Populism and the Limits of Liberalism in Recent American History

AHA Session 143
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Sutton North (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Joseph Lowndes, University of Oregon
Nicole R. Hemmer, Columbia University

Session Abstract

This panel will focus on the struggle to define liberalism in an era defined by the rise of conservatism. Historians have charted the successes of conservatism in the last decades of the twentieth century—from the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan, to the ideological triumph of Milton Friedman’s neoliberalism with well-funded think tanks, to business leaders’ success in lobbying elected officials. By focusing so resolutely on the rise of the Right, however, important struggles within the Democratic coalition have been overlooked. The papers on this panel each consider the fate of liberalism as Democrats sought to rebuild their political base. The panel will treat liberalism broadly, bringing grassroots organizing into conversation with electoral politics.

These papers will explore liberalism and its limits, parsing out its blind spots and contradictions as well as its possibilities, and will explore the relationship between liberalism and populism, and particularly the left-leaning varieties thereof. Left populisms cropped up between the 1970s and 1990s as liberals sparred over such issues as economic policy and the legacy of the New Left and took on—or capitulated to—the conservative Southern Strategy. The panel will focus on economic growth and development in particular, as Democrats’ commitment to labor was challenged and reshaped by the postindustrial, globalized economy.

Populism—a political language of anti-elitism—assumed many forms. From tenant organizing among working-class urban residents to political campaigning during presidential primaries, these papers collectively speak to the influence of populist rhetoric in a time not typically defined by collective or mass mobilization. Historians have long acknowledged the importance of populist figures in moments of political realignment: from the People’s Party of the nineteenth century, to New Deal-era figures like Huey Long, to George Wallace’s insurgent, white-supremacist presidential campaign in 1968. This panel seeks to address the more recent history of populist political pressure, and the ways in which these movements influenced the Democratic coalition, reshaped the New Right, and re-mobilized American exceptionalist mythologies in an age of xenophobia and “colorblind” racism. In the years following Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence,” the future of liberalism remained contested, subject to negotiation among those with competing visions of the future of American politics.

The left-leaning populist fringe at times embraced unlikely allies, including in ways that contradicted its members’ progressive perspectives. Economic grievances with broad appeal led, in certain instances, to hybrid left-right movements. These papers will grapple with what distinguished left-leaning populists from their right-leaning counterparts despite having economic messages with the potential to resound on both sides of the political spectrum. As part of this untangling of left- from right-leaning populism, this panel will address the racial politics that were at the heart of partisan discord, covering topics ranging from the nostalgia that animated the rhetoric of some economic populists to the multicultural worldview that characterized others.

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