Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


There have been calls in the wake of the Sanders "Revolution" for the Democrats to embrace "populism."  Those calls are wrapped in complaints that Trump is ruining the good name of populism with his racism, sexism and overall assholishness.

The thing is, populism really doesn't have a "good name" or at least it shouldn't.  Populism was the credo of Andrew Jackson.  Jackson rode roughshod over the rule of law and precipitated the worst depression in the country's history (to that point).  He was an emotive, violently angry asshole who appealed to the people's worst interests - racially, economically.

The Populist Party had some very good ideas.  Many of them - the direct election of Senators, secret ballots, inflationary monetary policy, the 8 hour work day - eventually became law.  But a lot of those were sort of free-floating reform ideas that the Populists co-opted.  The actual political movement of the Populists was fraught with racism, once they realized they couldn't win the South by appealing to racial solidarity between poor whites and blacks.  The journey of Tom Watson from racial progressive to racial troglodyte is a great example of this.  The actual Populists were a collection of angry cranks who happened to have some very good ideas.

But it was the Progressive movement - largely sober middle class reformers - who took those ideas and made them law.

Populism, by definition, eschews expertise and reasoned argument in favor of emotional appeals and gut feelings.  While the Populists were right about inflationary currency, they were often right for the wrong reasons.  Richard Hofstadter pretty persuasively argues that most Populists were reactionaries rather than liberals.  The fact that their chosen reforms actually brought about progress was kind of an accident.  Populists wanted to return to an imagined agrarian idyll.

Populism is an attitude towards politics more than a policy agenda.  Populism can be George Wallace or Father Coughlin or Donald Trump just as easy as it can be James Weaver or Jacob Coxey.

The Democrats on the left have taken the moniker "Progressive."  That was another difficult to define reform movement.  But broadly speaking, the Progressives worked within existing political structures to make them better rather than pulling stunts, like when the Populists seized control of the Kansas legislature by force.

Democrats are bound by outlook to make appeals to reason and policy, not emotion and boasts.  Work with that.

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