Michael Kazin (editor of Tikkun, son of a New York man of letters, Alfred Kazin, and professor of history at American University) has produced a book on populism which highlights his own concern: namely, that “left populism” is losing its appeal in America. For Kazin this is a lost opportunity. At the end of the last century, populists Ignatius Donnelly, James Weaver, Leonidas Polk, the young Tom Watson, and William Jennings Bryan had a reputation for being socially radical. The People’s Party and the populist Omaha platform of 1892 supported the extension of public services, particularly in education, and proposed the socialization of railroads and utilities. How is it that populism has become a “reactionary” force, one that, in the words of Kevin Phillips, is about “who hates whom”? Kazin worries that at the present time populism’s “assertion of resentments based on class and status may be a barrier to constructing a new type of universalism.” Instead of “having compassion for the poor and transplanted at home and abroad,” populism “too easily becomes a language of the dispirited, the vengeful, and the cynical.”

In all fairness it should be said that Kazin does not hide the politically incorrect lineage of the American populist tradition. Unlike Lawrence Goodwyn, for example, he does not try to find perfect fits between agrarian radicals living in late 19th-century Nebraska and Mississippi and the academic liberals of the 1990’s. Kazin understands that, by the standards of Tikkun, both the populist rank and file and leadership of the 1890’s were—culturally, at least—to the right of anyone he is likely to meet in the New York-D.C. corridor. Fundamentalists, nativists, and anti-modernists swelled the populist legions, and not surprisingly the populists whom Kazin finds most attractive are those who became Progressives, like Senator George Norris of Nebraska.

What concerns the political class is that populism rejects outright the synthesis of “liberal democracy.” That is to say, while populists have no problem with accepting majority rule within definable communities, they scorn the liberal elites which claim the right to govern everyone else. Around the turn of the century it was a bourgeois elite against which the populists arose. Thus the demand for self-government expressed itself as a desire for local or state economic control over utilities and transportation. Back then the Plains States and the Deep South felt themselves captive to the big business and banking monopolies of the Northeast and Upper Midwest. And if one looks at the differential rail rates prevalent at the time, one sees that business interests in some sections of the country were out to keep the other sections impoverished. The populists sought to deal with that situation by “taking back for the people what is theirs”: that is, the right to be economically as well as politically free of parasitic outsiders. While it is possible to counter by pointing to conceivable long-term benefit from the monopolies which the populists opposed, e.g., higher productive efficiency at the national level, that is not what the populists wanted. They demanded control of their lives as members of an endangered, predominantly agrarian and small-town America.

Today’s populists are also fighting to take back what is theirs, though not what Kazin and other modern liberals would like them to have. Feminists, gay-libbers, and social planners could not control the outcome of such an experiment; the contributors to Tikkun would suffer coronary occlusion if judicial racial engineering were ended in the United States. Kazin makes much of the “postmodern disenchantment with fixed concepts and universal dreams.” He believes this may be a cause of the difficulty faced by his own kind of folk in activating a sense of public commitment. In point of fact, populists do not suffer from the semantic skepticism to which Kazin refers. They speak about nations, regions, and moral habits in addressing those who participate in their own regional and cultural communities. Moreover, they represent a Euro-American reaction to “human rights” and the fruits of “compassion.” The populists in the United States, France, Northern Italy, and Southern Austria want none of liberalism’s social blessings, because of the exorbitant price attached to them. They are certainly not interested in providing social services for those illegally transplanted into their midst or in developing multicultural sensitivity. They are furious about public administrators and judges using what Kazin calls “unpopulist levers” to inflict their undemocratic will upon helpless taxpaying citizens.

There are two errors in Kazin’s history of populism which require mention. First, he stresses excessively the economics of populism in the present age, particularly in trying to show how the left might reconnect with populist needs. But, as Paul Picconc properly notes, contemporary populism is primarily about politics and culture, and only derivatively economic. Populists by now are less interested in distributing GNP than they are in making government accountable to its supposed masters. Populists believe that politicians and administrators should serve them, and not try to resocialize the public. They represent a late 20th-century response, often angry and sometimes incoherent, against the equation of modern democracy with public administration. Populists insist that democracy is about authorized citizens governing themselves, and not about them being managed or indoctrinated by a master class; especially by one whose beliefs and loyalties are different from their own.

Second, Kazin perceives too much racism and racial resentment in the origins of the postwar conservative movement. On this point he is not entirely consistent; he does point out correctly that Goldwater and many of his followers opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of their concerns for property and constitutional issues. He also notes the importance of anticommunism and the anxiety about union power in analyzing the components of postwar conservatism. Nonetheless, he keeps returning to George Wallace’s right-wing populism, mixed with racial animosity, as a paradigm of conservative politics.

Kazin fails to note that Wallace and the Wallaeeites were an unpleasant diversion from business as usual for mainstream conservatives. That business of course was the protracted struggle against the communist evil empire. In 1968 Frank Meyer made precisely this point in National Review when he urged conservatives to vote for Richard Nixon and against George Wallace. Meyer depicted Wallace as a New Deal Democrat capitalizing on class resentment, who, unlike Nixon, did not embody the “mainstream of Western civilization,” which was Christian anticommunism. Wallace, Meyer argued, was distracting the right from the enemy at our gates and threatened to siphon off votes from the Republican Party to the advantage of a tepid Cold Warrior, Hubert Humphrey.

Kazin ought to read conservative columnists and politicians of the 60’s. He might find himself surprised to discover how predominant a theme the Cold War was for them: everything else in the way of postwar conservative principle could be compromised. Conservatives of the period viewed the civil rights movement differently at different times, depending on whether its critics or allies were more useful in pursuing an anticommunist strategy. William F. Buckley, for example, went from being hostile to Martin Luther King, Jr., to flattering his memory profusely. In both cases, the allies whom Buckley made in his career as a militant Gold Warrior were the critical variable.

Kazin confuses conventional conservatism with right-wing populism, though they are clearly two different things. While the Deep South was vital for Goldwater in 1964, the electoral overlap between anticommunist Republicanism and the populist right was the result of an electoral conjuncture of circumstances. The opponents of the civil rights movement and of federal social engineering had no one better to vote for in 1964 than a Gold War activist who opposed the Civil Rights Acts because of his views on property. But the “Middle American Radicalism” that Donald Warren has located within modern populism has nothing to do with the combination of military spending and business deregulation espoused by the Republican Party in 1964, and, again, in 1980. Populists disliked, and still do dislike, corporations and the federal government, whereas the Goldwaterites were not notably hostile to either.

With a bit more probing, Kazin might have discovered the obvious: that establishment conservatives care even less for right-wing populists than he does. Whence the fighting on the American right, to which Kazin seems oblivious. Conventional conservatives mimic populist rhetoric while trying to isolate or moderate real populists; the populist right, by contrast, rails against the political class, including the Republican Party and the neoconservative neutralizers of their cause. For the American right, populism has become a problem or a solution, depending on where one stands in the conservative wars. In no way, however, does it hold undisputed sway among those conservatives whom Kazin likely has encountered.


[The Populist Persuasion, by Michael Kazin (New York: Basic Books) 381 pp., $24.00]