Defending Populism? – Econlib

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Defending Populism? – Econlib

The Spring issue of Regulation contains my review of an interesting book by historian Donald Critchlow, In Defense of Populism. In his view, the different waves of left-wing and right-wing  populism in America were useful social movements. A few short excerpts from my review:

[Critchlow] argues that these “social movements” are necessary for “democratic renewal” by translating popular discontent into government actions. Populism is necessary for democracy but, he notes, democratic change has paradoxically generated “an enlarged bureaucratic government that is further removed from the people.” …

Critchlow’s story starts with the populism of the last two decades of the 19th century, culminating in the founding of the People’s Party (also called the Populist Party). At the federal
level, populist ideas included an income tax, antitrust legislation, more regulation of banks, expansion of the money supply, protection of workers and consumers, and federal aid to farmers. State-level populism often called for even more government intervention. …

Dominated by religion and anticommunism, the first phase [of the conservative populist reaction after World War II] was often proto-Trumpian in its simplistic understanding of the world. Critchlow gives many examples. Carl McIntire, a Presbyterian minister and popular religious radio broadcaster, believed that Catholicism was more dangerous than communism. Originally a supporter of Barry Goldwater, who was more a libertarian than a conservative, McIntire later became, more logically, a follower of segregationist George Wallace. Billy Hargis, another radio preacher, thought that “it is ignorant people who are going to save this country.” His associate, David Noebel, believed that the Beatles were part of a Soviet conspiracy to brainwash American youth with hypnotic techniques. Robert Welsh, founder of the John Birch Society, thought that Eisenhower was a Soviet agent and Sputnik was a hoax. Later, the Birchers shifted to attacking the New World Order as a Masonic conspiracy.

All that without the help of today’s social networks—not a mean feat!

Critchlow includes Ronald Reagan in this [post-war, religious and anti-communist] phase of the right-wing populist movement, which is debatable, as is his claim that Trump amplified Reagan’s message. Although Reagan turned out to be more conservative than libertarian, he was not
(let the truth be told) an ignorant buffoon.

I comment:

Each succeeding populism thus adds its own bricks to the construction of the totalitarian state.

But there is more in Critchlow’s book. Part of my conclusion:

These failings should not distract us from In Defense of Populism as a good book of American history. It is scholarly and as objective as such books can be.

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