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Populism, Socialism, & McGovernism

A Populist Manifesto: The Making of a New Majority

by Jack Newfield, by Jeff Greenfield
Praeger, 221 pp., $5.95


by Michael Harrington
Saturday Review Press, 436 pp., $12.50


The familiar materials of popular discontent, quietly persisting through three decades of “affluence,” seem once again to be rising to the surface of American political life. Distrust of officials and official pronouncements; cynicism about the good faith of those in positions of great power; resentment of the rich; a conviction that most things in life are “fixed”—these attitudes were there all along, of course, forming part of the folk wisdom of the American working class, but they attracted little attention so long as it was possible to believe that the worker had become middle-class in his tastes and outlook. Now that they seem to be taking political form, the illusion is harder to maintain.

A grass-roots rebellion against the Democratic Party establishment gives rise to the McGovern and Wallace candidacies, antagonistic movements that nevertheless have in common that both are hated and feared by the official leaders of the party and flourish in the face of official attempts to suppress them. In Illinois the Daley machine suffers a sharp setback. In Lordstown, Ohio, GM workers are raising not the traditional issues of bread-and-butter unionism but a more disturbing question: Why does work have to be organized in such a way as to make it boring and meaningless? Studies show—what we hardly needed studies to find out—that most Americans are bored with their jobs. A Harris poll reveals the equally unsurprising information that our political institutions are distrusted by a majority of the people.

Distrust and boredom are two sides of the same mood; both flow from the experience of being without power. Having no control over his work, over governmental policy, over the press and television, or over the education of his children, the citizen feels himself manipulated to suit the interests of the rich and powerful. Busing—its unreality decried by established political spokesmen—has become an important issue in American politics because it represents for many people the most palpable threat of outside interference with their lives: the sacrifice of defenseless children to a bureaucratic design imposed from above. (That the children themselves seem not to mind is perhaps beside the point.)

In the new political climate—the existence of which the Democratic primaries, more than anything else, have made known—people are rediscovering “populism.” In the Fifties scholars ridiculed populism as a backward-looking agrarian fantasy. Some saw in the populism of the 1890s the seeds of American “fascism.” Others interpreted it as “paranoid,” anti-intellectual, and obsessed with issues of merely symbolic importance—the progenitor of McCarthyism and other right-wing movements “against modernity.” In the late Fifties and early Sixties a number of historians began to challenge these interpretations, arguing that the populists were neither nativist nor anti-Semitic, reminding us that populism was a genuinely radical movement with a radical program.1 In some cases they asserted an identity—spurious, in my view—of populism with socialism.

This new scholarship has had the effect of making populism intellectually respectable again. Joseph Kraft, in a review of the Newfield-Greenfield “manifesto,” expresses the older view of populism when he worries that a revolt against economic injustice, of the kind Newfield and Greenfield are trying to encourage, would degenerate into a demagogic crusade in which “the malign side of populism” would once again assert itself—“the side that in the past has fostered isolationism, anti-intellectualism, hostility to Jews and Catholics, and what Richard Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’ of American politics.” But it is precisely the association of isolationism, anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitism, and political paranoia with populism that can no longer be taken for granted. The revival of populism as a subject of general concern, while it derives in the first place from recent political events, also derives from—or at least was facilitated by—the scholarly rehabilitation of populism.

According to the interpretation that prevailed in the Fifties, populism was a rear-guard movement, rooted in the status anxieties of a declining class, the petty bourgeoisie; and although it would doubtless continue to manifest itself in such reactionary forms as Goldwaterism and the John Birch Society, it could hardly be regarded as the wave of the future. The recent reinterpretation of populism, by stressing its radicalism, has made it contemporary again—for many people, indeed, has made it a more appropriate answer to the crisis in American society than the radicalism of the Sixties.

A new populism might be expected to appeal not only to those directly victimized by economic injustice but to students and intellectuals who are tired of the ideological wrangles of the left and seek relief in a broadly based reform coalition in which theoretical niceties are subordinated to practical results. The populist revival reflects more than the growing impatience of the “average American”; it also reflects the disillusionment of many leftists and ex-leftists. Clearly the new populism is one of several candidates hoping to inherit what remains of the new left, others being women’s liberation, the “counter-culture,” and some form of socialism.

It may be suggestive of a new mood on the left that Newfield and Greenfield barely mention the new left; they simply by-pass it. In their eagerness “to return to American politics the economic passions jettisoned a generation ago,” they seem to assume that nothing at all can be learned from the radicalism of the Sixties. They pass over that complex experience with a brief criticism of the youth culture (actually of Charles Reich), a few snide references to “middle-class radicals,” and the observation—which hardly disposes of the subject—that “the New Left in its Weatherman, Panther, and Yippie incarnations has become anti-democratic, terroristic, dogmatic, stoned on rhetoric, and badly disconnected from everyday reality.”

