First Responder: The Thirties in the United States

This weeks readings were interesting in that they addressed populist discourses in the context of the US during the interwar period. This is not something I had considered a great deal before. Populism in this time period is usually examined in a European context, as we did in class the past couple weeks when discussing fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Linda Gordon’s article is a useful jumping off point for the discussion about the United States, because she attempts to clearly define populism. It is interesting that she notes that there are 13 essential characteristics of populism, but that most liberal ‘populist’ movements do not meet most of these criteria. Gordon makes it clear that from her perspective, the groups that tend to conform to this model tend to be more right wing. This begs the question of whether or not there is something inherent in more liberal movements that makes them less prone to Gordon’s populism? Or whether Gordon’s definition is structured in a way that makes it more likely to focus on right wing groups? For instance, the one American group that she defines as populist is the KKK. While I agree with this assessment of the KKK, I think it is important to consider how her list of 13 attributes functions.

In relation to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, Gordon’s article reinforces the point made in the book, that it can in fact happen in the U.S.. In the book, Senator Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man” feels like reading something out of fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. So while this is a work of fiction, it is important to consider the messages and lessons it presents. Together, this two readings provide an understanding of how populism can and has developed in an American context, and in some ways both seem to be providing warnings about how to look to the future.

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