Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Garden of History: The Meaning of Populism



          The correct term for the politics of the candidate the Republican Party has just nominated for president and for those who support him is not "Populist" as the press and media insist on calling it, but "nativist." Nativism is the belief that people born in a certain place -- that is, one's own country -- are somehow better than people born anywhere else. No evidence is offered. It's an article of faith. A belief that many hold onto tightly despite the evidence that lots of people born somewhere else and now living in the US (often after great risk to their own safety) are working harder and contributing more to society than they are.
             Have we stopped teaching the essence of our history in our schools? We are a nation of immigrants.
            Today we have a self-proclaimed billionaire (who refuses to release his tax filings) running as a representative of what the media routinely calls "Populism,"  but is really nativism, gingoism, xenophobia, and pure and simple racism.
             Here's the Wikipedia definition of Populism: "Populism is a political position which holds that the virtuous citizens are being mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. The elites are depicted as trampling in illegitimate fashion upon the rights, values, and voice of the legitimate people."
            For the words "virtuous citizens" in the definition above I would substitute "common people." The common man was a term of approval used especially during the first half of the 20th century for those harmed by what Teddy Roosevelt called the "malefactors of great wealth." The common man's enemy was the accumulation of great wealth and the consequent concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few, to the detriment of the many. As for "elites," certainly in the American context we are not talking about pointy-headed intellectuals, ivory tower academics, entertainment celebrities or overpaid professional athletes. American Populists were talking about monopolies, big banks, Wall Street, and the politicians who served their interests -- rather than those of farmers and laborers.
             As for the "common man," consider the title of Aaron Copland's long-popular "Fanfare for the Common Man." A fanfare is the music used to signal the arrival of a monarch, or someone of great importance. Copland's title for his consciously American composition emphasizes that this is a country without monarchs, one that recognizes and celebrates the importance of the 'common man.' American presidents from the time of Jackson and Abraham Lincoln were born in log cabins. In this country it's a matter of both law and principle that the farmer and the factory worker (and the counter woman at Dunkin Donuts) remains the equal of the aristocrat or the trust-fund baby or the plutocrat.
            American political Populism was a largely a late 19th century agrarian movement begun by farmers, especially those living in the traditional Western farming states, who used the ballot box to seek a fairer deal from the institutions holding power over their livelihood through the concentrations of money and credit in the banks and investment houses of the big cities, mostly in the Northeast and a few cities elsewhere. Farmers and small business oweners wanted "more money" in circulation, loose money policies rather than tight, looser credit rules, and lower interest rates on their loans. Since they couldn't run their farms (or stores) without credit, they believed they were being exploited by the tight-money, high-interest policies of the big banks that controlled the money supply. Their natural allies were the factory workers who were underpaid and exploited by the wealthy companies that
employed them.
            In this country at least, Populism was historically a left-wing, Progressive movement rather than a right-wing or conservative movement.
            The Wikipedia states: "In the United States populist movements have high prestige in the history books, for example, farmers' movements, New Deal reform movements, and the civil rights movement that were often called populist, by supporters and outsiders alike."
            In the European historical context, according to a historian cited by the Wik, the term Populist has been more often used to label nativist movements, some of which in the previous century turned to fascism. The trend to call nativist groups Populist
is appears to me to be a recent usage relied on to characterize the right-wing anti-immigrant parties that have won some support at the polls in France and Britain and other countries without calling them by a term that has 'anti-' or some other negative in it.
            That's a very weak basis for forgetting or ignoring what Populism has long meant in American politics -- the revolt of the exploited against the rich and the powerful.
            To be fair, American Populist movements were often sidetracked by social questions that saw them taking a backwards-looking or reactionary position. The "populist" Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan defended a literal understanding of the Bible against the evidence of science. Unfortunate, but it's hard to see why religious-based blindness should permanently tar a movement seeking to enable farmers and factory workers to make a decent living.
            Progressives had their blind spots as well. Woodrow Wilson's first term as president saw the passage of long-sought legislation to protect child labor and restrict monopolies, but also federal legislation to enshrine racially segregated practices. The scholarly, idealist Progressive Wilson was also, unfortunately, a nasty racist.
            The factor that seals the deal on what to term the policies (or, more accurately, prejudices) of the newly nominated Republican candidate is his pejorative comments on minorities and immigrants. The better terms for these irrational statements and self-indulgent rants are (I will say it again) nativism, gingoism, xenophobia, and pure and simple racism.
            The single most ignorant of these indulgences is the tendency to scapegoat immigrants. Everything being said by those who seek to build a wall, discriminate against certain religions, or close the doors on people from certain countries is exactly backwards: Shutting the door on immigrants is shutting the door on ourselves.
            Let me refer to a few sentences in a final paragraph of a remarkale piece of journalism that appeared in The New Yorker, recounting the life of the "founder" of an Afghan Muslim community in rural Wyoming (or all places) that now numbers a couple of thousand. The piece is titled "Citizen Khan: Behind a Muslim commnity in northern Wyoming lies one enterprising man -- and countless tamales." The article also told me something that I never knew: that America's exclusionary immigration laws (such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act) left courts to decide who was "white" and therefore eligible for entry into the US and ultimately citizenship and who was not. The "Citizen Kahn" of the story (Zarif Khan) was denied citizenship by a court that ruled that he was from Asia and therefor not white; and decades later granted citizenship by another when the rules had changed. 
            Is this the America that the contemporary nativist movement wants to go back to? 
             Here's the link to the article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/zarif-khans-tamales-and-the-muslims-of-sheridan-wyoming
            The sentences I wish to quote are these:

"Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those “many” can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall. Back when the streets of Sheridan [Wyo.] were still dirt and Zarif Khan was still young, the Muslim who made his living selling Mexican food in the Wild West would put up a tamale for stakes and race local cowboys barefoot down Main Street. History does not record who won."