When speaking about Sinclair Lewis’ novel, it was interesting to speak about the author’s motivations and potential biases, and how that relates to the text. First of all, the book was realised in 1935, just a year before the next presidential election. Lewis used the novel in a similar way to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which was released shortly before the 2004 presidential election. Unlike Moore’s documentary, but similar to Citizen Kane, Lewis’ novel told the fictitious story of Buzz Windrip, who acts as a stand in for real life presidential candidate Huey Long. As it was clear at the time of the books release that Buzz Windrip was based off Huey Long, Lewis used the fictitious character to critique Long, suggesting that if he were elected, it would lead to the introduction of dictatorial regime in the United States. This regime resembles, although does differ in significant ways, similar rises of populist movements in Europe at the time. The dictatorial regime that arose in the book heavily resembled the likes of Germany and Italy. While Lewis’ view is certainly not one that would have necessarily been correct, just because someone resembles a populist means they will lead a restructuring of government that will put them in place as a dictator, it was certainly interesting to see how someone thought this would happen in the United States at this time.
America has a unique sense of nationalism that sets it apart from other countries. Unlike European nation states, America is not formed of a mostly homogeneous ethnic, religious, and cultural group. America, regardless of what the current president may think, is a nation of immigrants.
For immigrants, there is the pseudo-mythical lure of the American dream. And, as one of my colleagues points out, for Americans there is the fundamental, inarguable belief that they live in the greatest nation on Earth.
America is a country that was originally established with the desire to throw off the tyrannical rule that people felt was plaguing Europe at the time. The second amendment exists in part to ensure that Americans have the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government.
It is therefore interesting to see how easily and comfortably Americans can adopt very extreme political views. A lot of this stems from the theme of blame and resentment. Blaming the “other” for everything that is going wrong in the country. One extreme example of this is the Ku Klux Klan, who felt that America was meant to remain a white nation and believed that the presence of the other, Catholics, Jews, blacks, was subverting this national destiny (Gordon).
When a nation firmly believes that its own greatness depends on the extermination and erasure of the other, it inevitably creates and supports figures, such as Hitler, Windrip, and Trump, who have the power to do so.
Our groups discussion of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” was centered on the historical context in which Lewis wrote his piece, more specifically focusing on Louisiana politician Huey Long’s potential challenge to President Roosevelt. Huey Long was assassinated shortly before the publication of “It Can’t Happen Here”, taking that into consideration many members of our group noted that Sinclair Lewis could have very well written his novel as a warning to the American public on the danger an authoritarian populist such as Long posed to the United States hoping that Americans would be able to recognize the signs of fascism and not be blinded by their own sense of exceptionalism. I could not help but wonder what it was about Huey Long that inspired such a sense of anxiety in Sinclair Lewis that he felt it necessary to write an entire novel essentially warning Americans about the danger he presented. Following the class discussion, I did further research into the background of Huey Long that both helped me understand the mindset of Sinclair Lewis and yet also raised many question on the nature of both populism and fascism. As the then governor of Louisiana Long implemented several extremely authoritarian policies, many of which are eerily reminiscent of those pursued by Adolf Hitler during the early years of his accession to power. Long purged the state government and bureaucracy of his political rivals, filled his cabinet with a network of loyalists and forced all state employees dependent on him to contribute financially to his personal “war chest”. Despite these authoritarian tactics what makes Long’s governorship particularly interesting is that rather than simply pursuing personal gain, Long utilized his over extended reach of power to serve his community. Long implemented massive public works programs within Louisiana which helped drastically lessen the impact of the Great Depression. He was also responsible for the creation of comprehensive social programs which made great strides in expanding the adult literacy rate within Louisiana. Being both a populist with the support of the masses as well as an authoritarian who utilized many of the same tactics as reviled fascist leaders throughout history it is easy to understand why Lewis so greatly feared the potential of individuals such as Long. The question remains, why it was only under an authoritarian such as Long that the government of Louisiana was able to meet its obligations to the people of the state? A trait of many populist regimes appears to be the strange blending of both authoritarian positions of the far right and progressive and popular policy of the left. A flaw which I feel plagues many of the responses to fascism is the disregard of the legit victimization which often preludes the rise of fascist regimes and the subsequent sacrificing of progressive policy in order to dismantle and prevent these regimes. My reading of Sinclair Lewis and following research into Huey Long has left me trying to understand why democratic regimes are often unable to pursue popular policy despite mass political participation, and why individuals so often resort to authoritarianism as the medium to achieve progressive change.
Most of our discussing this week focused on the definition of populism. The term is thrown around a lot but finding a definition is not an easy task. Linda Gordon, in her article, suggests that populist movement will often display 13 attributes. Our group did not have any problem with her definition, but Gordon’s thesis that the second Klan was the most prominent populist movement, was more controversial. The conversation came down to the question: Must populist movements be racist? We arrived at that question because Gordon suggests that demagoguery normally characterizes populism. And the only movements that she attributes as populists are racists, such as the Klan and the fascist movements in Europe between the wars.
Must a movement be racist to be able to pass all 13 attributes? Some argued yes as extreme nationalism, one of the 13 attributes, breeds racism. Furthermore, defining the larger society as victims while also facing authoritarian leadership, two more attributes, is a ground ready for the marginalization of whatever group is making “the people” victims, such as the Catholics and Jews in the view of the Klan.
