The original Populists emerged from this re-interpretation severely bloodied. His 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, contained a savage deconstruction of the career of William Jennings Bryan, champion of free silver and the 1896 People's Party and Democratic Party joint Presidential nominee.

(A sample, from the concluding paragraph, reads: "So spoke the aging Bryan, the knight-errant of the oppressed. He closed his career in much the same role he had begun it in 1896: a provincial politician following a provincial populace in provincial prejudices.")

In 1955's The Age of Reform, he focused on the self-delusional consequences of the Populists' commitment to a Jeffersonian "agrarian myth," pointed out the anti-Semitic overtones of their anti-banker, anti-gold standard monetary harangues, and described their conspiratorial political worldview as an irrational "folklore of Populism."

In 1963's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, he extended small-p populist political tendencies backward and forward to explain a wide variety of political and cultural tendencies inherent in his title. These books received wide general readership, and the last two won Pulitzer Prizes.

Meanwhile, Hofstadter was throwing many of the same punches at what he and many other postwar liberal intellectuals began to call "The New American Right": Joe McCarthy and his supporters, the John Birch Society, and, after 1964, the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party.

His essays "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt" (1954), "Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited" (1964), and "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (1964) examined what Hofstadter called the "status politics," rather than "interest politics," of a set of conspiratorially-minded political movements which, he assumed, his readers would naturally regard as right-wing fringe groups self-evidently detached from reality.

These essays were eventually anthologized as The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which also contained Hofstadter's "Free Silver and the Mind of 'Coin' Harvey," about the Populist pamphleteer from 1894 who brought you the giant cow.

If psychological motivations trump economic motivation in your philosophy of history, the Populists represent a problem. While admitting they had legitimate economic complaints and contributed meaningfully to a salutary tradition of political reform, Hofstadter nevertheless saw them in the same psychological terms he saw McCarthyites and John Birchers.

He viewed Huey Long and Father Coughlin in much the same way. They were at factual and psychological odds with modernity, and they had more in common with a right-wing, anti-intellectual American political tradition than they did New Dealers or postwar liberals.

To Richard Hofstadter—and to many other intellectuals in the postwar period for whom World War II had been about the moral fate of the Atlantic world—the folly of building political coalitions out of anger, particularly a conspiratorial anger at odds with objective reality, was the self-evident historical lesson of the twentieth century. This way led to future fascisms.

For many Americans, however, the war had been about American nationalism in the Pacific, and the self-evident historical lesson of the twentieth century was the existential threat "Godless Communism" posed to the American Way of Life. To these Americans, Joe McCarthy and Chiang-Kai-Shek seemed plausible freedom fighters; Alger Hiss and Dalton Trumbo seemed the worst kind of subversives; the New Deal seemed in retrospect like twenty years of treason.

Hofstadter, and other liberal anti-McCarthy intellectuals of his generation, were not wrong to perceive that such people lived in a different moral universe from themselves, especially if they also lived in homes financed by G.I. Bill mortgages.

Hofstadter devoted much of his career as a public intellectual to making this case about the American right wing, and this shaped not only his interpretation of Populism, but also the way liberally-inclined intellectuals who subsequently deployed "populist" as an adjective to describe contemporary political behavior.

Liberal critics looking to score points against post-2008 tea partiers and "movement" conservatives—for whom "socialism" is both a swear word and an omnipresent, misunderstood specter—will find much to nod at in agreement in The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

George Wallace: Populism in the Civil Rights Era

When the Civil Rights and Warren Court revolutions of the 1960s began to unravel the New Deal coalition and reshuffle the national political deck, potentially "populist" political appeals and strategies began to appear in all corners of American life.

Working-class and/or southern white voters previously taken for granted as Democrats were now viewed as potentially up for grabs. Many of the persuasive methods used to target them sought to play on the status anxieties unleashed by the destruction of the racial caste system and the emergence of Baby Boomer youth culture. The Thomas Edison of thinly coded white resentment is George Wallace – or, more specifically, the George Wallace who ran for President in 1968 and 1972.

The George Wallace who, as governor of Alabama in 1963, proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" and stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent its integration did not require much national contemplation. He was a segregationist, and his white resentment was not veiled.

The one who ran disturbingly well among working-class white northerners as a third party candidate in 1968, and disturbingly well in Democratic primaries outside the south in 1972—second in Pennsylvania, second in Wisconsin—before his near-assassination was another story.

That Wallace pioneered much of the coded anti-elitist rhetoric subsequently used by many politicians to talk to conservative white voters about civil rights and/or racial issues while leaving some plausible deniability against accusations of racism.

"Why are more and more millions of Americans turning to Governor Wallace? Follow as your children are bused across town," declared one TV political advertisement, in reference to school desegregation. "As President, I shall, within the law, turn back the absolute control of the public school systems to the people of the respective states."

He was deeply skilled at heightening, and directing, what we referred to earlier as "the anger in the room." He sensed that many of his potential supporters felt that they were being looked down on as rubes and bigots by people like, well, like Richard Hofstadter. They were not wrong.

