May 09, 2009
When I lived in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, I got a call from a friend of mine who worked for the Congressional Research Service--a legislative agency that digs up facts, prepares briefing papers, and otherwise does research on any topic requested by members of Congress.
My friend could barely speak, because he was hooting, howling, and guffawing over a research question he'd just received. It was from the office of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the aloof and patrician Texas Democrat who was known on Capitol Hill primarily as a faithful emissary for Wall Street interests. At the time, Bentsen was contemplating a run for the presidency, and apparently he was searching for a suitable political identity. "What is a populist?" read the research query. "The senator thinks he might be one."
Uh...no sir, you are not.
Bentsen was closer to being "The Man in the Moon" than he was to
being a populist. Yet, he was hardly alone in trying to cloak himself
as "The People's Champion" while remaining faithful to the plutocratic
powers. These days, there's a whole flock of politicos and pundits
doing this--from Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich to Glenn
They are abetted by a media establishment that carelessly (and
lazily) misapplies the populist label to anyone who claims to be a
maverick and tends to bark a lot. Although the targets they're usually
barking at are poor people, teachers, minorities, unions, liberals,
protestors, environmentalists, gays, immigrants, or other demonized
groups that generally reside far outside the center of the power
structure--the barkers are indiscriminately tagged as populist voices.
First of all, populism is not a style, nor is it a synonym for
"popular outrage." It is a historically grounded political doctrine
(and movement) that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic
fight against the moneyed elites.
The very essence of populism is its unrelenting focus on breaking
the iron grip that big corporations have on our country--including on
our economy, government, media, and environment. It is unabashedly a
class movement. Try to squeeze Lord Limbaugh into that philosophical
suit of clothes! He's just another right-wing, corporate-hugging,
silk-tie elitist--an apologist for plutocracy, not a populist.
Fully embracing the egalitarian ideals and rebellious spirit of the
American Revolution, populists have always been out to challenge the
orthodoxy of the corporate order and to empower workaday Americans so
they can control their own economic and political destinies. This
approach distinguishes the movement from classic liberalism, which
seeks to live in harmony with concentrated corporate power by trying to
regulate its excesses.
We're seeing liberalism at work today in Washington's Wall Street
bailout. Both parties tell us that AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, and
the rest are "too big to fail," so taxpayers simply "must" rescue the
management, stockholders, and bondholders of the financial giants in
order to save the system. Populists, on the other hand, note that it is
this very system that has caused the failure-so structural reform is
required. Let's reorganize the clumsy, inept, ungovernable, and corrupt
financial system by ousting those who wrecked it, splitting up its
component parts (banking, investment, and insurance), and establishing
decentralized, manageable-sized financial institutions operating on the
locallycontrolled models of credit unions, co-ops, and community banks.
Not only is American populism a powerful and vibrant idea, but it
also has a phenomenal history that has largely been hidden from our
people. The Powers That Be are not keen to promote the story of a mass
movement that did--and still could--challenge the corporate structure.
Thus, the rich history of this grassroots force, which first arose in
the late 1870s, tends to be ignored entirely or trivialized as a quirky
pitchfork rebellion by rubes and racists who had some arcane quibble
involving the free coinage of silver.
The true portrait of populism is rarely on public display. History
teachers usually hustle students right past this unique moment in the
evolution of our democracy. You never see a movie or a television
presentation about the movement's innovative thinkers, powerful
orators, and dramatic events. National museums offer no exhibits of its
stunning inventions and accomplishments. And there is no "populist
trail of history" winding through the various states in which farmers
and workers created the People's Party (also known as the Populist Party),
reshaped the national political debate, forced progressive reforms,
delivered a million votes (and four states) to the party's 1892
presidential candidate, and elected 10 populist governors, six U.S.
senators, and three dozen House members.
This was a serious, thoughtful, determined effort by hundreds of
thousands of common folks to do something uncommon: organize themselves
so--collectively and cooperatively--they could remake both commerce and
government to serve the common good rather than the selfish interests
of the barons of industry and finance.
While the big media of that day portrayed the movement as an
incoherent bunch of conspiracy-minded bumpkins, the populists were in
fact guided by a sophisticated network of big thinkers, organizers, and
communicators who had a thorough grasp of exactly how the system worked
and why. Most significantly, they were problem solvers--their aim was
not protest, but to provide real mechanisms that could decentralize and
democratize power in our country. The movement was able to rally a huge
following of hard-scrabble farmers and put-upon workers because it did
not pussyfoot around. Its leaders dared to go right at the core problem
of an overreaching corporate state controlled by robber barons.
Populist organizers spoke bluntly about the need to restructure the
corporate system that was undermining America's democratic promise.
