This program was originally broadcast live on July 22, 2020.
In his provocative new book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, Thomas Frank contends that most of our notions about populism are wrong. Today, “populism” is a term most often used to describe the racist and illiberal philosophies of Donald Trump and far right extremists in America and Europe.
But the real story of populism, says Mr. Frank, is rooted in a more enlightened and hopeful world view. In 1936, as the Great Depression ravaged American communities from coast to coast, the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg published a book called The People, Yes. Thomas Frank describes Sandburg’s mostly forgotten 300-page poem as “a full-throated celebration of ordinariness,” and “the most eloquent evocation of Depression-era populism.” Mr. Frank’s latest book is a full-throated defense of the wisdom of the common man and woman, and a sharp attack on those who have, since the 19th century, opposed and discredited Populism.
Anti-populism has created some strange bedfellows through the ages; Mr. Frank describes how the Robber Barons of the late 19th century and liberal intellectuals of the present day share a disdain for populism. That disdain comes from what the author calls “the Democracy Scare,” where elites with education, wealth and social standing believe that elections are too important and too complex to be decided by "unwashed" and "uninformed" masses. But as Thomas Frank argues, the story of populism is the story of America's evolving, and expanding, democracy.
Thomas Frank is the author of nine books, including Listen, Liberal; Pity the Billionaire; The Wrecking Crew; and What's the Matter withKansas? A former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harper's, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and writes regularly for The Guardian. He lives outside Washington, D.C.