Yes, Ashley, there are Populist Democrats

From the May 15, 2004, issue of The Progressive Populist

Ashley Bourgerie, a student from Bloomington, Ind., recently wrote asking us how Democrats are Populists, or similar to Populists. "Have you had an article on such a topic? Or do you have any say on that?"

Not only do we have a say on that, but we have editorial space to fill!

The Populist movement started in the 1880s as an agrarian revolt against the capitalist excesses of the Gilded Age. It was a time of technological innovations -- such as machinery to reap ever greater harvests and railroads to carry the crops to markets across the continent. They were supposed to make great things possible in the Heartland of the USA but they ended up putting millions of people off the land or making them dependent on faceless capitalists in New York City or elsewhere when the economy went out of whack.

The People's Party (the Populists), became a major contender in Southern and Western states in the 1890s and it threatened to replace the Democratic Party in many of those states. It was only by co-opting the Populist message in some places and terror campaigns in other places that national Republican and Democratic officials broke the upstart coalition of white and black farmers and working people.

The Populists won control of several legislatures and elected congressmen and senators, but more importantly they scared the Hell out of the Democrats and Republicans. After the 1894 election, Ds and Rs in the South and West started to bring their national parties more in line with popular sentiment in their regions. In 1896 Democrats co-opted a major part of the Populist platform when they endorsed the free coinage of silver (which would reverse deflation) and nominated William Jennings Bryan, who was close to Populists in his native Nebraska, for president. Business interests poured money into Republican William McKinley's campaign and McKinley won with 51% of the vote.

The Progressive movement (which included Democrats and Republicans) incorporated much of the Populist agenda in the early 1900s, but with an aura of middle-class respectability. That led, among other things, to anti-trust regulations, progressive income tax, direct election of senators and the vote for women. They got their break when the assassination of McKinley in 1901 made Theodore Roosevelt president. T.R. broke from the pro-business policies of the GOP as he targeted monopolistic business practices. His administration sued over 40 major corporations for antitrust or price-fixing violations. Muckraking journalists also focused attention on the need for reforms. Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, which traced an immigrant family's exploitation and downward spiral in Chicago's meat packing industry, helped to spur enactment of the Pure Food and Drug and the Meat Inspection Acts in 1906, the first legislation of its kind.

When Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, aligned with big business interests, Roosevelt ran as the head of the Progressive "Bull Moose" Party in 1912. The Republican vote split, enabling Democratic New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson to win. Wilson followed a generally progressive course until World War I diverted his attention.

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, a coalition of farmers and workers that was a reaction to the Great Depression, was in some senses a culmination of the Populist movement with its expansion of farm programs that saved family farms and laws that enabled workers to organize into effective unions as well as laws that beefed up anti-trust regulations before World War II.

After World War II big business set about to repeal the New Deal under the cover of defeating communism. Labor unions lost much of their power with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed over Harry Truman's veto in 1947. Large agribusiness interests started taking a bigger role in agriculture. Washington-based corporate lobbyists took a much bigger role in government as big business systematically co-opted the Democratic Party leadership as well as the GOP.

Since then there has been a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. The populist wing survived to promote John Kennedy's New Frontier program and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program, but Republicans cynically used passage of the civil rights laws in the 1960s to gain a foothold with white supremacists in the South.

Today there aren't any real populists in the Republican leadership (although many would claim the mantle, confusing populism with demagoguery). The GOP economic philosophy is still "trickle-down" doctrine -- that the government should help rich people so they will hire the poor people. Populists believe that government should side with the workers and small businesses against bosses and large corporations, and help consumers against unscrupulous merchants. On the Democratic side the the Democratic Leadership Council represents big-business interests. Liberals in the House and Senate, including Sen. John Kerry from Massachusetts, are friendly to populist causes, although Kerry, who played up populist issues when he overtook Howard Dean and John Edwards in January, has played down that rhetoric in deference to his Wall Street backers in the presidential race.

In short, populism still wins elections for the Democrats but big business still pays for the campaigns -- and usually gets their bills passed.

The Right wouldn't rule for long in a democratic society in elections that turned on economic issues, which is why they rely on external threats such as war in Iraq to distract voters. That's why populists cannot put up with imperial ventures in foreign policy any more than we can afford to be diverted by cultural wedge issues that distract from bread-and-butter issues.

But neither can we afford quixotic candidates on the Left when we face a conservative movement that wants to roll back not only the New Deal but also the Progressive movement and take us back to the days of William McKinley. Howard Dean showed the possibilities of an Internet-based campaign. He nearly put together a populist groundswell to win the nomination but the corporate media managed to do him in. Voters in the Democratic primaries chose the Democrat who seemed the safest bet in the general election.

Still, the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is not over. Populist Democrats need to keep Kerry honest. They also need to continue long-term organizing, developing resources such as the Internet and an independent media that takes public service seriously and airs progressive issues.

A bright spot is Air America Radio, which has been operating a daily lineup of progressive talk shows for one month. The network started with stations in New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles and Riverside, Calif., as well as Sirius Satellite Radio and the Internet at airamericaradio.com. It is now also on the air in West Palm Beach and Key West, Fla., Burlington, Vt., Portland, Maine, and Chapel Hill, N.C., with 14 other stations set to join soon, although the network also lost its L.A. and Chicago stations in a dispute with the media company that leased time on the stations. The liberal talkers, led by comic Al Franken and veteran talker Randi Rhodes, have shown they can do the job; if they are more progressive than populist, at least they are exposing Republican lies and providing a mainstream alternative to the Limbaugh/O'Reilly axis. The fact that the Air America crew is not more widely broadcast puts the lie to the claim that there is a liberal bias in the media. Breaking up the corporate media monopolies is still Job One of a populist revival. -- JMC

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2004 The Progressive Populist