But there’s a problem with this narrative: Watson would later go on to help refound the Ku Klux Klan, though you won’t learn about that here. Frank mentions “the South Carolina demagogue Ben Tillman” without noting that only a few years earlier, Pitchfork Ben had stood high in the populist pantheon. He writes glowingly of William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat whom the Populist Party endorsed for president in 1896, but does not remind the reader that Bryan ended his career ranting about the evils of modern science in the Scopes monkey trial. Demagogy may not have been the populists’ “true” nature; their heroism, and tragedy, were real. But how, given this history, can one wholly dismiss the kinship between the populists and the followers of Orban and Trump? Is it really a sign of elitism and hostility to democracy to regard invocations of “the people,” whether by right-wing nationalists or left-wing activists, as dangerous invitations to exclude the not-people?
Frank’s purpose here is explicitly polemical: He wants to realign history in order to force us to reimagine the present. The great cleavage of the past century, he insists, is not between “progress” and “reaction,” or “liberal” and “conservative,” but between “ordinary people” and the elite of both parties. Thus Franklin Roosevelt was a populist while “progressive” Teddy Roosevelt was an agent of reaction — even though Franklin traced his own ideological descent to Teddy as well as to Jefferson.
In Frank’s view, Bernie’s with the people, and the Democratic establishment — the Biden faction — is in the pocket of the fat cats. The bottom line is class. But this poses another problem for Frank, because even before our Black Lives Matter moment much of the activist left cared less about class than about issues of identity. Frank treats identity politics as yet another species of elitism. Who, then, are “the people”? Are they the older working-class African-Americans who put Biden over the top in the Democratic primaries? Apparently not. But it was the white working class that provided Donald Trump with his margin of victory in 2016. How could that be? These Trump voters were, Frank explains — as he did in his earlier book on Kansas — beguiled by the “phony populism of the right.” By bad populism, not good populism.
Yet many of the Democratic leaders and policy experts whom Frank accuses of antipopulism now agree that liberal centrism has reached a dead end. The combination of the calls for racial justice that have filled our streets and the need for enormous government intervention in the face of the coronavirus pandemic will only hasten that leftward movement. Exhibit A would be Gene Sperling, a former senior economic official in the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In “Economic Dignity,” this consummate insider lays out an agenda closer to Sanders than to Biden. Sperling writes of “forces of domination and humiliation” that define the lives of many low-wage earners. Unorganized workers, he argues, need labor rights and the full panoply of social protections; unionized workers need a voice in corporate affairs, as they enjoy in places like Sweden. Though Sperling prefers direct payments to people suffering dislocation to a wholly universal basic income, in most respects he has gone full Nordic.
Sperling does not thoroughly explain, or even acknowledge, his own conversion; he appears to be one of the many centrists who were shaken out of their neoliberal faith in the marketplace by the 2016 election. In seeking some orienting principle beyond economic growth and incremental redistribution, Sperling has landed on the idea, unavoidably amorphous, of “dignity.” Liberals tend to look on talk of “values” as a cynical distraction from matters of economic justice; that is, in fact, the central theme of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Yet Sperling makes a forceful case that only by speaking to matters of the spirit can liberals root their belief in economic justice in people’s deepest aspirations — in their sense of purpose and self-worth.