Thomas Frank is a brave man. He has decided to discover how the political movement of Populism has been degraded into a term of slander. This is a project long overdue because only a tiny fraction of those who use the term populism have any idea that this was once a fiercely debated set of ideas passionately believed by many people struggling to solve extremely difficult problems. In my experience, most people worldwide with a university education believe that a populist is an ignorant hick who is terrified of learning and modernity—a bad person to be shunned.
Like Frank, I believe that is a terrible, historically inaccurate, lie. Unfortunately that's the conventional "wisdom". Correcting this terrible ignorance requires far more patience than I have. When confronted with people with fancy degrees from name colleges who wrongly use the word populism to demonstrate their intellectual horsepower, I find it difficult to contain my rage. The reason is that their definitions of Populism bears almost zero relationship with the historical movement that invented the term. Frank got a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago so believes that these rotten examples of useless protoplasm can be reasoned with. The People, NO doesn't pull many punches. It is lovingly crafted—a graceful result of thousands of hours of hard work. Whether that is enough to change any minds...we'll see. But we can hope because real Populism is probably the only system of organized thought that has any chance of addressing the serious problems facing humanity these days.
Waiting for packages was a well-practiced skill of my youth. It was an unavoidable hazard of my small town life. I wanted to read Thomas Frank's latest book on the history of Populism, The People, NO, badly enough to go through the rituals of preordering and I still had a five-week wait. The reasons I wanted a first crack at this book include:
- I have tried to read everything Frank has written ever since I got hooked by reading his The Conquest of Cool. Frank's writing is graceful, accurate, nuanced and complex without lapsing into pretentiousness. In Conquest, he tries to explain how and why the political and cultural passions of the 60s quickly faded into a costume show. As a survivor of the antiwar movement, I had seen multiple examples of exactly that phenomenon including in myself—long hair, bell-bottomed jeans, Red Wing work boots, army surplus shirts, etc. I was especially impressed when he wrote, "If I got it wrong, remember, I wasn't there." Yes, but he still got it very right. There's a lot to be said for diligent research.
- Kansas is Frank's home. Over the years he has reminded us that historically, the Sunflower State can lay legitimate claim to having birthed the People's Party. And even though I have spent most of my life in Minnesota, Kansas has played an out-sized role in developing my own Populist inclinations. My father came from Kansas and his father farmed his whole life. My great grandfather came to Kansas from Sweden in 1873, the very year the USA would return to the gold standard after the Civil War—triggering the nasty agricultural depression that would essentially last until the outbreak of WW I. But he had two years of horticultural studies at the University of Lund so he not only survived, but had six 160 acre farms to distribute to his children after my great grandmother died during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Meanwhile, my mother's parents were struggling to keep their tiny farm alive in central Minnesota. This grandfather was a voracious reader and spent a significant fraction of his meager disposable income buying the Appeal to Reason and later, the Little Blue Books, both published in Girard Kansas.
So, if Frank had anything to add to my incomplete knowledge of Kansas Populism, I wanted badly to read it. And sure enough, when it arrived I blazed through it in one sitting. Two days later, I would re-read it at a more respectful speed mostly because The People, NO followed a POV that I have pretty much ignored in my quest to understand the history of rural progressive movements. For instance, Franks cites numerous examples of known intellectuals dismissing Populism because (as everyone "knows") farmers are just a bunch of ignorant hayseeds. Where I come from, we just call such folks "cityots"—the kind of people who assume milk comes from convenience stores.
The natural conditions that faced farmers in pioneer Minnesota were extremely difficult. We found this out between 1990-1995, when the Minnesota boyhood home of political economist, Thorstein Veblen, was restored to match photographs taken in 1892. What was discovered was a masterpiece of a home necessary to cope with a harsh environment, and the isolation of few neighbors, that was built by his father Thomas using only hand tools. For example, a well was found under the kitchen which eliminated the need to go outside for water (it usually gets to -30° a few times each winter.) There was a large loom room used to provide the family's need for clothing. Thomas would experiment with cross-breeding until he had produced a strain of Merino sheep that could survive those cold winters. He would also raise flax so that they would have linen work clothes and extra-strong thread to hold everything together. He built his wife a magnificent loom—unfortunately, his hand tools proved insufficiently accurate enough to build a well-balanced spinning wheel so he had to import one from Norway (This is a tiny fraction of an amazing tale of survival at the edge of a wilderness. See more )
Of course, not every Norwegian immigrant would build three farms in USA AND father two Ph.D. college professors and a half-dozen other accomplished college grads. But he wasn't especially rare either. My Kansas grandfather was not only a solid citizen with local community clout, a 35-year deacon in the local Lutheran church, he played a cello in his town string quartet and manged to get a college education for his two sons during the depths of the Great Depression—a Lutheran clergyman and a multi-patented chemical engineer.
