Thomas Frank’s brilliant article [“The Pessimistic Style in American Politics,” Essay, May] sheds light on the curious use of the word “populist” to describe authoritarians, and the significance of populism in American history. It is sad that nobody today wants to be labeled a populist—here in the land of government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Frank successfully rescues the P-word from a long history of revisionism by the Establishment but misses the mark on what today’s populists should learn from the People’s Party. Nineteenth-century Populists were not so much engaged in “breaking the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats” as they were breaking intraparty alliances and building new coalitions within those structures. From William Jennings Bryan’s winning the Democratic presidential nomination to the alliance of North Carolina Populists with local Republicans, the advance of nineteenth-century Populism was bolstered by coalition-building within both major parties. Similarly, some of its greatest failures can be attributed to missed opportunities such as the People’s Party’s inability to partner with the urban working class.
Bernie Sanders has twice failed to enlarge his coalition enough to win the Democratic nomination, and in 2016 more than two hundred thousand people who supported Sanders ultimately voted for Trump in the three states that swung the election. The national duopoly will not break, but intraparty alliances do. Potential coalition members await on both the left and right. Today’s populists would best serve the people by seeking them out.
As a scholar of nineteenth-century American culture, I found Frank’s recent essay on populism both historically inaccurate and politically disingenuous. Leaving aside the question of whether contemporary social movements should be judged by their nineteenth-century roots—one can certainly recognize in the original People’s Party a legitimate challenge to political corruption without endorsing every descendant of the movement—Frank’s claim that populism is simply an attempt by “ordinary people” to correct the injustices wrought by “the American leadership class” is a remarkably reductive view of democratic politics.
Since the late eighteenth century, American political theorists have known that “the people” is a shadowy and amorphous idea, not an actual political entity. Despite Frank’s claim that Trump did not win a majority of voters in the last election (true), millions of people did vote for him. Do these people not count as “the people”? It seems worth noting that working-class people, even those who have suffered a great deal from unregulated capitalism, hold a wide array of political views, some of which Frank would surely find distasteful. Do these opinions disqualify them from membership in “the people”? Do these unapproved opinions transform them somehow into members of “the Establishment”? Democracy is not a zero-sum game, but an attempt to manage multiple, competing interests. Democracy, like hell, is other people.
Salt Lake City
Frank gives us a choice. We can embrace either his own glowing but contentious account of Populism or that of the “consensus-minded historian” Richard Hofstadter in The Age of Reform and, implicitly, that of C. Vann Woodward in his biography of the agrarian Populist Thomas E. Watson. Departing from Hofstadter’s and Woodward’s more nuanced portraits, Frank neglects to explore the Populists’ fascination with anti-Semitic tropes like Shylocks and Jewish bankers, whom they charged with controlling the country’s wealth, nor does he discuss Watson’s shift away from promoting equality among black and white subsistence farmers.
Long before he became the People’s Party’s final presidential candidate, Watson established himself as a racist and a nativist by attacking blacks, Catholics, and Jews. If my choice is between acknowledging these troubling cornerstones of Populism and ignoring them, I’ll stick with Hofstadter and Woodward.
Silver City, N.M.
Don’t You Pay Me No Mind
I am writing to express my dismay at Andrew Cockburn’s recent article [“The Malaysian Job,” Letter from Washington, May]. Cockburn and one of your fact-checkers reached out to Goldman Sachs in February and early March and asked us a number of questions about our business in relation to 1MDB. Though we responded to every question, I see little mention of our responses in the story. The information we supplied about Lloyd Blankfein’s alleged meetings with Jho Low and about David Ryan and Alex Turnbull undermines or, in some cases, contradicts Cockburn’s story. We don’t understand why the magazine deliberately failed to include Goldman Sachs’s point of view.
Additionally, we politely asked Cockburn twice to speak with us regarding the overall outline of his story, but were ignored. In my more than three decades of experience in media relations and journalism, I have found it to be standard for reporters at reputable media organizations to be willing to speak with the representatives of companies that are going to be heavily featured in their stories, particularly when the news is negative. I assure you that during and after the financial crisis, well-known reporters who were no great fans of Goldman Sachs would, when asked, extend us this courtesy.
We expected more from Harper’s Magazine and believe your readers have been done a disservice through the deliberate exclusion of Goldman Sachs’s point of view.
Managing Director of Media Relations
New York City
Andrew Cockburn responds:
Despite the injured tone, DuVally does not cite any actual errors in the article, which does in fact report Goldman’s denials that former executives David Ryan and Alex Turnbull had expressed concerns about corruption. DuVally did request, once, an “overview” of the piece prior to publication, which I presume is what she means by “politely asked Cockburn twice to speak with us,” a standard corporate PR ploy to which few, if any, journalists would respond. In reply to my stipulation that all statements from Goldman would be on the record, she declined further comment.
Having read Søren Kierkegaard’s writing daily for many years, I’m grateful whenever an essay appears that might heighten his visibility, especially one as well written as Christopher Beha’s review [“Difficulties Everywhere,” Reviews, May]. One quick note: Paul does mention “fear and trembling” in his first letter to the Corinthians. However, it’s my understanding that Kierkegaard was referring to Philippians 2:12, in which Paul speaks about working on one’s salvation, rather than 1 Corinthians 2:3, in which Paul refers to the affrighted state in which he arrived at Corinth to preach the gospel.
Beha asks this question: “So why has [Kierkegaard] been so slow in getting the full ‘How to Live’ treatment?” For one thing, Kierkegaard was the epitome of the anti-herd thinker, and we live in a herd-worshipping culture. But I suspect it’s also because Kierkegaard believed that life’s central question is how to become a Christian, which involves suffering, rejection, and death—a message unlikely to gain traction in the modern West, or perhaps anywhere in the world. Beha points out that “French existentialism can be understood as an effort to salvage Kierkegaard’s thought while removing the belief in God around which it was built.” Indeed. Those who wish to be guided by Kierkegaard’s thought sundered from his belief in God might as well try listening to Louis Armstrong without his trumpet.
Because of an editing error, “Common Enemy” by Ian Buruma [Report, May] incorrectly identified Anson Chan as the former head of Taiwan’s civil service. Chan is the former head of Hong Kong’s civil service. We regret the error.