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  • Populism and the Second Voice of American Politics:Wilson C. McWilliams as Democratic Theorist
  • Derek W. M. Barker (bio)

Democratic movements for citizen control over large-scale impersonal systems have a rich, if marginalized, history in the American political tradition. Populist movements in particular, including but not limited to the People's Party of the late nineteenth century, have given voice to citizen concerns with the concentration of power in both the market system and government. With confidence in government at an all time low, and levels of economic inequality comparable to those of the Gilded Age, conditions are ripe for a new wave of populist politics. This populism offers the best chance in recent years to inject a new sense of energy into American politics, but also appears vulnerable to the rage and extremism that have plagued historical populist movements. In this essay, I engage with the writings of Wilson C. McWilliams (1933-2005), an authority on alternative political currents in America's past, to provide historical perspective into populist movements and their prospects for the future.

Fortunately, two new volumes have compiled McWilliams' previously uncollected work, Redeeming Democracy in America and The Democratic Soul: A Wilson Carey McWilliams Reader, both edited by former student Patrick J. Deneen and daughter Susan J. McWilliams.1 These collections provide an opportunity to revisit McWilliams' account of America's alternative tradition, especially with a view toward the past and future of populism.

The central theme of the two volumes is an underlying conflict between America's dominant thinking, which privileges large-scale, impersonal systems, and an alternative tradition, in which citizens come together, [End Page 234] primarily in local or particular communities, to express an impulse for dignity and control. With this theme in mind, one might expect extended treatment of the People's Party and subsequent populist movements in McWilliams' work. Indeed, one of the introductory essays attributes to McWilliams broadly "populist" leanings.2 However, McWilliams does not himself employ this label, and the historical populist movement receives relatively little attention in McWilliams' thought. In this essay, I first reconstruct McWilliams' thinking on democracy, a key concern of his work that is not fully recognized. To make sense of why historical populism did not factor centrally into McWilliams' narrative, I draw attention to the problem of civic virtue and its role in elevating public discourse. Finally, I use McWilliams' thought to analyze the current state of populism, including its key challenges and prospects for the future. For populism to succeed in reconstructing America's democratic voice, it must go beyond anti-government rage to create new forms of community, with some semblance of dignity and control in the face of the complex systems, public and private, that currently frustrate the citizenry.

America's Alternative Tradition: McWilliams' Democratic Theory

Beginning with The Idea of Fraternity in America, McWilliams has long been concerned with the breakdown of community and the overwhelming individualism of American culture.3 According to McWilliams, American politics is fundamentally shaped by a view of human beings as naturally separate and self-interested, causing Americans to neglect the political importance of community.4 This theme is surely present in these collections. One important essay, for example, recovers and develops a genuinely public concept of freedom, as distinct from the private liberty to do as one pleases.5 Genuine public freedom must inevitably involve restrictions on the power of corporations, for example, but such restrictions are necessarily in tension with private liberty. Similarly, McWilliams argues that a political conception of free speech does not mean unhindered self-expression (which might protect hate speech or corporate campaign donations) but rather the ability to deliberate with others, disciplined according to common norms.6 Along these lines, both books include inspired analyses of Nathaniel Niles, a relatively obscure sermonist in the revolutionary era who speaks in the language of natural rights but turns the theory on its head: in his view, the state of nature is bequeathed by God as a commons, meaning [End Page 235] that private rights, not the state, are usurpations of the natural order, and must contribute to the public good to be justified.7 McWilliams unapologetically sees community as...


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