The relevance of Veblen to the agrarian radicalism that was manifest in the People's Party formation is that he is an almost pure distillation of how the Nordics viewed their economic dilemmas. Already in 1867, The Grange was founded in Minnesota by an agrarian philosopher named Oliver Kelly. His organization encouraged his Patrons of Husbandry followers to regularly gather to exchange best-practices information. The Grange was more a fraternal organization that had a few radical tendencies so as economic conditions deteriorated for farmers after the reintroduction of the Gold Standard in 1873, more aggressive organizations began to replace the Grange including the Greenback Party—the brainchild of Peter Cooper who had masterminded Lincoln's decision to finance the Civil War with Greenbacks.
Former Congressman and Lt. Governor turned Grange traveling lecturer named Ignatius Donnelly switched his efforts to the Texas-based National Farmer's Alliance—a precursor to the People's Party in the 1880s. In 1892, he would author the preamble to the People's Party Omaha Platform—arguably the most famous and important political document the Populists would ever have. After the loss in 1896 to the massively funded William McKinley, the People's Party would sputter and run out of gas. Even so, Donnelly would be their vice-presidential candidate in 1900. He lost but in 1901 McKinley died at the hand of an assassin only to be replaced by Theodore Roosevelt. Donnelly would also die in 1901 so the last great link in Minnesota to the People's Party was severed. But by then, the political arguments of the Pops were pretty well known and were soon absorbed by several of the follow-on movements.
The most obvious starting point were the Progressive Republicans. Teddy Roosevelt was was already making noises as a "Square Deal" Reformer in 1901 and would become the head of the Bull Moose party in 1912 because his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, was not nearly progressive enough. Roosevelt was beloved in Minnesota. He was famous for actually trying his hand as a working rancher in North Dakota after graduating from Harvard. That the ranch actually worked at some level cemented his tough-guy image for the rest of his life. And yes, when the faces of the four most significant presidents were chosen for Mount Rushmore, the folks from neighboring South Dakota just HAD to include TR.
Minnesota also had a running head start on Progressive Republican thought because Robert La Follette was a towering political figure in next door Wisconsin. He spent his whole career tinkering with the ideas of Progressivism. His last campaign was as the Presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1924. His lifelong pet project was his beloved University of Wisconsin which he insisted have a branch no further than 50 miles from any citizen of the state. The main campus in Madison would be walking distance from the capital building itself.
The Republican Party was created in Ripon WS as an abolitionist organization thanks largely to the efforts of Wisconsin's numerous 48ers—the revolutionaries run out of Germany in the repression following the Revolution of 1848. Wisconsin had just become a state in 1848 so these folks, many with advanced educations and political organizing skills, would become important political actors almost immediately on arrival.
Many settlers in Minnesota had first tried settling in Wisconsin. The Veblen family had tried to create two different farms in Wisconsin before moving to SE Minnesota. When Thorstein Veblen discovered he could not get a job as a philosophy professor even with a Ph.D from Yale, he relocated to Madison to soak up the UW intellectual scene while deciding what to do next. And when La Follette would visit Minnesota, he was welcomed by large and enthusiastic crowds.
Between TR in the White House and La Follette making big noises next door, Minnesotans took a political breather. But the problems of farmers and factory workers didn't go away as the 20th century began. The state had begun to adjust to its latest immigrants and since Minnesota's greatest attraction was its rich black soils, many would try their hand at farming. The largest group were the Germans. In the little town where I grew up and attended school K-10, those Germans had actually come from Russia where they had gone to farm at the invitation of Catherine the Great. They left Russia when Alexander II began to change their arrangement in 1874. Since nearly all the people in my home town were practicing Mennonites, the change they refused to tolerate came when the new Tsar started drafting their young men into his army. They came to Minnesota carrying with them their amazing skills, work habits, and Hard Red Spring Wheat which could be successfully grown in cold weather climates. They organized their work and social lives around their faith and for the most part, shunned politics. And while the Mennonites formed but a small slice of the German-speaking farmers, Germans were amazingly quiet considering they formed the largest ethnic minority in the state.
