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  • Populism-Bringing Culture Back In
  • Harry C. Boyte (bio)

Introduction: Populism and the Politics of Civic Agency

In recent years, "populism" has been claimed by left and right alike. According to the late David Broder of The Washington Post, Sarah Palin issued "a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message."1 Progressives contest the label. "To rebuild its coalition, the left must return to its populist roots," argues Eric Alterman in The New York Times.2 E.J. Dionne, noting the "kaleidoscope of populisms," calls for "a new seriousness about what Populism meant for our past and means for our present" in Our Divided Political Heart.3 This symposium answers Dionne's call.

Populism has two dimensions. One involves the language of change. Populist movements are culturally based, not structurally based. "The people" is not historically indeterminate, but it is a different category than "class" or "interest groups," a different idiom than the charts and statistics that dominate in conventional social science, and a different politics than election campaigns with poll-tested sound bites. Populism challenges not only concentrations of wealth and power, but also the culturally uprooted, individualized, rationalist thinking characteristic of professional systems, left and right. Populist movements are narrative. They grow from the sense that an elite is endangering the values, identities, and practices of a culturally constituted people, its memories, origins, and ways of life. "People" is understood through language, stories, symbols, traditions, foods, music, and memories. A people has a moment of birth, sacred texts, foundational [End Page 300] spaces, as well as dual, even contending identities, as conveyed in W.E.B. Du Bois' great work, The Two Souls of Black Folks.4 An inclusive, egalitarian account of "peoplehood" is at the heart of Dionne's treatment.

My first serious engagement with such populism came when I was working as a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964. One day I was caught by five men and a woman, members of the Klu Klux Klan. They accused me of being a "communist and a Yankee." I replied, "I'm no Yankee—my family has been in the South since before the Revolution. And I'm not a communist. I'm a populist. I believe that blacks and poor whites should join together to do something about the big shots who keep us divided." For a few minutes we talked—with animation which amazed (and greatly comforted) me about the possibilities of populism. Then they let me go. Learning of the incident, Martin Luther King told me that he identified with populism and assigned me to organize poor whites. From 1966 to 1972, with time spent at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I organized in Durham North Carolina, among textile mill workers, inspired by the intelligence and decency of the people and heartened by their interests in allying with blacks. Their stories contrasted sharply with the pejorative comments about "rednecks" which I heard from leftists at Duke. The contrast produced abiding skepticism about ideological politics.

I saw community organizing as about not simply bread and butter issues—schools, housing, jobs—but also about the meaning of "people-hood." My views grew from SCLC's Citizenship Education Program (CEP), which organized citizenship schools across the south. These taught literacy, countering the use of literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks, and also skills of collective action, framed with the question, "What is citizenship?" Citizenship schools located the fight for a democratic a way of life in the possibilities of America, drawing on founding ideals of equality, freedom and democratic self-government. The movement's belief in American democratic possibilities drew on democratic ideals of "peoplehood," which, as the late political theorist John Schaar described, creates a rich repertoire of themes for those seeking to make change, especially in America. "We love our land—America!" read the Citizenship School Workbook. The movement's democratic and open patriotism can be contrasted with bellicose nationalism and legalistic definitions of citizenship on the one hand and the "citizen-of-the-world" model widespread in liberal education on the other. Noting that others in the Western Hemisphere also had claim to "American identity," the...


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pp. 300-319
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