Don’t Believe Anything You Were Told About Populism

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"Thomas Frank." Art by Mr. Fish.

The word “populism” gets a bad rap these days as corporate media warns of its alleged dangers and President Barack Obama goes so far as to blame Sarah Palin for its recent rise. But, according to Thomas Frank, the founding editor of  The Baffler and author of The People, No, a detailed account about the history of populism in the United States, true populism is a force for good, not evil. On this week’s installment of Scheer Intelligence, the journalist and historian joins Robert Scheer to discuss in-depth how the Democratic Party chose to quash populism, while the Republican Party decided to use its stripped-down ideals for its own nefarious means.  

“Today you open up something like The Atlantic magazine and populism is [billed as] this dreadful phenomenon, this thing to be deplored,” begins Frank. “It's paranoia, it's anti-intellectualism, it's all these appeals to bad motivations in humans. And of course it's always defined as being Donald Trump--that's populism. 

“I'm here to say that that is not the case at all,” says the author. “That the correct definition of populism is a great thing, a hopeful thing. Populism is when ordinary people come together and work for economic democracy. That’s the definition of the word, and it's something that we should be aspiring for, not something that we should be fearful of and try to stamp out.”

Reminding listeners of what became of the Populist Party or People’s Party, Frank goes on to trace populist roots through more recent American history, like the Civil Rights movement, and argues that many of the country’s current political troubles stem from a distortion of populism which bolstered the ruling elite by fragmenting the working class. He also puts to bed the misconception that populism is somehow anti-intellectual, pointing to the important tradition of pamphleteering that aimed to make texts by ancient philosophers but also left-wing thinkers accessible to all Americans. Listen to the full conversation between Frank and Scheer as they pinpoint the turning point that still defines American politics to this day.



Joshua Scheer