Minnesota politics would belong to the Scandinavians. When they were not politically organizing, they organized cooperatives. And like in Scandinavia itself, their culture was heavily influenced by their Lutheranism and their extensive experience with cooperatives.
The Norwegians were often apolitical but a subset of their tribe followed a religious leader named Hans Nielsen Hauge. Hauge was the Peitist's Peitist who believed that the Church of Norway was hopelessly corrupt (which they probably were). State churches often get that way. In North America, the Hauges would become influential enough to eventually have their own Lutheran Synod. But far more interesting were his economic ideas. He believed that common folk could advance their and their community's interest through a combination of thrift, hard work, and initiative, and these teachings led to the new rise in Norwegian economics some years after national independence in 1814. In this matter Hauge was but one of several contributors, but he was one of the most influential – especially so in the way he combined economics and Christian morals: modesty, honesty and hard work among them. In 2005, the Norwegians founded a Hauge Institute to study and promote his economic ideas with headquarters in Bergen.
While there were plenty of Hauges in Minnesota, the greatest of the Norwegian-American contributors to Populist thought was, of course, Thorstein Veblen.
The Danes also had a religiously guided social and economic movement inspired by Nikolaj Grundtvig. He eventually became a Lutheran bishop and wrote over 1000 hymns. But he was perhaps best known for founding the folk school movement which taught young Danes not only practical skills such as increasing agricultural efficiency but their cultural history (how did Vikings become Scandinavians?) Danes in Minnesota opened a handful of folk schools but the most famous one in USA was in Tennessee called the Highlander Folk School. It helped educate Rosa Parks.
Alvin Hansen was the son of Danish immigrants who farmed near Viborg South Dakota. After graduating from nearby Yankton College, he would pursue an economics graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying at the feet of the towering progressives Richard Ely and John R. Commons. He got a job at the University of Minnesota in 1919 and became a full professor by 1923. He was wildly popular and soon added several important books to his CV. In 1937, he took his act to Harvard where he taught a small army of New Deal economists. He was often labeled "America's Keynes" though in fact, he was far superior intellectually to the more-famous currency speculator from Cambridge.
The Finns tended to be the hard-core leftists. Finland was in the grip of a cultural uprising in the late 19th century. She had been ruled by outsiders for hundreds of years—first the Swedes and then the Russians. Many of the Finns had grown increasingly resentful of their second-class status and began to demand reforms such as making Finnish the official language of the university system. In 1899, Jean Sibelius wrote his stirring national hymn to independence called Finlandia. Actual independence wouldn't happen until 1917 when The Russian Revolution would cause them to lose their grip on Finland. In the meantime, Finns had to make survival decisions. Would they stay and hope that independence would bring material improvements? Would they copy their big neighbor and install a Marxian government? Or would they just choose to emigrate? Many did but since Finns were not so big on farming and most of the super-prime agricultural land in Minnesota had been claimed, they went to work in the mines of NE Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Mining by its very nature is a brutal occupation. In fact, throughout most of history, mining was done by convict or slave labor. Cecil Rhodes, the guy who organized the massive material plunder of South Africa was reported to have said that the most essential piece of equipment for running a mine was the machine gun.
In 1910, Arvo Kustaa Halberg (Gus Hall) was born into one of those radical Finnish families on the Mesabi Range. The family had 10 children. His father had been black-balled for participating in an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) strike so they teetered on the thin edge of survival. The IWW was very important to Finnish culture—in fact, the weekly IWW paper headquartered in Duluth was also printed in Finnish.
At 15, Hall would leave home to work in a timber camp. Two years later in 1927, he was recruited to the CPUSA by his father. Hall became an organizer for the Young Communist League in the upper Midwest. In 1931, an apprenticeship in the YCL qualified Hall to travel to the Soviet Union to study for two years at the International Lenin School in Moscow. Hall ran for president four times — in 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984 — the last two times with Angela Davis as his VP running mate.
That leaves the Swedes who came to dominate important state offices representing both Republicans and Democrats (as well as the the very Populist Farmer-Labor Party in the 1920s and 30s.) The story is long and interesting with some towering politicians but arguably the most interesting was Charles August Lindbergh, a lawyer from the 6th congressional district and one of the founders of the Farmer-Labor Party. If the Swedes had a ringer, he was it.
