More than 6 years ago, a study by Princeton University Prof. Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof. Benjamin I Page made headlines for concluding what many Americans may have already known: the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy. While the evidence is all around us, perhaps even more clearly in a pandemic that has enriched the richest Americans while record numbers of people are left unemployed and destitute, it’s often hard to remember just how the country got to this current state. In the second part of a two-part interview for “Scheer Intelligence,” Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler and author of What's the Matter with Kansas and, more recently, The People, No, talks to host Robert Scheer about the anti-populism that helped liberals embrace the plutocracy that is consuming American democracy daily.
“The Democratic Party has very much become a vehicle of the aristocracy, of plutocracy,” says Frank. “One of the reasons for that is because liberalism in its modern-day incarnation not only has moved away from and forgotten about its past as a working-class movement, but [provides] a rationale for plutocracy.
“By and large, the elite of America today is this kind of white-collar group that's defined by where they went to school,” the historian continues, “And this group looks out at the rest of the world, and they say, ‘Not only are we richer than you, but we're better than you. We're more moral than you, we understand politics better than you, we know the jargon. We understand the issues.’ And this is highly toxic--that this sort of progressive tradition has now come together with and melded with extreme wealth [and] rationalizes their place in the hierarchy.”
Frank, calling on his experiences in his home state of Kansas as well as his extensive historical research, points to the many ways that populist language and messaging was also de-radicalized, dusted off and reused by corporations and political parties to gain the trust of the working class, all the while finding new ways to disadvantage and oppress them. The historian also examines how segregation stemmed from an elite-run wave of anti-populism that Martin Luther King, Jr. identified in his “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,” although it is often left out of civil rights movement narratives.
Listen to the second part of the conversation between Frank and Scheer as the two discuss what this anti-populist scourge has meant for contemporary American politics and where that leaves progressives as Joe Biden prepares to take office. You can also listen to the first part of the interview, in which the two thinkers explore the history of American populism, here.