However, I argue that this is not the case. It is possible to meet these attributes without having a racist movement. For example, occupy wall street meets most of these characteristics. It is true that they do not meet them all. And it would be difficult to imagine occupy wall street with an authoritarian leader. Furthermore, it is more difficult to establish a mass movement when there is nothing to make the masses fearful off. Thus our discussion fell into a stalemate. Maybe one day a genuine populist campaign, according to Gordon, will grow and racism will not be its defining factor. However, until then, we can only theorize.
This week we discusses the rise of fascism in the United States. Writing in 1935, we have to keep in mind that Sinclair Lewis does not have all the information we have. He has no knowledge of the Second World War, the Cold War, or the contemporary wave of populism. During the time of his writing, the idea that a character like Buzz Windrip would be able to take over the government in a similar manner to that of Hitler seemed to be a very real possibility to him. We can see this clearly through the blatant parallels between Huey Long and Buzz Windrip. Long was an American Democrat and governor of Louisiana during the time of Lewis’ writing. Long was known for his populist rhetoric and Lewis used this to create “It Can’t Happen Here” not only as a warning of the potential of populism, but also as a political attack ad against a potential presidential candidate he clearly did not like. In the novel, Buzz Windrip has a meteoric rise to power, establishing the Minute Men to quell dissent and abolished congress in order to centralize his power. This was Lewis’ idea of how American fascism might look but also a warning to readers of the time of what a potential run by Huey Long would look like. In conclusion, while we read the works of Lewis, and other historical texts and apply it to separate historical events, as well as our contemporary world, it is important to keep in mind that the authors of these books display biases and do not automatically have correct ideas. Lewis displays a world in which a populist leader becomes a dictator and Americans are eventually forced to revolt against him. Just because he wrote it in his book, does not mean that is an eventuality of populism.
Our discussion this week was not very fruitful as our group went off the rails due to a lack of reading. Our discussion became a heated debate regarding race and white privilege, a topic that has modern relevance but was not the focus of Lewis’ novel. From my own reading of It Can’t Happen Here, what I found interesting was the relevance the novel has to tactics used by politicians today. President Windrip in his novel seems fictional upon first glance. As you read, however, and ‘hear’ him speak you can almost believe the promises he makes. Like Trump, Hitler, and other politicians (not necessarily just the ‘evil’ ones too) there always seems to be an appeal to ‘traditional’ values. American, German, even Canadian nationalism is a tactic often exploited. Lewis’ understanding of the use of national pride was his key point to make on how dictatorships can arise.
It was discussed how this novel appealed to academics and uses language that is borderline satirical. While I agree that it was designed for a more high-brow audience, I believe that Lewis wrote it with the intention of anybody being able to pick it up and put yourself in Jessup’s position. Like the novel/TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that these sort of things could emerge. While academics dissect novels, the everyday reader digests them and will ultimately make comparisons between the book and their own lives. I believe that Lewis knew the different ways his book could be read and designed it to have multiple purposes.
Although every organization is different, Gordon’s article informs readers about some common characteristics of populist movements such as conspiracy theories, distrust of experts, extreme nationalism, isolationism, and victimization. The author writes that the Trump and Sanders campaign have been circulating discussions about populism. She also writes in detail about the KKK, and how its characteristics could fall under those of a populist movement. Indirectly, the author is trying to draw similarities between current American political parties, and the KKK of the 1930’s. Gordon however does not describe in detail the Trump or Sanders administration, their actions, mandates, or how they could be characterized as populist or similar to the KKK. If the message the author wanted to deliver was for us to be weary of present political atmospheres which could have devastating effects comparable to those of the KKK, then it could have been more effective if the author had specified some of the actions of ideologies of the Trump/Sanders administrations which she was concerned about.
Some connections can certainly be made between the Republican party and a traditional populist movement, for example the isolationist policies, the travel ban, and the conspiracy of ‘Islamophobia’, however Gordon does not go into hardly any detail of present American politics. If Gordon’s intent was to make warn people about the possible negative effects that actions and ideologies can have on parts of the population, then perhaps she could have spoken more about the current atmosphere in America, how people are being treated, and how they will be affected by upcoming policy implementations. If Gordon’s intent was simply to present current American parties as populist, then it is a wonder why she compared them to the KKK with it’s history of violence and human rights violations, as opposed to another populist movement which is more ethical, humane and successful.
Admittedly, our group discussion ran off the rails due, perhaps, to the lack of people who actually had the time to read through the novel. Despite that, I do think several interesting points came up, the one which I want to talk about for a moment being the idea that “all art is political”, something which I do not entirely agree with. Lewis absolutely was the kind of writer who did create stories which contain messages but that does not mean that every novel ever written has some sort of underlying message in its prose. While, say, pulp fiction novels from the forties can very well be read like social barometer, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be counted along side novels like “It Can’t Happen Here” or “1984” or “Brave New World”. Somethings really are just plastic, commercial and meaningless. This is why I think we should know more about the people who write the stories and whether they were political or had specific stances which they were vocal about. Just skimming quickly through Lewis’s Wikipedia entry can easily confirm that this was a man with something to say and a target to criticize–namely, American capitalism and materialism. If you like, one could look at Lewis as something of a fiction-writing polemicist in the vein of George Orwell or a social commentator like Bret Easton Ellis or Kurt Vonnegut.
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.