In 1808, a boy named Ola Månsson was born in Smedstorp, Sweden, a small town in the southern agricultural province of Skåne. Through his marriage to Ingar Jönsdotter, who brought in a substantial dowry, and his own hard work, Månsson became a well-to-do farmer and in 1847 was elected to the Swedish Riksdag of the Estates, representing the farmers' estate. He also worked as a bank director. When accused of bribery and embezzlement, Månsson changed his name to August Lindbergh. He left his wife Ingar Jönsdotter and their seven children, and fled to the United States with his mistress (a Stockholm waitress, Lovisa Jansdotter Carlén) and their illegitimate infant son Carl in 1859. Lovisa became Louisa and little Carl became Charles August (our budding Minnesota congressman).
Yes, there are Swedish women who could cause a member of the Riksdag to take such a rash step away from a respectable life but since young Charles would grow to be an extraordinarily handsome man, we can assume she was a stunning beauty. But just because Ola Månsson / Lindbergh was no longer a member of the Riksdag representing Swedish agriculture during the political upheavals of the late 19th century did not mean he had forgotten the life lessons of his political career. Charles apparently soaked up everything his father could teach him and when the time came, he attended the University of Michigan Law School—probably the best such institution anywhere close to Minnesota. He established a law practice in Little Falls and would spend considerable time and energy representing farmers in disputes with lenders.
In 1906, Charles A. Lindbergh would be elected to the US House of Representatives as a Progressive Republican. He was extraordinarily diligent and would become best-known for his opposition to the USA entry into WW I and against the establishment of the Federal Reserve system in 1913. He believed (correctly) that the Federal Reserve was unconstitutional. In 1917 Lindbergh brought articles of impeachment against members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, including Paul Warburg and William P. G. Harding, charging that they were involved "... in a conspiracy to violate the Constitution and laws of the United States ..."
Taking on both the war-mongers and the bankers turned out to be (not surprisingly) political suicide. He would never win another election. This was not for lack of effort. In 1918, Lindbergh would become one of the founding members of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. He would die from brain cancer in 1924 while campaigning for Governor as a Farmer-Laborite.
(Oh, and Congressman Lindbergh would father a son in 1902, Charles Jr., who would become at the age of 25, the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris in a custom-built Ryan monoplane, built to his specifications, on a mission planned to the last detail by the young pilot. Like his father, the Lone Eagle was tall and incredibly handsome and soon would become the first global superstar.)
The Farmer-Labor Party was really an odd combination. Farmers were largely self-employed owner-operators and were largely at the mercy of the bankers and monetary policy. The laborers were also at the mercy of these forces but probably didn't know it because they were mostly at the mercy of their factory-owning employers. Labor could strike—farmers could not. My grandfather, who had moved to Lindbergh's congressional district in 1921 to become a farmer after spending his first 22 years in USA as a union steelworker in Chicago, had become an enthusiastic Farmer-Laborite but would insist to his dying day that labor and agriculture had nothing in common. He had a point. The Laborites were an outgrowth of the IWW, were largely Marxists in philosophy and eventually Trotskyites, and were concentrated in urban areas. The farmer's side were an outgrowth of the Jeffersonians, the progressive agricultural organizations, the Populists, and most recently, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) which had in 1916, taken over the government of North Dakota.
Minnesotans liked to claim they were the country's most successful true Populists (Because the F-L Party largely dominating Minnesota politics during the Great Depression, it was one of the most successful statewide third party movements in United States history and the longest-lasting affiliate of the national Farmer–Labor movement. At its height in the 1920s and 1930s, party members included three Minnesota Governors, four United States Senators, eight United States Representatives and a majority in the Minnesota legislature.) And they would be right...except for the spectacular success of the North Dakota Nonpartisan League (NPL).
In August of 1913, Arthur C. Townley was a successful farmer with a huge acreage of flax nearly ready for harvest near Beach North Dakota. Within minutes, a freak weather system (either hail or an early snowstorm) had wiped out the "Flax King of the Northwest". Townley was a man not inclined to go into a corner and sulk and after a trip to Bismarck, North Dakota's capital, he hatched a set of ideas that would make ND arguably the most Progressive state in USA with new institutions that other states are trying to imitate to this day. (See the partially successful efforts to bring state-run public banking to California organized by Ellen Brown—a big fan of North Dakota's State Bank.)
