The Populist Persuasion: An American History

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Our Constitution promises a government of the people, by the people, and for the people - but who are "the people"? And who can honestly claim to speak for "the people"? Here, in the first comprehensive history of populism in our nation, Michael Kazin examines the strange career of populist politics from the era of Thomas Jefferson to the era of William Jefferson Clinton. Once identified with the dispossessed, the poor and exploited workers from farm and factory, populism in recent years has been brought to the forefront of the political landscape, embraced by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson and glibly applied to figures ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Rush Limbaugh. Kazin calls populism an impulse rather than an ideology. He defines it as a mode of political persuasion that combines anti-elitism, adoration of the common people (usually defined as hardworking, pious, and, until quite recently, white), and a belief in the American ideal of democracy that the power brokers in business, government, and academia have betrayed. Kazin argues that populism has undergone two major transformations since the defeat of the People's Party, the original Populists, in the mid-1890s. The first was a split between those who viewed "the people" as a group belonging above all to God and those who viewed ordinary Americans in primarily economic terms. The second, an ongoing shift to the Right, began in the McCarthy era. The movement was transformed by the onset of the Cold War, the ideological mellowing of the labor movement, and the New Left's self-imposed alienation from the American mainstream. In the 1960s, George Wallace showed how to attract blue-collar Democrats with populist rhetoric. Then Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan captured and refined populist themes for the benefit of the Republican Party. Kazin shows that the Right's conception of a struggling middle class beset by an inept, immoral state remains vigorous and limits what Bill Clinton or anyone to h
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If populism now seems ``something of a fashion statement,'' Kazin Barons of Labor ably reveals its rich and textured history. Activists from varied backgrounds have sought to invoke and speak to the masses since the late-19th-century People's Party mobilized agrarians and artisans. Kazin chronicles the place of populism in the labor and socialist movements of the Progressive era, prohibitionism and the crusades of radio cleric Charles Coughlin. After WWII, populism switched from left to right: the Cold War begat Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the New Left failed to ``speak authentically,'' given their middle-class backgrounds, and George Wallace and Ronald Reagan tapped mass anxieties about race and taxes. In a society often said to be in decline, populism becomes ``a language of the disspirited,'' but Kazin observes that progressive intellectuals must take account of populism if our society's problems are to be solved. Illustrations. Feb.
Library Journal
Kazin history, American Univ. has written a thoughtful and important book on one of the more consequential movements in American politics-populism. Tracing the emergence of populist campaigns from the 19th century to the present day, he looks at such movements as the labor movement, the prohibitionist crusade, Catholic radio populist Father Coughlin, the New Left, and the recent advance of conservative populism, as identified with such figures as George Wallace and Ronald Reagan. Kazin opens by saying, "I began to write this book as a way of making sense of a painful experience: the decline of the American Left, including its liberal component, and the rise of the Right." Anyone interested in either political tendency will find this book both informative and engaging. It is a powerful, elegantly written, and observant study that never fails to retain the reader's interest. The book's one major flaw is its nave and overly sanguine treatment of the American Communist Party. Its major selling point is its suggestive analysis of right-wing populism. Recommended for all collections.-Kent Worcester, Social Science Research Council, New York
From the Publisher

"Michael Kazin enables us to begin to understand the way in which populism has changed from a politics of the left to a politics of the right. The important questions raised by the success of the populist right in the United States are illuminated in Kazin's splendid and timely book."—The Nation

"Kazin shows populism's canny ability to mix homespun rhetoric and political savvy. . . . The book explains something very important in American life with scrupulous fairness and a keen eye for the humanizing detail. It is as good a road map as we have to the politics of the people who work hard and play by the rules."—Wall Street Journal

"A perceptive and passionately liberal book. . . . Beginning with the antislavery crusade of the 1840s, Kazin skillfully surveys more than a century of mass protests, using imagery and symbolism as his guides."—New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465059980
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1996
  • Edition description: Older Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Lexile: 1520L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Table of Contents

Author's Note to the Cornell Paperbacks Edition
Introduction: Speaking for the People 1
1 Inheritance 9
2 The Righteous Commonwealth of the Late Nineteenth Century 27
3 Workers as Citizens: Labor and the Left in the Gompers Era 49
4 Onward, Christian Mothers and Soldiers: The Prohibitionist Crusade 79
5 Social Justice and Social Paranoia: The Catholic Populism Of Father Coughlin 109
6 The Many and the Few: The CIO and the Embrace Of Liberalism 135
7 A Free People Fight Back: The Rise and Fall of the Cold War Right 165
8 Power to Which People? The Tragedy of the White New Left 195
9 Stand Up for the Working Man: George Wallace and the Making of a New Right 221
10 The Conservative Capture: From Nixon to Reagan 245
11 Spinning the People 269
Conclusion: A Language We Need? 287
A Note on Method 291
Notes 293
Good Reading 364
Index 371
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