In the “Prologue” to his massive biography of Sen. Joe McCarthy, historian Thomas Reeves describes a scene that took place in Milwaukee, in the senator’s home state, in November, 1954, only a month before his colleagues voted to condemn him and thereby effectively to terminate his career. The scene was a mass celebration of McCarthy’s 46th birthday by 1,500 of his constituents and fans; as an added touch, the bandleader, a boyhood pal of the guest of honor, had his vocalist croon a newly composed song about the senator. One stanza went like this:
“That terrible man McCarthy,” cries Mrs. Van Soame.
“That book-burning demagogue.” shrieks Linus Double-
“McCarthyism sweeps the land,” the Daily Worker
And through the press, radio, the Party’s poison streams:
“Joe must go. Joe must go.”
The last stanza, to the tune of “The Volga Boatmen,” drove the point home:
Nobody’s for McCarthy but the people, and we all love
Nobody’s for McCarthy but the people, and our letters
tell him so.
Now little Betsy Williams and old Billy Brown, and all us
real Americans want Joe to go to town.
Nobody’s for McCarthy but the people, and we just love
Nobody’s for McCarthy but the people, and our votes
will tell him so.
The point, for all the nauseating banality of the ditty, is clear enough. What was known as “McCarthyism” was not only about communists in the State Department and the appeasement of the Soviets by the U.S. government but also the sort of people—the class—who were believed to be running the country as a whole: the de facto alliance between remnants of the Old Stock establishment symbolized by “Mrs. Van Soame” and the new managerial intelligentsia of “Linus Double-Dome.” That class and its best-known political representatives of the day—Adlai Stevenson, Dean Acheson, George C. Marshall, and others—were a constant theme of McCarthy’s own slash-and-burn rhetoric, and until the neoconservatives of the 1980’s began telling us they were really heroes and started portraying Joe McCarthy crawling out of a garbage can, they remained the stock villains of American right-wing demonology.
McCarthy was by no means the only figure of that era on the American right to embellish his anticommunism and his version of conservatism with direct appeals to “the people” as his natural allies. Two years before the birthday party in Milwaukee, Whittaker Chambers himself had written at the end of Witness,
No feature of the Hiss Case is more obvious, or more troubling, as history, than the jagged fissure, which it did not so much open as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think, and speak for them. It was, not invariably, but in general, the “best people” who were for Alger Hiss and who were prepared to go to almost any length to protect and defend him. . . . It was the great body of the nation, which, not invariably, but in general, kept open its mind in the Hiss Case, waiting for the returns to come in.
The Old Right embrace of populism was not confined to political practice but extended to theory. Of all the conservative thinkers of the 1950’s Old Right, Wilmoore Kendall was perhaps the most noted for his endorsement of a kind of conservative populism that saw the embodiment of public virtue in the people rather than in the largely imaginary aristocracies of contemporary Europe and New England. It was the pseudoconservative political nincompoop Peter Viereck who actually thought Adlai Stevenson was a modern-day analogue to Prince Metternich and who would later sneer at Barry Goldwater for his appeal to the masses. Toward the end of his writing career, even James Burnham, perhaps the most explicitly elitist theorist of the Old Right, noted not only the incapacity of the current governing sectors of society to rule but also the populist alternative to them. “But our governors,” he wrote in 1969,
—not the officeholders only but the whole broad naturally governing class, the established elite—are proving themselves no longer capable of governing, of ruling. They have lost confidence in themselves; therefore they can no longer fight wars or stand up to outlaws. . . . In our country, it is the paradoxical and unnatural fact that, more and more, the people—the broad middle mass of people who do the work—are holding the country together, giving it, if unconsciously for the most part, what direction it has, and sustaining the governing elite that, having lost its nerve, must before long lose its mission. This creates a historical monstrosity, since the broad masses cannot govern, and in truth do not want to. If, therefore, the natural governors quit, the masses will have to fashion new ones.
It is now something of a commonplace of American political history that the main leaders of the American right in the 1950’s were precisely men like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, who were not cut from the same social cloth as such pillars of the Republican establishment as Henry Cabot Lodge and who did not even come from the same part of the country. Indeed, Nixon himself, in his “Checkers” speech of September 23, 1952, encapsulated perhaps the most powerful expression of the new populist right then emerging as a national political force.
