Don't Write Off the

"Little men" and "just Americans" have been absent on the Left since the end of the CIO organizing drives, and their absence is taking its toll.


Special to The Progressive Populist

During the 1995 siege at Mt. Carmel I was sitting in a room of a second-rate Waco motel, chatting with a cluster of men who called themselves "Patriots," when a knock came at the door. Someone looked out its peephole, then admitted a local "Patriot," well-known to us. The local stepped inside the threshold and without closing the door, like a herald, spoke in a proud and excited voice:

"Friends, I want you to meet a great American," he declaimed, showing a short, muscular man of middle age through the door. "This is Louis Beam!"

Louis Beam, a former chieftain of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, was one of a group acquitted in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1989 on charges of conspiracy to plot violent strikes against the government. Morris Dees calls him the most dangerous man in America. (Yeah, Morris, what about the director of the CIA?) He's a self-proclaimed Identity Christian, perennially suspected of terrorist acts.

Beam shook hands all around, and took a seat on the side of a bed. He had interrupted a conversation whose leader had been Gary Hunt, a land surveyor from Florida and Arizona who had a few months earlier founded a "Patriot" newspaper. Hunt apparently felt slighted by the distraction that Beam's arrival had caused.

He turned towards the newcomer. "I don't guess I really know who you are," he said -- and probably, he wasn't lying. "But me," he continued, "I'm just a little guy."

"Well," Beam said, "I'm just like you, just a little man, just an American."

A choruses of "me too" went around the room, and after that, the conversation continued, as if among equals.

IN THE YEARS SINCE -- years marked by the Oklahoma City bombing, risings of the Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas -- I have often returned to ponder over the terms that diffused the tension created by the grand entrance of Louis Beam: "just a little man, just an American."

A century ago "little man" was a Populist password. But something has changed since. Gary Hunt and Louis Beam are today deemed to belong, not to any Populist movement, but to something called the Ultra-Right. The only thing that they seem to share with the Populists -- as far as most people are concerned, anyway -- is the scorn in which they're held by polite society.

I spent my youth in the circles of the radical Left, and never saw an entrance like Beam's. Sure, there were luminaries and stars on the Left, but they never would have described themselves as "little men," let alone as "just Americans." They were PhDs, the directors of reform agencies, attorneys. Few people on the Left presented themselves as undistinguished, or like Beam, as distinguished by polite society's efforts to put them behind bars. In the days of the Civil Rights movement, a few agitators were known mainly for their arrest records, but all of that vanished by the end of the Vietnam War. Jail is not for Leftists anymore.

"Little men" and "just Americans" have been absent on the white Left since the end of the CIO organizing drives, and their absence is now taking its toll. What's happened, I think, is that the Left has come to define itself by closeness, not hostility, to the government.

ONE DOESN'T HAVE TO QUOTE Lawrence Goodwyn [author of the Populist Moment, a history of the agrarian movement] to say that the Populists tried to free the government from service to the plutocracy -- and to yoke it for the people's chores. What's important here is that they thought that, in their time, government wasn't automatically the people's friend, taxation wasn't automatically defensible, etc. Populism failed, and what Americans got in the interval was the much-vaunted Progressive Movement, the parent of federal food and drug legislation, female suffrage, the income tax -- and ultimately, Prohibition. Progressivism was in some ways the middle class in civic arms, against the rabble.

Standing to the side of the Progressive-reactionary debate, sneering, was the left wing of the labor movement, represented in those days by the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies." In their nearly anarchist view, government was as much of an enemy as the capitalist class. Like the Populists, the Wobblies couldn't whip their dual enemies, but that didn't stop them from building a movement -- or influencing the future.

But they, too, were driven down, and the "little man" didn't find a friend until Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and what Americans called "Liberalism" and the Europeans called "Social Democracy." For awhile, the government became a tool for disciplining Free Enterprise. Among other things, it established the National Labor Relations Board -- the kind of agency that the Wobblies would have greeted by thumbing their noses. The subsequent historical period, at least until the Vietnam war, became Liberalism's golden age.

Vietnam probably undid Liberalism. During that war, a rising generation of would-be New Dealers, the ostensible heirs to FDR, turned against the government and burned their draft cards. Most of these people -- and I was one -- became suspicious and critical of government, believing, as the Populists and Wobblies had, that it usually served the interests of the ultra-rich. By and large this new generation, that of the New Left, got sidelined and marginalized and drifted out of political activity, like the Wobs and Populists and Reds before them. Most voted, and voted Democratic, but only with deep misgivings.

The Democratic Party itself came into the hands of a group that included females whose liberation movement owed less to civil disobedience than to government action, and to a male group that, while perhaps nominally opposed to the war in Vietnam, had not shared in the New Left's suspicion of capitalism or its hirelings in government. Bill Clinton and Henry Cisneros (a member of the Aggie Corps during Vietnam) are two of that kind. In the hands of this leadership -- less radical than New Leftists of any sex would have been -- the Democratic Party became pro-regulation, without being anti-capitalist. It came to represent, not small-town haberdashers, hairdressers and millhands, but people whose resumés, however much they exemplified the "little man" in their first lines, also included notations about Oxford and Yale. The Populists would have ranted that the "Eastern Establishment" had captured -- or bought -- the leadership's soul.

New Democrats, as they called themselves, were aided by an event beyond their control, the fall of the Soviet Union. For example, in the old days, as we can now call them, labor leaders could jawbone, saying, "if you don't deal with free labor unions, Communists will represent the workingman." African-American leaders sometimes did the same. The Fall meant that the labor movement found itself where it had been before 1917 -- roughly, in the boots of the Wobblies, in an epoch in which socialism was beyond imagining and Social Democracy, at least on American shores, was regarded as a dream with a prohibitive cost. For blacks, the Fall was also a return to something like the days before Bolshevism, days when a Democrat and essentially Progressive President, Woodrow Wilson, instituted Jim Crow in the White House. Today that's done by requiring $100,00 for an overnight stay.

