The Populist Persuasion: An American History

The Populist Persuasion: An American History

The Populist Persuasion: An American History

The Populist Persuasion: An American History


"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 his left can accomplish. The Populist Persuasion unrolls a fascinating narrative of our country's history, richly endowed with examples demonstrating the flexibility of populist rhetoric. Bringing to life the powerful voices of past leaders, Kazin shows how they both inform the political debates of our own time and point with hope toward a future in which the country will live up to its original democratic ideals." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Who shall speak for the people? who has the answers? where is the sure interpreter? who knows what to say?

--Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes, 1936

THIS book is about the persistence of one vital way in which Americans have argued about politics. From the birth of the United States to the present day, images of conflict between the powerful and the powerless have run through our civic life, filling it with discord and meaning. The haughty financier wraps chains of debt around small farmers who grow food and fibers for the nation. The stout industrialist--top hat on his fleshy head and diamond stickpin gleaming from his silk tie--clashes with the working man dressed in overalls or secondhand suit, his jaw firm and his muscles taut. The federal bureaucrat, overeducated and amoral, scoffs at the God-fearing nuclear family in its modest home, a crucifix on the wall and a flagpole in the yard. In every campaign season, scores of politicians--both liberal and conservative--vow to fight for "middle-class taxpayers" and against a variety of "bureaucrats," "fat cats," and "Big Men."

Such images and countless others like them make up the language of populism. Whether orated, written, drawn, broadcast, or televised, this language is used by those who claim to speak for the vast majority of Americans who work hard and love their country. That is the most basic and telling definition of populism: a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.

Through the past two centuries, most movement activists and insurgent politicians have judged certain ordinary Americans to be more virtuous or, at least, more significant than others. Populist speakers typically expressed their highest esteem for citizens who inhabited what the novelist E. L. Doctorow calls "the large middle world, neither destitute nor privileged, . . . that of the ordinary working man": yeo-

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