A Populist Manifesto: The Making of a New Majority
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.