Prompted by revelations of a secret slush fund set up for Nixon by his political cronies in California, the Checkers speech, wrote historian Erie Goldman, “was a story of a family, told in a tone of utter earnestness by an ordinary-looking young man in a none-too-fashionable suit.” Less of a defense of the slush fund than a rehearsal of what would eventually become the classic Nixonian tactic of accusing the accusers, the speech recounted the modesty of Richard Nixon’s social origins in a petty bourgeois home, his personal struggle against adversity, his marriage, his identity as an ordinary man, and his solidarity with family and nation. His war record, in his own words, was not “particularly unusual,” and he and his wife were “like most young couples,” with ordinary possessions—a two-year-old Oldsmobile, a mortgage on their home, a life-insurance policy, and a cocker spaniel named Checkers. His allusion to the dog and the modesty of his wife’s wardrobe—”Pat doesn’t have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat”—evoked classical republican images of domestic frugality—and virtue, in contrast to the pretentiousness and corruption of the elite, and played on a recent scandal of the Truman administration in which an official’s wife had received a mink coat allegedly in return for political favors from her husband. Nixon’s determination to “drive the crooks and Communists and those that defend them out of Washington,” his resolution not to quit the campaign, his reference to his wife’s Irish background, and his peroration on America and the greatness of Gen. Eisenhower also incorporated populist resentments of the elite and appealed to national solidarity and ethnic identity.
What is absent from the Checkers speech, which received massive and enthusiastic popular support, is any reference to the traditional bourgeois economic and political ideology that had conveyed the mainstream conservative opposition to the New Deal. There was no attack on New Deal/Truman-era regulatory and economic policies and no invocation of the minimal state, the free market, or economic liberty. Nixon presented his success in his struggle against unpromising prospects as rooted in his family, not in individual aspiration, and as both modest and uncertain, threatened by his political enemies, rather than the natural result of adherence to the bourgeois virtues. The Checkers speech was not a regurgitation of classical liberalism, a defense of the rights of businessmen, or an assertion of Hoovereresque individualism; it was, rather, something new to American politics in the 1950’s—a claim that the forces of common virtue, patriotism, and social order had been betrayed, dispossessed by enemy forces, sinister forces of “crooks and Communists,” who had seized power in Washington and threatened not only to ruin the nation but to destroy any political leader who questioned them. Conservatives today like to snicker at Hillary Clinton’s specter of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get her and her husband, but long before Hillary, the leaders of the American right said almost the same thing about their foes on the left—and say it still, as it suits their purposes.
Populism, of course, is almost always associated with tire political left, and conventional conservatives, who look up their ideas in Edmund Burke or his pallid 20th-century imitators, have immense trouble grasping the fact that, for much of this century, the populist impulse in the United States has been toward the right—in the sense of defending and affirming traditional moral values, family, community, patriotism, religion, anticommunism, law and order, and almost every other attribute of a healthy social structure. The brute fact is that every left-wing movement in American history since the Progressive Era has been created and led by elites, mainly centered in academic institutions and firmly allied with sister elites in large corporations, big unions, oversized government, and big-month media. I will not rehearse yet again James Burnham’s theoretical accounting for this fact—that, in the early part of the last century, a technically and managerially skilled elite emerged into political and social power and began reshaping the institutions it controlled to advance its own interests and made use of the ideology that came be known as “liberalism” to justify itself. Burnham was by no means the only thinker to see this transformation, and much the same idea can be found, as he acknowledged, in the writings of other thinkers—John T. Flynn, Lawrence Dennis, and Thorstein Veblen, to name only a few. As the conclusion of the passage from Burnham quoted above suggests, the emergence of a set of people and interests into social power as an elite or ruling class committed to a left-wing agenda “creates a historical monstrosity.” It is a monstrosity in part because elites are not supposed to be left-wing at all but right-wing, and for those archaic conservatives who cannot get it out of their heads that the incumbent national elite is their ally and that they and other conservatives remain part of the ruling strata of the nation, the result can be only political paralysis. Since they are seemingly wedded to the support of elitism in all circumstances, what are they to do about a left-wing elite? The monstrosity, conceptual as well as political and practical, may go tar to explain the utter irrelevance of conventional conservative thought to the crisis of American and Western society that the managerial revolution represents.
Despite the conventional depiction of populism as leftwing in character, it is difficult to think of any genuinely populist movement of the last hundred years that really was of the left. A Depression era populist like Huey Long may come close, but there are sufficient right-wing elements in him (let alone in Father Coughlin) to question his credentials as a man of the left at all. The leftism of the original Populist movement in the late 19th century was also questionable, which is why such establishment historians as Richard Hofstadter were so skeptical of it. It is now universally conceded that Progressivism, New Dealism, the New Frontier, and the Great Society, as well as the “civil rights” movement, feminism, the antiwar activism of the 1960’s, and similar crusades for homosexuals, immigrants, etc.—the entire history of the left in the last hundred years— were all elite movements, bred in, centered on, and largely financed by academic, corporate, and bureaucratic structures, though it is perhaps not yet so universally conceded that such movements reflected the material interests of those who spawned them. It is all but indisputable that populism, for at least the last half-century, has been of the right and not of the left.