Townley's plan would prove be a masterpiece of agenda-driven politics. It worked like this:
- Townley created a set of demands that addressed the big complaints of ND farmers:
- The NPL, born in 1915, united progressives, reformers, and radicals behind a platform that called for many practical changes, ranging from improved state services and full suffrage for women to state ownership of banks, mills and elevators, and insurance.
- The NPL dispatched agents trained to explain their new agenda across the state. These agents consisted mainly of young farmers who thoroughly understood the problems faced by anyone who tried to make a living growing food in ND. They charged $2.50 to new members of NPL.
- Armed with this list of potent activists, the organizers approached folks running for office who were told that it made no difference the political party they represented, they could only get votes and other political support if they pledged to support the NPL agenda.
Business vs Industry—Veblen's class distinctions between elites
Populist is easily the most misunderstood and misused political term in existence. Anyone with a high-end USA education usually means it as a drive-by slur meant to sum up in one mega-sneer their open contempt for people who are the "hayseeds" of the social order. The myth to be defended is that the predators who run things know what they are doing and any serious deviation from their classical / neoliberal norms will plunge us all into the abyss.
The defenders of the neoliberal economic order have many valid reasons to be worried about Populism. Historically, it is a political movement of the people who actually run the real economy—farmers, builders, tradespeople, etc. They are the essential workers—Hillary's "deplorables." Or as Gene Wilder (Jim) explained Rock Ridge to Cleavon Little (Sheriff Bart) in Blazing Saddles, "You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons."
It turns out that the citizen-builders may be politically naive and so caught up in their honest and rational world that they often become the easy prey for the practitioners of force and fraud who devote their lives perfecting the various lies necessary to keep their schemes afloat. But morons they are not. Not. Even. Close.
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen, a lowly assistant professor at the newly opened University of Chicago, would publish perhaps the most important book on Political Economy ever written. Entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class, (TOLC) Veblen would utterly destroy the smug idea that the people who did the community's necessary work were, you know...morons. In his world, the people who sought to achieve status with open displays of waste represented such a significant fraction of the population, they should be considered culturally dominant. Chapter titles include: Conspicuous Leisure, Conspicuous Waste, and of course Conspicuous Consumption—some of the strategies used by our would-be rulers to prove that their social uselessness is actually a virtue AND a sign of high status. The main reason TOLC has never been out of print since 1899 is that it is still intellectually relevant. The insights are just easier to see because the worst excesses of Leisure Class status seeking and emulation have been amplified by advertising and "industrialized" by sophisticated communication advances such as radio, TV, the Internet, and smartphones.
It took until 1914 for Veblen to publish the bookend to TOLC entitled The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. Unlike his original masterpiece where absolutely deadpan factual descriptions of Leisure Class antics can often provoke genuine laughter, his description of the producing class celebrates some rarely mentioned insights and is as serious as a heart attack. They include:
- Like the Leisure Classes, the Industrial Classes also stratify. As there is a huge social and economic gap between the predations of a pickpocket and a hedge-fund owner, so there is a gap between a strawberry picker and Tesla's senior engineer for battery development—even though both are clearly members of the Industrial Class.
- The advances of the industrial classes are derived from advances in efficiency and accuracy. Both are extreme manifestations of the virtues of honesty and trustworthiness. The more honest the culture, the more sophisticated the technology.
Anyone who has attended a Veblen conference will soon encounter a serious chin-stroking session whose purpose is to address the question, "What were the sources of Veblen's ideas?" If there are academics in the house, the answer is usually some variation on Immanuel Kant (because he was the subject of Veblen's Ph.D. thesis at Yale) or Charles Sanders Peirce (the father of Pragmatism who taught Veblen during his brief stay at Johns Hopkins).
He also encountered William Graham Sumner who was his doctoral adviser at Yale and while the two maintained a respectful relationship and Veblen took to calling himself an evolutionary economist, he was a lifelong critic of Sumner's Social Darwinism and so this link is generally perceived as negative. In fact that was Veblen's pattern—most of the people Veblen encountered in his pursuit of the "higher learning" turned out to be intellectual opposites. John Bates Clark, the man who introduced Veblen to economics at Carleton College, spent significant intellectual energy trying to debunk Institutionalism—the school of thought Veblen helped co-found. Veblen returned the favor by trashing Clark's pet idea—The Theory of Marginal Utility—at every opportunity.
And no, Veblen was never a Marxist. But academic conferences usually cough up a few Marxists who believe the following:
- Veblen and Marx were both strong critics of "capitalism."
