Imagine this: Americans are frustrated by taxation policies that they consider to be unfair. They scoff at politicians who are either corrupted or uncaring. They demand a drastic fiscal policy change to address serious shortcomings in the economy.
This is not the story of recent American political history. It’s the 1890s.
In that decade from long ago, the Populist Party (also known as the People's Party) emerged as a viable alternative to the two main parties, which seemed to be ignoring the difficulties of average Americans. They were successful enough to get members elected to Congress and even influenced the presidential election of 1896, a turning point election by most historical accounts.
Today we have the tea party that demands many things from government, but the Populists had it right all along. They demanded an income tax but they hoped to lessen the impact of tariffs, a regressive tax, in favor of a graduated tax that asked the wealthiest Americans to sacrifice as much as the average American was sacrificing in the steel mills, coal mines, sweatshops and farmlands. Eventually, their efforts bore fruit when the 16th Amendment was added to the Constitution. It seems our politics today has forgotten the purpose and the intent of a graduated tax when middle class folks pay more, and millionaires somehow pay little to no tax.
Today we have tea party members who attempt to offer a third option, but in many ways they are a rehash of the neo-conservatives who ran the government under President George W. Bush.
Is it time for a new Populist Party? One that wouldn’t cut off its nose to spite its face?
Fiscally, the Populists supported inflationary policies, such as coining money in silver in addition to the gold standard of their day. They also were so frustrated by the power of big businesses such as railroads, steel and oil over the economy that they actually demanded the government nationalize the railroad and telegraph industries.
Yet these radical proposals may actually have caused people to accept the more moderate policy changes of the Progressive Era like the Pure Food and Drug Act and laws to restrict the railroads rather than take them over. Populists and their cousins, the Progressives, found a leader in a young, vigorous and popular president, Theodore Roosevelt, who did what he believed was best for all Americans despite the protestations of the wealthy and the powerful.
Where is our young, vigorous and popular president today? He seems to have disappeared sometime after January 2009.
The tea party isn’t your grandfather’s Populist Party, and Obama just doesn’t quite fit as our Roosevelt. It appears we need a new infusion of populist and progressive ideas to restart our economy and get our politics to serve the needs of the people rather than falsely creating debt ceiling crises to hog-tie people into cutting programs that actually benefit the little guy.