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In Defense of Populism

Covering progressivism in the early twentieth century, the New Deal, civil rights activism, the Reagan Revolution, and the environmental and Tea Party movements, In Defense of Populism argues that grassroots activism is essential to transforming both Democratic and Republican parties into instruments of reform.

In Defense of Populism
Protest and American Democracy

Donald T. Critchlow

Nov 2020 | 224 pages | Cloth $29.95
American History
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Protest and Democracy

Chapter 1. Populism: Prelude to "Big Government"
Chapter 2. New Deal Protest and the Administrative State
Chapter 3. How Grassroots Mobilization Changed Postwar Civil Rights
Chapter 4. Second-Wave Feminism, Social Protest, and the Rights Revolution
Chapter 5. The Populist Right: Anti-Statism and Anti-Elitism
Chapter 6. Protest in a Polarized Age


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Social Protest and Democracy

I protest. This book does not offer a defense of demagoguery, xenophobia, racism, or illiberalism—the dark side often associated with populism in the American political tradition.

In Defense of Populism challenges didactic accounts of populism as either simply expressions of the oppressed demanding that the democratic dream be realized or anxiety-ridden, anti-intellectual, paranoid, anti-democratic reactions to a changing order.

Instead, this book submits that grassroots activist movements—populist movements, if you will—are essential to American democracy. At decisive points in American politics, social protest movements—whether on the left or the right—force established parties and leaders to bow to reform. In this way, anti-elitist social protest from below becomes absorbed by established powers. At the same time, the demands for democratic reform become institutionalized in the modern American state, ironically creating an enlarged bureaucratic government that is further removed from the people. This progression from protest to political absorption to institutionalization is evidenced in critical episodes in the American reform tradition. Indeed, American history is replete with these cycles of political disequilibrium followed by stabilization.

In arguing for the necessary importance of populism to political reform, this book explores specific episodes in modern American history that reveal the interplay of populist social action and party reform: agrarian populism in the late nineteenth century, anti-corporatism in the Progressive era, class protest during the New Deal, the struggle for black equality in the early Cold War era, second-wave feminism in the 1970s, and anti-statist New Right protest in the late twentieth century. The creation of the modern regulatory and welfare administrative state, managed and overseen by seemingly distant bureaucrats, accelerated anti-elitist, populist reactions on the ideological right and left, which have become more pronounced in the last decades of the twentieth century and today.

A sizable cottage industry has attempted to define populism, but even critics find the term difficult to define precisely. For the purposes of this book, populism is presented as grassroots activism expressed in social movements against established elites and a call for citizens to be given a larger voice in politics. In offering this rather narrow definition, this book provides less a taxonomy of populist grassroots movements than an argument for the importance of grassroots activism, as disquieting as it is to its critics, as essential to democratic reform in the American political tradition. By relying on a simple definition that views populist social movements as expressions of anti-establishment and anti-elitism, we gain the opportunity to examine the role mass social protest plays in the larger American political tradition. In this way, populism need not be defined as an elaborate ideology or comprehensive political program but as a manifestation of mass hostility toward sociopolitical elites who are seen as unfairly benefiting from the status quo.

Popular demand for political and economic reform can gestate for long periods, often reaching an intensity around, but not totally dependent on, a national crisis. The power of these grassroots movements through mobilization forces established parties to respond by accommodation, concession, preemption, and absorption of reform demands. The period in which social mobilization occurs is characterized by protest, political turmoil, and often violence. Protest, social disruption, and violence often coincide with these mass social mobilizations. In response to disruption, ultimately the general public loses sympathy for the agitators and demands the restoration of social order. Marked discord and turmoil characterize the period of disequilibrium before political parties and leaders turn to reform as a means of stabilizing society. Before political equilibrium is restored, however, a sense of profound disquiet prevails in society. Social and political discord is intensified.

Those living in these periods of disquiet experience profound anxiety that the world is being turned upside down and is coming apart. In such tumultuous times, the nation itself appears in free fall. Grassroots activism—populist protest against established political and economic elites—brings class resentment, social conflict, protest, and violence. Such times allow a platform for cranks as well as religious and social visionaries with schemes to make the world perfect. In this environment, conspiracy theorists of various sorts attract audiences who in the past would have ignored them. Cranks, visionaries, and activist followers unite around the rhetoric of anti-elitism and taking back power in the name of the people. Anti-party sentiment, denunciations of political corruption, and economic cabals manifest themselves in grassroots activism. Strong tendencies toward third-party formation find expression, as seen in the People's Party, the Progressive Party, and the Socialist Party, and later postwar parties including the Reform Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Green Party.

