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Can the Left Reclaim Populism With Biden as the Modern FDR?

A prolific and outspoken author contends the term "populism" has been turned on its head, and not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has the White House been occupied by a man of the people.

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President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 8, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
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You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.



 

Author Thomas Frank is an unapologetic liberal and populist. Those characteristics shape his writing and worldview. He finds promise in the country’s original populists, who adopted the term in 1891, and who were protesting “unbearable debt, monopoly and corruption … forcing the country to acknowledge that ordinary Americans who were just as worthy as bankers or railroad barons were being ruined by an economic system that in fact answered to no moral laws.” Frank sees distinct parallels between conditions then and American capitalism as it exists today, complete with the stains of racism, sexism, economic inequality, and contempt for ordinary Americans.

Frank’s latest book, The People, No (2020), completes a decades-long four-book circuit that both critiques conservatives for appropriating the language of populism in protecting elite economic interests and criticizes his fellow liberals for letting conservatives do it. Having completed What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2005), one of the most influential political books of the last quarter-century, Wrecking Crew (2009) and Listen Liberal (2017), Frank now makes an urgent, perhaps desperate, call for liberals and allied progressives to reclaim populism for the left. He laments the tendency in recent years to “deliberately devalue the coinage of the American reform tradition.” In a bid to redeem populism, Frank describes his most recent book as “my own personal narrative of . . . the running war between the populist tradition and the people who hate it.

The following interview has been edited for clarity, length and readability.

The Left Lost the Culture Wars

Governing: What's the Matter With Kansas? is one of the most durable books of our time. Its thesis has been enormously influential. Where are we now?

Thomas Frank: As a country, we're lost. We’ve embraced the culture wars. What's the Matter With Kansas? is about the culture wars coming to overshadow traditional economic politics. That's everywhere now. Every day is a new battle over the legitimacy of the traditional ruling elites of this country. So much has changed since that book came out. I'm very critical of Biden, but in some ways, he’s exactly what we need. There’s something very refreshing in this grandfatherly figure who's very forgiving, who doesn't despise people. He's very old-fashioned. He's a reminder.

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I don't think Biden understands the historical position that he’s in. That’s the problem with a lot of Democrats. They talk about Biden’s election as if it’s Obama's third term. When Biden used that phrase, “nothing will fundamentally change,” it angered a lot of left-leaning people. This country desperately needs to see that liberal governance is a good thing, and that the Democratic Party and the government in Washington really genuinely do care about everyone, including the lowliest members of society. Biden doesn't understand the urgency of that task. If he fails, we're going to see a resurgence of Trumpism.

Governing: If he did understand, what could he do?

Thomas Frank: The playing field is ready for someone that understands the urgency and knows what to do. Biden definitely knows how to get things done. If he tackles COVID-19 in a really forceful way and gets things back to normal by summertime, this country will love him forever. If he gets the economy roaring, this country will love him. Unfortunately, there are other things that he's already screwed up. The minimum wage was an important one. The $2,000 checks [proposed by President Trump in the last days of the campaign] were an important one. But the country will forgive those if he gets the economy up and running again.

Governing: How does Biden overcome the paralysis in Congress? 

Thomas Frank: There are plenty of precedents. He needs to persuade a couple members of the other party, or he needs to persuade members of his own party, like Joe Manchin, to do the right thing for the country. Nowadays presidents just throw up their hands and say, "It can't be done." But we know it can. Franklin Roosevelt did it all the time. Lyndon Johnson did it all the time. Ronald Reagan got his tax cuts done in 1981 with a Democratic House. The president has enormous bargaining power. Biden needs to get everybody to sit down at the table.

Governing: Can Biden deliver in relieving economic pressure and bringing about real economic democracy? This has been a difficult thing for Democrats.

Thomas Frank: There's a way to goose the economy, to create a simulacrum of economic democracy. Remember how Bill Clinton was loved toward the end of his presidency? It was because the economy was roaring and wages were growing. Trump never quite got there because of the pandemic, but he almost did. 

No Idea What to Do About – or for – the Middle Class

By the standards at the time, the New Deal stimulus was enormous. We're on a completely different playing field now. This is so much bigger than anything Roosevelt did until World War II. Maybe this will be good enough to win it for Biden, but he needs a larger plan. The bigger question is what's gone wrong with middle-class society, and I think Biden has some glimmer of understanding. The only two candidates who really did get it were Biden and Sanders, and maybe Elizabeth Warren. But that's not to say that he has any idea what to do about it.

Governing: Much of this involves huge macro-economic things that very few people understand. AI and robotics are going to make it increasingly harder to employ millions of people, many of whom are going to be too old to be retrainable. How do you see all of this playing out over the next half century?

Thomas Frank: When I was doing research on the 1960s, I was surprised to discover that economists were talking about this back then. They used the term automation. Up until now, the fear has been largely overblown. Other things have done much more damage. The answer is not what the Democrats always do, which is to tell people to get used to it and learn how to code. That’s what Bill Clinton did. Rahm Emanuel did this just a short while ago. That's an insult, not an answer. Democrats have to come up with something other than that. I don't know if it's a universal basic income or some other reindustrialization scheme, but they've got to address the problem.

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Thomas Frank


 

The New, Old Populist Movement

Governing: If we look back in history, the Nonpartisan League took agrarian discontent and found a narrative. The Grange found another narrative, and the Populist Party a third. These were grassroots situations that percolated out of the soil and out of actual discontent, and that created a narrative and a leadership vacuum that people came to fill. Do you see any way today to organize the populism?

