On my list of favorite people from American history, the Populists rank near the top. Composed largely of farmers from throughout the country, especially in the South and Midwest, the Populists formed one of the greatest mass democratic movements in American history when they rose up to challenge the economic power structure of Gilded Age America. Seeing themselves as inheritors of the republican ideology of “producerism” dating back to the American Revolution, Populists believed they were completing the unfinished democratic project of the Civil War.
Building an interracial movement, the Populists sought to escape the vicious cycle of ever-increasing debt that was the crop-lien and sharecropping systems ensnaring millions of farmers, white and black. At the same time, they looked to forge an alliance with the industrial working class caught in similar economic traps.
So I take it personally when the term “populist” is misused and applied to self-aggrandizing billionaires and their followers.
In popular usage, the term seems to mean little more than politicians’ attempts to tap into white working-class anger and xenophobia. In a recent New York magazine article, Jonathan Chait wrote that Donald Trump “is getting serious about populism,” though the primary examples he cites are Trump’s “vague promise to replace Obamacare with something terrific” and his comment that “I don’t get along well with the rich.” Given that the list of people with whom Trump doesn’t get along is lengthy indeed, such statements hardly seem evidence of a thoroughgoing challenge to the power elite.
Hanging the populist label on anyone associated with the modern GOP requires a willful ignorance of the political culture of the original Populists. In contrast to the current Republican philosophy of shrinking the role of government and decreasing taxes, the Populists called for a drastic increase in the size and scope of government to help farmers, workers and the unemployed, as well as public ownership of the railroad, telegraph and telephone companies, and a graduated income tax.
The ersatz populism offered by Trump — and so many others promiscuously given the label — stands in stark contrast to the ideology of the agrarian revolt of the late-nineteenth century. As farmers in the post-Civil War era became more fully enmeshed in the developing national and international economy, they found integration into larger market networks drove crop prices down while increased reliance on monopolies like the railroads, over whose rates they had no control, made it more difficult for them to feed their own families. In an era of spectacular economic growth, the irony was not lost on farmers that their desperate straits existed in the midst of economic abundance. Meanwhile, dominant economic and social theories, with their emphasis on laissez faire capitalism and Social Darwinism, offered no sympathy for debt-ridden farmers in the same way they offered none for the growing number of unemployed wandering the country in the many depression years of the late-nineteenth century.
The warnings sounded by the Populists continue to resonate. In an era in which the growth of corporate power had come to dominate government, the courts and the press, the Populists viewed its fundamental impact as even more pernicious in that it established greed as the foundation of social relations. As the Texas Populist intellectual and gubernatorial candidate Thomas Nugent said in 1892, “The spirit of plutocratic capitalism is the dominating force in our organized social and industrial life…. It robs genius of its glory, makes of intellect a drudge and a slave, and utilizes the achievements of science to raid the stock markets and enlarge the margin of profits. Thus it wipes out as with a sponge the distinction between right and wrong, makes merchandise of the noblest ideals, sets gain before the world as the highest end of life and converts men into predatory human animals.”
Similarly, Lorenzo D. Lewelling, Kansas’ Populist governor (1893−1895), could be talking about the current crop of free-market ideologues: “The survival of the fittest is the government of brutes and reptiles, and such philosophy must give place to a government which recognizes human brotherhood. It is the province of government to protect the weak, but the government today is resolved into a struggle of the masses with the [wealthy] classes for supremacy and bread, until business, home and personal integrity are trembling in the face of possible want in the family…. If it be true that the poor have no right to the property of the rich let it also be declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor.”
The Populists’ project of building bridges to overcome the many deep social divisions in Gilded Age America represents the antithesis of Trump’s racism and xenophobia. From their agrarian origins, farmers reached out to industrial workers and the unemployed, fellow victims, in their view, of the war between the classes, standing with labor in all the era’s important strikes and the unemployed in the march of Coxey’s Army.
As they formed a third political party, they confronted the sectionalism and regional hold the two main political parties had on American politics, especially in an age when the Civil War was a recent memory and the bloody shirt waved regularly. And in the South especially, this split involved even more basic social issues, as existing party politics intermingled at a fundamental level with the region’s racial divisions.
Populists in the South, then, in challenging the dominant Democratic Party, confronted directly that party’s ideology of white supremacy. As Georgia Populist Tom Watson said regarding white and black farmers, “Now the People’s Party says to these two men, ‘You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.’”
The “populist moment,” as Lawrence Goodwyn called it in the title of his classic 1978 study, was brief. A merger with Democrats in 1896 resulted in electoral defeat and the consequent backward motion of history was rapid. The Southern white power structure intensified its efforts at disenfranchising black voters and instituting Jim Crow to drive a wedge between white and black workers, offering white workers what W.E.B. DuBois called the “higher public and psychological wage” of institutional racism in exchange for accepting the lower wages of inter-racial competition. Within two decades, even Tom Watson was editorially urging on lynch mobs.
The ultimate defeat of Populism provides the context in which the farmers’ revolt can be condescendingly viewed as a quixotic effort and the term populism so widely appropriated and misunderstood. But the warnings of the original Populists continue to speak to us across time in our neo-Gilded Age. In the words of William Jennings Bryan, who bridged the gap between Populists and Democrats and stood as the 1896 presidential candidate for both parties, “The poor man is called a socialist if he believes that the wealth of the rich should be divided among the poor, but the rich man is called a financier if he devises a plan by which the pittance of the poor can be converted to his use.”