Friday, November 29, 2013

Walter Nugent's "The Tolerant Populists" Gets a 2nd Edition: 50 Years Later!

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee devotes his weekly column to the 50th anniversary edition of Walter Nugent's The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism (University of Chicago Press).  McLemee's article also serves as a great historiographical introduction to the study of populism.  Here is a taste:

In his preface to the new edition, Nugent makes a very quick sweep over developments in the historiography on populism in the intervening years (to do more than that would have undoubtedly required something as long as the original text) and fulminates over how imprecisely the word populism is used now. It “has become a useful word in dodging informed thinking,” he says. “In American media, it has become an all-purpose put-down.”
Worse, it is most often applied to phenomena, such as the Tea Party, which tend to be as nativist and prone to flight-of-thought as anything subsumed under the Hofstadter thesis. The common element in the reforms proposed by the Populists 120 years ago was, Nugent writes, “to use the government as an instrument on the people’s behalf, rather than on behalf of special interests, monopolies, unregulated banks and other corporations, and (to use today’s term) the one percent.”
The movement “wanted to augment the use of governments, not diminish or circumvent them, because, as the Populist congressman Jerry Simpson put it, ‘the government is the people, and we are the people.’ ”