Magazine June 1, 2021, Issue

Learning from Populist Movements of the Past

(Yakobchuk/Getty Images)

A review of In Defense of Populism: Protest and American Democracy, by Donald T. Critchlow.

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In Defense of Populism: Protest and American Democracy, by Donald T. Critchlow (University of Pennsylvania Press, 224 pp., $29.95)

In 1978, Chilton Williamson Jr. published an eerily prescient broadside against populist conservatism in the pages of National Review called “To the Nashville Station: Country & Western Marxism.” Williamson’s main target was Kevin Phillips, whose 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority pointed toward a new center-right politics that would move away from the northeastern “establishment” and toward the middle and working classes and the emerging power of the Sun Belt voter. Phillips argued that social and cultural issues would attract more downscale voters to the GOP. Even as Phillips veered toward the kooky left later in his life, The Emerging Republican Majority became one of the most influential political books of recent times, and it reminds us that talk of a “working class” GOP is not exactly something new.

Populism was not just a political strategy but had also, according to Williamson, infected the conservative intellectual world. Many conservatives moved away from a traditional skepticism of the masses and a defense of high culture and elitism. Williamson believed that populist conservatives were instead “strongly biased toward the lower middle class . . . and willing to inflame their preju­dices by flattering their customs and tastes.” The “pheromones” of these populists, wrote Williamson, “exude a beery odor better suited to attracting Kiwanis than Yale Phi Bet’s.”

For 50 years, American conservatism has retained a populist edge. Today, the debate on populism is wrapped up in reactions for or against Trumpism. For those who find these debates an intellectual dead end, Donald Critchlow’s new book In Defense of Populism is a welcome relief and a chance to assess populism from a different perspective. Critchlow, a professor of history at Arizona State University, does not de­fend populist conservatism, but instead uses his sophisticated and encyclopedic knowledge of American history to place populism in a new light.

Of course, with any analysis of this kind, defining one’s terms matters. Critchlow’s populist is not quite the vulgar Rotarian of Williamson’s polemic, but rather populism is defined by “grassroots activism expressed in social movements against established elites.” Such “populist” social-protest movements historically were designed to pressure established elites into expanding the range of voices in American democracy and to challenge entrenched power.

Although some grassroots movements were more successful than others, all of them were co-opted in some way by the two major political parties, which incorporated some of the ideas of these movements into legislation and government policy. In doing so, Critchlow argues, the political parties, paradoxically, strengthened themselves. This process shows that “populist movements are necessary for democratic renewal.” His defense of populism is less about defending the political and policy goals of populist movements and more about seeing populism as vital to the democratic process.

That would seem to be an uncontroversial assertion, but for too long populism has gained a reputation among scholars and the general educated public as a reactionary and even “anti­democratic” movement. Historians such as Richard Hofstadter painted populists as agrarian, anti-modern quacks. De­spite decades of research showing how Hofstadter got the populists wrong, the stereotype still lingers in the American historical imagination.

To help rescue a more historically grounded interpretation of populism, Critchlow presents five case studies of grassroots movements in American history. Each one gets a single tightly argued chapter. He begins logically with the agrarian populists of the late 19th century, adding Henry George’s “single tax” movement to the discussion. This populism may have favored some crank monetary policies, but it helped create federal antitrust laws, the Federal Re­serve, and the growth of the regulatory administrative state. In the following chapter, Critchlow examines the radical populists of the 1930s, including Father Coughlin and Huey Long, who helped build support for the New Deal before eventually breaking with FDR. Another 1930s populist, Francis Townsend, built a mass movement in support of old-age pensions that helped pave the way for Social Security.

Critchlow also observes a fundamental irony of these populist movements. Driven by the demands of average Americans for a more expansive democracy, these movements led to the growth of an administrative state that was largely shielded from democratic politics and staffed by educated bureaucrats and other professionals. The political system moderated the demands of the populists but also paved the way for future populist movements from the right that targeted “Big Government.”

