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New Left Review 7, January-February 2001

Tom Mertes on Thomas Frank, One Market Under God. The Robin Hood of anti-Cultural Studies leads a merry chase against market populism.



What best characterized the politics and culture of the nineties in the world’s most powerful nation? Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler—Chicago’s liveliest counter-cyclical journal—offers the most pungent reply to date. The title of One Market Under God is in its own way misleading. For Frank’s central argument is that in the last decades of the twentieth century, the United States saw two successive waves of populism, both equally remote from the insurgent traditions of Tom Watson or Robert LaFollette, but opposite in their relations with the deity. In the eighties, Reagan rode to power on a crest of ‘backlash’ populism, mobilizing white blue-collar workers, small businessmen, traditional farmers as a ‘moral majority’ pitted against a liberal establishment pilloried as decadent, irresponsible and elitist, scorning the values of order, family and religion. ‘Enunciated memorably in the speeches of Spiro Agnew and Clint Eastwood’, backlash populism ‘reminded “normal Americans” of the hideous world that the “establishment” had built, a place where blasphemous intellectuals violated the principles of Americanism at every opportunity, a place of busing and crime in the streets, of unimaginable cultural depravity, of epidemic disrespect for men in uniform, of judges gone soft on crime and politicians gone soft on communism’. For all its electoral success, however, this version of populism did not—and could not—celebrate the free market and business culture as exclusive arbiters of the good life: the Bible, the frontier, the family stood in the way.

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Tom Mertes, ‘Baffler in Boomtown’, NLR 7: £3

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