The Populist Fight Against Corporate Power Circa 1892

John Collins March 2, 2017

"The Bosses of the Senate" by Joseph Keppler depicts corporate interests as giant money bags looming over senators at their desks. It was published in 1889.

Pop­ulism” (accord­ing to the most read­i­ly acces­si­ble dig­i­tal dic­tio­nary) means sup­port for the con­cerns of ordi­nary peo­ple” or, defined even more gen­er­al­ly, the qual­i­ty of appeal­ing to or being aimed at ordi­nary peo­ple.” Polit­i­cal pop­ulism, as we saw last year, has no alle­giance to a spe­cif­ic ide­ol­o­gy (or par­ty). Don­ald Trump rode a pop­ulist wave into the White House, but Bernie Sanders spent two years gen­er­at­ing an impres­sive swell of his own. In oth­er words, pop­ulism is the vehi­cle with which a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of every­day peo­ple set out to teach the elites of an era a les­son — but it’s not the destination.

In What Is A Pop­ulist?” pub­lished ear­li­er this week in The Atlantic, Uri Fried­man explains the phenomenon’s flex­i­bil­i­ty this way:

No def­i­n­i­tion of pop­ulism will ful­ly describe all pop­ulists. That’s because pop­ulism is a thin ide­ol­o­gy” in that it only speaks to a very small part of a polit­i­cal agen­da,” accord­ing to Cas Mud­de, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the co-author of Pop­ulism: A Very Short Intro­duc­tion. An ide­ol­o­gy like fas­cism involves a holis­tic view of how pol­i­tics, the econ­o­my, and soci­ety as a whole should be ordered. Pop­ulism doesn’t; it calls for kick­ing out the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment, but it doesn’t spec­i­fy what should replace it. So it’s usu­al­ly paired with thick­er” left- or right-wing ide­olo­gies like social­ism or nationalism. 

When study­ing pop­ulism, social­ism, nation­al­ism, fas­cism or any oth­er ism for that mat­ter, the Unit­ed States is get­ting old enough to pro­vide us with his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels — can­di­dates, elec­tions and social cir­cum­stances that can be mined for rel­e­vant nation­al com­par­isons. In the full­ness of time, some are more rel­e­vant than oth­ers. Last June, for exam­ple, before Don­ald Trump won the 2016 elec­tion and when many were spec­u­lat­ing he wouldn’t, Forbes pub­lished Before Don­ald Trump, There Was William Jen­nings Bryan” in which author Tim Reuter’s writes:

Imag­ine the fol­low­ing sce­nario. Years after the stock mar­ket has crashed, mil­lions remain unem­ployed. Severe polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion has par­a­lyzed the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. As the coun­try enters a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year, pop­ulists sense their moment has arrived. They not only attack accept­ed eco­nom­ic doc­trines, but one pop­ulist wins the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion of a major polit­i­cal party.

What year is it? It is 1896… 

Unlike Don­ald Trump, William Jen­nings Bryan, a Demo­c­rat, ulti­mate­ly lost that elec­tion — send­ing the par­ty into an elec­toral tail­spin that took near­ly 40 years to cor­rect — but Reuter’s com­par­i­son is still insight­ful as is his account of the rise and fall of pop­ulist move­ments in the Unit­ed States. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times, is Reuter’s analy­sis of pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics four years ear­li­er, in 1892 — a time when, in his words, The first rum­blings of the pop­ulist insur­gency that would reshape Amer­i­can pol­i­tics went large­ly unnoticed.”

He writes:

In the sum­mer of 1892, farm­ers and labor activists met in Oma­ha, Neb., for a polit­i­cal con­ven­tion. On July 4, the People’s Par­ty issued its plat­form. It denounced the divi­sion of soci­ety into two great class­es — tramps and mil­lion­aires.” The list of pro­posed reme­dies includ­ed gov­ern­ment con­trol of the rail­roads, a grad­u­at­ed income tax,” and a nation­al cur­ren­cy” that was safe, sound, and flex­i­ble.” The con­ven­tion nom­i­nat­ed James B. Weaver, a for­mer con­gress­man and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for the short-lived Green­back Par­ty. On Elec­tion Day, Weaver won twen­ty-two elec­toral votes and 8.5 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. 

