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The Populist Moment book review

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in AmericaThe Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I must confess. I skipped to the end. Lawrence Goodwyn’s history of America’s Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century is an important contribution to our knowledge of social movements and American political theory. However, Goodwyn’s storytelling fails to live up to contemporary standards of political history from favorites like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert A. Caro, or the fast-paced accounts of recent history from Michael Lewis. That’s why after two chapters I skipped to the last one.

Goodwyn’s concluding essay “The Irony of Populism” is why this book is so important. This is where he lays out his argument for why the movement ultimately failed and why there hasn’t been a similar substantive and popular democratic reform movement since. So, what is the irony of populism? Well, in Goodwyn’s telling, it boils down to the nature of radical political change. It effectively needs an army—like the red armies of communism—which represent the vanguard of a countervailing power to the entrenched interests of existing governmental systems. These armies and the new political parties behind them necessarily need some sort of centralized committee. Thus it’s hard to construct the alternative power structure through nonhierarchical democratic means.

When you are organizing at the size of America, even in the late 1800s, this is an unwieldy project to manage through flat hierarchies and maintain communication channels across its breadth. It’s also at its core a cultural change project. And those cultures evolve and coalesce at different speeds across the movement. What made the populist movement work in the first place was a tenuous coalition of farmers from many different states who had a common background as “plain people” and a common need for self-determination in the face of economic elites building a rentier system on tenant farmers. Such a tenuous coalition is rife for capture by special interests or charismatic leaders that ultimately undermine the democratic goals of fighting the hierarchical, corporatist system of liberal capitalism and what would become “progressive” government in the early twentieth century.

Ultimately, and ironically, the populists lost because they lost. They poured the structures built for mutual aid, which first gave the plain people a sense of self-respect and dignity in the face of economic and political oppression, into the People’s Party and this third party lost in the election of 1896 even after various contortions and capture by other parties and special interests. This happened because the Republicans backing McKinley had the full weight of corporate America backing them financially but also because (ironically again) the populists didn’t have enough people. Their vision was an alliance between the farmers and the emerging class of laborers in industrial America. But labor wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be ready until the successful sit-ins of the 1930s and by then the defeated farmers were too impoverished economically, politically, and culturally to reignite an effort for radical democratic reform.

The winning movement became progressivism in the United States. Political participation waned as politics became more professionalized and hierarchies became deeper and more unequal in both industry and government. The American dream—a fable of rags to riches—was cemented by government and corporate propaganda and sold to children in public schools. The populists who had seen through this fiction in their own struggles lost the shared platform and ability to influence millions through their homespun civic education which had originally organized these poor farmers into powerful cooperatives.

Goodwyn argues that the socialists who succeeded the populists in making a case for radical democratic reform never understood the importance of developing a positive, genuinely American, cultural vision. And the success of the corporatist state on the back of liberal capitalist policies crowded out ideas of radical democracy and equality from legitimate political debate. And this is where we are at now. Where the latest populist movement again chose to side with a corporatist, charismatic leader. Goodwyn was right that the election of 1896 set the stage for everything to follow in American politics. And that’s why it’s worth reading his analysis of what happened.

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Lessons from Fighting Swiss Right-Wing Populism: Flavia Kleiner and Operation Libero

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In early 2016, Operation Libero, an anti-populist movement cofounded by history student Flavia Kleiner, 26, successfully defeated an anti-immigrant Swiss ballot initiative. The “enforcement” initiative, sponsored by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), would have ordered the deportation of immigrants in Switzerland for any criminal offense, no matter how minor. Often, initiative sponsors like the SVP frame such issues in terms of Swiss values and innocuous outcomes for citizens to control the narrative and reduce the potential for negative response. In this case, the SVP initiative followed a long and bruising federal election, and their usual political opponents were exhausted and out of funds to fight the initiative. So Kleiner and friends built a grassroots movement and coalition for “No” on the enforcement initiative to re-frame the issue, reclaim Swiss values, and drive attention to the anti-immigrant initiative. The successful effort has since blossomed into a suite of campaigns under Operation Libero to oppose populist and illiberal rhetoric more broadly.

At the beginning, rather than starting with the big Swiss newspapers of record, Kleiner gave her first interviews criticizing the enforcement initiative to the free daily newspapers distributed around public transportation and read widely by average citizens. By being one of the only smart, vocal critics reaching out to the press, she was able to get front page news in these journals.

Operation Libero also took to the internet to generate easy ways to engage in the campaign and share relevant information across social networks. They aggressively fact-checked claims by the SVP about the initiative and their country’s need for it. They created press releases debunking the claims and made it easy for journalists to write critical stories. Operation Libero also designed compelling and humorous visual memes that could be easily used as Facebook profile images or shared, mocking the SVP’s own imagery.

Operation Libero’s reframing of the issue—defending the rights of immigrants was equivalent to defending core Swiss values—was widely distributed online and offline and overwhelmed the SVP, which had not expected such opposition. A key indicator of success was the fact that SVP paid handsomely for leaflets delivered to every Swiss home that tried to make an argument for the initiative. Kleiner says the expensive measure was an act of desperation, and the misleading claims in the leaflets were quickly debunked by Operation Libero and sympathetic journalists.

