Kevin Mattson's "Forget Populism" touched a nerve with many readers. Scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Jackson Lears, Mark Crispin Miller, and George Scialabba responded jointly: "According to Kevin Mattson, populists are 'simple -- minded' and have no interest in governing, only in announcing that 'elites are bad' and in 'rallying the masses around their collective anger.' Graciously, Mattson notes that this description has very little to do with the populists of 19th- and early-20th-century American history. But that history is 'largely academic'; the triumph of corporate capitalism has rendered populism archaic. The 'populist strain' has migrated to the right, which indiscriminately and full-throatedly damns 'journalists and elites ...
government and taxes.'

"It would seem to be a historian's responsibility to make distinctions. Right-wing demagoguery is indeed unscrupulous and simple-minded. But there is no good reason to tar the left with the same brush. The original basis of left-wing populism was a frank recognition that both major parties had been captured by moneyed elites, to an extent that necessitated extensive grassroots self-organization in order to either regain effective control of the parties or forge an alternative. This precisely describes the contemporary situation as well. There is no 'simplistic emotionalism' about this formulation, and it implies no lack of interest in governing (on the contrary, obviously) or lack of respect for expertise or intelligence. It implies only a willingness to acknowledge that class warfare -- one-sided, to be sure -- is and has long been a defining feature of American politics.

"The distinction between genuine liberalism and genuine populism deserves to be drawn far less tendentiously than Mattson does here. It is hardly identical -- except for the purposes of partisan caricature -- with the distinction between intelligence and emotionalism, rationality and anger, or responsibility and pandering."

Marshall Ganz, a legendary organizer and Harvard professor, responds, "Kevin Mattson's interesting piece poses an important challenge to advocates of liberal reform. In a democracy, no matter how 'good' a policy proposal may be, it won't get very far without public support. But public support has to be earned, because what people understand their interest to be may be quite different from what liberal advocates think it ought to be. Since the 1960s, the conservative movement has done a far better job of the 'preaching' and 'teaching' it takes to create a popular base of support than have liberals. Liberals must get beyond facile reliance on marketing, messaging, and polling by accepting their responsibility to inspire, educate, and inform the public."

A former member of the board of The American Prospect, Danny Goldberg, calls Mattson's article "one of the most wrongheaded in the magazine's 20-year history."

Goldberg continues: "Mattson tries to discredit progressive populists by quoting right-wing populists such as Palin as if her use of entertaining and colloquial language is what makes her politically repellent rather than the content and agenda she advances by using effective techniques. This makes as much sense as suggesting that Franklin Roosevelt should not have used the radio to communicate with Americans because President Calvin Coolidge had previously broadcast his Inaugural Address.

"[Mattson] goofily suggests that Sherrod Brown isn't a real populist because he went to Yale and that Bernie Sanders is also disqualified because he comes from the 'eminently hippie town of Burlington, Vermont.' Putting aside the bizarre bigotry of the latter comment, the relevance of a political message is not defined by irrelevant biographic tidbits about the messenger but whether or not the message is morally and politically salient.

"This is the larger issue. Many progressives are frustrated that despite large majorities in Congress and a charismatic Democratic president, our ideas and messages have been badly defeated by the right wing in the court of public opinion. By declining to stake out truly progressive positions, the political 'compromise' on issues such as health care, the war in Afghanistan, and economic reform has been halfway between the center and the extreme right wing with results that demoralize the Democratic base and confuse independents while doing nothing whatsoever to mollify insatiable conservatives. It is one thing for the Obama administration to grapple, admirably in most cases, with the difficult political terrain they face. It is quite another for political activists and media figures like Mattson to discourage the populist progressive forces that would, in fact, give the administration more political space and effectiveness."

Reader Mike McGrath challenges Mattson's historical assumptions: "Before World War II, historians tended to emphasize the continuity between populism, progressivism, and, ultimately, New Deal liberalism. Populists and early-20th-century reformers had many demands in common: labor laws, a graduated income tax, regulation of industry, the secret ballot, women's suffrage, the recall and ballot initiative, party primaries, and the direct election of senators.

"After World War II historians such as Richard Hofstadter began to associate populism with the irrational and paranoid side of American politics, and not without some reason, but that image seems to have stuck, at least with most journalists and pundits. By focusing on its Southern roots, economic radicalism, and lack of continuity with 20th-century liberalism, historians downplayed the importance of the more pragmatic strain of 'fusion' populism that flourished, however briefly, in the West and Midwest.

"It is that more pragmatic strain of populism -- the reform tradition -- that I think Democrats should emulate, not the fiery rhetoric. In fact, I think President Obama already does."

On the blog of the Movement Vision lab, Sally Kohn responded, "The essence of populism is, as Mattson writes, 'the people, yes' -- the idea that ordinary Americans have as much (or even more) to contribute to our political, economic, and social evolution as do technocratic elites. As someone who has seen firsthand the deep condescension of many Washington-based progressive advocacy organizations toward 'the field,' I think a movement-wide emphasis on populism is a welcome counterweight. The 'don't worry, we're the experts in D.C., we'll handle the big questions' attitude toward the progressive movement outside Washington is as frustrating to grassroots liberal activists as it is to voters. Moreover, while conservatives certainly don't want to help anyone -- especially not poor people of color -- the pity-filled do-gooder attitude exuded by many white liberals is downright offensive. Why is there no mass grassroots progressive movement rising up on the left like the Tea Party? Our not-so-hidden bias against average people is a big part of the answer. It's in our attitudes, but it's also reflected in the way we structure the progressive 'movement' such as it is -- focusing on Washington, D.C., think tanks and lobbying arms and spending ... little money and attention on real grassroots organizing."

Write to us at or to The Editors, The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Ave., NW, 12th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036. Or join the conversation online at


A side effect of the recent accumulation of enormous fortunes has been an explosion in private philanthropy, which can have an impact comparable to government policy. Yet media coverage of these initiatives rarely goes beyond glowing profiles of the donors. At the Prospect, we've tried to pull back the veil on this sector, and in this issue, frequent contributor Dayo Olopade tackles the complex question of the Gates Foundation's enormous commitments to global development and health. Is spending as much money as possible as fast as possible the best way to address problems? The answer isn't obvious.

Also, as the midterm elections approach, Tim Fernholz profiles the diligent but not very bright Rep. Pete Sessions, the Republican National Campaign Committee chair who might blow his party's best opportunity in years. And Paul Waldman assesses the effort to build up a liberal counterpart to right-wing media.
-- Mark Schmitt

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