- Both used class analysis in their critiques
- Because Marx preceded Veblen in the chronological order, it is appropriate to think of Veblen as Marx Jr.
The problem with this line of "reasoning" is that it mimics the let's-worship-the-gods strategy so beloved by the Leisure Classes. Fundamentalists by their very nature retard growth in all sorts of forms of understanding. Marx's economic theories were based largely on David Ricardo's so are not especially sophisticated. Therefore, people predisposed to quoting Marx tend to get a LOT of economic analysis wrong—often murderously wrong. Comparing Veblen to Marx because both were Political Economists is a little like comparing an ox cart to a cargo jet—both may be means of transporting goods but that is where the similarities end.
Veblen vs Marx
Epistemology—why learning methods were extremely important
Veblen was in many ways, the leading intellectual for the Populist movement. Marxists, at least back in 1968 when I got sucked into those all-night sophomoric debates over grand political theory, would pretend to identify with the working class. Yet mostly they ridiculed the backwardness of the proles and thought of themselves as virtuous missionaries tasked with bringing Marxian theory to their poor dark souls. Not surprisingly, the real working classes absolutely despised these posers. In May 8, 1970, an anti-war demonstration in New York was set upon by construction workers. The ensuing brawl, called the hard-hat riot, lasted two hours. The Marxists pretty much gave up on the working classes after that.
So back to where did Veblen get his ideas? They were an extremely accurate and scholarly manifestations of Minnesota Populism combined with Wisconsin Progressivism. There really IS a difference between getting your worldview while reading in the British Museum Library (like Marx) and forming one while participating in nation-building at the ragged edge of civilization. BIG. Huge. Veblen and Alvin Hansen were prime examples of the "sons of the pioneers" economists.
What makes Veblen especially fascinating is that he understood from life experience that while the producing classes had spent most of history at the bottom end of the social order, the order was changing dramatically. The enemies of the Producing classes could claim that Producers were morons but as they increased their abilities by incorporating the 19th century explosions in science and engineering, that slander became increasing absurd. In Veblen's world view, the Leisure Classes were ridiculous in spite of their educational credentials. (See Veblen's destruction of the pretensions of the University of Chicago in his 1918 masterpiece called The Higher Learning in America. Review.) By contrast, the "morons" had figured out mass-produced steel, radio, electric illumination and thousands of other examples. Turns out there's nothing average about the "average" man. The Producers have created new elites—the scientifically and technologically literates and the world they have created. Interestingly, Frank's central theses is that the anti-populists have barely changed their critiques since 1892. The leisure classes are like that—they rarely improve unless one is willing to argue the George W. Bush was an improvement over Lincoln.
Why is this important?
Perhaps the central criticism of the Populists was their persistent refusal to accept the expertise of their "betters." Of course, how could it be otherwise? The basic thrust of the Pops was that those in power were doing it wrong—and those in power believed things that were making the lives of the Producing classes absolutely miserable. Ergo, the whole point of Pop political organizing was to overthrow ruling / Leisure Class expertise.
Of course, the elites were not "failures"—they were conducting class warfare. This was the heart of Veblen's class analysis. The Producing Classes were responsible for organizing the community's necessary work. The Leisure Classes made their living off the labors of the Producers. The Leisure Classes seized their wealth through the time-honored methods of force and fraud including warfare, slavery, the Gold Standard, and usury. IF the Leisure Classes allowed the Producers to keep more of the community's income, their own income would drop—theoretically to zero. So the destruction of the Populists was necessary for Leisure Class survival.
Frank cannot avoid the subject of elite "failures". In some ways, that is the whole point of The People, NO. He provides a raft of examples but perhaps the most amusing is his example of a 2018 work citing the dangers of populism. As an example of goofy squared, he mentions Yascha Mounk, the Johns Hopkins professor who claimed in his 2018 book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It which tries to explain the causes of the latest populist rise and investigates how to renew liberal democracy. His latest book has been translated into eleven languages, and hailed as one of 2018's Best Books of the Year by multiple publications, including the Financial Times. On Pg. 114, Mounk claims that the first significant populist was a right-wing Austrian politician named Jörg Haider who was most prominent in the 1980s and 90s. Good grief—getting your facts wrong by 100 years is NOT good form.
