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Populism Needs Place-ism

With every generational populist efflorescence (those who disapprove call it a “recrudescence”) two things are guaranteed:

First, the prosy men with leaden eyes of the New York Times will rouse themselves from complacent torpor into a Cerberus-like defense of the ruling class against the intruder. The Times of 1896 on William Jennings Bryan (a “cheap and shallow … blatherskite” with an “unbalanced and unsound mind,” though whether or not Bryan was “insane,” the Times editorialist of 1896 conceded, “is a question for expert alienists”) is no different than the Times in 2016 on Donald Trump. For his part, Trump probably thinks Bryan’s Cross of Gold would make a classy adornment to the Mar-a-Lago Club chapel.

The second certainty is that middlebrow thumb-suckers and chin-pullers will invoke midcentury historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 essay that refuses to die, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” ascribed dissent from the Cold War Vital Center consensus to mental illness. In your guts, as LBJ backers said of Barry Goldwater, you know he’s nuts.

Or they’ll quote Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, winner of the Pulitzer Prize—always a bad sign—in which populism is merely “the simple virtues and unmitigated villainies of a rural melodrama” writ large, and it ulcerates with “nativist phobias,” “hatred of Europe and Europeans,” and resentment of big business, intellectuals, the Eastern seaboard, the other bulwarks of Time-Life culture, circa 1955. (Only a Vital Centurion could believe that wishing to refrain from killing Europeans in wars is evidence of “hatred of Europe and Europeans.”)

Well, two can play at tendentiousness. I’d say that American populism, in its various guises, has been distinguished by three basic beliefs: 1) concentrated wealth and power are pernicious, so widespread distribution of both is the proper condition; 2) war and militarism are ruinous to the republic and to the character (not to mention physical health) of the people; and 3) ordinary people can be trusted to make their own decisions.

The Democratic candidate this time around is the most hawkish nominee of her party since LBJ in 1964 and its most pro-Wall Street standard bearer since John W. Davis in 1924. She is, in every way, including her “the peasants are revolting” shtick, the compleat anti-populist.

But Hillary’s awfulness should not obscure the truth that a healthy populism requires anchorage. It must be grounded in a love of the particular—one’s block, one’s town, one’s neighbors (of all shapes and sizes and colors)—or else it is just a grab bag of resentments, however valid they may be.

An unmoored populism leads to scapegoating and the sputtering fury of the impotent. Breeding with nationalism, it submerges local loyalties and begets a blustering USA! USA! twister of nothingness.

From out of that whirlwind spin the faux-populists of the Beltway Right: placeless mountebanks banking the widow’s mite in Occupied Northern Virginia. To a man they are praying for a Hillary Clinton victory, which would be the Clampetts’ oil strike and the winning Powerball ticket all rolled into one. President Clinton the Second would be the most lucrative hobgoblin for the ersatz populists of Birther Nation since Teddy Kennedy crossed his last bridge.

Place-based populism, seeded in love, defends a people against the powerful external forces that would crush or corrupt or subjugate them. It’s Jane Jacobs and her “bunch of mothers” fighting Robert Moses on behalf of Greenwich Village. It’s the people of Poletown, assisted by Ralph Nader, defending their homes and churches against the depredations of General Motors and the execrable Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. It’s parents—whether in South Boston, Brooklyn, or rural America—championing their local schools against berobed bussers, education bureaucrats, and Cold War consolidators.

thisarticleappears [1]For a span in the early 1990s, Jerry Brown dabbled in populism. Alas, the protean Brown, once returned to California’s governorship, became his father, the numbingly conventional liberal hack Pat Brown, though the chameleonic Jesuit may have one final act left him, perhaps as a nonagenarian desert ascetic.

A quarter-century ago, Brown spoke of the populists’ struggle against “a global focus over which we have virtually no control. We have to force larger institutions to operate in the interest of local autonomy and local power. Localism, if you really take it seriously, is going to interrupt certain patterns of modern growth and globalism.”

The harder they come, the harder they fall, as Jimmy Cliff sang.

The two self-styled populists who made 2016 interesting never so much as glanced at, let alone picked up, the localist tool recommended by Jerry Brown in one of his previous lives. Their populism, dismissive of the local, is hollow. It’s all fury and no love. But tomorrow, as a Georgia lady once wrote, is another day.

Bill Kauffman is the author of 10 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette [2] and Ain’t My America [3].

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Populism Needs Place-ism"

#1 Comment By Thrice A Viking On November 7, 2016 @ 3:00 am

Very good piece, Bill, thank you. I enjoyed it a great deal. Of course, the devil is in the details, so I would have liked some description of how we can encourage such localist populism, or populist localism. Perhaps you and other commenters can flesh that out a bit, or provide citations where others have.

Two questions of fact came to mind in your essay. I assume that the “two self-styled populists” are Trump and Sanders. Is that correct? The second regards your discussion of Hofstadter. What in the world is a Vital Centurion? I’m not familiar with that term.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 7, 2016 @ 8:00 am

An interesting side effect of crossing America this early Fall using GPS was to travel two lane highways through vast cornfields and small towns. All is not well, as the endless parade of boarded up businesses, and sometimes abandoned homes revealed. Our America really has been eviscerated, hidden away from the freeways, by the policies of those beltway mountebanks.

