“Any internal revolt or revolution is always a middle class affair.”----from “The Quotations of Chairman Joe”
Ah but, you protest, what about the American Revolution? To which I reply that the American Revolution is a misnomer: it was not a revolution but a contest to accomplish two things: (1) establish home rule, and (2) decide who would rule at home. It was the landed gentry that, in any case, held the reins of government with little or no change at all in the relative relations of the constituent elements of society: the yeoman farmer, the merchant, the banker, the slave. Establishing home rule, while constituting a revolt, does not a ‘revolution’ make, not in the context of the modern understanding of the term. In any case I would plead that the American Revolution is exceptional in that it represented a revolt against a colonial power not an internal uprising.
Since then the landed aristocracy, ruling the several states before and after independence, has been fighting a long rear-guard action against the rest of the population, as the country has witnessed several populist revolts against the established order. But as, for instance, during the French and Russian and Cuban revolutions, although it may have been the great unwashed who would storm the Bastille or the Palace it was the lawyer and merchants who would coopt the revolutions and bend them to their will. The truth is that no matter how much Karl Marx would disparage the bourgeoisie, so commanding are the middle classes that it would be the middle class professionals and intellectual elites who would take possession of the revolutions and give them meaning and form. And so just as the French Revolution produced a Robespierre and a Napoleon (a lawyer and a army officer by trade) and the Russian Revolution gave the world middle class intellectuals like Lenin and Trotsky, and the Cuban Revolution gave us Castro and Guevara (a lawyer and doctor), so too have the less extreme revolts in the United States been led by stalwart representatives of the middle class.
The famous “Jacksonian Democracy” of the 1830’s was led by a professional (albeit rich) army officer, but the thrust was to put government in the hands of the ‘ordinary’ citizen—the middle class political partisans who would reap the ‘spoils’ after winning an election. The great reforms of the Civil war was accomplished by a renowned railroad and corporate attorney, the ‘Progressive’ movement found its manifestation in the revolt of the ‘displaced elites’—those men of property and standing that had been temporarily pushed aside by the new wealth of the ‘Gilded Age’, men like Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Adams. Similarly the New Deal saw the emergence of men like Franklin Roosevelt who marshalled the energies of stalwart spokesmen of the middle class, men like Rexford Tugwell, Sherwood Anderson, Harold Ickes, Louis Brandies, Paul Douglas, Harry Hopkins and many others who would mold and shape the new economic order. Many, if not most, of this country’s greatest political and economic accomplishments have been the work of middle class movements, from organizing labor to civil rights; from expanding the vote to ensuring full employment; from protecting the environment, to educating our young, all have been the result of political movements organized by, and largely favoring the interests, of the middle class. In the textbooks of American history we tend to see the history of populism as a salutary one; as one that has fueled the drive toward ‘progressive’ reforms. The ‘will of the people’ accomplishing, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.
But there is a darker side to ‘Populism”. In Europe, the “Revolt of the Masses” (to use a phrase by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset) would, in the 20th century, give the world a populist British Labor government in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, but it would just as likely present the world with a fascist regime in Italy and Germany or a Communist one in the emerging Soviet Union. Whether the revolt succeeds or not depends on the severity of the distress as well as the alienation of the people. What form the revolt takes depends upon who leads it. The point here is that a ‘beneficial’ populism cannot be seen as a foregone conclusion.
In the United States we have, to be sure, not seen these kinds of extremes. Compromise and moderation have, until recently, been salutary American virtues. Nevertheless we have had, in our collective history, witnessed some of the darker sides of populism. Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion in the early years of our experiment with self-governance were led by middle class farmers. The ‘Anti-Abolition’ Riots of the 1830’s in which New York City merchants financed and organized ‘popular’ protests against abolitionists. The ‘Know-Nothing’ party of the 19th century, arising as it did as a nativist, anti-Catholic, Anti-Semitic, reaction to immigration and economic dislocation is a case in point. The Rise of the Klan in the 1920’s also presents us with an example of ‘populism’ run amok. Few of these succeeded having been overcome by more civilized manifestations of popular discontent.
This is precisely the challenge we face today.
The discontent manifest in America today spans the political spectrum, from the progressive inclusiveness of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to the ugly regressive politics of the ‘teabaggers’ and the political nativists. As in the 1930’s when the social compact, under siege by the stresses of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, America was given a choice between a Franklin Roosevelt or a Huey Long so now, under similar stresses, the rise of ‘populism’ is presenting us a choice between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
According to a new poll released by Public Policy Polling (PPP) Trump now has a nearly 2 to 1 lead over his nearest rival, an obscure Detroit Physician named Ben Carson (29-15%) with dynastic favorite JEB Bush registering a paltry 8% in the national sample. I know, polling this far out is relatively meaningless but these numbers are important for two reasons.
First, Trump has trumped the GOP. He has, through his bombastic rhetoric and behavior, sucked the air out of the room, commanding headlines, getting on the television talk and news shows and, with his confrontational politics, energized the ‘tea bagging’ Republican base. So successful has his short tenure in the campaign been that he has taken support from the likes of Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Chris Christie and others who, just a few short weeks ago, were seen as serious contenders for the Republican nomination. This is important inasmuch as it will greatly influence the ability of these candidates to raise much needed money, measured in the tens of millions of dollars necessary to field a national campaign by early next spring. So commanding has Trump’s position become that any candidate wishing to openly challenge him in debate risks now alienating the party’s political base. In other words it is becoming increasingly politically self-defeating to openly confront “The Donald”; the party may very well ‘shoot the messenger’. The question increasingly confronting the rest of the field is which and how many are willing to fall on their swords in order to ‘save’ the party.
Secondly, the poll reveals that not only is support for Trump growing but the levels of xenophobia, paranoia, and schizophrenia have, at the base of the Republican Party reached truly alarming levels. Here is a short profile of the right-wing alternative universe, the current ‘dark side’ of populism.
“Our new poll finds that Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was. And 63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.
Trump's beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate. 51% overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. 54% think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That's less than the 40% who think Canadian born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.
Trump's supporters aren't alone in those attitudes though. Only among supporters of John Kasich (58/13), Jeb Bush (56/18), Chris Christie (59/33), and Marco Rubio (42/30) are there more people who think President Obama was born in the United States than that he wasn't. And when you look at whose supporters are more inclined to think that the President is a Christian than a Muslim the list shrinks to just Christie (55/29), Kasich (41/22), and Bush (29/22). Bush's inability to appeal to the kind of people who hold these beliefs is what's keeping him from succeeding in the race- his overall favorability is 39/42, and with voters identifying themselves as 'very conservative' it's all the way down at 33/48.” (1)
And therein lies the conundrum. By creating this ‘alternate universe’ and appealing to the least educated, lowest information voters, the modern Republican Party had become hostage to an emerging political base representing the worst instincts of ‘populist’ politics in America.
The question is can these forces once again be overcome by more civilized manifestations of popular discontent? Only a successful Bernie Sanders will answer in the affirmative, otherwise it will be a long, dark, night.