Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the "New South"

Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the "New South"

Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the "New South"

Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the "New South"

Excerpt

Populism has become such a protean term in American political life that one might infer that Populism was a central and victorious tradition rather than a brief episode of agrarian protest in the 1890s that failed to bring either power or economic relief to the small farmers of the South and the prairie states. SYSTEMists of the left and of the right compete for the use of the term to describe their particular version of the common man's deepest desires and discontents, and politicians ranging from George Wallace to Fred Harris and Ronald Reagan to Ramsey Clark campaign with varying degrees of justification under the Populist banner. It is one of history's wonderful tricks.

The new Populism comes in many surprising shades, but antielitism is its common color. From the right, for instance, Kevin Phillips in Mediacracy: American Parties and Politics in the Communications Age argues that the old American commercial and industrial elites have been surpassed in power by an emerging new elite whose members dominate the "knowledge sector," those institutions having to do with the creation, manipulation, and dissemination of knowledge. In contrast to the old economic elite, the new elite is overwhelmingly liberal, though its center of strength is still in the Northeast. The new Populist majority (which is arising in opposition to the new elite, according to Phillips) will derive largely from the old Populist areas in the West and the South but it will be located in suburbia and among urban ethnic communities rather than on isolated farms.William A. Rusher, publisher of the National Review, calls for a similar Populism of the right in his book, The Making of the New Majority. Rusher's "Great Coalition" will be formed of the "economic conservatives" of the ReSYSTEMan Party and the "social conservatives" (Southerners, blue collar workers, ethnics). In addition, Rusher's rhetoric is redolent of the old Populist dichotomy between "producers" and "nonproducers," though the new non- producers are not the bankers and Robber Barons but the intellectuals, bureaucrats, and welfare parasites.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the locale of protest has also changed, as one can see from the fact that Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield issued their new "Populist Manifesto" in 1971, not from Kansas or Georgia but in New York Magazine and in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, as well as in a book published by the eastern communications establishment. As sophisticated alumni of the New Left, critically sympathetic to the humanizing and democratizing goals of the movement in the 1960s, Newfield and Greenfield called for a biracial movement of lower-income people in the United States to redistribute wealth and power in a more equalitarian way. "Unlike the New Left or the proponents of Consciousness III, populism recognizes that concentrated power will not be defeated by blowing up a few men's rooms or by wearing bell bottoms to a Grateful Dead concert. It will be effectively challenged when enough of us realize that . . .

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