#3 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On November 7, 2016 @ 9:57 am

As much as I enjoy Bill’s stand on “foreign entanglements” I will never share his abiding love for the small town local “common folk” America. I was raised in a small town in one of the reddest of red states, Nebraska. The Heart of the Heart Land. By any measure, it was extremely racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, anti-intellectual, anti-gay, anti any religion but Christianity. This was in the ’50s to the late ’60s. I remember when abortions were illegal, being gay was illegal, segregation was legal, help wanted ads listed under men/ women, possession of small amounts of marijuana was a felony. It is easy to be a conservative today. It was easy to be a liberal then. Small towns good, cities bad? No thanks.

#4 Comment By John Gruskos On November 7, 2016 @ 10:19 am

“populism leads to scapegoating and the sputtering fury of the impotent”

Hatred disguised as psychoanalysis? Shame on you, Kauffman.

While its bad enough that you defame the character of the American people, your emphasis on localism is also wrong.

For the past year and a half, Trump has been an effective advocate for the interests of the American people against globalism precisely because he *isn’t* shackled by local attachments. While NYC and the financial industry have done very well during the past quarter century, the benefits accruing to Trump himself and to his hometown have not blinded him to the harm globalism has done to the rest of America – the stagnant wages, increased unemployment, higher housing costs, overburdening of local government, and increased crime from mass immigration, the dead and wounded soldiers and wasted trillions from our globalist foreign policy, and the closed factories from unfair trade.

Thank God the Republican Party is returning to its roots as a robust national conservative party which will defend the interests of the American people, regardless of geographic location!

The Swiss People’s Party and Hungarian Fidesz have conclusively demonstrated the benefits of national conservatism in the modern world, benefits America will hopefully start experiencing after tomorrow’s election – no thanks to Kauffman.

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On November 7, 2016 @ 10:36 am

Thanks for “Populism Needs Place-ism.” I agree with Bill Kaufmann that “a healthy populism requires anchorage. It must be grounded in a love of the particular—one’s block, one’s town, one’s neighbors (of all shapes and sizes and colors)…”

Back on Sept. 30th MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “If you go to Scranton you know what the average parent up there thinks? I want my kids to stay here. I don’t want them to travel away beyond driving distance to get a job. They just want their kids to come home for weekends or sometime. They’re losing what they had…There’s a deep sense of the country has been taken away and betrayed. And I think that is so deep with people that they are looking at a guy that is flawed as hell like Trump. And at least it is a way of saying I am really angry about the way the elite has treated my country. And it is so deep it overwhelms all the bad stuff from Trump. It is that strong. It’s a strong force, a wind of anger about the way the country has been betrayed.”

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 7, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

People wonder how the folks in foreign countries roiled by our elites’ regime change operations, covert or overt, financial or military, have descended into such anger and chaos.

Our own intimation of what’s occurred at the instigation of our elites elsewhere, is now close at hand, their similarly motivated policies visited upon us too:

“There’s a deep sense of the country has been taken away and betrayed. And I think that is so deep with people that they are looking at a guy that is flawed as hell like Trump. And at least it is a way of saying I am really angry about the way the elite has treated my country. And it is so deep it overwhelms all the bad stuff from Trump. It is that strong. It’s a strong force, a wind of anger about the way the country has been betrayed.”

#7 Comment By Thrice A Viking On November 7, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

John Blade Wiederspan, two points. One, your small Nebraska town has likely changed significantly in the last half-century or so. We have as a people across the country, from hamlets to major metropolises. Two, a person can have attachment to a neighborhood of a large city just like one can to a small town. The late great Jane Jacobs was very good at explaining that.

John Gruskos, there’s a difference between anger and hatred. “Sputtering fury” just does not lead to actual hate in every instance. “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” And you yourself criticize globalism and the “increased crime from mass immigration”, not to mention the banking industry. That could be easily characterized as scapegoating on your part (I wouldn’t, but many to my left would), so why the seeming outrage at Bill Kauffman’s point? I myself am in agreement with him on the matter of localism I’m inclined to think that a national policy has to be geared towards limiting the power of national, state, and even large metro governments, allowing much more to be done by smaller units of government. I can’t see how many of the ills you cite will be greatly abated by merely raising tariffs and enforcing border controls more rigorously. I admit that will be a good start, but only that.

#8 Comment By Cyrus Brewster On November 7, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

Bravo, bravo, bravo

#9 Comment By Sandra Embry On November 11, 2016 @ 9:33 am

Bravo! Well said. And to John Blade Weiderspan, your small town is exactly the type of place I would wish to raise my kids. Except I would prefer a southern town. A southern town where people spoke in soft accents and were, as the gifted writer James Kibler says, “provincials of place, but never provincials of time.” To have a true love of place, we need to respect the wisdom of those who were there before us. We must try to know what they knew. It is no virtue to continually forget the past and remake the world in our own image.