What is populism? Cultural critic Thomas Frank does not think Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs. Democracy, really understands the roots of populism in American life. Here is a taste of his review at The Guardian:
As for populism, historians typically trace the populist rhetorical tradition in America back to the time of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. A radical leftwing political party that called itself “Populist” swept much of the country in the 1890s, and protest movements described as populist have come and gone. Populism’s evil rightwing doppelganger is usually dated to 1968, when George Wallace and Richard Nixon figured out how to turn the language of working-class majoritarianism against liberalism. Rightwing populists have been building movements and winning elections in the US ever since.
Mounk barely acknowledges any of this. Instead, he asserts a frightening new vision of populism without discussing the old one. “There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment,” he writes at one point. “The question now is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.”
Sounds bad, all right. Demonic, even. But the phrase “populist moment” rang a bell. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of – yes – The Populist Moment by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a celebrated study of Populism published in 1978. Here is how it starts: “This book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself.” What Goodwyn meant was that Populism in its 1890s permutation represented a vision of democratic participation that was actually more advanced than what we settle for today. Far from being a threat to democracy, Populism was democracy’s zenith.
To produce a whole book on populism while ignoring this completely opposite interpretation strikes me as a serious oversight. Yes, I think we need to understand why liberal democracy is crumbling around the world. But to describe this process with the unmodified “populism” is a mistake. It is, after all, an American word. And the history of American populism contradicts item after item in Mounk’s devil theory. Populism is simply not what he thinks it is.
Read the entire review here.