Critchlow then turns to movements dedicated more to social than to economic change. Here we should ask whether Critchlow’s definitional twist on populism works. The answer is yes and no. Critchlow’s next case study is the civil-rights movement. Presenting it as “populist” is a novel interpretation that will surely surprise most readers, but it is not that big of a stretch. The civil-rights movement was a grassroots movement of African Americans, with some elite support in the white North, that fought against the interests of an entrenched elite, in the form of the white southern establishment dedicated to upholding Jim Crow. The civil-rights movement was deeply transformative for American society and became institutionalized within the legal system and the administrative state.

On the other hand, I am more skeptical about classifying second-wave feminism as a “populist” movement, as Critchlow does in his next case study. The author of a well-regarded biography of Phyllis Schlafly, Critchlow knows a lot about the history of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. He is correct that out of all of the social movements discussed, feminism arguably produced the greatest social changes. But feminism was largely a movement of affluent, well-educated white women, while many working-class women remained skeptical of the feminist movement. In my view, Betty Friedan and “populism” should never be spoken of in the same breath.

The case of the feminist movement reminds us that not all grassroots social movements are “populist.” Take the temperance/prohibition movement, one of the most potent such movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries and, for a time, one of the most successful. Anti-alcohol reformers were not upset that their voices were marginalized; they wanted to transform American society according to their own mores. Yes, Prohibition went after some big businesses in the form of beer and liquor companies, but mostly it was a movement of the middle class and the affluent, who often targeted those lower on the economic ladder for their indulgence of alcohol. One could argue that it was a movement of social control rather than one of liberation or democratic renewal.

Critchlow’s fifth grassroots movement is the post-1960 populist Right that so irritated Chilton Williamson. Critchlow places together post-war anti-communism, the anti-abortion movement, the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, and the tax revolts of the 1970s as part of the conservative populist movement that eventually led to the election as president of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

When it comes to modern populist movements, Critchlow shows less optimism. Whether it is the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or MAGA, Critchlow finds within these movements a deep-seated pessimism about American democracy and about social change. He also argues that contemporary populists of the Left and Right are often funded by deep-pocket foundations and wealthy donors. American elites have a big stake in the grassroots movements of the Left and the Right.

With the exception of Critchlow’s chapter on the populist Right, the historical actors in this book come mostly from the political Left, eager to challenge authority and social norms in order to bring about change. Many were skeptical of capitalism, and their activism helped usher in the rise of big regulatory government. Conservatives might not have much sympathy for many of these populists, but Critchlow is trying to understand the process of social change, not to advocate the positions of those activists.

In doing so, he is actually making a kind of Burkean defense of populism. A well-ordered liberal democracy needs to provide an outlet for grassroots activism and a way to include those who feel they are not being heard. A normal, functioning society addresses some of these imbalances and provides the moderate reforms necessary to continue the democratic experiment.

What seems to have changed in our own time are not the demands by various grassroots activists across the political spectrum to address real (or perceived) imbalances in power, but rather that our political system seems unable to address and accommodate critics of society in any real, meaningful, and moderating way. Instead, both political parties appear to have increasingly given themselves over to their insurgent activists rather than co-opting part of their agendas into mainstream politics. Political divisiveness and polarization worsen.

On the left, protest too easily turns to violence or intimidation. On the right, an angry populism is in danger of washing away any vestiges of a more traditional and prudent conservatism, much as Williamson had feared decades earlier. All this while technocratic elites and corporations cynically use wokeness and the culture war to protect their privileges.

If Critchlow is right — and I think he is — then our problem today is not really an excess of populist ferment on both the left and the right. The problem today is the weakness of liberal democracy, which seems unable to uphold its values and find ways to address society’s discontents. A healthy civil and political society can adapt to the challenges of social protests. Critchlow’s book is a defense of historical populism and grassroots movements, but it is also a sad reminder that our current political disequilibrium shows no signs of abating.

Vincent J. Cannato — Mr. Cannato is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

In This Issue



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