Thomas Frank: We're definitely ripe for a new populist movement. We have been for a long time. All of these Republican politicians and some of the Democrats have appealed to that sentiment. Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 was all populist rhetoric, which he immediately discarded once he assumed office. Everybody does it. Reagan did it. George H.W. Bush. We’re play acting. We all know what the country needs when we step back and look at where we are. This country is being torn apart by the second gilded age, by income inequality, by all the things that go with that. The incredible monopoly power, the de-industrialization of huge parts of the country, millions and millions of people left behind. I would also throw in mass incarceration, which is the destruction of opportunities for working people.

There are so many different facets of this, but it's all one thing. We all know what it is, and we gesture at it. We talk about it in coded ways without ever talking about it directly. Obama sometimes talked about it directly, but then his solutions were entirely technocratic. What we really need is another New Deal. We really need another Franklin Roosevelt coming in and remaking the system.

The Farmers' Alliance was an enormous group with millions of very dedicated members who were highly educated on farm issues. They eventually became the Populist Party. This was in the 1890s. But before they did that, they tried to flex their muscle as a traditional interest group in different states. They would elect a Democrat or a Republican, whoever said they would follow through on the issues of importance to farmers. But the politicians routinely sold them out. They'd get elected and then just say, "See you in four years." The Populous Party was started because members of the Farmers' Alliance and the other associated groups were sick of being betrayed.

The critical thing is that there are these episodes in our country's history where mass movements of working-class people go into politics and bring about incredible change. The Populists were the first and the most seismic, but the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations)  – one half of today’s AFL-CIO - was organizing unskilled workers in the 1930s. It caught on like wildfire, and they tripled in size over the course of the decade. That was really the force behind all of the great changes that happened in the 1930s. And then in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, you had a similar thing going on in the South, with organizers coming into communities. They were organizing around the right to vote, but by the end of the 60s it had become an economic crusade.

But we’re in the grip of a different theory now, which is that change is brought about by leaders sitting around a mahogany table in Washington and hammering everything out. That's what today’s Democratic Party believes. The rank and file need to stay in their place. You get things done in this country by a coming together of the elites. That's profoundly wrong. I don't want to include all Democrats. There are a lot of good Democrats out there. And I think Joe Biden is one of them.

The progressive movement culture today is extremely judgmental and scolding toward ordinary people. The great scholar of populism, Larry Goodwin, developed a theory on how to build these movements. He said that you have to have ideological patience. To build a mass movement of ordinary people, you have to understand that they aren't highly educated. Their hearts might be in the right place, but they're not fully educated. The movement is supposed to get them there. But we approach it entirely the other way. Today’s progressive movement wants to scold these people. It's all about excommunication, canceling, kicking people out. It's all about subtraction, not addition. If your whole object is to exclude people, by definition, then you can't build a mass movement. And if you're particularly excluding people who didn't go to college or who didn't go to graduate school, then you can't be a mass party of working-class people. 

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The Two-Party System Is Canceling the Middle Class

Governing: If, as you’re suggesting, the populous movement is exactly what we need, why do you seem convinced that it’s not going to happen?

Thomas Frank: Because the two-party system is locked in. Look at the Republican Party. What they do and what they offer is so cynical. They'll say things that sound pretty good, but they don't mean it. Trump said things that sounded pretty good. Drain the swamp. He didn't mean it at all. He replenished it. There’s no way that what we need is going to come out of the Republican Party.

Then you look at the Democratic Party, the traditional bearers of the populist thread in American life. They’ve done everything in their power to squash it. Look at how they reacted to Bernie Sanders, who is as close to the populist tradition as it’s possible to get. If he had been the front runner in 2020, you would have seen Barack Obama come out against him. You would have seen them pull out all the stops to keep Sanders from being the nominee. 

There are other hints as to who the Democratic Party is. White-collar elites are increasingly their number one constituency. They serve these people. They take the rest of us for granted. I don't have high hopes for them. More and more, they are withdrawing into that understanding of themselves. "We represent the smart people and the highly educated, and we have the answers in our technocratic, meritocratic philosophy."

The woke progressive movement is profoundly anti-populist. Again, it's all subtraction, not addition. They show no ideological patience. They have a thirst for ideological blood, to kick people out, to get people in trouble, to get people fired. It's the opposite of populism.

Yelling on TV Is No Substitute for Populist Discussion

Governing: In The People, No, you tell the story of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, the Kansas newspaper editor that started Little Blue Books. He published hundreds of millions of those low-priced paperbacks, bringing literature and a wide range of ideas to the working class. Can you see anything like that in today’s era of immense digital publishing and social media?

Thomas Frank: There's a tremendous appetite for that sort of thing. I don't know that it will take precisely the same form. I'm fascinated by everything we've been talking about in this conversation, and I think the public is as well. This stuff needs to be more readily available. In today’s culture, you turn on the TV and people are yelling at you. You go on Facebook and people are yelling at you and calling you names. It's really unpleasant. But I think there's a real appetite in this country for the kind of culture that takes you seriously as a reader and invites you to contemplate and to figure things out along with the author.

Governing: As we close, what's the most hopeful thing you can say?

Thomas Frank: I think Joe Biden is a good man. He has a very bad track record on the things that I care about, but he's a good guy at heart. Like Obama before him, he has the perfect opportunity to do the right thing. It's all up to him.

Governing: But he has to realize that, in some fundamental sense, President Obama failed.

Thomas Frank: I think he does. That’s one of the hopeful things about him. That’s why his stimulus is so large. Obama's stimulus was a half measure. He was poorly advised. The Republicans demanded that all those tax cuts be included. It was poorly done. Obama had the world at his feet. He could have had anything he wanted. Biden doesn't have that, but he does have political skills that Obama did not have. Let's hope he can leverage that. And look, he's getting $1.9 trillion. That’s unheard of. Let's hope that this is the future.


You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.

Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
Dennis is the founding editor-in-chief and publisher of Governing and Executive Chairman of the Board of its parent company e.Republic.
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