The reason for the emergence of a populism of the right is also clear enough: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the emergent elite invokes liberalism as an ideological formula to rationalize its managed subversion of traditional social and political institutions, then it is logical that the forces resisting the elite will invoke an antiliberal ideology. Since Burkean conservatism is far too archaic and irrelevant for their purposes, it is also logical that the antiliberalism they will invoke will be of a non-Burkean kind.
Where antiliberal populism departs from the populism of the left is in its vision of the people themselves. Perhaps one reason for the illusion that populism is, by its nature, of the left is that the left has no problem with enthroning “the people” as an ultimate political authority—at least until “the people” actually start handing down decisions. Those on the political right, less swayed by the myth of “consent” as a source of authority and more imbued with considerations of inevitable social and political hierarchy, will have problems with allowing “the people” to do whatever they wish, even if they do what the right wants them to do. The left, in other words, invariably finds itself confronting the dilemma Orwell depicted in Animal Farm—it may invoke the animals as the source of consent and authority for purposes of displacing the farmers, but when the animals do not behave as their new leaders want, the principle that “some animals are more equal than others” has to emerge. The dilemma pops up again and again in the history of the left, and if the transition of the regimes of the left from pure populism to transparent elitism is not skillfully handled, it will be a reef upon which the whole legitimacy of the left will founder.
The right faces perhaps less of a problem—certainly, since no right-wing populist movement has ever come to power, it is a more theoretical problem than the one faced by the left. Having never denied that social and political hierarchy is inevitable if not desirable in itself, the right can “betray” (let us say, “modify”) its populist noises a bit more gracefully than the left. That, of course, was Burnham’s point in the passage quoted above—”since the broad masses cannot govern, and in truth do not want to. If, therefore, the natural governors quit, the masses will have to fashion new ones.” The point of right-wing populism is not to let the people rule where elites rule now, which is what leftwing populism purports to do. The point of right-wing populism is to make use of entirely legitimate nonelite resentments against an incumbent elite to discredit and eventually to dislodge the eUte—and to create a new elite. In a genuine populism of a genuine right, there should be and can be no cant about “letting the people rule” or quacking about “of the people, by the people, for the people.” “The people” probably do not even exist as a socially or culturally meaningful unit and certainly are incapable of coherent political action. As Burnham also wrote, “it does not make much sense to blame (or to praise) ‘the people’ as an undifferentiated entity. ‘A people’ becomes historically significant through its articulation into institutions and its expression through leaders and an elite.” “The people,” that is, do not create elites; rather, elites create peoples.
Undoubtedly, at least some of those who become part of the new elite will be former outsiders who were active in challenging the old regime by which the old elite ruled. But it is far more normal for a revolution of any description to be led by “class traitors” from the old elite itself and for such “traitors” to wind up enjoying (or enduring) the fruits of power in the new regime. Cromwell, Bonaparte, Lenin, and Franklin Roosevelt were all members of the old elites they and their allies overthrew. In the last century, only Hitler and Mussolini were revolutionary leaders who actually came from nonelite ranks.
Populism of the right, as noted, has not been strikingly successful, no matter who its leaders or what its causes, and much of the political (and, indeed, intellectual) history of the last half century in this country revolved around trying to squelch it in one way or another—to discredit its leaders, to debunk its ideology, to blunt or co-opt its demands, to pathologize its followers, and sometimes simply to muzzle and repress its exponents. In large part, the failure of the populist right may be due simply to the overwhelming power of its enemies and the ruthless efficiency with which they have silenced it. But it may also be due in part to the confusion that even today persists on the right about the relationship between populism and the theoretical content of the right itself, a confusion that cannot reconcile invocations of popular will and action with a doctrinal commitment to elitism and hierarchy. This confusion has tended to alienate potential supporters from causes of the right if the spokesmen for those causes wrap themselves too much in the rhetoric of populism and appear to deviate too far from Burkean platitudes about aristocracy and the proper “subordination” to it.
Yet it is difficult to see what alternative course a serious political movement of the right today has besides a populist vehicle of one kind or another. There simply is no Burkean aristocracy today, and whatever virtues such a class ever had are now apparent (if at all) only in social ranks far removed from am group that can be called aristocratic. It is not clear that even those ranks of Middle Americans can now be mobilized into a serious populist revolt against the incumbent ruling class and its regime; if they cannot, however, then probably no other social formation can either. Those on the right who find associations with Middle Americans distasteful either need to reeducate their political palates or learn to make their beds with such paragons of patriotism and virtue as Mrs. Van Soame and her comrades.