"Wall Street owns the country," declared Mary Ellen Lease
at an 1890 populist convention in Topeka, Kansas. A powerhouse orator
who took to the stump and wowed crowds at a time women were not even
allowed to vote, Lease laid out a message her audiences knew to be
true, for they were living what she was so colorfully describing. "It's
no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the
people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall
Street," she roared. "Our laws are the output of a system which clothes
rascals in robes and honesty in rags....The people are at bay, let the
bloodhounds of money who have dogged us beware."
These populist voices tapped directly into people's anger. But,
still, how could common farmers and laborers--largely impoverished and
powerless folks--possibly take on Wall Street, the railroad cartels,
corporate trusts, and lobbyists, as well as the politicians that these
powers owned? Well, even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the
tallest building, and--after all sorts of starts-and-stops--populists
found five ways to organize the movement and make their mark.
ECONOMIC. In 1877, before populism even had a name, it had a
mission, which was to do something--anything--about the spreading
economic plight of farmers all over the country. They faced not only
the usual disasters of weather and bugs, but also the unnatural
disasters of rampant gouging by bankers, crop-lien merchants, commodity
combines, railroad monopolies, and others. Government was worse than
unresponsive; it sided with the gougers.
An economic alternative was needed, and it came out of Texas. Known as the Farmers Alliance,
it created a network of cooperative enterprises that could both buy
supplies for farmers in bulk and pool their crops to sell in bulk,
bypassing the monopolists, getting better prices, and giving farmers a
modicum of control over their destinies. It was an idea that worked.
The first Texas Alliance quickly spawned 2,000 sub-alliances around
the state with a total of 100,000 members. Alliances were soon being
formed throughout the South, in all of the Plains states, in the upper
Midwest, and all across the West to California, bringing more than a
million farmers into a common economy. This was a vast, multi-sectional
structure of radical economic reform, creating a new possibility that
its leaders called a "cooperative commonwealth."
CULTURAL. The Alliance gave the movement a solid structure,
as well as essential credibility, through its delivery of tangible
benefits to members. But it also created something much larger and more
important: the means for ordinary people to learn what a democratic
culture really is and to implement a vision of an alternative way to
These were working-class families of very modest means. They had
little formal education, lived in isolated communities, and were
treated as nobodies by the influentials who ran things. But--whoa!--now
these outcasts were running something, and they mattered, both
individually and as a group.
It was transformative for them. Lawrence Goodwyn, author of Democratic Promise,
the definitive book on the populist phenomenon, sees this cultural
awakening as the key triumph of the Alliance: "[The cooperative
experience] imparted a sense of self worth to individual people and
provided them with the instruments of self-education about the world
they lived in. The movement gave them hope--a shared hope--that they
were not impersonal victims of a gigantic industrial engine ruled by
others but that they were, instead, people who could perform specific
political acts of self-determination."
It was not all about business, either. Parades of farm wagons and
colorful floats, day-long picnics, brass bands, song fests (Mary Ellen
Lease was a renowned singer, as well as an orator), dances, poetry, and
other social/cultural events enlivened and deepened the Alliance
community, creating what Goodwyn calls a "mass folk movement." In
addition, the Alliance ran a massive grassroots education program
throughout rural America, providing everything from literature networks
to adult-ed classes.
MEDIA. To stay connected and provide a steady flow of energy,
the movement relied on a concerted program of education and
communication--not only to enlighten and invigorate its widely
dispersed members, but also to bring in new recruits. This required the
Alliance to create its own media, for the establishment outlets offered
only scorn and ridicule for the populist cause.
Books, over a thousand populist magazines, newspapers, and hundreds
of popular songs and poems flowed from the movement. The communication
lynchpin, however, was the Alliance Lecture Bureau, a stable of
trained, articulate speakers--40,000 strong!--who regularly traversed
the country from New York to California, bringing information, insight,
and inspiration to all corners of Populist Nation. Goodwyn notes that
this amazing system of reliable messengers was "the most massive
organizing drive by any citizen institution of nineteenth century
COALITIONS. Though it created serious tensions in various
Alliance chapters, the movement kept trying to broaden its base by
joining hands with other groups that were also confronting corporate
power. Early on, its leaders reached out to the emerging labor
movement. While there were Alliance leaders who thought of farmers as
Jeffersonian, small-scale capitalists, many others (and many more
rank-and-file members) viewed farmers essentially as working stiffs
battling the same robber barons that labor was confronting. In 1885,
the Knights of Labor were on strike against two companies in Texas, and
several county alliances in that state voted to boycott the companies.
This stand was a defining moment for the Alliance, for it heralded the
co-op movement's shift into a more radical political phase.
