—a distinction that can easily rest, in turn, on racialized and gendered ideals of both autonomy and democracy.

The practical brunt of this distinction is to single out the predominantly white (and usually male) citizen as the bearer of (small r) republican virtue. The opposition to monopoly power on behalf of those who toil extended into early twentieth century progressivism, and shaped fundamental elements of the New Deal. Nevertheless, FDR’s vision shored up producerist ideology—a strictly gendered division of labor, and, through the distinction between “entitlements” and “relief,” a sharp divide between the deserving and undeserving poor.

The Middle Frequencies

It was not until the 1960s, however, that the now-dominant version of populism took hold in U.S. politics. As the black freedom, feminist, and anti-war movements pressed against the New Deal political order, right-wing populists claimed to speak on behalf of aggrieved law-abiding, tax-paying, white working- and middle-class Americans. The leading exponents of this new politics focused particularly on race, and framed their appeals around the mythic, endangered trope of “Middle America.” But crucial to development of the populist right was the continued borrowing of ideas from the left.

Forged in part by George Wallace’s presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972, the idea of a sovereign people squeezed by wealthy elites and bureaucrats from above and by black protesters and criminals from below emerged as a central theme of Richard Nixon’s opposition to “forced busing” and calls for “law and order.” Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips cannily deployed an upmarket version of Wallace’s common-man message of racial and cultural grievance in the 1968 campaign to lure former New Deal Democrats into a new political coalition. What Phillips dubbed the “Emerging Republican Majority” was a new assemblage of Southern segregationists, white ethnic union members in industrial cities of the East and Midwest, Sunbelt conservatives, and Western populists. Along with similar catchphrases employed by Nixon, such as the Silent Majority and Forgotten Americans, the term Middle America became a commonplace brand of ideological shorthand at the Nixon White House.

Yet there were tensions from the start. Middle America populists suspected, not without reason, the establishment conservatives to be an opportunist breed of traditional business Republicans, out only to serve elite interests. And conversely, the GOP old guard regarded their new “Middle American” coalition partners as turncoat figures, pandering to crude cultural trends while proving troublingly inclined to embrace the hated features of New Deal statism.

Middle America populists suspected, not without reason, the establishment conservatives to be an opportunist breed of traditional business Republicans.

When George Wallace appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television program in January of 1968, he was subjected to a harsh interrogation by his host. It was populism though, not racism, with which Buckley really took issue. Putting the matter flatly, Buckley told his television audience: “I think that Mr. Wallace is trying to persuade a lot of people that he should appeal to [conservatives] . . . . [But] his background is that of a New Dealer, a person who is intensely concerned to multiply the functions of the state.” Addressing Wallace directly, Buckley went on: “If I may say so, your fanatical concern for using public money for certain functions that otherwise—” [Here, Wallace interjects, and then Buckley continues.] “For instance, you want to take care of the hospitalization, you want to take care of old people, you want to take care of the poor. . . .” As Buckley summed it up later in the program: “You are in the populist tradition, a complete, as I see it, opportunist as regards the use of funds as long as they come in your direction and they can be distributed by you.” In classic populist fashion, Wallace responded that “if conservatism is against looking after the elderly or destitute I might say that no conservative in this country who comes out against looking after destitute elderly people ought to be elected to anything.”

By the mid 1970s, Kevin Phillips openly rebuked William F. Buckley and the GOP leadership class on behalf of populists; he later moved leftward to argue for the party’s populist re-orientation in tracts such as his 1990 assault on Reaganomics, The Politics of Rich and Poor.

White Makes Right

The right populists’ misfit role in the emerging new Republican majority, together with the fallout from the Watergate crisis, temporarily soured their prospects of finding a stable home in the Republican Party. In the meantime, though, a mixture of economic and cultural issues continued to stoke a sense of dislocation among white voters. The potential appeal of Middle American disenchantment had already been apparent to thinkers and activists on the right since Nixon.

In a 1970 piece called “The Future of the Republican Party,” National Review columnist and editor Frank S. Meyer wrote, “Today, as [the New Deal] coalition splits apart, a considerable portion of the Negroes and the intellectuals are moving to the radical Left; labor and the farmers to the Right.” Meyer went on: “It is clearly the main mass base of the rightward movement in American society.” Meyer, a former Communist, saw Middle America as something like a hegemonic bloc—linking class to racial position. By 1974, right-wing populists began looking for new ways to advance their politics. Some, including National Review publisher William A. Rusher, argued that it was time to leave the GOP. Rusher—the grandson of a socialist organizer for the United Mineworkers—wrote a book called The Making of the New Majority Party in which he used the language of producerism to place the hardworking makers of things on one side, and nonproducing “verbalists” and welfare recipients on the other.

