A Populist Manifesto

Review of A Populist Manifesto by Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield

The New Republic, April 29, 1972

THE SCENTS of “tame the trusts” and “soak the rich” are suddenly wafting again through the political air, and it’s about time.  The wonder is that they took so long to escape from a long-closed pantry.

That the ‘70s can, and should, be different is the argument of Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield in A Populist Manifesto.  Though it dabbles in economic and social analysis, this is above all a political book.  Its basic thesis is that a political majority can be built by rallying workers, minorities and young people around a banner that reads: “Some institutions and people have too much money and power, most people have too little, and the first priority of politics must be to redress that imbalance.”  A num­ber of poli­ticians (Reuben Askew, Fred Harris, Henry Howell) have already seized the banner.  Others are sliding towards it (the hottest issue in the primaries, after busing, is now tax reform).  Still others will be persuaded by this book.

What are the concrete issues and pro­grams that can unite, rather than divide, low- and moderate-income people in America?  Newfield and Greenfield out­line dozens, including free medical care for everyone, a 90 percent tax on inheritance and estates, public owner­ship of utilities, new laws against industrial concentration, cable TV fran­chises for minorities, land reform, and strict controls on bank profits.  Others could be added—public financing of political campaigns, federal chartering of cor­por­ations, public or cooperative ownership of industries other than utilities—but the general objective is clear: to change our political and economic system from one that further enriches the rich and powerful to one that responds to the less-than-rich and not-so-powerful.

Few of these ideas are new or original, but at the present juncture of American poli­tics they badly need to be restated and made sexy.  This the authors (both young but experienced journalists and speechwriters) do extremely well.  Especially titillating is their account of how banks and insurance companies use other people’s hard-earned money to amass bounteous profits and power.  Government regulation, of course, helps enormously, by (among other things) limiting the interest that banks can pay to depositors, but not the dividends they can pay to shareholders, or the salaries they can pay to executives.

NOT EVERYONE who reads A Populist Manifesto, even if they sympathize with the authors on the issues, will agree with their political prognosis.  After all, we’ve just had one book (Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Ma­jority) proving that the poli­tical majority of the future is on the right, another (Richard Scammon and Benja­min Wat­t­enberg’s The Real Majority) insist­ing that it’s in the center, and now here come Newfield and Greenfield to tell us that it’s really on the left.  Each of these tomes cites statistics, polls and portents, so whom are we to believe?

My own answer, not being an ex­pert psephologist (Scammon and Wat­ten­berg’s pseudo-scientific term for Wednesday morning quarterbacks), is that the fu­ture is up for grabs, that it can go either left or right or hew to the mid­dle, depend­ing upon events and how citizens and politicians respond to them.  This is not merely to state the ob­vious, since I don’t think a leftist oppor­tunity existed a few years ago.  If the future is in fact up for grabs, the oper­ative question then becomes: what can be done to build a majority capable of moving for economic justice?

The two most important tasks, in my mind, are raising consciousness, as Nader’s Raiders and the women’s movement have done, each in their own way; and organ­iz­ing the unorganized.  Elec­toral successes may then follow, leav­ing the job of convert­ing victories at the polls into the kind of genuine structural reforms proposed by New­field, Greenfield and others.

Populism, of course, is no panacea, and it has had nasty ramifications in the past in the form of anti-intellectual­ism, racism, and hostility toward Catho­lics and Jews.  Some critics of Newfield and Greenfield have seized on the know-nothing tendencies of 19th and early 20th centu­ries to caution against a populist reemergence in the 1970s.  To which Newfield and Greenfield have two responses: first, that racist demagoguery was never an authentic form of populism, since one of populism’s cardinal tenets is that poor whites and blacks should unite against their common exploiters.  And second, that with guys like George Wallace already running around, the development of an authentic populist consciousness, far from being a spur to the baser impulses, is probably the most effective antidote.