By 1892, the Alliance's political arm, the Populist Party, fully embraced the relationship with industrial workers. Ignatius Donnelly
of Minnesota electrified the national delegates to the party convention
that year with a speech pointing directly to a shared cause with the
union movement: "The urban workmen are denied the right of organization
for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages;
a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to
shoot them down....The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen
to build up colossal fortunes....From the same prolific womb of
governmental injustice we breed two great classes-paupers and
An even tougher match-up for the leadership was with black farmers, who had organized their own Colored Farmers National Alliance
with about a million members. Aside from the obvious barrier that
entrenched racism presented to this possible coalition, there was
another degree of separation: white Alliance members tended to be farm
owners (albeit heavily-mortgaged owners), and black Alliance members
were mostly field hands, renters, or sharecroppers. Yet, there was such
a strong feeling of a shared fight that real and successful efforts
were made to join together.
In A People's History of the United States,
author Howard Zinn writes, "When the Texas People's Party was founded
in Dallas in the summer of 1891, it was interracial and radical." A
white leader at that meeting demanded that each district in the state
include a black delegate, pointing out that, "They are in the ditch
just like we are." Two black Alliance members were then elected to the
party's executive committee. Alliances in Arkansas, Georgia, and North
Carolina also made notable advances in interracial actions, and eminent
historian C. Vann Woodward has said flatly that, "Never before or since
have the two races in the South come so close together as they did
during the Populist struggles."
The Alliance also included what was, at the time, a remarkable
number of women activists. They made up roughly one-quarter of the
membership and held many key posts.
POLITICS. By the mid-1880s, the Alliance reached a point
where it had to abandon its original stance of non-partisanship and
start flexing its political muscle. The big commodity brokers and
railroad barons were brutalizing the co-ops with predatory pricing and
other monopoly tactics, and bankers were squeezing the Alliance's
marketing co-ops by refusing to provide loans. The major political
parties, which were in harness to these moneyed interests, offered no
relief from the corporate assault, while also refusing to advance any
of the Alliance's broader reform agenda.
For about six years, Alliance members held countless local meetings,
debates, and consultations on how to proceed politically. Finally,
Alliance delegates met in Omaha on July 4, 1892, for the founding
convention of the People's Party of America, proudly branding
themselves "The Populists."
Now, they could run their own people for offices up and down the
ballot, campaigning on a broad platform to counter the "corporations,
national banks, rings, trusts...and the oppression of usurers" in order
to advance the common interests of the "plain people." The Knights of
Labor were a part of this founding, and the preamble to the party's
1892 platform declared that "The interests of rural and civil labor are
the same; their enemies are identical."
Yes, the Populists called for the "free and unlimited coinage of
silver" to provide both debt relief and economic stimulus for small
enterprise, but the snickering cynics who try to marginalize populism
by defining it in terms of this narrow (though important) issue ignore
the party's broader and amazingly progressive agenda, including these
- The first party to call for women's suffrage.
- An eight-hour day for labor, plus wage protections.
- The abolition of the standing army of mercenaries, known as the "Pinkerton system," which violently suppressed union organizers.
- The direct election by the people of U.S. senators (who were chosen by state legislatures at the time).
- A graduated income tax.
- Legislation by popular initiative and referendum.
- Public ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs.
- No subsidy of private corporations for any purpose.
- Prohibition of speculation on and foreign ownership of our public lands and natural resources.
- A free ballot and fair count in all elections.
- Civil-service laws to prevent the politicalization of government employees.
- Pensions for veterans.
- Measures to break the corrupting power of corporate lobbyists.
Ultimately, the Populists were undone, not by their boldness, but by
leaders who urged them to compromise and to merge their aspirations
into the Democratic Party. In the presidential election of 1896, they
nominated the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan,
whose "cross of gold" campaign focused on the monetary issue, avoiding
the much more appealing structural radicalism of Populism. Outspent
five to one, Bryan lost a close race to William McKinley, the
Republican who was financed and owned by Wall Street.
The People's Party, having surrendered its independence and soul at
a time the Alliance was being gutted by the money interests and the
press, lost favor with its own faithful--and withered into a parody of
Nonetheless, the Populists had successfully energized, organized,
educated, and mobilized one of America's few genuine mass movements,
striking fear in the flinty hearts of such barons as J.P. Morgan, who
railed against that "awful democracy."
The party was killed off, but not the Populist spirit. Persevering
in separate political forms, the constituent components of
populism--including unionists, suffragists, anti-trusters, socialists,
cooperativists, and rural organizers--continued the struggle against
America's economic and political aristocracy. Indeed, populists defined
the content of national politics for the first third of the 20th
century, forcing the Democratic Party to adopt populist positions,
spawning the Progressive Party, elevating two Roosevelts to the
presidency, and enacting major chunks of the agenda first drawn up by
the People's Party.
Though the Powers That Be don't want us connecting with this
stunning "Populist Moment" in our democratic history, a majority of
folks today hold within them the live spark of populism--which is an
innate distrust of corporate tycoons and Wall Street titans and an
instinct to rebel against them. The moment can come again. As Goodwyn
tells us, "the triumph of Populism...was the belief in possibility it
injected into American political consciousness."
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© 2023 Jim Hightower
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