These right populists had not pulled this constituency out of thin air. They had correctly identified a growing alienation from both major parties among white voters. In 1976 sociologist Donald Warren produced a study of what he called “Middle American Radicals” (or MARs) in, The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. There Warren described MARs as largely lower middle-class, white, often urban ethnic. They had proximate roots in the Wallace campaigns of 1968 and 1972, he argued, but also identified with actions like the much more politically ambiguous trucking strikes of 1973-1974. They were liberal on social reforms such as Medicare, education funding, and Social Security, Warren claimed, but also deeply concerned about “law and order” and resentful about the demands of black Americans.

By the end of the 1970s, Republican conservatives fought energetically for this populist constituency, hoping to pull them out of the orbit of the Democratic Party once and for all. As conservative writer Chilton Williamson Jr. observed in 1978, “populist conservatism . . . is winning far more sympathy from the Old Right in the 1970s than it ever enjoyed in the Sixties when it spoke in the accents of George Wallace. No doubt this is owing in part to the tempting success of President Carter’s delicately orchestrated campaign of beer, grits, baptismal water and STP.”

Sociologist Donald Warren saw “Middle American Radicals” as liberal on social reforms such as Medicare, education funding, and Social Security, but also deeply concerned about “law and order” and resentful about the demands of black Americans.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan used right-wing populist language—demonizing welfare and communism, while lampooning experts and social engineers. But he also—unlike Nixon—attacked unions, aggressively deregulated business, and kicked off an era of financialization that undercut the populist-tinged economic reveries of Middle America. Both Reagan and George H.W. Bush embraced strong free trade agreements and open immigration—another economic shift that left the Middle America agenda seeking support among the paleoconservative far right both in and outside the party, particularly in the campaigns of Pat Buchanan. Buchanan, the former Nixon speechwriter, media figure, and Reagan White House Communications Director waged a primary challenge against “King George” H.W. Bush in 1992. He yoked working-class alienation to white resentment in a politics that opposed free trade, affirmative action, and alleged cultural decadence.

In a clear anticipation of contemporary right-populist themes, Buchanan also asserted that immigration from non-white countries was a fundamental threat to the American nation. Buchanan’s nativism thus re-introduced an issue into national political debate that had languished on the margins since the introduction of the national quota system in 1924. His racially charged anti-immigrant rhetoric failed to spark a movement at the time, but “Pitchfork Pat,” as he came to be called, helped spur the far right’s eventual ascendancy, conferring national legitimacy on what had previously been a fringe coalition of racist journals, organizations, and paleoconservative intellectuals.

The New Crass

One of Buchanan’s closest campaign advisers was Sam Francis, a diehard racist and nativist nostalgic for the Southern lost cause. Once a columnist at the conservative Washington Times, Francis was fired for suggesting at a white nationalist conference that the “genetic endowments” of whites made them the “creating people” of Europe and America. He had previously asserted that “Neither ‘slavery’ nor ‘racism’ as an institution is a sin.” He went on to edit the newsletter of the Council of Conservative Citizens and to write for increasingly obscure publications of the far right.

Francis saw Donald Warren’s Middle American Radicals as the key to the populist right’s battle against the political and economic elites who presided over America’s latter-day decline. In developing this critique, Francis drew directly on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and National Review senior editor James Burnham’s early Trotskyism. Like Burnham, Francis saw a managerial “new class” as the late twentieth century’s ruling caste, acting as the central functionary of both modern capitalism and the bureaucratic state—and in the process, selling out the interests of a broad working class. As he wrote in 1991 in the midst of Buchanan’s primary challenge to George H.W. Bush, “The strategy of the right should be to enhance the polarization of Middle Americans from the incumbent regime, not to build coalitions with the regime’s defenders and beneficiaries. Moreover, since Middle America consists of workers, farmers, suburbanites, and other non- or post-bourgeois groups, as well as small businessmen, it is unlikely that a new right will make much progress in mobilizing them if it simply repeats the ideological formulas of a now long-defunct bourgeois elite and its order.” Francis died in relative obscurity in 2005 after spending the last years of his life writing his sprawling opus on the rise of the managerial elite, Leviathan and its Enemies. But like fellow paleocon political theorist Paul Gottfried, he’d become an important figure for white nationalists in the alt-right as it gained traction over the last few years, and it is easy to see how his racist theorizing would galvanize Trumpism.

