The word "populism" originated with a progressive political movement in the 1890s in which American farmers sought to free themselves from the economic control of bankers, big food companies, railroads and merchants.
Author Thomas Frank in the May Harper's examines how the term has been abused by political elites, violating its original meaning. While events such as the election of Donald Trump are called "populist," Frank demonstrates that words like "demagoguery" would be more accurate.
Frank's "The Pessimistic Style in American Politics, and Its Eternal War on Reform" analyzes how journalists, academics, business leaders and liberal and conservative politicians have used "populism" to condemn reform movements as too radical and dangerous, bringing their defeat.
While historian Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" is cited as a prime example of elite alarmism, Frank doesn't disprove Hofstadter's findings.
The article views the downfall of Bernie Sanders' socialist movement as the latest manifestation of the political and economic establishment misusing the term populism to defeat broad-based reform efforts. But Frank unconvincingly argues why Trump's election is not a form of populist revolt.
Frank's historical examination of populism's origins discounts its early perversion. He notes its original liberal spirit, including support for women's rights, education and racial harmony.
But he doesn't look into how the movement later embraced virulent racism, especially in the South, where populists like Tom Watson abandoned their early liberal racial views and gained political power by supporting the Klan, Jim Crow laws and the overthrow of Reconstruction.
In contrast to Frank's argument, Trump's election can be seen as continuing Watson's strand of populism, especially Trump's support in the South. Frank ignores populism's right-wing, reactionary manifestations.
Despite a few analytic weaknesses, Frank shows how the term "populism," similar to words like "fascism" and "socialism," has been manipulated for political control.
The author of "What's the Matter With Kansas" and other books, Frank is one of our most astute chroniclers of how political parties, particularly the GOP, use fear-mongering to persuade blue-collar Americans to vote against their best interests.
Frank's compelling but not fully realized article is an excerpt from the forthcoming book "The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism," giving hope that he'll have space to develop more substantial arguments.