Historian and author Alan Brinkley, professor of history at Columbia University, answers your questions on "populism" - a movement, according to Brinkley, that "is one of popular anger against concentrated economic power -- and of searching for enemies on which to blame problems." In his article from the March 4, 1996 Newsweek, Brinkley discusses the nature of Patrick Buchanan's populist message and gives his campaign historical context.
Brinkley told the Washington Post that, "The critical thing that [populism] touched on was the sense in the early part of the 20th century that people were losing control, that they couldn't control their own destinies, that power had flowed away from people and toward big institutions, and that is once again a fear that drives a lot of the discontent in American life." "What Buchanan has done is take it out of the generalized, anti-government animus that is so close to universal and has given it a shape that looks a lot like some of the older populist movements of the 20th century," Brinkley said.
Brinkley argues that populists, Pat Buchanan included, tend to invoke passionate responses, both positive and negative. Brinkley writes in Newsweek, "Buchanan's precipitous rise is creating a dilemma for him. The populist economic issues he has raised have the capacity to mobilize very large constituencies. But his apocalyptic cultural messages have been, through most of the long history of American populism, the stuff of failure."
I appreciate the opportunity to respond to these very interesting questions - Alan Brinkley 3/4/96.
A question from Joseph A. McDonald, Burlington, VT:
In your article in Newsweek, you say that populists such as Huey Long, George Wallace, Joe McCarthy (and now Pat Buchanan) have been the stuff of failure. But don't these people serve a vital purpose. After all, we learned a lot from Joe McCarthy.
Isn't Pat Buchanan bringing to the forefront a lot of issues that otherwise would not be discussed? He is tapping into many real fears and concerns of Americans (job security, government abuse, declining real wages, immigration). Even Bob Dole said in New Hampshire: "I didn't realize that jobs and trade...would become a big issue." He realizes it now.
I am not a Buchanan supporter, but wouldn't you agree he is playing an important role in this campaign, and the reason his message resonates is because (until recently) he's the only one who addressed these issues?
Professor Alan Brinkley responds:
Joseph McDonald of Burlington, Vermont, asks whether populist figures of the sort I discussed in my article in Newsweek (he mentions Long, Wallace, and McCarthy) don't actually serve a vital purpose. I agree that they often do. One of the reasons that Buchanan has made such an impact on this campaign is that he has raised a series of economic issues on which there has been a conspicuous silence in mainstream politics for a very long time.
Millions of Americans have been living for a generation with the frustration of income stagnation and inadequate job creation for working-class and lower middle-class people. The responses they have heard have been (from Democrats such as President Clinton) that government will try to help you retrain and will provide you with a stronger safety net; or (from Republicans) that your problems are a result of government intrusion into the market and excessive taxes, and that by scaling back both, individuals will have a better shot at the future.
Buchanan is saying something else: that much of what ails Americans is a result of the harshness and disloyalty of corporations toward their
workers and their communities and also, of course, of a series of trade policies that encourage American business to turn their backs on their own country. I don't agree with Buchanan's solutions to the problems he cites, but the problems are real.
But that is not all Buchanan says. There is also in his message, closely bound up with this important economic message, a bundle of social and cultural resentments that are not necessary parts of populism but have often been part of populism. And it is that part of his message that I called the "stuff of failure."
I should add, finally, that I don't consider Joe McCarthy a populist in anything but a stylistic sense; and I don't believe we "learned a lot" from him -- except about the capacity of our political system to tolerate demagoguery.
A question from Randy G. Litchfield, Anderson, IN:
Religious aspects of populism
I apologize for not having read Mr Brinkley's article prior to his comment. I am curious about religion's role specifically Christianity) in populist politics. Nathan Hatch in "The Democratization of American Christianity" draws some interesting connections between populism and American Christianity.
If I may share an extended quote, "As in American social and political movements, American Christianity has gained strength from opposition to centralized authority and demands for a dispersal of power. Baptist, Methodist, Millerite, Mormon, Holiness, Pentecostal, Jehovah's Witness, and Fundamentalist movements have all shared an anti-elitist and anti-centralist ideology. In their passion to communicate with and mobilize ordinary people, to challenge them to take responsibility for their destiny and to educate themselves, these movements resemble a mass democratic movement such as Populism." (Hatch 1989, 212) These groups were shaped within populist eras.
