TAP Debates Populism

Kevin Mattson's "Forget Populism" touched a nerve with many readers. We've gathered here responses from various readers and scholars, our Founding Co-Editor Robert Kuttner, and  Executive Editor Mark Schmitt, and a response from Mattson.

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.

Founding Co-Editor Robert Kuttner responded via his Prospects column. (Read the full version of the column.) Our September issue included an article by Kevin Mattson titled "Forget Populism." This piece, unfortunately, conflates right-wing populism with the progressive brand, as if Sherrod Brown and Paul Wellstone were simply lefty variants on the demagoguery of Huey Long and Sarah Palin. Mattson contends that populism naturally belongs to the right, but only by leaving out our greatest progressive populist, Franklin Roosevelt, and misrepresenting his heirs.

Wellstone, a principled progressive and superb grassroots organizer, is dismissed as an opportunist who seemed populist because he had to run his campaign "on the cheap" and once had been a high school wrestler. Sherrod Brown is a phony because he went to Yale. Bernie Sanders, who carries downscale Vermont towns by landslide proportions, is disparaged as a son of "hippie" Burlington. Even poor Al Gore is trotted out as a failed populist. "Most populist techniques," Mattson declares, "smack of pandering." As opposed to what? Carrying water for K Street and Wall Street?

"Liberals," Mattson writes, "have to worry about more than rallying the masses around their collective anger. They have to worry about governing." Well, yes. What progressive populist ever argued otherwise? Didn't Roosevelt do both? Didn't Sanders do so as mayor of Burlington?

Buried among Mattson's straw men and false dichotomies is the germ of an important debate. With the right taking no prisoners, how do we restore civility? Given elite dominance of the agenda, what's the case for managerial technocracy versus a politics that includes class? How do we use politics to rebuild competent government? These are all good questions implicit in Mattson's article, but his broadside attack sheds scant useful light. His piece did draw several letters, which are extracted on pages 4-5.

Paul Krugman recently wrote of the power of Wall Street's "bond vigilantes" in setting a perverse austerity agenda despite a weakening economy. He concluded, "What will it take to break the hold of this cruel cult on the minds of the policy elite?" The answer, surely, is a politics that rallies regular people against the stranglehold of economic royalists -- a progressive populism.

Executive Editor Mark Schmitt says the debate over the role of populism is one the left needs. For all the rancor it unleashed, I'm very pleased that The American Prospect has been able to host this vital debate on a question that has been bubbling under the surface of progressive politics for most of the last decade, and certainly since the 2006 election, about the usefulness of "populism" as an organizing concept.

For my part, I think that some, though certainly not all, of the disagreement, is about language. Some people like to call the ideas and approach they favor populist; others resist the term. So, for example, in a very long response to Kevin Mattson at the Huffington Post, my friend Mike Lux offered an agenda for "progressive populism" (the term that our Co-Editor Bob Kuttner uses as well), which includes many very good things, such as reform of government contracting, increased anti-trust enforcement (progressive populists are "pro-business but anti-oligarchy"), investment in infrastructure and "quality public education," reductions in defense spending and farm subsidies, lobbying and campaign-finance reform.

I support every item on Mike Lux's agenda. And I think if we achieved those things, we'd have a society that served the majority of Americans far better than it does today. In that sense, it is a populist agenda -- it benefits the majority of people. But many people who don't identify themselves as populists (and I'll admit, I count myself among them) support the same things. And many of the things on the progressive populist agenda, such as investment in education and campaign-finance reform, are probably as popular with elites as with "the people." So it is a progressive agenda, but not in itself a populist one.

But as several of the letters, Marshall Ganz's in particular, point out, progressive political ideas like these don't enact themselves. Facing resistance, they need to be sold, and to do that, they need to be made emotionally salient to voters. One way to do that is to reach people where they are, in a moment of anger, and attempt to redirect that anger into a critique of elites, in a way that leads to these policies – rather than, say, anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim policies. The difference between those who identify as populists and those who don't, I think, is that populists think that's the only way to sell them and that the uglier elements of the populist tradition can be safely avoided, while others think that there are many ways in a democracy to convince voters and elected officials to support policies that benefit a majority. That's a significant difference, and worth arguing about, but it is in many ways more of a fight about tactics than a big fight about the direction of the country.