They say nothing about the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, or the new left attack on the multiversity. By their own admission their program does not address itself to “the legitimate grievances of blacks, or the women’s movement,” or to “civil liberties, disarmament, and ecology.” Their populism speaks to “concrete economic interests.” In appealing frankly to “self-interest” as the motive force of politics, it is unashamedly liberal, while at the same time seeking to dissociate itself from the “elitist” and manipulative liberalism of Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, and the Ivy League technocrats in the Defense Department. The populist program is “designed to move us closer toward justice, not Shangri-La.”

Newfield and Greenfield propose a variety of economic reforms. They would attack the concentration of wealth and economic power by means of antitrust suits, federal regulation of corporations, and tax reform. (In tax reform, their suggestions resemble the unamended McGovern proposals, combining higher rates for the rich with exemption for the poor and closing various loopholes.) Newfield and Greenfield would bring banking and insurance companies under control by means of public representation on boards of directors. Similarly they see union participation in management as a means of bringing corporations to public accountability. (This of course is not the same thing as worker control.) They demand public ownership of utilities (so did the populists in 1892), land reform designed to break up concentrations of land ownership and to thwart real estate developers, and reform of communications to prevent monopoly and encourage diversity.

Rightly convinced that “law and order” is a real issue for working people and not simply a slogan of right-wing demagogues, they advocate gun control, and end to police corruption and bureaucracy, penal reform that would emphasize rehabilitation instead of custody (another good nineteenth-century proposal), and, somewhat ominously, an end to “police practices that hinder the work of deterrence”—measures, it must be said, that hardly go to the heart of the problem. They propose a program of national health insurance, closer supervision of the drug industry, and a restructuring of the medical profession to allow “paraprofessionals” to play a larger role (but without noting the implications of this last suggestion for professional training in general). In short, they favor an “attack on economic privilege” all along the line.

The first thing to be said about this program is that it is too modest even within its own limits. There is no reason for populists to ignore such important issues as housing, transportation, and education, as Newfield and Greenfield do, or to pass so lightly over questions of foreign policy. Instead of examining the connection between American foreign policy and the concentration of wealth, Newfield and Greenfield subscribe to the questionable thesis that what is wrong with foreign policy can be attributed to the influence of intellectuals committed to “the mode of technocratic thinking and operating.” They treat racism purely as an economic matter: the concentration of economic power “leaves whites and blacks competing over too scarce public resources.” They by-pass the complicated issue of school desegregation, probably because it does not readily yield to an economic interpretation.

Again and again the authors try to avoid the troubling questions of the Fifties and Sixties by reviving issues that were central to American politics before these new issues arose; yet in many cases the roots of these issues must be traced directly to the “populist” administrations of Roosevelt and Truman. Newfield and Greenfield hark back nostalgically to Harry Truman’s “give-‘em-hell” campaign of 1948—“one of the last examples of a successful populist coalition”—but forget that it was Truman who formulated the containment policy and made the first American commitments to Vietnam.

Some of the omissions and evasions of the Populist Manifesto are peculiar to the Newfield-Greenfield version of populism, and it is accordingly possible to imagine a slightly more rigorous statement of the case; but most of these evasions are intrinsic to populism itself. Certainly populism has never been “anti-imperialist in foreign policy,” as Newfield and Greenfield claim. In The Roots of the Modern American Empire, William Appleman Williams showed that American farmers saw an expansionist foreign policy as enlarging their markets; nor did the populist leaders quarrel with this assessment. There is admittedly a tradition in populism that sees war as a conspiracy of international bankers and munitions-makers, but this tradition is compatible with nationalist and even jingoist views and hardly provides a solid basis on which to oppose American expansionism—though it might be of some use at the moment in extricating ourselves from Vietnam.

Nor is populism reliably antitechnocratic, as Newfield and Greenfield also maintain. In its more sophisticated forms—as in the sociology of Lester Frank Ward and Thorstein Veblen—it advanced a technological interpretation of social “evolution” according to which the new technological and scientific elite were functionally indispensable to advanced industrial society, and thus assured of a commanding position in it.

Finally, populism, because it treats politics as a reflection of economic self-interest, has always found it difficult to explain the connections between politics and culture. Newfield and Greenfield with good reason believe that culture should not be confused with or substituted for politics (as in the theories of the counter-culturists); but this does not mean that the connections between them can be safely ignored. To make these connections, however, requires a theory of class and an understanding of the way in which class interests, seldom presenting themselves directly in economic form, are mediated by culture, which in turn acquires a life independent of its social origin. Racism, for example, though it once furnished a rationale for slavery and other forms of exploitation, no longer has a clear basis in economic self-interest; nevertheless it survives as a powerful force in American society and cannot be eliminated simply by a more equitable distribution of goods.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Norman Pollack, The Populist Response to Industrial America (Harvard, 1962); Walter T. K. Nugent, The Tolerant Populists (University of Chicago, 1963); and Michael Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy (MIT Press, 1967).

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