Grassroots social movements present odd mixtures of conservative and progressive tendencies but share anti-party sentiment in their origins. A consideration of the ways anti-party activism and the tendency toward third-party formation lead to establishment party revival invites fuller exploration. In the process, political discord expressed by grassroots activism emerges as political accord as an established party responds to voter discontent. Essential to this process of discord and reform are politicians who take up activist causes to force changes within their parties. These politicians can be motivated by both genuine concern and political calculation.

Any era of reform produces uneasy coalitions. For example, the Progressive era, from 1901 to 1917, brought together middle- and upper-class good-government people, prohibitionists, labor, Single Taxers, socialists, agricultural and urban interests, pacifists, and imperialists. Inevitably, many grassroots leaders, especially visionary types, felt that the reforms did not go far enough and concluded that they had been betrayed by opportunistic political leaders and sellouts in their own movements. Nonetheless, these grassroots movements proved essential to reform.

When viewed in a broader perspective, though, successful grassroots American reform restores at least momentarily public confidence in the American party system. The importance of grassroots activism to party renewal cannot be understated. Yet, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, party reform and political reform meant the creation of an enlarged welfare and regulatory state charged with addressing the ills of industrial capitalism. Administered by nonelected experts—the new managerial class—and staffed by low-level clerks, this new creation—the modern state—appeared even more distant and often less responsive to average Americans.

In response to the modern welfare-regulatory state, an emergent conservative movement captured the reaction to "big government" in the post-World War II period. This movement brought together anti-collectivist intellectuals, corporate and small business associations opposed to government interference in the marketplace, and anti-communists. In the late 1960s, opposition to abortion and feminism led to grassroots movements organized around these and other cultural issues. Evangelical Christians added momentum to the movement. The grassroots right transformed the Republican Party into a voice of conservatism, and it helped fuel increasing polarization within the electorate. This political transformation should be placed within a larger context of early social protest movements that had reformed the political system. Yet seemingly there was deep discontent among large numbers of Americans that government was not working for them but against them.

The distrust of government spilled over to the activist left as well. The Federal Bureau of Investigation spying on the civil rights and antiwar movements, revelations of Central Intelligence Agency operations abroad, and moneyed influence in Washington fed left-wing suspicion of government. This distrust of government, shared by both the right and the left, occurred in an environment of increased political polarization within the electorate. In recent times, this polarization has been reflected in governance itself, as legislative reform became bogged down in partisan infighting. Principle and power prevailed in the nation's capital, with neither party appearing to give an inch to the other side. In this political climate, anger toward political and economic elites, special interests in Washington, Beltway insiders, globalists, and "the deep state" has erupted on the right and the left, creating a new age of populism. Donald Trump—and Bernie Sanders on the left—reflected this anger within the electorate. Both were reflections—and conduits, if you will—for expressing profound voter discontent; yet neither created this new age of populism. Unless political reform—or at least the appearance of reform acceptable to the voters—occurs, ours will be a period of immense turmoil with profound unintended consequences.

With the election of Donald Trump to the White House and the rise of nationalist parties in Europe, populism became for Trump's critics a bad word, connoting the irrationality of the masses and the dark side of democracy. Princeton University political scientist Jan-Werner Müller typified this approach in What Is Populism? where he described populism at its core as anti-liberal and anti-democratic. Populism has often been denounced by its opponents as an expression of the worst passions of the people. In this manner, populism is contrasted with enlightened, considered opinion—usually educated and elite opinion. A twist on the criticism of populism is that there is a kind of authentic populism truly expressing the legitimate interests of the people that can be contrasted with a version in which the masses are manipulated by self-interested elites. Thus, in this argument, there is in effect "good" populism and "bad" populism. Often the bad or manipulated populism is associated with more recent conservative grassroots movements, such as the anti-communism in the 1950s, the New Right in the 1970s, and the Tea Party today. Within these critiques of populism, the specter of fascism always seems to lurk.