With Buchanan and his "populism" there again seems to be a strong religious connection. I am interested in your comments about the historical role of religion in populism and if Buchanan fits the historical mold of populism when religion is part of the mix. It seems that several of the groups Hatch mentions are likely to be supportive of Buchanan.
Thank you for considering this message.
Randy G. Litchfield
Professor Alan Brinkley responds:
Randy Litchfield of Anderson, Indiana, asks about the role of Christianity in populist politics. It is true, as he says, that religious movements agenda that go beyond theology, and that taken together they have some resemblance to "a mass democratic movement such as Populism." In fact, though, through most of American history, the various religious movements he cites have not worked together; and while they share certain rhetorical inclinations with populism (anti-elitism, anti-centralism, the desire to mobilize ordinary people), they have not often embraced the economic concerns that the original populists, at least, considered their most important issues.
If we look at political movements that one might consider more conventionally populist, moreover, we do not see very many direct links to Christianity. Most members of such movements have been Christians (usually Protestants), of course, and religious faith undoubtedly help direct many of them in one or another political direction. But I don't think Christianity has been a defining characteristic of most such movements.
In Buchanan's case, religion does seem to play a somewhat larger than usual role -- but not the kind of Protestant evangelicalism Mr. Litchfield cites. The religious traditions that have shaped his politics are Catholic ones -- and very similar to those that shaped Father Coughlin. Those traditions are not really "populist," but they have inspired economic critiques that are quite similar to some that have emerged out of populism.
A question from Phil Mancha, McLean, VA:
Populism and Buchanan
I agree that there is a strong populist strain in the Buchanan message. How wide would the populist message be if the messenger was not known as an extremist in other matters such as race? If Buchanan has, in fact, identified a real problem American life with his traditional populist message, how about his solutions? Many have dismissed his solutions as unrealistic - "we can't move away from free trade now, etc" or the messenger as extreme.. What are realistic solutions?
Is the continuation of Reaganonomics as espoused by Steve Forbes, among others,i.e. lets "grow the economy" and watch the wealth "trickle down," the only "realistic solutions" to the problems posed by Buchanan? Isn't a continuation of Reganonomics equally risky as Buchanan's proposals? In fact, isn't Reaganonomics largely responsible for the problem? How does this nation widen the dialog to get better answers to Buchanan's question?
Professor Alan Brinley responds:
Phil Mancha of McLean, Virginia asks how wide Buchanan's message might resonate if Buchanan himself were not known to be an extremist in matters such as race. First, I am not convinced that Buchanan himself is, in fact, a racial extremist. He is certainly very conservative on such issues as affirmative action, but that is not extremism.
It is true, nevertheless, that Buchanan seems to attract (and even solicit) the support of all sorts of extremists and does not seem very troubled by the things they say and do in his name. At times, he appears to encourage them. This is true not just in relation to racism and anti-Semitism, but in relation to other forms of extremism such as that represented by militias and gun-lobby extremists.
If Buchanan were able to separate his economic message from his cultural one -- if he could emphasize the former and discard the latter -- he might well attract a very wide circle of supporters who do not now find him acceptable. At the same time, though, he would likely lose much of what has, so far at least, been his real base, which is people principally concerned with the social agenda of the right. Whether he would gain more support than he would lose I do not know.
A question from Gene Goosev, Kalama, WA:
Alan Brinkley/Pat Buchanan populist?
I often vote democrat, but declare as independent. But Pat has reminded me that the far Left and the far Right aren't always the opposite ends of a straight line. Sometimes they come together to form a circle. I support an American's right to firmly hold beliefs other than mine. But I'll fight King George in any incarnation.
I wish Pat's image of populism had Hillary's courage and innovation. I'd vote that ticket.
Professor Alan Brinkley responds:
Gene Goosev notes that Buchanan is evidence of the sometimes fuzzy line separating the left and the right, and I certainly agree. There is, I think, a radical temperament that finds expression on both the right and the left, and that feels least comfortable in the center; and there are economic and social concerns that the right and left share -- at least to a point.
