The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism

The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism

by Thomas Frank

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Overview

From the prophetic author of the now-classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Listen, Liberal, an eye-opening account of populism, the most important—and misunderstood—movement of our time.

Rarely does a work of history contain startling implications for the present, but in The People, No Thomas Frank pulls off that explosive effect by showing us that everything we think we know about populism is wrong. Today “populism” is seen as a frightening thing, a term pundits use to describe the racist philosophy of Donald Trump and European extremists. But this is a mistake.

The real story of populism is an account of enlightenment and liberation; it is the story of American democracy itself, of its ever-widening promise of a decent life for all. Taking us from the tumultuous 1890s, when the radical left-wing Populist Party—the biggest mass movement in American history—fought Gilded Age plutocrats to the reformers’ great triumphs under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Frank reminds us how much we owe to the populist ethos. Frank also shows that elitist groups have reliably detested populism, lashing out at working-class concerns. The anti-populist vituperations by the Washington centrists of today are only the latest expression.

Frank pummels the elites, revisits the movement’s provocative politics, and declares true populism to be the language of promise and optimism. The People, No is a ringing affirmation of a movement that, Frank shows us, is not the problem of our times, but the solution for what ails us.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

05/04/2020

Political commentator Frank (Rendezvous with Oblivion) urges liberals to reclaim “the high ground of populism” in this fervent and acerbically witty call to action. Mischaracterized today as bigoted demogoguery, the term populism, Frank notes, originated with the rise of the egalitarian and racially inclusive People’s Party in the 19th-century Midwest. Reeling from an economic crisis, Democrats nominated populist Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryant for the presidency in 1896 instead of their own incumbent, Grover Cleveland. Though Bryant’s loss to William McKinley set the high-water mark of the People’s Party, it influenced such policy reforms as the direct election of U.S. senators and women’s suffrage. New Deal programs harkened back to the Populist Era, according to Frank, but also elevated a new kind of antipopulist elite to the top of the U.S. government: the technocrat. Frank claims the populist badge for civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who proposed a massive housing and employment program for African-Americans, and documents pushback, from both the right and the left, to populist advances, including LBJ’s Great Society reforms, Democrat Fred Harris’s “spectacular low-budget campaign” in the 1976 presidential election, and the recent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Frank blends diligent research with well-placed snark to keep readers turning the pages. Liberals will be outraged, enlightened, and entertained. (July)

Library Journal

06/01/2020

Historian and political analyst Frank (What's the Matter with Kansas?) provides a sprightly crafted survey of populist philosophy over the past century as it contends with more established political forces that have considered its ideas to be backwards and undemocratic. Frank begins with a history of the left-wing People's Party that came to prominence in the late 19th century, and he is not shy in voicing his firm opinion that the beliefs of the common man are often much more valuable than those of the elite, who often dominated political conversation. According to Frank, the solution to our current political ills and polarization lies most securely with giving everyday people a voice and a place to be heard. He considers populism to be an expression of promise and optimism, and urges readers to reconsider the meaning of populism as well as how it has been used to describe the rise of Donald Trump along with leaders in European countries. VERDICT A valuable history of an important political tradition, and what it means for the future.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames

Kirkus Reviews

2020-03-15
Political commentator Frank tries to reclaim populism from the Trumpites and tea partiers.

“I hate the common masses and avoid them.” So said Roman poet Horace centuries ago. Best known for his 2004 polemic What’s the Matter With Kansas?—Kansas being the birthplace of a left-agrarian populist movement of old—Frank conversely urges his readers, likely to be among the urban elite, from dismissing those folks in flyover country who, given one person and one vote, are presumed likely to make poor choices: “If you give them half a chance, they will go out and vote for a charlatan like Donald Trump.” Since its emergence as a political force in the U.S. in the 19th century, populism has always been dismissed as a refuge of the stupid or lunatic, the purview of con artists and bigots. Yet, the author argues, populism is not just an old American way of doing politics, but fundamentally a progressive one as well, uniquely concerned for the well-being of workers. Trump managed to parlay his putative commitment to those workers into votes. However, notes Frank, he is definitively an autocrat and not a populist, who made promises of “populist-style reform, none of them sincere,” that sounded good enough to enough voters to launch him into an office won by that least populist of institutions, the Electoral College. “How does it help us, I wonder, to deliberately devalue the coinage of the American reform tradition?” asks Frank, who encourages his readers to imagine that the matter of most pressing importance in the political landscape today is economic justice for the vast majority of people who have been overlooked by supposed progress—to say nothing of both political parties. The author lays on the indignation a little too thick at times, but it’s a convincing case all the same.

A sometimes-overheated but eminently readable contribution to political discourse.

From the Publisher

"Brilliantly written, eye-opening . . . Frank is the ideal public intellectual to grapple with the duality of populism. . . . Readers come away knowing that at its heart, populism means just one thing: This land was made for you and me." —The Washington Post

"Frank describes an indigenous radical tradition that descends from Jefferson and Paine and stretches forward to Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. . . . Compelling." —The New York Times Book Review

"Rousing . . . central to the challenge of our times . . . A call to arms against the plutocratic elites of both America’s main parties . . . Frank’s real strength lies in his energetic optimism." —Financial Times

"Tom Frank does what few writers today are capable of doing—he criticizes his own side." —Wall Street Journal

"Deserves your attention . . . The People, No describes meticulously how over the last 120 years, reigning elites—whether conservative, liberal, or progressive—have regularly attacked populists with the same falsehoods . . . Welcome." —Forbes

"A terrific book . . . damning . . . eloquently-argued . . . The People, No documents the furious elite propaganda response to bottom-up political movements that has recurred in uncannily similar fashion at key moments across nearly a century and a half of American history, and is firing with particular venom today." —Matt Taibbi

"Brilliant . . . grand . . . an urgent plea to liberals and radicals alike to embrace a left populism and universalism—or keep on losing." —Jacobin

"An illuminating book, the best one I've read about the sound and fury of America's 2020 Election campaign." —Lewis H. Lapham

"A real contribution . . . Frank looks forward to the day when the 'liberal' elite and right-leaning populists exhaust themselves—and the Democratic Party reclaims its identity as the voice of workers." —City Journal

"Smart . . . Thomas Frank is one of the few great American political writers, and his new book The People, No is one of his best, if not his most urgent and pressing. . . . We need more Thomas Franks." —Splice Today

"Provocative . . . powerful . . . Frank has delivered a defiant challenge to the antipopulist liberals more infatuated with the advice of experts and their own moral virtues than mobilizing ordinary Americans on the basis of progressive values."
The Progressive

"Populism is not just an old American way of doing politics, the author argues, but fundamentally a progressive one as well. . . convincing . . . an eminently readable contribution to political discourse." —Kirkus Reviews

"Frank blends diligent research with well-placed snark to keep readers turning the pages. Liberals will be outraged, enlightened, and entertained." —Publishers Weekly

"Frank brilliantly places populism in the context of seminal historic events. . . . His provocative conclusions, about elites and the people, turn common assumptions upside down—all the better for making readers think." —Booklist (starred review)

"With his usual verve, Frank skewers the elite voices of condescension that vilify the egalitarian and democratic strivings of working people. In so doing, he offers a passionate defense of populism, which he reveals as a deep and wide political tradition that remains as essential as ever for the hopes of a more just and equitable society.” —Charles Postel, author of Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866–1896

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250220110
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 07/14/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 18,168
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

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