Thursday, November 4, 2010

Populism, the Tea Party, and Historiography

Part of the challenge of avoiding presentism in thinking and writing about history is the difficulty of abandoning attractive analogies before they become convincing to you, before it seems as if, yes, there might be something to calling Jon Stewart a sort of neo- or postmodern (post-post-modern?) Mugwump, for example.1 Blogs probably do not help this process—toying with an idea and pursuing it far enough to think "this might make for an interesting post" exist on a very slippery slope.

That said, for one of my classes this term I have read a few books about Populism, including the one at the left, The Populist Vision, by Charles Postel, and it was difficult not to wonder whether the gradual rehabilitation of the Populists' image might not predict what will one day be an attempt to recover the economic rationality underlying the wild actions and rhetoric of the Tea Party. That is to say, I'm not trying to suggest a parallel between the Populists and the Tea Party as groups with similar agendas or even similar demographic compositions, but rather a possible parallel between what has been the evolution of our understanding and characterization of Populism and what may be the future trends of our understanding and characterization of the Tea Party.

There are, I think, limited options for how to place and characterize (and I am using both verbs quite literally—how we think about where these people come from and how their actions reflect certain interior tendencies, values, and dispositions) movements of this sort. These limited terms fasten onto one or the other side of a basic question: whether, to use Raymond Williams's terms, the movement is alternative or oppositional—whether it is a sort of abrupt but transient effluence of resentment and conspiracy-mongering, or whether it is in fact a proper (and viable) challenge to the dominant system of (primarily) economic relations.

The historiographic trend for Populism, at least since Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform (1955), has been, I think, increasingly to emphasize the oppositional nature of Populism and either to sideline the aspects that look merely alternative or to transform them into more properly oppositional components. Postel's book is in fact the culmination of this trend (I'll elaborate on this in a moment), even though it reverses many of the arguments that have been made on Populism's behalf to re-assess it as truly oppositional; where multiple historians have sought to valorize the aspects of Populism which are the most anti-modern, Postel not only foregrounds (and in some cases, genuinely excavates) Populism's embrace of science and more "modern" forms of religious thought, but also re-codes as modern and progressive many of the structures and ideologies (e.g., farmers' cooperatives and protection of public lands from speculators {cf. p. 38 and 28, respectively, for brilliant analyses of these two issues}) which his predecessors have hailed as resolutely antagonistic to the mainstream notions and programs of progress and modernization.

So my question is whether the historiographic trend for thinking about the Tea Party will also follow this basic shift from seeing the Tea Partiers as alternative (and essentially assimilable if still quite nettlesome) to seeing them as fully oppositional (and therefore representing a full-bodied challenge to the current system of relations between, to adopt their cast of characters, Big Government, Wall Street, and "real Americans"). I certainly do not expect this trend to begin, much less come to fruition, immediately or even in the near future, and therefore I am not terribly attached to this line of questioning; it is, frankly, pretty idle and purely speculative, and probably ill-advised. Furthermore, I definitely do not mean to suggest by this hypothetical that I think that the Tea Party actually is an oppositional movement or culture, and that future historians will see it more clearly than we do now. I am, in fact, agnostic on this point, and somewhat indifferent. There are, of course, a variety of ways to be "oppositional;" Williams's term wasn't meant as a direct or eo ipso valorization, but rather as a tool for evaluating relative positions.

Back to Postel, though, because I think a brief analysis of his argument and what I think is missing from his characterization of the Populists exposes what I consider to be a larger problem in Populist historiography stemming from Hofstadter's infamous (and invidious) division of the Populist psyche into a "soft side," characterized as "the injured little yeoman" who is conspiracy-mad and virulently resentful; and a "hard side," characterized as "a harassed little country businessman" who took rational measures to improve his threatened economic position. The nature of these terms has generally meant that the analysis of Populism has been to push both "sides" toward a sort of uneven or flawed synthesis, where the rationality of some of the "soft side" behaviors and actions is revealed, and the "hard side" gains a bit of "vision," borrowing some of the vim and vigor of the more apocalyptic imagination of the "soft side." The "soft side" is still mostly deprecated, but now can be recuperated to some extent.

I would argue that Postel's book is the culmination of this trend because, by reversing field and arguing that instead of the usual emphasis on what the Populists opposed or protested, we should rather look at what they planned and valued, he in fact completes this synthesis, allowing the hard and soft sides of Populism to fuse while yet allowing the stress to fall ultimately on the hard side. Populists, essentially, were "country businessmen," as Hofstadter said, but they weren't so little and they weren't so harassed. They were active and innovative, full of initiative and "vision," eager to pursue big ideas but disciplined enough to do so through a "narrow materialist lens" (Postel 10). So it is because they were not latter-day Luddites or Diggers but were, as Robert McMath, Jr. puts it in his review of Postel, "tr[ying] to beat the captains of industry at their own game"—i.e., at consolidation, innovation, use of new transportation and communications technologies, etc.—that they were better positioned as a legitimately oppositional force. (Or at least, that was their plan—as McMath later notes, "it is sometimes hard to distinguish facts from aspirations.") "Progress," in this case, is more effectively opposed by progressing in a different direction rather than by a digging in of the heels.

Postel presents his case with extraordinary cogency, yet I feel that there is something missing from Postel's narrative, and that is, for lack of a more artful term, the all-or-nothingness that I have encountered among Populists and their precursors, the sense that the only available option is to "go all in"—most clearly exemplified by the preference of many for a single panacea for change (single taxers, greenbackers, free silver, et al.). In literature (not the best proof, but the one that I am most familiar with), it is the spirit which causes the grain farmers in The Octopus to arm themselves and resist the railroad company at all costs, including (or especially) death. It is the type of imagination that can lead to (and eagerly consume) the utopic vision of Looking Backward as well as the apocalyptic vision of Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column. It is the people who at least felt something satisfying could be found in the injunction to "raise less corn and more hell."

In Hofstadter's terms, this is clearly "soft" (maybe soft-headed) behavior, which I don't think is entirely the case (from certain positions, "all-or-nothing" does look like the most rational course), but in Postel's terms, this type of behavior can barely be acknowledged. But that is, I feel, because he is still caught in Hofstadter's terms, still looking to justify "soft" things as secretly "hard" or as providing the necessary ideological energy for driving the "hard" side. Surely, though, the point of the "all-or-nothing-ness" in Populism is that it wasn't experienced as a decision between "soft" or "hard," but that it was experienced as a necessity, and that, I think, is what is missing from Postel's account—the hard edge of felt necessities. Planners and visionaries often depend on people who find they have no course of action left but throwing their lot in completely with someone else's plan or vision, and that dynamic needs to be acknowledged to move truly beyond Hofstadter's limiting categories.

1 Not in the sense that he'd bolt the Democratic party, but in the sense that he's advocating a rejection of the crassness of the current political climate, and that, arguably, he has reduced structural problems to problems of personality or (implicitly) character—that contemporary politics encourages only the worst characters to engage in political action (and media commentary on that action).

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