New Left Revisited: Matt Stoller and Tom Frank on Populism

It’s fortuitous that Matt Stoller’s How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul appeared around the same time as Tom Hayden’s death was announced. Stoller’s piece is essentially a retrospective of the new left and a critique of its failure to develop an alliance with pre-existing strains of domestic working class radicalism.  This, Stoller suggests, should have formed the basis for the left to consolidate power in the years to follow but did not.

One largely forgotten historical incident Stoller focusses on to make his point is the demotion of the head of the congressional banking committee Wright Patman in 1974.  A prairie populist New Dealer whose contempt for what he knew in his bones to be the predatory class on Wall Street, Patman was responsible for for the banking industry being kept on a short leash for much of the middle part of the last century. This history was invisible to sixties radicals of Hayden’s ilk who saw Patman, then in his seventies, and those like him as “ineffective” and “out of touch”. Hayden’s congressional allies George Miller and Henry Waxman worked to remove him from his position on this basis. But more fundamentally, as Stoller demonstrates, they and other new leftists rejected Patman’s generation’s suspicion of finance capital and big business. This would be replaced with a de facto promotion of Patman’s enemies Wall Street under the guise of economic “efficiency” within what would become known as neoliberalism.

While it (oddly) doesn’t mention it, Stoller’s critique shares substantial common ground with that of Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal which also focusses on the McGovernite rejection of the New Deal alliance.  While both critiques are well taken, the problem is that both view the New Deal alliance through excessively rose colored glasses. In Frank’s case, as I noted in my review of Listen Liberal, the problem is his failure to view critically, or even mention, the deeply reactionary and dysfunctional character of the labor unions which the McGovern coalition sought to displace within the Democratic Party. For Stoller, the blind spot resides in not recognizing the reactionary aspects of populism, most conspicuously its providing a foundation for the maintenance of Jim Crow in the South as well as its co-optation into supporting the national security state and its attendant anti-communist purges and military adventurism. Patman himself (as I well remember) opposed landmark civil rights legislation and supported Johnson’s genocidal policies in Vietnam. None of this is mentioned by Stoller except for vague allusions to the new left’s discomfort with the “hawks”.

Maybe significantly, similar tendencies are to some extent reflected within Stoller’s political trajectory.  This began with his being an advisor to the aborted campaign of General Wesley Clark who was being promoted by Michael Moore and other liberals as a candidate of the left in 2004. The left, aware of Clark’s record for aggressive militarism in Kosovo wasn’t buying the claims for him as a peace candidate and Stoller has since moved on to better things. (Stoller does not take kindly to being reminded of this, incidentally, as I myself discovered).

Interestingly the same blind spot is apparent in the political orientation of Stoller’s current employer, Bernie Sanders, arguably a Wright Patman resurrected for the new century. Reliably populist on economic issues, a scourge of the banks and Wall Street, Sanders has relatively little to say on the destructive effects of bloated military budgets and military interventionism.  That this will necessary prevent his ambitious domestic program from being enacted presents a paradox which will need to be reconciled at some point. While Stoller’s article is very much worth reading, it gives little indication of how this will be accomplished.

Hopefully, sooner or later the question will be answered eventually and no longer pushed under the rug.