Right Autopsy, Wrong Corpse

By the beginning of the new century, populism had temporarily lost its distinct identity on the right. First, Clinton-era Democrats had scaled back welfare, and built the mass incarceration system with a president who talked sympathetically about “the angry white man.” George W. Bush won over voters with a folksy twang, cowboy boots, and openly Methodist convictions, but his White House was staffed by neoconservatives hated by Buchanan, waged massive wars of empire, strengthened free trade agreements, bolstered Wall Street, appointed one of the most diverse cabinets in history, and sought a wider tent of Republican voters.       

However, global economic meltdown and the election of a black president in 2008 reenergized the populist right. A groundswell of activism under the aegis of the Tea Party emerged in direct response to the Great Recession—though in typical modern conservative form, the protests against the TARP program and the 2010 health care overhaul ultimately channeled the efforts of rightist insurgents to advocate for the interests of financial elites and health care cartels. More crucially in light of the Trumpist reckoning to come, the Tea Party’s rise augured the canny repackaging of white racial resentment as righteous economic anger toward both the big banks and the state that would buoy them. Though it also managed to preserve a populist adherence to the preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Tea Party sharply reoriented the GOP toward a more hardline conservatism.

After Romney’s loss to Obama, the Republican National Committee produced an official “autopsy report” on the defeat. Chief among its recommendations were changing the GOP’s image as a “scary” party of “stuffy old men,” and becoming more diverse and inclusive, but nothing to address the growing wealth gap between the very richest and everyone else. And in the very next presidential election cycle Donald Trump reversed the judgments of the RNC’s report, blaming the declining fortunes of white Americans on free trade agreements, immigrants, Muslims, black protesters, and political correctness. Trump supporters passionately rallied to this message during the 2016 Republican primaries, and used it to give vent to their own economic resentments, their mounting sense of political powerlessness, and their fears of racial marginalization.

Trump’s the One

The Trump campaign self-consciously reached back to the origins of contemporary right populism, using the Nixonian language of the Silent Majority and Middle America from 1968. But fifty years later, this demographic’s claim on either the majority or the middle is tenuous. When Reagan was first elected in 1980, non-Hispanic whites comprised 87.6 percent of the electorate. In 2016, they made up 73.3 percent. In addition, whites have continued to suffer stagnant or falling wages and precarious job security in an increasingly financialized economy—even though their economic plight remains far less dire than that of blacks and Latinos. This sense of relative decline, captured in myriad surveys, opened the territory for a new right-populist mobilization. But Trumpism is less a confident assertion of the people than an anxious fear of being the people no more.

As the 2016 election year began, Buchanan was asked why he thought Trump would fare better than Buchanan had in the 1990s. He replied: “What’s different today is that the returns are in, the results are known. Everyone sees clearly now the de-industrialization of America, the cost in blood and treasure from decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pervasive presence of illegal immigrants. What I saw at the San Diego border 25 years ago, everyone sees now on cable TV. And not just a few communities but almost every community is experiencing the social impact.” The conjoined economic grievances and anti-immigrant cultural anxieties that Buchanan brought in from the margins of the GOP in the 1990s now represent the taken-for-granted worldview of the movement that won the 2016 presidential election.

Exit, Stage Left

As the appeal to Middle America through racial authoritarianism now appears to have captured the Republican Party, the lessons for the left are important. A parallel insurgency in the Democratic Party, which began with Occupy Wall Street, also sparked a new language of economic grievance in 2016. Although not animated by racism, the Sanders campaign evinced a weakness that has haunted economic populists since the 1960s. The wish for a shared politics in the populist vein has immense potential to turn the tide against the rise of the far right, against the ravages that a half-century of neoliberal restructuring has wrought, and for the radical transformation of society.

Left populism can all-too-easily imagine a vision of a unified people that elides the deep problems of stratification, domination, and exclusion that are the legacy of a settler colonial nation forged in black slavery and patriarchal rule. This is nothing new for the U.S. left. Indeed it was the racial character of the New Deal order that opened the door for Wallace and the right-wing populism that followed behind him. This perspective was on display during 2016 primaries among some Sanders-supporting left writers. As just one example, Connor Kilpatrick’s widely shared Jacobin article “Burying the White Working Class” argued against what he depicted as an alliance of Democratic Party elites and antiracists against white workers. At the heart of it was a majoritarian argument: “The working class is bigger than ever, is still really white, and is broadly supportive of a progressive populist agenda.” The piece distinctly echoed arguments on the populist right that situated aggrieved white workers as the silent majority. Indeed, it is telling that Kilpatrick’s article was enthusiastically touted by the “race realist” journal American Renaissance and the far-right Unz Review. Both publications once served as primary venues for Sam Francis’s populist writings.

