Just Plain Folks

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Always there is the enemy. The mood has varied greatly in intensity, but to the populist-minded, at any given time “the people” are being deprived of their deserved power and respect. The control is being usurped, the recognition reduced to snickers by “money men,” “big shots,” “blue bloods,” “pointy-headed intellectuals”; and these traducers must be recognized for what they are and combatted if America is to remain a genuine democracy. And the enemy is widely deployed: the rich or wellborn or well-placed in the local community, and the powerful far away in Washington or in other metropolises.

The development of the United States early took a shape in which a good deal of the political, economic, and cultural clout was concentrated in cities, particularly the urban centers of the northeastern states, “the East,” as the Populists had called them. In the South and West populism has been not only an individual but a regional feeling against “the East.” The abrasion has not been confined to the poor or barely comfortable, but has characterized many of the “best people” of communities, who have not liked the attitudes and customs being projected on them by still more “uppity” people someplace else. The feeling has been sharpened by the fact that so often the forces of evil have not seemed readily graspable; they were, to use the traditional phrases, “invisible” and brought a sense of being “put upon” and “squeezed” by the myriad tentacles of an “octopus.” As the whole country has become urbanized, other sections have developed “Easts” of influence—Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta. Yet the old belligerence against the traditional “East,” if softened, has certainly not disappeared.

“The people,” moreover, must act like the people, showing their down-to-earth quality and their disdain for the ways of those who claim sophistication. All Americans, swept along by the standardization of taste, have more and more dressed, furnished their homes, eaten, even played alike. But the history of populism has been a story of a dogged nose-thumbing at “fancy dans,” “ultras,” and the “new-fangled” in general. The history goes on in the millions of post-World War 11 Americans who have taken an acrid pleasure in not raising or lowering their skirts at the decree of New York, spurned button-down shirts because Ivy Leaguers wore them, denounced public expenditure for the “wayout” ideas of symphony orchestras or sex education in the schools, or pronounced anathema on professors, commentators, and anyone else who told them that the ways of American living were changing and changing for the better.

In the United States of 1972 none of the leaders and few of the masses represent all the major attitudes of populism. But in recent decades many up and down the line have shown broad streaks of certain of its thoughts and emotions, often in powerful combination.∗

∗As 1972 goes on, “populism” is being used so much and in so many different ways that an attempt to generalize about all the meanings and connotations given to it would produce bedlam—for example, the Philadelphia Bulletin applying the word to the law-and-order mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, and Mayor John Lindsay of New York applying it to himself and associating it with his feeling for the “street people.” The rest of this article confines itself to discussing the “populism” of recent decades only insofar as the ideas and attitudes fit into the broader, long-running national tradition.

Not surprisingly, the South, with its large poor, uneducated population and its historic antagonism to “Eastern” economic and cultural power, has kept producing a politics that most resembles traditional populism. Sometimes the drive has been racist, sometimes not. Without particularly using Negro-baiting, in the 1930’s Senator Huey Long of Louisiana seized absolute control of his state and extended his appeal through the South and lower Midwest by combining actual help to lower-income people of Louisiana—free school textbooks, improved roads, tax breaks, a largesse of statejobs—with a mockery of the “nabobs” in New Orleans and in Washington. His “Share-the-Wealth” program was the free silver of its day. His mottled face, his Just-us-nobodies speeches, and his clodhopper theatrics (he was quite capable of sweeping his place setting at a luncheon to the floor and yelling, “Give me a knife and fork—I don’t know how to handle all this!”) were the ordinary people being very ordinary indeed.