Buchanan's (somewhat muted) anti-capitalist message would, on the surface, seem a very surprising thing to find within the Republican party, which has through most of this century been the party of business. But the Republican constituency has grown in the last generation to include many people whose interests and convictions lead them to resent all institutions of great power -- which includes capitalist institutions as well as government ones.
A question from Walter Kilbourne, Seattle WA:
Populism and Alan Brinkley
Populism has a very noble, courageous pedigree, and xenophobia and racism of the Buchananite variety are the exception, not the rule. Honest historians such as Richard Godwin, or Lawrence Goodwyn, and William Greider, (explain) that populists embodied the best tradition of American ideals of independence, and self-government. (We might also note that populists don't hold a monopoly on racism and xenophobia; they just get tarred with it when it suits the interests of those threatened by popular upswells.)
Professor Alan Brinkley responds:
Walter Kilbourne of Seattle, Washington, takes exception to what he considers my tendentious implication that xenophobia and racism are central parts of the populist tradition, and suggests that they are the exception, not the rule.
I agree that there is much that is noble and courageous in the populist tradition; and I know that many people who admire that tradition resent the implication that Buchanan, (or anyone else who espouses many of his views), can be a populist. I admire much of what the populists of the 1890s represented, and I even admire parts of what Huey Long and Father Coughlin, (about whom I wrote some years ago), said and promoted.
But I also believe that populism is not reserved to noble, courageous people espousing democratic ideas. It is a broad concept, which embraces a wide range of efforts by ordinary men and women to fight against the large forces that control their lives and leave them with a sense of powerlessness and isolation. It can lead to a discussion of real economic grievances (as Buchanan himself to some degree does).
It can also lead to a pre-occupation with irrelevant scapegoats (and Buchanan does that too). Even in the 1890s, there were, in addition to the important democratic messages of populism, narrower, and harsher messages; racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia were at times among them.
Some scholars have tried to restrict the idea of populism to those who embrace only its democratic ethos. I see populism as a much broader impulse, and I do not consider the kinds of prejudices and resentments Buchanan embraces to be as rare a part of the populist tradition as Mr. Kilbourne does.
Again, my thanks to the participants in this conversation for their thoughtful questions.
Phil Huff of Frisco, CO:
Patrick Buchanan a long line of populists?
Patrick Buchanan certainly makes a populists appeal, but it is his suggestion that a central government must take invasive actions to solve this problem, which is the real concern here.
Beverly Morris, Dixon, CA:
Promoting negative, mean-spirited ideas
Pat Buchanan and the religious right is why I, a republican presidential voter since 1968, voted for Bill Clinton last time and probably will again. My 82 year old mother, a staunch republican voter all her life, also switched to Bill Clinton.
Pat B. is working on people's fears. He ignores the new world order of a global, competitive economy.
His message should be about re-training and learning competitive skills (like the people of Georgia).
I would like to hear about people who, in the past, preached a negative, isolationist, only one right religion creed. Did this result in progress, more jobs, increased economy, less strife and warfare?
What did it take to show these people and their followers followers a better way.
M.Dew, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX:
Are you familiar with the efforts of a coalition of progressive independents, led by Ronny Dugger, out of Austin, Texas? (The coalition has formed) a third party movement called, "The Alliance", (formerly "The Citizens' Alliance"), who base their movement, in part, upon the reversal of a Supreme Court ruling that gives corporations the same constitutional rights as individual citizens have.
Mary Claire Thorleifson, Mankato, MN
North Dakota populism
I grew up in North Dakota where A.C. Townley started a movement that came to be called the Non-Partisan League. (It) was founded to give the farmers in North Dakota some control over the prices they were charged for shipping their wheat to Minneapolis/St. Paul markets, and to help them have some control over the prices they received for their crops.
I really do not see Pat Buchanan in this mode of populism, that is directly trying to help wage-earners, small farmers, etc. Perhaps he has suggested that corporations should pay their employees more, and their stockholders less, but I am not aware of it.
What he is selling may be populism, but it is a new brand, being sold by a rich man, not the prairie populist variety of which I am acquainted.
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