Neal Gabler

The arrogance divide

Why can’t liberals capture the populist moment?

By Neal Gabler
February 22, 2011

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A RECENT essay in Boston Review by historian William Hogeland pondered a perplexing political question: Why haven’t populists and liberals been able to make common cause? They seem like natural allies. They both rail against economic inequality. They both are skeptical of America’s financial masters of the universe. They both believe that government has an obligation to help the country’s working men and women. They are both angry about the direction the country has been taking.

And yet these natural allies sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Whether the so-called Tea Partiers have simply co-opted the populist label and its heated rhetoric, populism seems to have taken a rightward swing — a process that has been going on for at least several decades. Sarah Palin, certainly no liberal, is now the self-appointed queen of American populism.

Liberals understand that they could use the fortification of grass-roots, high-decibel populism, and they’ve been scratching their heads over why the rupture exists. In his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?’’, Thomas Frank attributed it to clever Republican machinations that have diverted ordinary people from their real interests. Others blame liberalism’s fracturing around interest groups while neglecting to appeal to this larger group of disaffected Americans. Hogeland correctly concluded that it is not just a product of deception or political ineptitude but of something much deeper: liberals’ self-congratulation over their own expertise. As he puts it, liberal “claims to a monopoly on knowledge may even be more undemocratic than conservatives’ policies for distributing wealth upward.’’

There is merit to all of these, but let me suggest that the real answer might be simpler. There is something more powerful than economic self-interest, hatred of Wall Street kingpins, Republican trickery, or even liberal self-congratulation. And that something is condescension.

When populism first arose as an organized movement in the Midwest in the late-19th century, it was fueled by anger. That anger was directed by farmers to the Eastern banking establishment, which, because of the gold standard, was demanding repayment of loans to these farmers in what amounted to deflated dollars. The initial populist crusade for free silver, inflating currency by using silver as a monetary standard, was a way to wrest power from those bankers. That was what 1896 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was addressing when he delivered his famous “Cross of Gold’’ speech that rallied the convention to his side: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’’ He then posed, splaying his arms like Christ.

Bryan, who was also nominated by the Populist Party that year, is an instructive figure in understanding the chasm between populists and liberals. He did have a program beyond inflating currency. His eventual platform would sound very much like Franklin Roosevelt’s nearly 40 years later: government intervention against big business in the interests of working people; easier means for unionization; increased taxation on the wealthiest Americans; subsidization of farmers; a morality-based foreign policy that looked skeptically on force; even a ban on private campaign contributions.

But this is somewhat misleading, because it makes populism out to be programmatic, which it wasn’t then and isn’t now. In fact, one of the criticisms of the Tea Party movement is that it doesn’t really stand for anything other than anger. That was certainly true of its populist forebears. Populism wasn’t so much a philosophy of governance as an emotion. It was a great boiling resentment at entrenched economic and social power, and if Bryan channeled it for a time, his nostrums were less characteristic of the movement than this sense of wild fury that lashed out at whoever those powers were perceived to be — economic royalists and their allies in the government, Jews, and immigrants then, and bankers, government, President Obama, homosexuals, you name it, now.

Still, it was rage that liberals were able to harness in Bryan’s day in part because populists and progressives shared many of the same targets, and in part because progressives realized that they needed populist energy and foot soldiers if they were to win elections. Bryan even became Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state.

But it was always an uneasy marriage, and Bryan, the Great Commoner, demonstrates why. In addition to being perhaps the most radical major party presidential candidate up to that time in his politics, Bryan was also one of the most conservative in his personal beliefs. He was fiercely religious and used the Bible as the basis for his political positions; he was a teetotaler who even as secretary of state refused to serve liquor; and he was a believer in creationism and testified at the Scopes Monkey Trial. In sum, he was an uneducated, incurious, unsophisticated, and uncomplicated man.

To his supporters, this was part of his appeal. He was one of them and proud of it. But this was the very antithesis of liberalism, which prided itself on its rationality and sophistication. To many liberals, Bryan was a charlatan and his followers a loony mob of anti-intellectuals. They were embarrassed by them. And this was the real division between the populists and the liberals — not, as Hogeland believes, between different principles but between different attitudes and styles. Liberals condescended to populists. They felt superior to the populists’ naked emotionalism. They still do.

If anything, these divisions have hardened over time. Liberals like to point to a united front that extended from the Progressive Era through FDR’s administration when many of Bryan’s ideas became the law of the land. But despite Roosevelt’s championing of the common man, the real populist spirit was not in his administration but in the demagogic Louisiana senator, Huey Long, who proclaimed “every man a king’’ and the firebrand radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who scalded the economic powers in language even less temperate than Bryan’s. These were the angry men of the time — the true heirs of 19th-century populism. And liberals reviled them, too.

Which is precisely the point. Hogeland writes at length about liberal contempt for hick populism and does a brilliant job of explaining it. But it was this contempt that populists felt and this contempt that they hated. To go even further, as much as they hated what they considered economic injustice, the hatred of condescension is the very essence of populism.

It is easy for conservatives to manipulate this hatred — to portray liberals as Eastern, Ivy League-educated elitists. It is even easier because liberals often are Eastern, Ivy League-educated elitists. Americans don’t like being told that their opinions don’t matter, that they are not smart enough, that they ought to leave politics to the professionals and experts. Sarah Palin has built her own neopopulist movement on this antagonism.

So it isn’t the economy, stupid. If it were, there would be a powerful populist-liberal axis that might even dominate American politics. It’s condescension, stupid. And, by the way, don’t call them “stupid.’’ They hate that.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’