That Social Democracy was moribund was perhaps obvious to the leaders of the AFL-CIO when NAFTA was passed. Last summer the President signed Liberalism's death certificate, the welfare reform bill. Yet some laborite elected officials still remain in office as Democrats, and some populists -- Molly Ivins is the most celebrated -- still remain loyal to the party of Clinton, whose leadership, by in large, is in the hands of people who are not "little men." There are more global financial figures among them than union firebrands, more busybodies than social incendiaries.

The culmination of liberalism's decay takes the form of a crusade, like Prohibitionism, against sinful living and the rabble. The crusade is aimed at the Ultra-Right, not the Ultra-Rich. It promotes Drug, Sex and Tobacco Temperance instead of decriminalizations. The slogan of this crusade, being hidden in the wings by men like Morris Dees and women like Janet Reno, is "Support Your Federal Police" -- the slogan of Ruby Ridge and Waco, and of federal laws against the use of tobacco by minors, the use of drugs by adults, the circulation of vile pornography, and so on. The Wobblies must be turning over in their graves. Elliot Ness is on the warpath again, and J. Edgar Hoover's job has only been privatized: Morris Dees does it now.

IF LIBERALISM BREATHED ITS LAST gasps a year ago, the socialist movement has been dead for longer than that. In the United States it never recovered from McCarthyism and the crimes of Stalinism. All of this being the case, on the Left there is today no mass movement opposed to rule by those whom the Populists would have called the "plutocrats" or "big boys." Even former Democrat Ronnie Dugger now admits that, "we are ruled by the rich and we know it."

No significant new movement has emerged from Dugger's dictum in part because few on the Left want to face up to its upshot, which is that the government -- that is what rules us, after all -- is no longer the people's friend. It deserves opposition. Its taxes are a tool of the rich, its "foreign aid" is a tool of transnationals, its educational subsidies, the conduits of intellectual bribery. Its regulators have as their job the imposition of industrial -- née Puritan -- discipline on the rabble. Liberals and Leftists haven't caught on yet. The Rightists are way ahead.

The so-called Ultra-Right is opposed to a government that it believes is ruled by plutocrats. It wants a government run by yeomen farmers, it wants to turn back the clock. Its leaders differ a bit about the exact nature of their enemy, as liberals and socialists did. Some point to phantoms like the International Communist Conspiracy, the Bavarian Illuminati and the Anti-Christ, while calmer heads attribute today's circumstances to the Federal Reserve system, the Bilderbergers, or the International Monetary Fund. The Ultra-Right movement, besides being a movement -- not merely a doctrine, not merely an idea or a pious wish -- is the victim of conspiracism and volatile elements -- but what movement among the Left's predecessors was not? Didn't the Populists believe that the "Eastern Establishment" was a cabal, didn't the Wobblies shoot class traitors? Sacco and Vanzetti may have been innocent, but some radical among workingmen probably committed their crime. At Haymarket, somebody did hurl a bomb.

Mark Briskman, chief of the Dallas regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, says that the Ultra-Right is ipso facto anti-Semitic, because its members tend to believe "that eight banking families control the world, seven of whom are Jewish." Is that anti-Semitism, or anti-bankerism? It is, of course, not at all blameworthy to believe that eight banking families don't control the world. Holding non-conspiratorial views is acceptably sage -- and also, acceptably bourgeois. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich don't believe in banker conspiracies, either. Leftists and liberals join them in denunciations of the Right, as if something were to be gained by joining one's enemy in an attack on one's neighbors.

The Right and the Left, such as it vestigially is, divide more over what to do once the state is weakened or subject to popular influence, than they do over its nature. People who call themselves Patriots and Militiamen have no economic program, except the dismantling of existing controls, and they're even confused about that: Nobody on the so-called ultra-right favors NAFTA. They favor high tariffs instead, and tariffs are an economic control. Reform ideas on the Right are mostly outdated -- but in this dizzy age, so are those of Liberalism and the Left.

The failure of Soviet socialism and the fraud of the Drug War -- cover for Latin American strong-arm regimes -- ought to be enough to convince the Left that there is today no alternative to the Ultra-right's libertarianism, except, of necessity, in economic affairs. No one on the Left has yet proposed a program advocating the restoration or expansion of individual liberty, in tandem with sharp trade and investment controls, and -- it must be said -- a program of demilitarization as well, under the old Wobbly slogan, "disarm the armies and the police, arm the people!" Such a program might very well open the doors that divide what remains of the Left from the growing force of the so-called Ultra Right. The Left has nothing to lose by making an overture to the Right -- except, perhaps, graveside eulogies. Leftists and Liberals, it seems, have decided that it's better lose with one's respectability intact than fight with questionable allies--as if purity, not power, were at stake.

RACISM IS A CURRENT among "little men" when they are white -- always was in America, always has been. But the racism of the white masses did not stop the Populists from organizing Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma, and the Wobblies came back to the same turf, preaching labor solidarity, regardless of color. They faced the Klan, not over a typewriter or podium or through a television screen, but in the Klan's home courts, boldly, physically -- appealing to the same following of "little men," trading blow for blow, idea for idea. They did not snub the "Patriots" of their day so much as compete with them.

Leadership of the people in not an entitlement of those with college degrees. It is something that must be earned in the rough-and-tumble of popular debate -- which begins, not with snobbery towards one's opponent, but with a serious examination of his case.

Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and author of The Ashes of Waco (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

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