Sweeping the American 1930s

I have studied US in the 1930s in great depth throughout my academic career, and I have never come across the opinion that it was an inherently populist decade until this lecture. The suggestion that FDR’s government intervention to stabilise the American economy was populist and authoritarian was completely alien to me- I have always considered FDR as an influential, progressive leader who reacted to a situation in a way to avoid the country turning to extremist parties. Yet I found it interesting looking at how his numerous social policies could be seen as a hyper-extension of government power. With hindsight we can see that ‘extremism’ was not the direction which FDR was trying to take. However, if I was writing in the mid 1930s there would have been a lot of evidence suggesting a changing political landscape that might have made people uncomfortable.

When reflecting on the readings this week, our discussion became most interesting when we debated on whether it was write for Gordon to refer to the KKK as populist. She is labelling something with modern connotations something that reached its zenith 100 years ago. The KKK were a group of white supremacists who existed due to their hatred of minorities gaining power in ‘their’ country. Although it could be argued that they could be classified under a four or five of Gordon’s defining aspects of populism, this does not make them populists. The question of what defines populism seems to appear in every lecture yet we are not one-step closer at disclosing the answer. Thus I believe that we should stop trying to define populism completely and focus more on why countries or people decide to turn to a populist way of thinking and whether it is always permanent and for to the detriment of society- FDR proved in the 1930s that by turning to the New Deal, he saved an economy and a society plummeting into extremism and alienation.

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