“Every Man a King!” —Huey P. Long
Populism whether of the Left or Right is a fool’s game, a game played out against the backdrop of defeat and resentment. It’s been played out before and the game’s afoot again. Robert Penn Warren, that old Southern Agrarian, poet of a mixed bag of fatalism once sounded the depths of that mire with his character Willie Stark in All the King’s Men:
“Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks,” he would say, leaning forward, leaning at them, looking at them. And he would pause, letting the words sink in. And in the quiet the crowd would be restless and resentful under these words, the words they knew people called them but the words nobody ever got up and called them to their face. “Yeah,” he would say, “yeah,” and twist his mouth on the word, “that’s what you are, and you needn’t get mad at me for telling you. Well, get mad, but I’m telling you. That’s what you are. And me— I’m one, too. Oh, I’m a red-neck, for the sun has beat down on me. Oh, I’m a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile. Oh, I took the sugar tit and hushed my crying. Oh, I’m a hick and I am the hick they were going to try to use and split the hick vote. But I’m standing here on my own hind legs, for even a dog can learn to do that, give him time. I learned. It took me a time but I learned, and here I am on my own hind legs.” And he would lean at them. And demand, “Are you, are you on your hind legs? Have you learned that much yet? You think you can learn that much?”1
Willie was an echo of a real life populist, Huey P. Long. A lot of people forget that populism wasn’t always a thing of the Right-wing Republicans. No, the Democrats had their own variety in the life and times of Long. Nicknamed “The Kingfish”, Long was an American politician who served as the 40th governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and was a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. As the political leader of Louisiana, he commanded wide networks of supporters and was willing to take forceful action. He established the long-term political prominence of the Long family.
A Democrat and an outspoken left-wing populist, Long denounced the wealthy elites and the banks. Initially a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first 100 days in office, Long eventually came to believe that Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies did not do enough to alleviate the issues of the poor. In time, he developed his own solution: the “Share Our Wealth” program, which would establish a net asset tax, the earnings of which would be redistributed so as to curb the poverty and homelessness epidemic nationwide during the Great Depression.
He sought to improve the lot of poor blacks as well as poor whites during his career as a politician. Under Long’s leadership, hospitals and educational institutions were expanded, a system of charity hospitals was set up that provided health care for the poor, and massive highway construction and free bridges brought an end to rural isolation.
His enemy was the corporate monopolists like Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Kept faith with his people and they with him. He gave them something and the corporations paid for it … He is not to be dismissed as a mere rabble-rouser or as the leader of a gang of boodlers … He brought to his career a streak of genius, yet in his programs and tactics he was as indigenous to Louisiana as pine trees and petroleum. Key adds that the Long organization used: Patronage, in all its forms, deprivation of perquisites, economic pressure, political coercion in one form or another, and now and then outright thuggery … Long commanded the intense loyalties of a substantial proportion of the population … [Supporters] came to believe that here was a man with a genuine concern for their welfare, not one of the gentlemanly do-nothing governors who had ruled the state for many decades.
Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was written with the goal of hurting Long’s chances in the 1936 election for Governor, Lewis’s novel outfits President Berzelius Windrip with a private militia, concentration camps, and a chief of staff who sounds like Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Lewis also outfits Windrip with a racist ideology completely alien to Long and a Main Street conservatism he also never embraced. Ultimately, Windrip is a venal and cynical showman who plays to the conformist resentments Lewis diagnosed in Main Street and Babbitt. Some critics argued that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out American politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional American political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime. Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man and manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler’s National Socialism.
As we begin to move into the next election cycle we might benefit with studying such creatures as Long and other populist movements. The two front men on the Republican (Trump) and Democrat (Joe Biden) are both hype artists, con-men and populists for their respective working-classes, both offer the moon and cater to the fringe masses in their appeals; both have the rhetorical style of the high-low culture which sounds the darker powers of both parties.
Populism has been used by both parties in the past and seems to be on its come-back now. A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force against “the elite”, who are perceived as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. Populist parties and social movements are often led by charismatic or dominant figures who present themselves as the “voice of the people”. When in office in liberal democracies, populists are often responsible for democratic backsliding as they undermine independent institutions like the media or judiciary which they consider hostile to the “will of the people”. According to the ideational approach, populism is often combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.
Left-wing populism is a political ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the Establishment and speaking for the “common people”. The important themes for left-wing populists usually include anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism and anti-globalization, whereas class society ideology or socialist theory is not as important as it is to traditional left-wing parties. The criticism of capitalism and globalization is linked to anti-militarism, which has increased in the left populist movements as a result of unpopular United States military operations, especially those in the Middle East. It is considered that the populist left does not exclude others horizontally and relies on egalitarian ideals
Right-wing populism in the Western world is generally—though not exclusively—associated with ideologies such as neo-nationalism, anti-globalization, nativism, protectionism and opposition to immigration. Anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments serve as the “great unifiers” among right-wing political formations throughout the United States and Europe. Traditional right-wing views such as opposition to an increasing support for the welfare state and a “more lavish, but also more restrictive, domestic social spending” scheme is also described under right-wing populism and is sometimes called “welfare chauvinism”.
Conspiracist scapegoating employed by various populist movements can create “a seedbed for fascism”. In Germany Nazi populism interacted with and facilitated fascism in interwar Germany. In this case, distressed middle-class populists mobilized their anger against the government and big business during the pre-Nazi Weimar period. The Nazis “parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism”.
According to Fritzsche:
The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle–class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization…Against “unnaturally” divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonwealth, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public…Breaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people’s community…3
In the first decade of the 21st century, two populist movements appeared in the US, both in response to the Great Recession: the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement. The populist approach of the Occupy movement was broader, with its “people” being what it called “the 99%”, while the “elite” it challenged was presented as both the economic and political elites. The Tea Party’s populism was Producerism, while “the elite” it presented was more party partisan than that of Occupy, being defined largely—although not exclusively—as the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama. The 2016 presidential election saw a wave of populist sentiment in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with both candidates running on anti-establishment platforms in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Both campaigns criticized free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But we shouldn’t forget Biden, the Green Party, and many other independent platform politicians that will seek a share of that populist pie.
The more I study Social Control: Ideology, Propaganda, and Conspiracist populism the more I realize just how fucked we are… Mark Twain was right, people are absolutely delirious and deluded, liars and scam artists prone to the absolute control, manipulation, and chicanery of fools and mountebanks, politicians and preachers.
- Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men (pp. 94-95). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
- Key, V.O.; Heard, Alexander (1949). Southern Politics in State and Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Fritzsche, Peter (1990). Rehearsals for fascism: populism and political mobilization in Weimar Germany. Oxford University Press.