American populism can be distinguished from populism in Europe and other regions in the world. American populism is distinctive in its demand for more direct democracy and greater ambivalence toward a strong leader to save the nation. Furthermore, within the American tradition, at least since the founding of the nation, populist rhetoric has been a constant refrain. Aspiring candidates and incumbents alike rail against the establishment, the need to clean up government, and the demand to throw the rascals out. Campaign rhetoric, however, should be separated from populism as seen in grassroots social movements. Here rhetoric is turned into genuine protest on a massive scale, sharply critical, especially in its inception, toward established political parties and prevailing powers. Populist grassroots activism tends toward great suspicion of and pronounced hostility toward the established major parties. Grassroots activism in its early formation is given to third-party alternatives. Only as grassroots social movements gain strength and are confronted by the vicissitudes of electoral victory and legislative achievement does the pragmatic reality of actual politics become apparent. Forming alliances with established politicians or political parties creates inevitable tensions between principled activists already distrustful of the system and those who understand that compromise is necessary to achieve reform. Here, weighing the balance between principle and opportunity presents a social movement and its leaders with an inevitable dilemma.

Grassroots activism becomes entwined with partisan politics, a natural result in a democratic polity. Grassroots reformers and politicians create uneasy alliances. Grassroots visionaries, often given to moral absolutes, and partisan politicians, anxious to win election for themselves and their parties, are not natural allies. Principles and partisanship are not exclusive, of course, but the purity of intention and practical achievement are not easily reconciled.

Discerning the exact impact of a single grassroots cause or movement, or a confluence of movements at a punctuated moment when established political leaders respond to popular demand, presents a difficult task for the historian. Simply concluding that grassroots activism creates an environment for reform does not say much for the simple reason that demands for reform can gestate over long periods. Furthermore, to make a causal link at a specific point in time between grassroots activism and political reform creates an opportunity for specious history. Just because something happens at one moment in history while something else occurs at the same moment does not mean that one caused the other. For one thing, political reform can be simply a response to an economic or political crisis—external events, if you will—in which long-festering popular demand for reforms have no direct relationship. Obviously, an economic or political crisis creates an environment for reform or changes in political leadership and policy and legislative agendas, but the fact remains that grassroots activism in itself might not have a prominent role in influencing this change.

The transition from grassroots activism to party reform, when it occurs, is not linear. The gestation of grassroots reform that begins with visionary leaders often spans years and even decades before resulting in a political response. Party response to grassroots agitation depends on specific historical conditions. Political parties are generally resistant to radical change. As a consequence, arriving at an accurate general principle or a quantifiable measure predicting party response to grassroots agitation is impossible. Grassroots reform, however, remains essential to the social fabric of American democracy.

At any point in history, grassroots activism presents a cacophony of voices calling for reform of various sorts without programmatic coherence. Politicians responding to powerful reform sentiment, if it has gained traction within the larger public, seize upon such sentiment for partisan advantage. Calls for reform within a party are often led by outsiders seeking to challenge established and intransigent leadership. The gestation of reform sentiment into fully actualized party change can occur over years and even decades. The eruption of reform within the political system often appears suddenly, but behind this volcanic explosion undercurrents of molten activity have been brewing.

In developing the theme that grassroots movements are necessary to party reform, this book explores key episodes in grassroots activism from the progressive period to today. In Defense of Populism is not intended as an exhaustive, encyclopedic account of every grassroots reform movement in American history, even in the book's focus on the late nineteenth century to the present. Instead, the book focuses on prominent and influential visionaries who spawned grassroots movements, political entrepreneurs who responded to these movements, and professional politicians who directed angry sentiment toward legislative resolution. One goal is to invite further exploration by others. Examination of this reform process occurs through a narrative both thematic and chronological. Particular emphasis is given to key actors in grassroots activism, those who transit from grassroots activism to party politics, and political leaders who implement reforms, even while often disappointing grassroots activists by not going far enough with those reforms. Inevitably, many important grassroots leaders and movements are left out of the story, leaving some readers in all probability with opinions about the choices made in this book. Indeed, the myriad of social movements that might have been discussed are suggested in a table compiled by a sociologist in 2005. In exploring grassroots activism and popular protest, this book focuses on selected social movements that had the most direct influence on the party system and that were most important to the American political tradition.

In Defense of Populism links social reform movements and party politics. Historians and sociologists have given great attention to social reform movements, while political scientists have focused largely on party politics, voter behavior, and the legislative-policy process. Historians have provided specific case studies of a variety of social movements, often relying on narrative to explore the historical context that gave rise to these theories. Sociologists have offered a rich literature on the dynamics of social protest movements. A number of political scientists have treated these movements as incipient interest groups or political parties. Larger theoretical questions, such as the dynamics of social movements and political parties—realignments, legislative processes, political and policy agenda setting—are discussed in this book only in passing in order to focus on the larger argument. At the same time, some readers will take exception to the conflation of grassroots activism and populism.

