POPULISTS AND PROGRESSIVES: My new Reasoncolumn is about the purported rise of populism in the presidential race. A quick footnote: I'm not the only one complaining about the abuse of the term "populist." The Nation just editorialized that "In Washington parlance, the historic meaning of populism has been corrupted and trivialized as a sentimental oddity. The word is now invoked by the press and campaign operatives to say, Hey, the politicians are talking like they might actually do something for the folks."
Unfortunately, the Nation piece does a little corruption and trivialization of its own, leaping from the original People's Party of the 19th century to the social democratic programs the magazine holds dear: "Populists created an intellectual seedbed that influenced the next fifty years of progressive reform, climaxing in the New Deal." Curiously, the same editorial tells us to "read Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment to learn the full, amazing saga of this bottom-up rebellion." I've already read The Populist Moment, so I know that Goodwyn not only distinguishes populism from the progressive movements that followed it but paints the latter as a betrayal of the populist vision. The New Deal, he writes, "served as an artificial prop for the prevailing financial system"; Progressive Era and New Deal policies "had the twin effects of sanctioning peonage and penalizing family farmers." His discussion of the progressives comes in a section titled "The Triumph of the Corporate State."
I have my own disagreements with Goodwyn, who I use somewhat more gingerly in my own piece. But the differences between his outlook and The Nation's should be obvious. I get the impression that the Nation article is less about restoring a murdered word's meaning than claiming the corpse for itself.