Effective exploitation of this dynamic of presumed contempt attributed to your enemies in the "cultural elite" has become a basic building block of the rhetoric of "populist" conservatism. One consequence of Wallace's influence is the long-standing tendency of conservatives to use code and proxy when talking about race, and the long-standing tendency of liberals to scour conservative political rhetoric for signs they are really talking about race.

This tendency has diminished over time, but never really gone away. Anytime a white conservative uses the word "elite" as an epithet, or attacks the federal government as a distant, tyrannical force, the George Wallace Buzzer still goes off in the heads of many nearby liberals.

An additional consequence of Wallace's influence is the degree to which "populist" appeals and strategies are almost always conceived as appeals to working- and middle-class whites, even when articulated by liberal Democrats for liberal purposes. Virginia Senator Jim Webb's efforts to convince Democrats to speak more directly to upland, Scotch-Irish southerners on an economic basis suggests one example. Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland's 2010 re-election campaign suggests another.

Reconsidering Populism: Lawrence Goodwyn

Nevertheless, a post-Hofstadter, post-Wallace, post-1968 vision of the original Populists as potential political role models for the left does exist. It has its roots in historian Lawrence Goodwyn's Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, from 1976.

Goodwyn re-interpreted Populism as a lost opportunity of potentially transformative democratic potential. Goodwyn was moved not by Populist monetary policy or political rhetoric, but by what he considered its organically grassroots "movement culture" of economic cooperation and collective uplift.

Writing in a post-civil rights intellectual environment—in which historians were both more interested in race and class and less afraid of economic or cultural radicalism than the previous generation had been—Goodwyn placed the core of Populist culture in the south, rather than the west, and saw in it the possibility of transformative change unrealized.

The fact that bankers and machine politicians considered them dangerous radicals was a feature, not a bug. Some Populists had made sincere efforts to unite black and white southern farmers on an economic basis against the culture of white supremacy, and at the very height of the 1890s. Some Populists had made sincere efforts to unite farmers and wage workingmen as fellow producers with shared enemies.

The aspects of Populism Hofstadter had criticized most severely, especially the movement for free silver, were, to Goodwyn, barely even Populism at all. They were elements of a "shadow movement," a narrow co-option of what had once been a much broader movement with greater transformative potential.

For Goodwyn, in fact, the most important and inspiring Populist contribution to American society had occurred before they had even become Populists. It was the cooperative "movement culture" of the Farmers' Alliance purchasing and marketing cooperatives of the 1880s—from which the political apparatus of the People's Party eventually sprung—that represented the real opportunity to deflect American culture down a path not taken.

Culture, in fact, rather than psychology or politics, was Goodwyn's real subject, and he believed the real power in the 1890s lay in the ability of Populism's foes to narrow the horizon of the possible. "It is essential to recognize," Goodwyn wrote, "that Populism appeared at almost the very last moment before the values implicit in the corporate state captured the cultural high ground in American society itself." Its failure represented to Goodwyn a permanent constriction of what kinds of social organization were imaginable.

Of course, many intellectuals of Hofstadter's generation had specifically argued that the spectrum of permissible American social and economic thought was relatively narrow, and they meant it as a compliment. Intellectuals who experienced 1968 firsthand, but not 1945, were less likely to see it that way.

These, then, are the farthest poles of Populist as adjective, and Populism as political style. Populism as a grassroots culture; Populism as an ideology. Populism as an expression of optimism and potential; Populism as an expression of status anxiety.

Populism as the opportunity to build new, more wholesome coalitions and challenge the imaginative constraints of the old politics; Populism as George Wallace's brother-in-law and Joe McCarthy's cousin once removed.

When liberal strategists and commentators argue for more and more effective populism from the Democratic party, they have something like the former in mind. When the left-leaning, satirical online magazine Wonkette.com breaks out the "Get a Brain! Morans" jpeg, they mean the latter.

The Tea Party and Populism

Wonkette has been living in a target-rich environment lately. Two real-world developments, combined with two media events, appear to be responsible for the current batch of disparate "tea party" conservative groups which have caused so many observers to re-thumb their old paperback copies of The Paranoid Style.

The real-world events are the election, by a comfortable margin, of Barack Obama to the Presidency and the severe economic crisis he inherited upon reaching the White House.

The media events are this apparently spontaneous outburst by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in February of 2009, in which Santelli blames overextended borrowers, and not banks or bond markets, for the subprime mortgage crisis while pit traders cheer him on; and the shift of Glenn Beck's television program from CNN Headline News to Fox, where it premiered the week of Obama's inauguration.

The resulting tea party groups are widely credited with both reinvigorating the Republican Party and threatening its internal cohesion.

Does "populism" describe these tea party groups in a meaningful way? Not everyone thinks so. Certainly, they are hard to conceptualize as populists if your frame of reference is economic.

Examine, for example, the platform of the Maine Republican Party, which was shanghaied by state tea party groups this summer and then ridden to victory by new Republican governor Paul LePage. Does it bear any relationship to the practical economic concerns of the recession, except to the extent it demands the government stop doing anything about it?

The most consistent policy preference articulated by these various groups, in fact, appears to be opposition to robust government action of any kind. Government response to the recession has been quite robust, and this is a primary source of tea party anger.