For me, the ugliest example of elite nonsense during my life was provided by Robert Strange McNamara. the head of the Department of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He was an intellectual prodigy who would earn a Harvard MBA 1939 and then would become a Harvard professor in 1940. During WW II, following his involvement there in a program to teach analytical approaches used in business to officers of the United States Army Air Forces, he entered the USAAF as a captain in early 1943, serving most of World War II with its Office of Statistical Control. In 1946, Tex Thornton, a colonel under whom McNamara had served, put together a group of former officers from the Office of Statistical Control to go into business together. Thornton had seen an article in Life magazine portraying Ford as being in dire need of reform. Henry Ford II, himself a World War II veteran from the Navy, hired the entire group of 10, including McNamara. The "Whiz Kids", as they came to be known, helped the money-losing company reform its chaotic administration through modern planning, organization, and management control systems. The "whiz kids" may have "saved" Ford but the introduction of Leisure Class MBA types into the automobile industry would cause severe long-term problems that would eventually cripple car-making in USA. In Detroit, folks tended to divide MBAs and traditional management into "Bean Counters" and "car guys". As the bean counters gained influence, the cars became cheap and nasty. McNamara's claim to fame as President of Ford was the Falcon. "Cheap and nasty" is a compliment for the vile pile of junk that was Falcon.
When he became the Secretary of Defense, he would bring his bean counting ideas to war fighting. The obsession with body counts in Vietnam came from his core belief that if you cannot count something, it doesn't exist. This belief turned the Vietnam War into a war crime. Of course, McNamara wasn't the only mega-fool in this effort. David Halberstam would critique the experts who authored this disaster in his seminal 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest.
The Producer-Class Merger
The DFL was created on April 15, 1944, with the merger of the Minnesota Democratic Party and the larger Farmer–Labor Party. Leading the merger effort were Elmer Kelm, the head of the Minnesota Democratic Party and the founding chairman of the DFL; Elmer Benson, effectively the head of the Farmer–Labor Party by virtue of his leadership of its dominant left-wing faction; and rising star Hubert H. Humphrey, who chaired the Fusion Committee that accomplished the union and then went on to chair its first state convention.
By the party's second convention in 1946, tensions had re-emerged between members of the two former parties. While the majority of delegates supported left-wing policies, Humphrey managed to install a more conservative ally, Orville Freeman, as party secretary—who became Secretary of agriculture during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Some Farmer–Labor leaders such as Benson moved to the Progressive Party. Hubert Humphrey did many things to destroy the central ideas of the Farmer-Labor Party. He could give amazing speeches on the importance of farmers, but when it came to legislation, he favored the interests of the grain traders. He was a loyal supporter of his patron's ideas as formulated by Dwayne Andreas of Archer-Daniels Midland. The best example of this partnership was the Food for Peace legislation.
The Democratic Party convention of 1948 devolved into an angry mess. Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis gave his landmark civil rights speech which caused the walkout of the Dixicrats led by Strom Thurmond. There went a significant fraction of the "New Deal" coalition. President Truman had a very unenthusiastic following who blamed him for everything from the nuking of Japanese cities, the creation of the national security state with the formation of the CIA, and creation of the Cold War.
My father absolutely loathed Truman who he called a "cheap mobster" because of his ties to the Pendergast Gang in Kansas City. Both parents were absolutely NOT going to vote for Thurmond as they both had a history of civil rights activism. The Farmer-Labor dead enders supported Progressive Party Henry Wallace, the former Agriculture Secretary and Vice President for FDR. So in the election of 1948, my parents voted for Wallace. I was born in July of 1949—something my mother would mention whenever I tried to brag about my radical credentials during my anti-war years in the late 1960s. She would actually giggle about supporting Wallace as a radical AND quite lusty choice.
When the votes were counted in the little town where my father was the young Lutheran clergyman, the published results indicated that Wallace had only gotten two votes and my parents knew who those two were. This example demonstrated (again) that the Lutheran clergy were often (a lot) to the left of their congregations and that party politics would be debated only within our home.
Even so, my father was quite political. In the spirit of the "Cooperative Commonwealth", he had a sermon where he asserted that Jesus was the first Cooperator. In 1957, he strongly backed the integration of Little Rock schools and gave several sermons on that dilemma. And he was always on hand to support farmers who were losing their farms as a result of policies advocated by Republican reactionaries such as Eisenhower's assistant Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz.
