George Wallace: American Populist
The meaning of the term “populist” has undergone remarkable changes during the past century, especially the latter half of it. In some ways these changes are comparable to those undergone by the term “democracy” during the previous century, except that the reputation of “democracy” changed distinctly for the better during the nineteenth century, whereas that of “populist” sank lower and lower in the twentieth.
As the words associated with the third party founded in 1892, “Populist” and “populism” started off with strong claims for respect among historians for the courage and originality of some of the party’s leaders. I credited them myself with “one of the earliest and most thoroughgoing critiques of corporate America and its culture we have had.” These leaders ridiculed both of the old political parties as equally subservient to business interests and they scorned the press for the same reason. Their mainly agrarian supporters made alliances with industrial workers and black voters and fought hard for the full political and legal rights of both. They had their faults and inconsistencies, but they lent the term “Populist” a deserved prestige.
The heaviest blows to the reputation of populism on its way down were delivered, in the 1950s, by liberal intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter who were seeking to explain the McCarthyite assault upon decency and to find a scapegoat for their disenchantment with the seamy side of democracy. They settled on the old Pops as apologists for provincial anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, xenophobia, crypto-fascism, paranoid conspiracy hunting, and anti-intellectualism. Since then “populism” (with or without the capital) has been regularly used as an epithet of opprobrium.
Under the title “Vox Populist” an editorial in a recent number of The New Yorker calls the current rise of reactionary and fascistic movements abroad “populist politics exploding all across Europe…all over the democratic and would-be-democratic world.” Yet there still lingers some ambiguity in the term. The same editorial remarks that “populism thrives on the sentiment of ordinary people who believe, with some truth, that privileged people—people with power, or money, or status, or contempt—have ignored them.” Identifying George Wallace in the title of Stephan Lesher’s new biography as an “American Populist,” the author appears to find this ambiguity useful, and not only in characterizing his subject but in rationalizing certain ambiguities of his own.
Born in 1919, George Wallace grew up a full generation or more after populism reached its peak in Alabama and began to decline. One remarkable thing about Clio, his birthplace (apart from its name), was its location in the home county of Reuben Kolb, founder of the Alabama Populist Party, who carried Clio and environs, long solidly Democratic, by large majorities when he ran for governor in the 1890s. Lesher shows no awareness of this fact and does not tell us how Wallace’s closest of kin voted. As a biographer, he displays little interest in history and sometimes proves misinformed as well as uninformed about the relevant past.
Lesher’s account of …
‘Wallace Redeemed?’: An Exchange December 1, 1994