Kevin Mattson responds: Most of my critics believe my September 2010 American Prospect article, "Forget Populism," conflated right-wing and progressive populism. This was not my intent. What I argued was that populism, over the course of the 20th century and into our own, has moved predominantly from left to right. That's irrefutable; the Tea Party is only the most recent example. The critics who suggested I "tarred the left" prompted me to think of something I should probably have discussed in the article -- Naderism, a key progressive populist story of our time. Scholar Barbara Ehrenreich et al. argue that the Democrats are "captured by the moneyed elites" and are oblivious to "class warfare." When "grassroots self-organization" to "regain effective control of the parties or forge an alternative" was last tried by Ralph Nader during the 2000s, the results were dreadful. His anti-corporate message failed to appeal to enough Americans and wound up spoiling elections for Democrats. Today, you'd expect to see this sort of activism everywhere and in full force, but you don't. That should tell us something about the fate of progressive populism. It's different from the right's version for sure but not as powerful as those who argue for it wish it were. The effective populists of today are the Palinistas and anti-government Tea Partiers.

On to the other actual progressive populists. TAP founding Co-Editor Robert Kuttner takes issue with my contention that Sherrod Brown, Paul Wellstone, and Bernie Sanders will not work as populist models for all (I never called Brown "phony," by the way). What's key to my discussion of all three is that these guys didn't win solely because of their populism but for a variety of different elements in their backgrounds and the political conditions under which they ran (the same is true for Harry S. Truman, a politician whom I believe Kuttner and others misinterpret). The conclusion: Populism is not a catchall strategy for victory, the way most progressive populists today suggest. And yes, Al Gore was a "failed populist," and his 2000 campaign showed the problem of pandering (Kuttner simply says "poor Al Gore" without refuting my characterization of his failed campaign).

TAP reader Mike McGrath is smart to tease apart the reformist policy elements of the populists from their rhetoric. My point is that is not a populist project. The original populists certainly upheld reformist causes, but they married these to an apocalyptic worldview and rhetoric (that's why I quoted their original call to action in 1892 in which they fused a list of reforms with all-or-nothing rhetoric). The notion that you can pick and choose the rhetoric and worldview from the policies, I believe, is a false understanding of all the imported philosophical baggage that populism carries with it.

To be sure, I believe that the income tax, regulation, and direct election of senators are great accomplishments in our history -- and were all populist policy goals. But my point was that the populists didn't accomplish these things. It took later progressives and New Dealers to do so. It took, in other words, liberals. Mr. McGrath and I also agree that Obama has mostly done what he's said he would do. Again, part of what I'm suggesting is that the populists believe that they have a better plan and can save Obama from his worst tendencies. They are guilty of the sin of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

Former Prospect board member Danny Goldberg says much that Kuttner does about my article and also offers his own type of Monday-morning quarterbacking. Progressive populists complaining about Obama's centrism somehow give the "administration more political space and effectiveness." Yet at the same time, Goldberg suggests that "our ideas and messages have been badly defeated by the right wing in the court of public opinion." To be honest, I'm confused by this. Defeated ideas would help a centrist president be more effective? This is a rather peculiar defense of a political creed that I don't believe is as popular among Americans as my critics do.

So let's bring this back to what prompted me to write this piece. What I think is happening right now is that the Democratic Party -- all wings thereof -- is facing a tough midterm election. But ramping up the rhetoric -- the way Gore did in 2000, the way Ralph Nader does any chance he gets to spoil an election -- won't get us into a better position. It will be seen through immediately.

Like it or not, a pledge to the "grassroots," made by Ehrenreich and company as well as by Sally Kohn of the blog Movement Vision Lab, also will not get us to a better place. I hear a lot about the virtues of grassroots activism among my critics, and I myself have engaged in a lot of grassroots activism. But as Kohn notes, there's a Tea Party today and "no mass grassroots progressive movement rising up." That's precisely right. We're going to have some hard times ahead, and all we can hang on to now is our sense of honesty and self-respect. In other words, don't pull out the pitchforks; it won't do us much good.