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Faces of American populism

January 28, 2010

Harry Boyte’s response to a recent column by David Brooks appeared as a letter to the editor in today’s New York Times. The full text is below.

David Brooks’s column about populism (“The Populist Addiction,” Jan. 26) depicts the sorry tradition of us-versus-them demagogy in American history. But there is a different tradition of democratic populism, based on the view that while leaders like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln play noteworthy roles, it takes ordinary citizens to “build America.”

This view was central to the cooperatives of black and white small farmers of the late 19th century at the base of the Populist Party, the labor movements of the 1930s and the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. All were populist, challenging unaccountable elites while also emphasizing the responsibility of all in creating “a more perfect union.”

They all included large programs of popular self-education and uplift out of the belief that a commonwealth of freedom, to use a 19th-century idiom worth recalling, requires a commonwealth of citizens.

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  1. February 23, 2010 12:13 pm

    I addressed Newsweek editor Jon Meacham at his recent talk on civil discourse in St. Paul.

    Setting up my question with a “media-teaser” got Meacham’s attention and launched an animated conversation. Meacham’s column for Newsweek’s February 22nd issue provided more answers. With it, Meacham echoes civil-rights writer Robert Penn Warren’s view of how culture change happens.
    My published comment to the column captures our conversation and builds on its themes. Full text, below.

    Tuesday night before The System is Not to Blame. We Are. was published online, Jon Meacham spoke at a civil discourse forum at University of St. Thomas. In a moment of unscripted inspiration Meacham coined “Middle-of-the-Road Rage” — a clever idiom for jarring middle-class citizens from passive inertia to productive action.

    During the Q&A I asked Meacham how Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue, a Twin Cities suburb-based initiative I’m involved with, can incite such rage. Meacham nearly pounced when I mentioned Minnesota’s Senators Al Franken and Michelle Bachmann had been invited to share the stage of the regional performing arts center in Burnsville, Minnesota for an upcoming event. Newsweek would certainly show up for such a “performance,” he shot back.

    Bachmann has declined. But Meacham’s reaction illustrates a key theme of our effort. Which is that the most immediate way to engage our media-saturated culture is through the public embodiments of our most rage-inciting rhetoric. A dubious reality Meacham had explained earlier in his talk.

    Such culturally propagated methods belie the personal realities of the real people in our community. In discussions with everyone from conservative pastors to police officers to peace protesters we hear deep despair with the polarized ideologies of public leaders.

    Contrasting this discontent is a common ideal we are witnessing people adapt. As they identify their shared disgust with ineffective blame games, a rich mix of citizens are increasingly interested not in changing others’ individual beliefs, but rather accepting their personal responsibility to work together through “productive – not destructive – discourse.”

    Co-leaders like 80-something former Minnesota GOP governor Al Quie and 20-something young liberal folk-singer Heatherlyn exemplify the sorts of heretofore unlikely collaborations which can achieve the potentials of Robert Penn Warren’s “calculated gradualism.”

    Evolutions like these, Meacham points out, can’t occur with interest-driven institutional deliberation. But they can — as they historically have occurred — when the sums of human interests and abilities are catalyzed by personal passions. In other words, only when real people invest their shared efforts to solve cultural problems will the systems that govern our common lives evolve.

    So the question initiatives like Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue must ask is: What can more effectively incite change Middle-of-the-Road rage or Middle-of-Road passion?

    Only citizens, through shared action, can provide the answer.

    Andrea Grazzini Walstrom Founder and Co-Leader Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue

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