Populism’s rightward turn in the post-war era

Following in Coughlins steps, after the Second World War, American populisms foundation shifted from left-leaning critiques of the economic system to right-wing concerns over cultural elitism and governmental power (Kazin 1998). Factors shaping this evolution included the transformative New Deal, growing fears of communism, and economic growth that led growing numbers of Americans to identify as middle-class consumers and taxpayers.

It was in this period that the nonpareil of American conspiracy theorising, Joe McCarthy, appeared. McCarthy articulated a powerful blend of populist resentment, anger, and apocalyptic warnings of communist subversion. Tying elite politicians (Adlai Stevenson) and media (New York Times) to the communist cause, he presented himself as defending average Americans and traditional American culture.

The widespread fear of subversion — by foreign ideas but in the heart of American government — was ripe for conspiracy theorising, and McCarthy delivered. He found a conflicted partner in the news media, producing a tension that presages twenty-first-century populism. On one hand, McCarthy courted the media and relied on them not only for his own political self-aggrandisement but also to maintain regular communications with the public (Federici 1991). On the other, he waged a relentless war on the press, lambasting them for unfavourable coverage and accusing many outlets of communism. For their part, the media struggled in covering McCarthy. Despite his steady deluge of attacks, misinformation, and disinformation, wire services avoided negative reporting for fear of alienating publishers, and newspapers had trouble unwinding McCarthy’s misrepresentations. As one scholar of the era wrote, ‘It was no wonder that so many people were convinced that McCarthy was exposing Communists. The newspapers had said so’ (Bayley 1981, 217).

The long 1960s and American populism

McCarthy is too often seen as an exceptional character, extracted from the wider political stream that produced him, including bipartisan anti-communist panic (Ribuffo 2017). In fact, he represented a form of right-wing political jealousy that long outlasted him. From the 1950s through the 1970s, several forms of conservative activism were taking shape in opposition to the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and cultural change. These included suburban citizen activists (McGirr 2015), media activists critical of the press and culture industries as purveyors of social liberalisation (Hemmer 2016), and Americans of moderate means who combined support for New Deal programmes such as Medicare and Social Security with culturally conservative attitudes and hostility to welfare and affirmative action (Warren’s “Middle American Radicals”; 1976).

George Wallace, the most explicitly populist politician of the second half of the twentieth century, appealed strongly to this latter group (Warren 1976). Although a supporter of the New Deal, Wallace innovated a populist campaign that emphasised the resentment felt by white Americans uncomfortable with growing federal power and wider cultural change. In the cultural-political context of his time, this ultimately meant siding with the ‘defense of the average (white) American against the tyranny of Washington bureaucrats. Big government was on its way to imposing its way on the average person’ (Judis 2016, 34).

Growing anti-governmentalism

Wallace’s pairing of anti-governmentalism with white backlash was simultaneously a manifestation of deep currents of American populism, reflective of the geo-political reality of the United States at the time, and an early step in what would become a defining feature of conservative (and Republican Party) thinking. It is worth digressing briefly into the profound implications that changing public attitudes towards government — basic ideas about what the nation’s governing institutions could and should do — have had for American populism and American political culture.

Though a pan-cultural shift (Rodgers 201 1), it was on the political right that anti-governmentalism took a particularly powerful form as Republican leaders, notably Nixon, Reagan, and Gingrich, largely adopted Wallaces populist formulation of a culturally conservative ‘middle America’ resenting ‘big government’s’ intrusion into its wholesome way of life while eliding its (overt) racism (Kazin 1998). This was attractive to middle-American radicals and their descendants, including the Tea Party, whose mixed views on economic redistribution saw the middle class as squeezed between a hostile government elite and a sponging underclass (Skocpol and Williamson 2013). This resentment of government was married to a much smaller but extremely well-funded movement of billionaires and think tanks advocating laissez-faire economic policies that has pulled the Republican Party strongly to the economic right (Hacker and Pierson 2016). At their intersection, the Republican Party found a formula with the potential to appeal to diverse constituencies, including the white working class they increasingly courted, on its way to becoming, in Skocpol’s (2020) words, a party of ‘billionaire ultra-free-market fundamentalism and popularly rooted ethno-nationalist resentment’ (4).

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