Populism Gets a Bum Rap

In an age when our political pundits like to give great lip service to the notion of government of, for and by the people, populism -- and particularly 19th century agrarian populism, which often rightfully serves as the model by which all other forms of American populism is measured -- has been getting a bum rap.

Recently, for example, CNN commentator Lou Dobbs was discussing with Time magazine's Joe Klein his essay in the magazine where he pointed out that "there are, of course, plenty of different ways to look at problems, but I suspect what's really missing here are the two most important political products: a Party of Sanity, representing the pragmatic centrism of the business and professional elites, and a Party of Passion, representing populist anger about outsourcing, illegal immigration, social permissiveness and Bush's overseas activism."

Dobbs questioned whether "populism" was truly what was needed today as opposed to simply a people's government, since populism had always been so "nativist" in character. Other politically correct commentators go to the extreme by characterizing populism as anti-Semitic and racist, neither of which, upon careful examination, is true.

When evaluating populism, two key points must be kept in mind: the origin of its roots and its ultimate goal, both germane to today's political debates concerning reform.

A variety of protest movements rapidly grew out of the economic hardships following the Civil War, ranging from the National Grange in the 1870s to the Populists in the 1880s. Originally organized as farm social clubs to sustain the certain richness they saw in the texture of rural life, the Patrons of Husbandry, popularly known as the Grange, came into existence in 1867.

Usually they would adjourn after their formal meetings only to reconvene an "anti-monopoly" meeting, which, although shunning partisan political activity, was largely devoted to discussing the railroads, the bankers‚ excessive interest charges and foreclosures, grain elevator operators, farm equipment companies and commodity middlemen.

In an effort to overcome these economic hurdles, the Grange began cooperative buying and selling while at the same time seeking legislation to control the abuses of the railroads.

Their lack of business knowledge, capital and cooperative experience led to an early demise for many of their ventures. They were successful, however, in securing many needed reforms in the railroad business, including reduced fare, freight and warehouse rates.

As the influence of the Grange diminished, the Greenback Party came to represent agrarian interests.

As a fundamental transformation in rural America was taking place in the late 1800s, largely fueled by overproduction in agriculture, an accelerated exploitation of abundant natural resources and rapidly improving labor-saving technology, urban America was also changing. Cities were becoming crowded, poverty was increasingly prevalent, huge factories seeking cheap labor were multiplying and large corporations were replacing small businesses everywhere.

Coming at the end of a generation of instability and suffering, many believed the depression of the 1890s to be psychologically and politically more disruptive than its predecessors. The answer to this new disaster, government and business leaders contended, was to enlarge metropolitan or industrial exports, thereby creating more of a demand in the domestic market for the nation's abundant agricultural surpluses.

Most of the farm community, of course, viewed such thinking as another instance of eastern capitalist discrimination, and while they argued for renewed efforts to expand overseas markets, they believed that the key to "commercial independence from the East" was to first become financially independent.

They believed that Thomas Jefferson had it right when he wrote in an 1809 letter to John Jay:

"Manufacturers sufficient for our own consumption, of what we raise the raw material (and no more). Commerce sufficient to carry the surplus produce of agriculture, beyond our own consumption, to a market for exchanging it for articles we cannot raise (and no more). These are the true limits of manufactures and commerce. To go beyond them is to increase our dependence on foreign nations, and our liability to war. These three important branches of human industry will then grow together, and be really handmaidens to each other."

As Southern farmers sought to escape the tyranny of sharecropping and the "furnishing merchant" system and western farmers fought the tyranny of burgeoning debt and mortgage foreclosures, both believed they saw American agriculture being driven into involuntary servitude.

From a mass democratic movement, which had initially been generated by a cooperative crusade and which was to become the heart of the "agrarian revolt," to the formation of the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union, emerged a political movement that came to be called populism.

Populism, as historian Lawrence Goodwyn reminds us, was characterized by an evolving democratic culture in which people could "see themselves" and therefore aspire to a society conducive to mass human dignity. In stark contrast to their efforts was the direction they saw being taken by the corporate state in the existing society.

Populism clearly recognized this condition and thus believed that it was imperative to bring the corporate state under democratic control.

"Agrarian reformers' aim," Goodwyn points out, "was structural reform of the American economic system."

The fact that populism achieved a high measure of success for nearly a decade in the late 1800s explains why in the century since this "agrarian revolt," corporate America has reacted so strongly and swiftly to any renewed moves by the nation's farmers to assert that same economic and political power they applied in the late 1800s.

One characteristic of the populist revolt that deserves special attention, however, was the movement's resistance to racism and racist propaganda throughout the South. In a determined effort against incredible odds, populists sought to win political rights for blacks and defend those rights against white terrorism. Historian C. Vann Woodward portrays the results of that effort:

"The Populists failed [politically], and some of them turned bitterly against the Negro as the cause of their failure. But in the efforts they made for racial justice and political rights they went further toward extending the Negro political fellowship, recognition and equality than any native white political movement has ever done before or since in the South."

In addition it should also be noted here that because some elements within the farm communities began to generalize their attack upon the Eastern and English financiers and industrialists of the time into an attack on the Jews, there is an assumption that the early agrarian populist movement was anti-Semitic in nature.

Prominent American historian William Appleman Williams, however, disputes that assumption. "Having read a vast number of Populist papers, letters and proceedings, it is my considered judgment that the incidence of anti-Semitism was very low."

Williams continues, "Jews did enjoy great power in European and American financial circles during this period. They further took great pride, as they had traditionally, in exercising that power. Hence to attack them for possessing and exercising that vast economic power is not prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism."

Although many of the "populist" farm policy seeds would later flower in the form of constructive state and national farm and anti-corporate legislation, the People's Party's demise as a political force came in the 1896 presidential election, when the Silverites captured control of the Party. They were amalgamated with the Democrats, as William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of the "populist" rhetoric, and were beaten decisively by William McKinley and the Republicans.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. Email; Web site

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