Certainly liberal elites have used antiracism as a way to marginalize class politics. This is a tradition that goes back to Gunnar Myrdal and before—seeing racism as merely a matter of irrationality, educational backwardness, and status anxiety among poor whites. And, certainly there are twinned dynamics of neoliberal multiculturalism on the one hand, and an emergent racialization of the white working class and white poor by conservatives such as Charles Murrray and Kevin Williamson on the other. But the production of race is historically co-constitutive with the production of class—the “medium through which class relations are experienced,” as cultural theorist Stuart Hall put it.

Left-wing populism has to directly confront the meanings of race insofar as they act as a form of civic ascription and produce other binary meanings—dependency/autonomy, deserving/undeserving, etc.—terms that animate and authorize right-wing populism, and have their roots in the racial formation of U.S. political culture. Race and racism in a very concrete way made the rise of the modern right and neoliberal hegemony in the United States possible, just as they have made capitalism possible for half a millennium. They have to be dismantled together.

Those on the left who argue against “identitarian” approaches merely substitute one set of identity positions for another, and the fear that focusing on the ongoing ravages of white supremacy will simply drive white workers and the white poor into the hands of the right shows a cramped notion of populism’s possibilities. Attacking “identity politics” while genuflecting before the “white working class” won’t lead toward socialism, or even a more tentative defeat of right populism, but rather toward a politics that will be played out entirely on the landscape that the far right is trying to create.

Those on the left who argue against “identitarian” approaches merely substitute one set of identity positions for another.

“The longer they talk about identity politics,” Steve Bannon famously said of the left, “I got ’em.” This kind of remark creates no end of anxiety for certain left populists. But of course even Bannon knows better—which is why he now talks about specific harms done to working-class blacks and Latinos by free trade agreements as he makes the case for his “populist economic nationalism.” He knows that no hegemonic struggle can be fashioned from a Silent Majority or Middle America that is no longer majoritarian nor occupies the middle.

There is nothing new in the understanding that different forms of oppression are linked, nor that struggles for particular forms of liberation are what create the possibility for broader ones. This was, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Asad Haider have both recently reminded us, what the Combahee River Collective meant in their 1977 coining of the phrase “identity politics.” Instead of abstract notions of the 99 percent, why not focus on the specific instances of alienation, exclusion, exploitation, and violence out of which broad struggles are always built? The acute and growing sense of political powerlessness reported by Trump voters throughout the 2016 primaries is a concrete phenomenon for working-class blacks and Latinos who must contend with intensifying forms of voter suppression, and the massive carceral state, which ensnares black and brown people at far higher rates than whites, nevertheless imprisons whites alone at higher rates than the citizenry of any other nation. The growing immiseration, violence, and drug abuse in rural America differs in critical ways from its expression in urban centers, but both arise from the same forces of capital concentration and state abandonment. The ongoing fallout from the economic crisis stretches well beyond the Tea Party-choreographed set piece of bankers exploiting Middle America to its more intensified effects on black and Latino communities, and on women more than men.

There are a wide variety of examples of such struggles opening out onto broader vistas with populist dimensions. The protests in response to the killing of African American youth Oscar Grant by the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police became the backbone of Occupy Oakland—the most militant formation of its kind, whose antagonistic energy was translated into a shutdowns of ports up and down the West Coast. In a more recent example of effective organizing within the electoral system, the grassroots insurgency that resulted in the nomination of Andrew Gillum in the 2018 Florida governor’s race had its roots in the protest movement for justice following the murder of Trayvon Martin. Struggles by the undocumented, and by refugees who are the victims of U.S.-sponsored violence elsewhere, have expanded and transformed understandings of the people. Antifa resistance to white nationalism, the recent occupations of ICE offices, and growing immigrant solidarity networks have all drawn increasingly broad sectors of a public that is sharply opposed to the growing threat of the far right. Such struggles are central to any successful opposition to Trumpism, particularly given that it was racist nativism in great part that propelled Trump into the White House.

Much is at stake in how we understand populism today. As radical inequalities in wealth and power continue to intensify in a politically and ecologically destabilized world, demands on behalf of the impoverished, the left-behind, and the politically disempowered will increase. We can expect these demands—in one way or another—to be posed in the language of the people against the powerful. To mistake all such popular claims as authoritarian and tied to racial or national exclusions mis-specifies the underlying thrust of populism. But to fashion populist politics by ignoring the particular forms of domination in any given context is an invitation to reaction. Those of us who hope to help build emancipatory notions of the people must understand that they are always incomplete and remain open to transformations from below.