Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Lessons from the good populism

In this crucial electoral year of 2024 in Europe and the US, it is important that progressive candidates get the message right, and fine-tune their narrative with the objective of maximizing the number of votes, and stop the rise of a eurosceptic right and far right. Not everything is lost, as polls suggest in the UK (unfortunately, not anymore in the EU) and Catalonia (where the federalist Socialist Party comes ahead in all recent polling, after more than 10 years of a strong pro-independence revolt).

Those of us who are in academia and keep an active interest (and an interested activity) in politics, have also a duty to learn with a critical and cautious eye from all the existing and growing research and literature on "populism," and to contribute to it if possible.

I have certainly learned from reading the 2020 book by Thomas Frank, "The People, No." The message in the book, as well and in this article in The Guardian (also, this one) from the book's author, is that there is a good and positive "populist" tradition in the US, which has its origins in the "People's Party" of poor farmers at the end of the XIXth century. Frank claims that this progressive, egalitarian tradition should claim the property rights to the word "populist," as they were the first to use it as something positive, democratic and egalitarian. In Europe, it may come as a surprise that such a positive tradition exists, but it is one that has been claimed several times by the economist Paul Krugman as well. Frank reveals that some politicians (like President Obama) have used the term in a positive sense and in a negative sense on different occasions. But the book is more than a crusade to reclaim a word: it is a crusade to reclaim a popular movement that was anti-elitist but was against demagoguery and bigotry, and that was focused on income inequality above everything else. The author, who shows little patience for the recent social scientific literature on populism and its associated psychological biases and irrational voters and voting outcomes (with authors such as Mounk, Müller, Levitsky, or Mudde, from which I have also learned) argues that "Populist" has become shorthand for racist authoritarianism. But the first populists were progressive labor activists who fought for democracy.  According to Frank, genuine populism is neither new nor right-wing. 

The book is a very interesting history of ideas and facts. In general, it strongly criticizes the centrist wing of the Democratic Party and academic liberal orthodoxy for having forgotten that rich progressive populist tradition.

This progressive populism of the late XIXth century is the one that gave the US independent regulatory agencies, and that tried to spread education and culture to the masses, and unite white and black workers. That populism did not go against science and knowledge, but it went against orthodoxy. That tradition was followed in the XXth century by Franklin D. Roosevelt and by Martin Luther King (MLK), and therefore is an important ingredient of the New Deal and the fight for Civil Rights. Thomas Frank points out that the elite of academia (and especially prestigious economists, such as Schumpeter) did not endorse the policies of Roosevelt at the beginning, because they thought that they went against the established consensus. In the XXIst century the politician that better reflects this tradition is Bernie Sanders (Elizabeth Warren is also mentioned in the book).

In the past, Frank has been criticized for not being careful with data. For example, political scientist Larry Bartels (also an egalitarian, in my view) said in the past that his claim that the working class had abandoned the Democratic Party was an exaggeration. In an article in The Guardian about Paul Krugman, Frank mentioned Bartels.

Not all left wing populisms are like Sanders, Roosevelt or MLK: Corbin in the UK, AMLO in México, Iglesias in Spain, Maduro in Venezuela, Kirschner in Argentina, are not mentioned in a book that is only about the US.

Not everything Obama or other centrist Democrats did was wrong: Obamacare, gay rights... Not all non-income progressive causes (feminism, ecologism?) should be relativized as woke or culture wars. Democracy has problems (Kenneth Arrow cannot just be forgotten) and voters do have psychological biases. There are no simple recipes. But Thomas Frank has a point: there has been such a thing as good populism, and we can learn from it.

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