cover image The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism

The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism

Thomas Frank. Metropolitan, $26.99 (310p) ISBN 978-1-250-22011-0

Political commentator Frank (Rendezvous with Oblivion) urges liberals to reclaim “the high ground of populism” in this fervent and acerbically witty call to action. Mischaracterized today as bigoted demogoguery, the term populism, Frank notes, originated with the rise of the egalitarian and racially inclusive People’s Party in the 19th-century Midwest. Reeling from an economic crisis, Democrats nominated populist Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896 instead of their own incumbent, Grover Cleveland. Though Bryan’s loss to William McKinley set the high-water mark of the People’s Party, it influenced such policy reforms as the direct election of U.S. senators and women’s suffrage. New Deal programs harkened back to the Populist Era, according to Frank, but also elevated a new kind of antipopulist elite to the top of the U.S. government: the technocrat. Frank claims the populist badge for civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who proposed a massive housing and employment program for African-Americans, and documents pushback, from both the right and the left, to populist advances, including LBJ’s Great Society reforms, Democrat Fred Harris’s “spectacular low-budget campaign” in the 1976 presidential election, and the recent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Frank blends diligent research with well-placed snark to keep readers turning the pages. Liberals will be outraged, enlightened, and entertained. (July)

Correction: An earlier version of this reviews misspelled William Jennings Bryan's last name.