Explaining social protests solely in terms of economic hardship or temporary hardship associated with social strain offers a simplistic notion as to how a grassroots movement gains popular support that translates into effective political change. Conditions for social protest remain constant within any society because economic hardship, inequities, and conflict between the powerful and the downtrodden remain persistent. Critical to successful mobilization within a grassroots movement that translates into a larger populist expression depends on internal group resources, organization, and successful strategies for collective action. These are internal factors determining a successful grassroots organization or social movement. More important, however, is the particular cultural, societal, and political environment in which protest movements operate. This is especially the case within American democracy, in which culture, social structure, and a two-party system absorb the potential for class conflict, social violence, and the emergence of populist outbursts challenging the established economic and political order.

Social movements should not be seen as static. Activists come to a movement or cause with definite expectations and in the struggle itself can develop new strategies and alignments as a result of confronting the established political and social order. Alliances with other grassroots movements present an opportunity for schism, while not forming alliances can lead to sectarianism. If struggle creates opportunities for political education, elites too learn during prolonged struggle, pursuing a course of repression, accommodation, or assimilation of grassroots opposition. Critical to understanding social movements and reactions by elites is whether individuals pursue selective incentives or the collective good. As movements gain momentum, definitions of the "collective good" become increasingly diffuse. This becomes fully evident when grassroots activism develops into a mass populist political movement. Fusion with established parties further confuses the meaning of the "collective good" as activists, movement entrepreneurs, and emerging or established politicians accommodate to the populist cause. The entrance of professional politicians into a mass movement increases the likelihood of oligarchic control. The anti-partisan impetus of grassroots activism thus is transformed into controlled party leadership and administration. As politicians—emergent or past—take control of an ascendant movement, the tendency of some followers will be to fall away from the movement and feel a sense of betrayal. The focus of In Defense of Populism, however, is not understanding the dynamics per se of social movements or resolving the sociological debate of individual motivations but positing that populist movements are necessary for democratic renewal.

The narrative of this book allows, nonetheless, for lessons to be learned about the whys and hows of successful grassroots activism. The successes (and failures) of previous reform movements do not rest fully on the specifics of their agendas. More important for this study is an examination of the dynamics of the reform process from visionary beginnings to popular mobilization, politicization, and consequences in restoring a sense of national purpose and political order. In Defense of Populism posits several essential factors for a successful movement:

new ideas and a realistic agenda;
the enlistment of organizations initially outside the established political parties;
division within the political, social, and cultural elites;
the use of a shared language that makes an appeal to a larger audience beyond activist circles; and
the mobilization of the larger electorate and recruitment of critical party leaders that force political and legislative change.

These are not the only factors for ensuring the success of a reform movement. Historical circumstances, leadership, tenacity of the opposition, and an array of other elements can defeat a reform movement. Not all reform movements examined here succeeded, and even those that did had limited success if judged through the aspirations of reform leaders. Reform crusaders did not accomplish all of their goals, but they achieved much even in their own terms. More important, these reform movements—as episodes in American history—restored American confidence in the nation. These moments of reform offer lessons for today, not in resurrecting the specifics of any reform movement or proposing an agenda. Rather, by exploring past reform movements, In Defense of Populism warns that without pressure brought by mass mobilization, necessary political reform will fail, resulting in greater voter alienation, partisan polarization, and social conflict.

We have entered into one of those periods of political disequilibrium found often in American history. In Defense of Populism does not presume to offer a prescription as to what good reform means. This is a political decision, made by voters, party leaders, policy wonks, and pundits. Instead, this book explores some of the necessary ingredients for successful mass movements in times of political and cultural disequilibrium. By examining the success and limitations of previous reform movements, this book offers a general assessment as to whether America can be reformed today. The verdict is still out on this question because the factors necessary for successful reform are mostly missing. New ideas and a shared language appear absent in today's reform movements, whether it be the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, or other activist reform groups. A sense of discontent prevails in American society today. Political opinion has become polarized; partisanship has prevented necessary enactment of reform legislation to address problems concerning national defense, the financial health of society, income inequality, a deteriorating infrastructure, and social ills, from crime to drug addiction, children in poverty, and immigration.

Still, in our winter of discontent, new ideas for reform, leadership, and a shared language are called for by those seeking a restoration of national purpose.

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