Whose Populism?

Sorn offers a really nice critique of that letter to Andrew:

The over-arching tone of moral superiority really gets me. The patronizing tone telling Mr. Sullivan that he's British and he didn't grow up around these folks so he wouldn't understand. I've heard this type of talk before only it wasn't the left talking about the right it was bigoted white folks where I grew up telling tourists from other places they didn't know anything about Native Americans because they didn't grow up around them.

The false comparison and the presentism really chafes as well. As if it was only a portion of Americans who believed in Manifest Destiny instead of a majority. Comparing present day republicans with people who were responsible for genocide. Often it was well meaning progressives who helped to start the movements in Native American Education that were responsible for some of the worst abuses of what should probably be termed cultural rape or genocide. Woodrow Wilson, a racist by anyone's estimation the man who saw Birth of a Nation in the white house and said It's all true, was a progressive and yet he was the guy who mandated segregation in federal employment. As TNC so eloquently pointed out upthread Roosevelt started the policy of Red-lining.

There is also a false believe in one's own moral superiority in this note. A holier than thou attitude that is elitist, self-righteous, and unreflective. A habit of looking down one's nose and saying I'm so glad I got my act together look at those stupid, ignorant people over there on the right I'm so glad I'm better than they are. There is nothing wrong with populism properly portioned out. After all William Jennings Bryan was a populist, and before he was a part of the scopes monkey trial he was one of those people who stood up for the little guy. Bryan's ideas about basing the value of the dollar on the value of commodities was finally realized when Roosevelt did something similar during the New Deal when he took America off the gold standard. Burton K. Wheeler is another one of these populists, for all his willingness to stand up against the Anaconda Copper Company, his support of labor and willingness to reform the railroads, he helped to lead the opposition to U.S. involvement in WW2 before Pearl Harbor.

People are complicated, and it really bothers me when I hear people who think that one side has always been on the side of truth, justice, and the American Way while the other side has been the upholder of all that is wrong with America. No matter where they come from they need to stop drinking the kool-aid.

Yeah, something I missed is how the writer subscribes to the "hijacking of America" theory. It's very comforting to think that, as Sorn says, only a nefarious minority are responsible for all our ills. The the truth is so much more tangled. You can't act like housing segregation and red-lining wasn't a manifestation of popular will. "The People" are sometimes noble. But sometimes they're foolish and acquisitive. Like all people.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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