The Farmer-Labor Party pretty much died in the election of 1948. We still call the Democratic Party in Minnesota the DFL, but there is almost no one who still remembers what the F-L stands for. Humphrey purged all the Marxists during the McCarthyite era which removed both intellect and muscle from the labor wing. Guys like Lindbergh were long gone. The rural population continued to shrink because almost all jobs are less strenuous than farming. Lot of really smart farm kids in Minnesota became doctors, engineers, and inventors, etc. The people who stayed in farming joined niche organizations such as Farm Bureau (well-to-do Republicans) Farmer's Union (the default farm organization in North Dakota) and my personal favorite, The National Farmer Organization (mostly struggling young farmers).
My NFO experience was a real accident. When I was in Junior High, I became fascinated with building flying model airplanes. The BIG problem with this hobby is that building models is governed by the same aerodynamic laws as real planes. The outcome of this problem is these models are really only successfully built by skilled adults. So I talked six other kids into forming a club and went looking for adult supervision. The guy we found was beyond perfect. He was a licensed pilot with a commercial rating. He owned 1/4 of a Mooney Mk. 20. And he built really spectacular models and flew them well. His day job was signing up members for the NFO.
When he discovered I was interested in his sales pitch, he decided to see if he could get me to understand it. And so I learned the NFO position on banking and monetary policy and soon discovered that these subjects were central to virtually every discussion of agricultural economics I would hear in my youth. I heard them in barber shops and church basements. I heard them in the stands at fast-pitch softball games. A few years back I read that the Bank of England had published a paper on fractional reserve banking that exactly mirrored the official NFO position I heard in 1963.
And then came the recession of 1981-2. The Federal Reserve System led by Paul Volcker decided that the best way to fight inflation was to raise the prime rate to 21.5%. Many sectors of the economy were sent reeling but here in Minnesota, the small and medium-sized family farms were essentially wiped out. Some had been operating successfully for four generations. Even the best-managed farms could not withstand 21.5% interest. Yes indeed, monetary policy was a matter of life and death.
Predatory monetary policy made my grandfather's life extremely awful in the 1920s and 30s. This made him angry and bitter and made my mother's life sad and miserable. When she graduated from the eighth grade with seriously good grades, her father could not afford to send her to high school, a pain she felt for the rest of her life. She was often in rooms where she was the best read, best qualified, and the most poorly educated. Her mother was ground down by overwork and eventually became so homesick, she would cry herself to sleep. In 1936 she died from a botched gall bladder surgery but a better diagnosis was that she died from a broken heart. This misery took place in a poorly heated house in one of the colder parts of Minnesota. (For a much better description of northern rural living conditions, read Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth).
Mother's younger brother was so desperate for a little spending money that he joined the National Guard because it paid $1 a month. When the Japanese attacked in 1941, he was one of the first sent to the Pacific where he spent the whole war. He managed to escape injury but returned with a nasty drinking habit. During his occasional dry periods, he taught himself computer programming and calculus but would eventually die in a corner of the Salvation Army in Chicago.
The Little Blue Books
Frank's descriptions of the anti-Populists are often tragic and depressing. But anyone who doesn't know the history of the real Populists should consider his work required reading. Even though The People No can easily be read in three hours, I would NOT recommend it because there are hundreds of deliciously well-crafted sentences that should be savored and will likely be missed in a hasty reading. I would quibble about some small things like the casual treatment of Minnesota and North Dakota in his telling of Populism's effect on Progressive politics in USA. I think his descriptions of the anti-Pops is pretty bloodless considering the immense suffering and damage they caused the honest and inventive nation builders whose hard work they plundered and destroyed.
When my mother informed me that my grandfather, who only had a fourth-grade education but was still fluent in three languages, had learned the skills necessary to be good at specialty metalwork and operate an independent farm, was also an enthusiastic reader of the Little Blue Books, I was determined to read some of them. I met a guy who had collected them whenever he found them at garage and yard sales. He had around 2000. Some were duplicates. Some were damaged. Some looked like they had never been opened. I had no idea which of them my grandfather had read so just started reading those I thought would have interested him. After reading about 400, I decided it was statistically likely I had read some of the same books my grandfather had. What an experience! These were sophisticated books covering difficult subjects and my grandfather was reading them in his second language. Wow, just wow!
So I just assumed that Frank would cover this literary output of the publishing house in Girard Kansas. He did, but he makes us read to almost the last pages of his book. Thankfully, his descriptions of the Little Blue Books were lovingly accurate.
Thank you Thomas Frank!