Kleiner has made a set of careful and deliberate decisions about how to structure and present Operation Libero. They are a nonprofit and are not aligned with any particular political party. In interviews, she has been careful not to favor a particular party, while still representing her commitment to Swiss liberalism. As a result, MPs from several parties are “members” of the movement. Kleiner is frank that her own background and personal appearance also helps her cause. She is from a self-described bourgeois, rural Swiss-German family, and has a stereotypical blonde-haired Swiss look—she looks native to her home district, which votes heavily for SVP. Her heritage and dress signals a possible affinity with conservative lawmakers, aiding her in presenting as politically centrist and making her case directly to lawmakers.

Operation Libero has supporters from the Left in Switzerland, but they are not building formal coalitions in their movement and avoid affiliation with disruptive politics or a broader radical agenda. Instead, Kleiner says that their appeal is always in terms of traditional Swiss values, which seeks to marginalize the SVP and its nationalist rhetoric as anti-Swiss. This helps them connect with average citizens and own the language of the debate.

Now that Kleiner is seen as a political threat by the SVP, the party and its online supporters have started attacking her personally. With additional nationalist ballot initiatives coming up over the next year or so, she will have to deflect negative associations imposed by the other side and Operation Libero will need to find new, innovative ways to campaign. It will be a test of their model for an anti-nationalist movement. They expect the SVP will be more prepared and the types of memes and media campaigns they used before might have diminishing returns this time around. A danger for Operation Libero, as for all innovative movements, is that the best weapon in political campaigning is surprise, which is very difficult to reproduce.

Beyond Switzerland, Kleiner has been approached by organizers in other European countries struggling to fight the rise of nationalist parties and policies. When she met with us at the MIT Center for Civic Media, she was in the United States on a State Department tour for female political leaders and meeting with American academics and political organizers. It’s unclear if Operation Libero’s values-driven, centrist approach could work outside of Switzerland. In the United States, the radical Left is visibly leading the resistance against nationalistic policies under President Trump. Kleiner’s analysis is that the identity politics of American progressives sometimes get in the way of their own strategies—and they should make sure to be working through internal politics—playing the centrist—as much as external, oppositional politics. Of course, the political landscape and history is different in the U.S., especially because of legacies of racial oppression. Furthermore the two-party presidential system offers more ideologically centralized power over certain executive functions than the pluralist parliamentary system in Switzerland. That said, the battle for hearts and minds and the rise of populist politics is currently an international phenomena, and those in opposition will need to learn from innovators like Flavia Kleiner and Operation Libero.

Flavia Kleiner visited the MIT Center for Civic Media on February 21, 2017. Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman for edits on this article. This piece is cross-posted on Civicist and the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

The Subversives book review

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will change how you see the federal government, specifically the FBI, and will change how you see Ronald Reagan. Even if you are familiar with the war waged by the FBI against civil rights activists and peaceniks during the 1960s and understand what COINTELPRO was meant to accomplish, this comprehensive narrative—detailing the abuses of power, hypocrisy, and assault on dissenting speech—is illuminating.

To quote the book’s preface, author Seth Rosenfeld “draws on court records, contemporaneous news accounts, oral histories, scholarly works, and hundreds of interviews with activists, university administrators, politicians, present and former FBI agents, and various other officials and observers,” as well as confidential FBI files released after three decades of FOIA requests. “There are no anonymous sources and no fictionalized accounts.” The result is a terrifying look into J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against dissent in the United States. His illegal and unethical misuse of “intelligence” and FBI resources wielded in the name of fighting Communism. America was so scared of the Red Menace that it provided a perfect excuse to accumulate power in the federal criminal justice and intelligence services.

Much of what went on attacking college students and other citizens for demonstrating free speech and protesting the War in Vietnam was done without official approval or oversight and often was explicitly political in helping more conservative, pro-Hoover politicians and officials gain or maintain power. Lives were ruined and in some cases lost in this battle between the FBI and student radicals.

Reagan’s role in all of this was highly-publicized at the time in terms of his own crusade against Communism. But Rosenfeld reveals how closely Reagan coordinated, aiding and abetting the illegal FBI maneuvers, from before he was Governor of California and throughout his political career. Like other conservative politicians of the era, he was a bit naive to Hoover’s true power, but was always happy when abuse of power served his interests. Reagan callously took advantage of UC Berkeley’s student protests for political success and had little time for facts that disagreed with his view of the matter. Reagan and Hoover’s end goals were mutually beneficial and they jumped at the opportunity to use each other’s power.

The Subversives is a cautionary tale. It reads like the dystopian novels that are rocketing up best seller lists this spring following Trump’s election. However, this is Nonfiction. This really happened. This was the U.S. government and figures like Reagan, who are broadly beloved or at least respected, that eviscerated the fundamental rights of thousands of Americans and enjoyed unchecked power, often supported by their own popularity.

We have seen the resurgence of some of these abuses following 9/11. Terrorism, not Communism, has been the excuse. With low trust in the institutions meant to check each other’s power, the responsibility falls disproportionately on citizens, like the book’s persistent author Seth Rosenfeld, to monitor our institutions and hold our government and politicians accountable.

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