How About a Populist Movement?

Many valuable political lessons can be learned by today's body politic from the 19th century's agrarian populist movement.

When viewing today's political landscape, however, that promise seems rather remote. Clearly what Bush and his right-wing co-conspirators seek is to transform this nation from a populist republic into a corporate plutocracy.

What is needed is the inauguration of a progressive populist movement as opposed to simply another politics-as-usual party.

One can measure the success of the "agrarian revolt" of the late 1800s in the US by the manner in which corporate America subsequently reacted so viscerally in the century that followed. For the hallmark of that revolt was that our nation's abused family farmers defiantly proclaimed the Jeffersonian ideal that one cannot have political democracy without economic democracy.

While economic democracy was a stated goal of the Farm Alliance in the late 1800s, as its members declared in their Omaha Platform of 1892, it also represented a rebellion against the American political party system of the day. In order to restructure the nation's financial and economic system, the Alliance came to reject, as many of us do today, both major political parties, which they accused of being in "harmony with monopoly."

It is true that the populists would lose the presidential election of 1892 and 1896, the latter campaign dominated by big money and mass advertising, a campaign some historians have described as setting "the creative standard for the 20th century." But it is undeniable that in those years the agrarian populists also initiated what independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader has called "the country's most fundamental political and economic reform movement since the Constitution was ratified."

One of the most noteworthy principles that emerged out of the "agrarian revolt" at that time which has particular relevance to our times was spoken by William Lamb, the leader of the Alliance radicals and perhaps populism's most articulate theoretician, in a historic 1886 open letter to the "Rural Citizen."

As business became more economically concentrated, Lamb contended, farmers who continued to strive for friendship and parity with the commercial world were simply failing to comprehend "what is going on against us." Members of the Alliance, he wrote, had to put aside such naivete.

"We think all members should show the world which side they are on and we are looking forward for men that will advocate our interests, those who are working against us are no good for us ... Then for it to be said that we are unwise to let them alone, we can't hold our pens still until we have exposed the matter and let it be known what it is we are working for."

As Populist historian Norman Pollack stresses, citizens must now, as they did in the 19th century Populist movement, challenge the strident materialism of our day and "work to achieve a democratized industrial system of humane working conditions and production for human needs."

The 19th-century populists sought to build a society where individuals fulfilled themselves "not at the expense of others but as social beings, and in so doing attain a higher form of individuality." A society we should strive for in the 21st century is one to be judged not at its apex, but at its base; that the quality of life of the masses should be the index by which we measure social improvement. Our populism must undertake to remain a radical social force within political systems that provide little opportunity for expression of radicalism.

We cannot wed ourselves to a politically expedient populism characterized by racist and xenophobic attitudes. As Alliance for Democracy co-founder Ronnie Dugger notes: "The 21st-century populists' critique of existing arrangements must go beyond economic conditions to embrace individuals' plight. They must address the dehumanization and loss of autonomy in a society that rapidly reduces the individual to being dependent on someone else's decision, laws, machinery and land.

The 19th-century Populist movement's recognition, for example, of the plight of family farmers and labor and the efforts made on their behalf were premised on the idea that unless society was attuned to their needs it ceased to be democratic. Unless all people are free no one is free.

If populists in alliance are to replace today's corporatist culture, they must adopt an ideological framework built on aggressive advocacy and create a "movement culture." Such a populism will have to be characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people can see themselves working together and aspiring to a society conducive to mass human dignity.

People must also recognize clearly the imminent dangers of the "corporatist" culture and educate and work to bring that corporate state under democratic control. Thus, rather than isolate and concentrate on "issues," 21st-century populism must focus on the system, for the system has become the issue.

In proceeding to build what the pre-eminent Populist historian Lawrence Goodwyn has described as the "sequential process of democratic movement-building," we can learn valuable lessons from the 19th-century populists.

We must develop horizontal communication between such groups of people and individuals both within our own communities and nation and then begin to build an international populism all as suggested in Sam Smith's incisive commentary "The Election is Over -- We Lost: Now on to Nov. 3" [4/1/04 TPP].

We can teach each other what each of us learns and knows and what mistakes we make -- a development that can be described as "movement forming." In developing such a system of communication we also create a forum and environment whereby we can continue to attract masses of people -- "the movement recruiting."

By proceeding in such a fashion, keeping in mind a commitment to the creative nonviolence and democratic process, and remembering that populism seeks to replace corporate power with democratic power, people can begin a culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis -- "the movement education."

Finally, 21st-century populists, in alliance, will create an institutional means, not necessarily a political party, whereby new ideas, shared now by the rank-and-file of a mass political, social and cultural movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way -- "the movement politicized."

After the agrarian populists adopted the Omaha Platform of 1892 they circulated it far and wide not only seeking support for its provisions, but using it as a guide to which candidates they would support for public office. Few people realize that they were highly successful on the state level and in Congress, despite the fact that their success has always been falsely measured by historians by their failure to win the presidency in 1892 and 1896.

Certainly a major step by family farmers, consumers, and workers toward restoring a government of the people, by the people and for the people would be to revive and inaugurate a serious political populist movement.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email;

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