Michael Lind over at Salon suggests a disparity between populism and the “liberal left.” Given Sarah Plain’s new book, in which she continues to posture as a populist (see Rod Dreher’s discussion on her cultural populism) as well as recent FPR discussion on key terms such as populism and elitism, a rigorous discussion of populism seems to be in order.

Is populism something that clings clearly to one side of the party split? Was William Jennings Bryan’s populism liberal, conservative, or something else entirely? Perhaps populism is antithetical to localism, maybe it’s a response to big business, or maybe it’s a mixed bag.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. A populist ghost from the past continues to haunt America and the rest of the world for that matter too. That ghost is Karl Marx who said that the people can never have true sovereignty as long as there was a class divide with unequal ownership of the means of production. Irrespective of the economic power to buy politicians and votes governments he argued would always be beholden to the capitalist class because they controlled the tax base, or more precisely the means of generating the wealth for taxes which give politicians their power. The liberal democratic state he further argued is a mask hiding the true levers of power. The American Revolution he would have viewed as not a revolution at all but a mere cloning of the British system of class division in which one set of exploiters got replaced by another set. Marx understood that genuine democracy would only be found by two things; a diffusion of economic power accompanied by a neutralizing of excessive economic power, and effective mechanisms of association that allow all interests, including non-economic, to be represented. Today those non-economic interests would include saving the planet from pollution and thereby ourselves, women and children’s rights, animal rights, etc. The list is endless.

    Marx’s one big failure, however, and an understandable one at that, was to fail to put forward a blue print for mechanisms of associative democracy that avoided the horrors of single party state capitalism. This is where we are at today trying to figure out a way of reforming our liberal democracy that will avoid communism but also another repeat of the Financial Crash and other undemocratic dysfunctions and nightmares. In one way it could be said that although Marx spotted the problem he failed to see that the problem was merely a solution in disguise. If the control of capital is the means for one section of society to dominate the interests of the rest of society then it’s the control of capital that’s the source of power. Accordingly if all interests are going to stand a chance of representing themselves then logically they have to be able to control capital. The solution, therefore, is to ensure that capital is sufficiently equalized out so that it is no longer a problem as a source of invidious power. However, since self-concern, as well as other-concern, will always remain a motivating force amongst human beings simply devolving capital to worker-owners in autonomous organizations still retains sectional interest so devolution of capital has to be for the whole society. This devolution has to be done in such a way that sectional interest represented by politicians, or political parties, is deterred by voting intention from undoing the devolution by acts of executive power and legislation. In other words you have to use the people’s financial self-interest (paradoxical in Marxian terms) to deliver genuine democracy! Devolution of power through capital also starts to make possible the “pluralized state,” or “pluralized society,” where increased governance takes place away from the Leviathan of government and further removes the corruption of power by vested interests. The “lock” of devolved financial self-interest to ensure genuine democracy is the solution any would-be democratic populist has to implement in order to finally lay the ghost of Karl Marx to rest.

  2. Liberals tend to approve of populists when they are “progressive” and fear them when they are “reactionary.” This is because those who pass themselves off as “liberals,” like those who pass themselves off as “conservatives” have only the vaguest sense of what populism is.

    The People’s party was not a collection of semi-unemployed, semi-drunk, semi-religious good ol’ boys chewing the fat and putting down the gummint. It was, very specifically, a party that grew out of the Farmer’s Alliances of the 1880s. These alliances were strongest in the states west of the Mississippi, and south of the Ohio. In the west, they tended to form the more progressive wing of the Republican party, in the south the more radical wing of the Democratic party. These were the days when aristocratic bourbon financiers dominating the south were in control of the state Democratic parties, and the robber barons in the north and west were in control of the Republican parties, so neither party had a distinct class polarization.

    For a while, the southern Farmer’s Alliances thought they were taking control of state Democratic parties, but were soon disillusioned. They had elected demagogues who could talk a good line to get votes, but didn’t change much, and, even if they dominated state parties, what they really wanted was a source of low-interest credit from the federal treasury, to bypass the usurious interest charge by the local “furnishing man,” a cross between Payday Loans and an old fashioned loan shark. The westerners weren’t even coming close to taking over their state Republican parties. So, they joined hands to form the People’s Party.

    William Jennings Bryan was another character with a good voice and nice rhetoric, but he had a banker for a running mate. The biggest mistake the Populists made was to fuse their ticket with his, which ended their existence as an independent party, but didn’t get them any concessions in the Democratic platform.

    Sarah Palin would not be at home in such a party, and neither would Glenn Beck. Drawing lines about who are “the real people” is not what energized the populists. Palin’s guiding principal is “I want to be in charge.” She has more in common with Gov. Tillman of South Carolina, one of the early false hopes of the Farmer’s Alliance, who provided some of the inspiration to form a new party, because all he did was talk a good line. Anyone who really espoused a genuinely populist program would be accused by Glenn Beck of socialism, and he wouldn’t be far wrong.

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