The Agenda

William Hogeland on Progressives and Populists

The new Boston Review has just published an excellent essay by William Hogeland, author of revisionist accounts of the Whiskey Rebellion and the Declaration of Independence, that is a surprising and insightful rebuke to popular misconceptions about the Tea Party movement. He begins by describing the animating mythologies behind the populist and progressive movements.

 

So along with their left-wing ideas about the potential of government to ensure economic fairness by restraining wealth and regulating commerce, populists advanced a conservative, even nativist, criticism of the corporate ethos. They accused corporate hegemony of being innovative, departing from what they saw as the small-scale, family-focused ethics of the past; and un-American, since the past they admired involved the nation’s founding and early expansion. Populists were not opposed to enterprise, but in keeping with their admiration for the pioneer experience, they preferred the open spaces and even the cities of the Midwest and Rocky Mountains to the old urban centers of privilege, banking, and luxury back east. They deemed advanced formal education and its resulting expertise tools for keeping ordinary people out of the halls of power. Populists revered practical know-how, the common sense and hands-on experience of the worker, farmer, and small businessman.

By contrast, progressives, as liberals often were known (and there were many kinds of progressives, some adopting elements of populist rhetoric, others in their own way conservative), by and large wanted regulation of big business, not nationalization. Progressives, like populists, attacked Wall Street for greed and plutocracy, but as their name suggests, progressives hoped to move American society forward, not backward to an imagined pioneer democracy. Like liberals today, they wanted government to manage corporate capitalism for the greater good, not to dismantle it; they wanted the producing class supported and improved, not given wholesale charge of government; and their hopes for social progress lay specifically in advanced formal education.

Hogeland goes on to make a number of often neglected points, among them that William Jennings Bryan anti-Darwinism was of a piece with his brand of left-wing populism:

His anger at corruption in entrenched capital was identical to his anger at blasphemy in Darwin’s theory. In Bryan’s populism, the plain people are by definition the last arbiters of truth. On monetary policy, the people rendered their judgment against gold and in favor of silver, and Bryan delivered that judgment to the establishment. On the nature of creation, the people judged against evolution and in favor of the literal truth of the Bible; Bryan delivered that judgment, too. His argument against Darwin’s theory also had an economic element. It outraged his sense of justice to imagine humanity ascending by the survival of the fittest and the destruction of the least fit, the strong forever preying on the weak, the endless quest for dominance he associated with human hatred, greed, and corruption. He saw scientific Darwinism and social Darwinism as one and the same, and he called for a society and a conception of creation based on love, not hate.

That position was complicated by the angrily uncompromising tone, anything but loving, that he took and encouraged his supporters to take. The line between prairie birdsong and explosion was always a thin one for Bryan; that thinness may have made his career as a speaker and a leader. His politics of a non-political populism, advancing itself on religious and social grounds, stands for self-declared, self-defined goodness. It equates that goodness with the ordinary, working-class, democratic values that it declares fundamentally American. In protecting those values, it announces itself ready, at a moment’s notice, to fight to the death the arrogant social superiority that it views as institutionalized in liberal thought.

I was particularly impressed by Hogeland’s thoughts on the supposed “paranoia” of populist movements:

 

There is a long and largely unacknowledged history of political violence on both the left and the right (in his suicide note, the Austin kamikaze quoted, perhaps approvingly, from The Communist Manifesto). [Frank] Rich, one of the few commentators who has pointed to that history, depicts a streak of American madness that reaches extremes of anarchy. But why should we view every futile act of violence as a symptom of mass insanity? The perpetrator might just be doing something wrong. And some judicious liberals might tend to excuse, or at least condemn less harshly, earlier episodes of violence in our history like the abolitionist John Brown’s Pottawatomie massacre, or grotesque killings by Nat Turner’s slave rebels, given the enormity to which those acts responded.

Regardless of whether those acts can be justified, matters so painful and disturbing deserve careful consideration. When Berlet and Rich detail the recent violence, however, they do not raise questions or bring perspective, but generate alarm. “Paranoia” has thus become a conspiracy theory of its own, describing an incommensurable madness “out there” (in Rich’s words, recalling Bryan’s prairie), which [Chip] Berlet, also with Bryan-like overtones, calls “a perfect storm of mobilized resentment that threatens to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.” Rich’s talk of “mass hysteria, some of it encompassing armed militias, [running] amok,” provides the kind of mystification and horror that Hofstadter said the paranoid style thrives on. When liberal language can be as paranoid as the right-wing kind, paranoia can’t fully explain populism’s right-wing allegiance. [Emphasis added.]

You’ll want to read Hogeland’s conclusion.

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