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Scorn from the Top

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books and culture

Scorn from the Top

A new book traces American elites’ long-running disdain for populist movements. August 27, 2020
Politics and law
The Social Order

The People, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., $26.99)

In The People, NO, Thomas Frank makes clear that today’s anti-populism is a new iteration of an old game. He describes how over the last 120 years, elites—whether conservative, liberal, or progressive—have attacked populists with the same arguments, and even the same language. These attacks have characterized populists as, anti-democratic, a threat to civilization, and “deplorable.”

The book begins with the Populist Party, which emerged in the 1890s in opposition to a powerful business-financial power structure. Frank details the accusations hurled at the Populists by captains of industry and banking and their allies in academia and the press. The style used in these attacks was late Victorian, but it otherwise sounds familiar: the Populists were derided as “ignorant,” “reactionary,” “anti-intellectual,” and “foolish” to believe that they, with their limited education and expertise, could direct government. Frank describes how Yale students heckled the 1896 Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; it doesn’t sound that different from how today’s students sound when shouting down politically disfavored campus speakers.

Frank portrays Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as being on the side of populists, but here he runs into difficulty. After all, Roosevelt drew largely on elite opinion from his “brain trust,” which had borrowed its theories about a corporatist approach to economic organization from Italian fascism. Meantime, the Great Depression had so discredited the old business-financial leadership that it strains the narrative to describe that group as a dominant elite by that point. Frank must rely heavily on Roosevelt’s rhetoric to maintain the picture of FDR heading a populist insurgency.

Matters become even more complex as the history gets to the postwar years. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade had enough populist elements to make it tempting to support elite criticism of it—but most of the elite lacked the courage to speak against McCarthy at the height of his influence. Later, during the rest of the Eisenhower years and into the 1960s, populist rhetoric all but disappeared from American political life, giving Frank little material to work with.

Still, Frank manages to turn up plenty of material to remind readers of elites’ long-running habit of denigrating their inferiors. Writing in a period of relative calm, historian and public intellectual Richard Hofstadter dismissed the idea that everyday people might have a point when they criticized how government was run. Common people, Hofstadter maintained, spoke less from considered thought than from “status anxiety,” a feeling of inadequacy to their cognitive superiors. Today’s elites don’t use the same language, but the condescension remains. We can hear echoes of Hofstadter’s dismissal of common people’s concerns and beliefs in Barack Obama’s reference to people who “cling” to guns and Bibles, though Frank resists drawing this parallel.

Frank is a man of the Left, and he detests Donald Trump. Yet he equally deplores the elite tendency to denigrate the opinions of working people who lack college degrees and subscriptions to the New York Times. These two passions collide when he brings his story into the present. Though populism thrives on the left with the “Bernie Bros” and “Sanders Sisters,” the primary populist energy today comes from Trump supporters on the right, and most anti-populist attacks come from left-leaning commentators and publications. Frank, nervous that any attack on elite opinion will earn him the label of a Trump supporter, strives to remind readers how much he despises the president—even as he concedes that Trump’s supporters have legitimate concerns and deserve respect.

Frank strikes this balance by criticizing Trump without targeting the ideas that he has attached himself to. “Just because the imbecile Trump derided elites,” he writes, “doesn’t mean those elites are a legitimate ruling class. Just because the hypocrite Trump pretended to care about deindustrialization doesn’t mean that deindustrialization is of no concern. Just because the brute Trump mimicked the language of proletarian discontent doesn’t mean working people are ‘deplorable.’”

Frank’s points of comparison reflect his old-fashioned leftism, but they also set him up to castigate today’s self-satisfied elite. He does so in his last chapter, aptly titled “Let Us Now Scold Uncouth Men,” in which he chides the Democratic Party for abandoning its role as “the voice of working-class people” to become a “sort of coming together of the learned and the virtuous.” None of the party’s setbacks over the years, he laments, have inspired its leaders to “reconsider the decision to become the party of the white-collar elite.”

Frank describes how this elite, since Trump’s victory in 2016, has fully adopted the “age-old anti-populist catechism.” Its members and representative publications repeat daily the same warnings about the end of democracy and the decline of American civilization. Frank damns renewed anti-populism as an abuse of fellow citizens, filled with “McCarthy-like bloodletting,” “judging,” “cancelling,” “scolding,” and a “geyser of moral rebuke.” The narrative needs little authorial intervention: the quotations alone embarrass their sources.

Frank looks forward to the day when the “liberal” elite and right-leaning populists exhaust themselves—and the Democratic Party reclaims its identity as the voice of workers. That time is likely more distant than Frank imagines, yet his book makes a real contribution. Readers might not share his old-style worship of the “proletariat,” but all can appreciate and take as a model the respect he shows his fellow citizens. All can gain insight from how he reveals much of today’s snobby bluster to be a rehashing of old falsehoods, self-serving efforts veiled in high-minded language. If Frank’s “solution” seems far off—and perhaps unwelcome to some—he has made plain what is going on in American politics today. For that, non-elites of Right and Left should thank him.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

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