That’s All, Folks: Confronting Backwards Populism

As the presidential election campaign starts to occupy more and more of the airwaves someone should carry a counter and click every time the word ‘folks’ is uttered by a candidate. Even better would be how that final count would compare to the number of times a candidate would use a word like ‘citizens’ (at least citizens in a positive, civic light, not only in comparison to illegal ‘aliens’).  In the opening chapter of her very relevant book The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby laments the ever widening usage of the words like ‘folks’ and ‘troops’ in American social and political discourse, in that the word represents an overall decline in political and media rhetoric and a parallel rise in anti-intellectualism.

It’s not hard to see her point. By and large Jacoby’s book was aimed at what currently passes for conservatism, religious or otherwise and ‘folks’, however much some may identify with a Joan Baez or an early Bob Dylan, qualifies as an inherently conservative word (actually just one letter off from the Volk so prominently employed in Nazi mythology).

A basic dictionary definition for ‘folks’ leads off with: “The common people of a society or region considered as the representatives of a traditional way of life and especially as the originators or carriers of the customs, beliefs, and arts that make up a distinctive culture.“

Common, traditional, passive — that’s certainly the vision which the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin indulge in with their endless exhortations for “the Folks”. Outrage about such shady sentiment can easily be mocked with a wink and dismissed as intellectual elitism, thereby only further reinforcing the folk imagery.

Phillip Roth aptly captured this point in his novel The Plot Against America when the newly elected isolationist Lindbergh administration, through an agency called the Office of American Absorption, introduces a program called Just Folks, “a volunteer program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life”, causing the narrator’s Jewish father to think that the whole idea is to separate Jewish children from their families and convert them into honorary conservative WASPs. His concerns were harshly dismissed by his enthusiastic son and sister-in-law, who typically accuses her brother-in-law of fearing that “his children might escape winding up as narrow minded and frightened as he was”.

Again the Orwellian paradox:  serious and obvious skepticism set against folksy populism with the aw-shucks defense always available should the inquiry grow too serious. Plus as Roth demonstrated, the issue of race is a factor that screams off the page no matter how much America’s first black president goes out of his way to placate both Wall Street and the heartland. White nationalists and the like have always called themselves the only real Americans, a factor that will only bubble to the surface more prominently as the white majority continues to dwindle rapidly in the coming years.

Of course, it’s not only Republicans and conservative blowhards that employ such rhetoric. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both oozed with it. Recently it was Barack Obama, a Harvard graduate, speaking at a rally in Minnesota, who drove the point home almost too perfectly:

You’ll hear a lot of folks, by the way, say that government is broken. Well, government and politics are two different things. Government is our troops who are fighting on our behalf in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s government.  Government are also those FEMA folks when there’s a flood or a drought or some emergency who come out and are helping people out.…Government are our firefighters and our police officers, and the folks who keep our water clean and our air clean to breathe, and our agricultural workers. And when you go to a  national park, and those folks in the hats – that’s government.

There is something particularly grating about the bipartisan tactic of American politicians going out of their way to intentionally sound more stupid. It may not have an equivalent anywhere in the world and it is an easy temptation to view the decline of the U.S. through the decline of rhetoric, as if it, in a nutshell, reflects the staggering numbers of Americans who believe the world was really created in seven days or that humans and dinosaurs once shared the earth. Yet the main impetus for any American decline was summed up nicely by Matthew Continetti in The Weekly Standard some time ago.

In declaring Sarah Palin as the possible heir to the American populist tradition he identified with Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and Ronald Reagan, Continetti demonstrated the trajectory of American politics. Jackson and Bryan, despite some major transgressions (Jackson for his callus treatment of the Cherokees, Bryan for his sneaking sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan), would still be considered by humans to be at least somewhat on the Left, while Reagan, president almost a century after Bryan’s unsuccessful campaigns, fell squarely on the Right. That the same is true of Palin (or Michelle Bachman) shows both the slippery nature of populism as well as the way it has slid. Continetti puts it like this:

Over the last century, the popular energies that fueled Jackson and Bryan shifted to the right side of the political spectrum. Increasingly, the public directed its animosity at the bureaucratic and governmental elites who robbed ordinary folk of liberties in the pursuit of “social justice.” At the judges who designed busing schemes that disrupted neighborhood schools. …For the last quarter century, right-wing populism, often infused with social conservatism, has been the most demonized force in American politics–and also the most interesting and dynamic.

It is in this populism, under the diverse guises of the great white backlash, the war on drugs, welfare reform, American Exceptionalism, all aligned with corporate power, that the Left can’t seem to put a serious dent; this, despite increased poverty, unemployment, and declining infrastructure, not to mention massive plundering by the upper class. In the closing pages of The Populist Persuasion, published more than a decade ago, Michael Kazin argues persuasively that some form of leftist populism is necessary to break the anomie that continues to dominate left wing politics. It simply leaves a large remnant of the masses open to reactionary populism. Kazin’s words echo even louder today:

To move any closer toward redistributing wealth and revitalizing mass democracy, intellectuals have to take part in social movements that knit such people together…Otherwise, we risk spending the future as spectators to the endless competition between spin doctors and copywriters, captives to anyone who seems to make the old rhetoric sing again, if only for one acceptance speech or thirty-second spot.

Only a fool would expect the Democrats to contribute to any such thing. The time for accusing them of selling out has long passed; in fact, the charge misses the point entirely. The party is simply a vassal for Wall Street money. Still history offers a shield against hopelessness. There was a time when places like Nebraska and Oklahoma were bastions of populism and socialism (Oklahoma, along with Milwaukee, was the center of American socialism with more Socialist Party members than any state). Kansas once housed Appeal to Reason, the muckraking weekly that serialized Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Even today poll numbers show that most Americans are less conservative than the beltway when it comes to things like health care and unions. There is plenty of room to maneuver with legislation like the Employee Fair Choice Act which makes it at least a little easier to organize unions and it should be easy to point out that those who spout such reactionary populist rhetoric aren’t in it for love of mother and country but just the opposite: disgust and hatred of fellow citizens.

If Richard Hofstadter was right when he wrote the United States itself was doomed to be an ideology, at least in the sense that the meaning of being American will always be cherished and debated, then for the Left to have a chance it will have to revitalize its own American-based populism. That can be a tedious and risky fight, but it is a necessary one.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.