Though I’d not seen the above sto­ry at the time, I post­ed a sim­i­lar­ly themed and titled arti­cle last Novem­ber, Before Bernie Sanders: A 19th Cen­tu­ry Populist’s Run for the Pres­i­den­cy,” in which I not­ed the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties between the eco­nom­ic rhetoric (and sub­se­quent pop­u­lar sup­port) of Weaver and Bernie Sanders (who was in the process of giv­ing Hillary Clin­ton a run for her money).

In short, Weaver and the People’s Par­ty (known as the Pop­ulists, from which the word pop­ulism” derives) were the prod­uct of a grass­roots farm­ers move­ment that began decades ear­li­er, in the wake of the Civ­il War. In the South, the crop-lein sys­tem had farm­ers trapped in a per­pet­u­al cycle of pover­ty and nev­er-end­ing debt. Mean­while in the North farm­ers found them­selves at the mer­cy of exces­sive price fix­ing, hos­tile bankers and a monop­o­lis­tic rail­road. Some­thing had to give. Twen­ty-sev­en years after the war, Weaver pub­lished (as politi­cians with pres­i­den­tial aspi­ra­tions often do) a polit­i­cal man­i­festo—A Call to Action—in which he exco­ri­ates the increas­ing role that wealthy elites and the cor­po­ra­tions of his time were play­ing in politics.

James B. Weaver, the Peo­ple’s Par­ty can­di­date for pres­i­dent in 1892, was was born in Ohio in 1833 and raised in Iowa. (Images: bri​tan​ni​ca​.com)

The lan­guage is often times intense. In fact, it makes most con­tem­po­rary fat-cat-trash-talk sound tame. Keep in mind this was pub­lished 125 years ago in a time of mas­sive income and social inequal­i­ty, tech­no­log­i­cal change, sim­mer­ing racial ten­sions and dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Here’s an excerpt:

The slave hold­ing aris­toc­ra­cy, restrict­ed both as to local­i­ty and influ­ence, was destroyed by the war only to be suc­ceed­ed by an infi­nite­ly more dan­ger­ous and pow­er­ful aris­toc­ra­cy of wealth, which now per­vades every State and aspires to uni­ver­sal domin­ion. Its first con­quest was the sub­ju­ga­tion of the dom­i­nant polit­i­cal par­ty of the nation, while it required the oth­er to keep the peace, under the threat that if it did not suc­cumb it should nev­er come into power.

Next it secured con­trol of State pol­i­tics, and final­ly found expres­sion in a vast net­work of cor­po­ra­tions which have seized upon almost every field of labor and every depart­ment of human effort. Nei­ther the mil­i­tary achieve­ments of Cae­sar, the exploits of Cyrus, Han­ni­bal, Alexan­der, nor the daz­zling con­quests of Napoleon in the fields of war, can com­pare with the stu­pen­dous vic­to­ries of orga­nized cap­i­tal in this coun­try dur­ing the past 25 years. They have out­stripped the imag­i­na­tion, ren­dered fic­tion dull and unin­ter­est­ing, and robbed romance of its charms. The chief spir­its through whose agency all these things have been accom­plished are not unmind­ful that they are in con­flict with both pri­vate right and the pub­lic welfare.

They, above all oth­ers, know the extent of their wrong doing, and they fear reprisals at the hands of the peo­ple. To pre­vent reme­di­al leg­is­la­tion they have filled the Sen­ate of the Unit­ed States with men who rep­re­sent the cor­po­ra­tions and the var­i­ous phas­es of orga­nized greed. The ide­al Sen­ate, longed for by Mr. Dick­in­son [one of the wealth­i­est found­ing fathers and 5th pres­i­dent of Penn­syl­va­nia who died in 1808] — a Sen­ate com­posed of men of wealth and resem­bling the British House of Lords — has been real­ized and has long been in full oper­a­tion. The method of selec­tion was found to be pecu­liar­ly well fit­ted to their scheme. There is one char­ac­ter­is­tic com­mon to all wrong doers — they work in the dark and con­ceal their motives. You know noth­ing of their pur­pose until the stab is inflict­ed. Like the cat, they walk in quest of prey with vel­vet feet; and like the assas­sin, they lie in wait and spring upon you with­out warning.

The cor­po­ra­tions nev­er make pub­lic their pur­pose. They hold no pub­lic meet­ings. Their plans are laid in the count­ing room, around the lunch table, and in the secret meet­ings of their direc­tors away from the pub­lic. When the plan is matured, a skill­ful agent is employed to car­ry it out, and a check is drawn to cov­er expens­es. The peo­ple at large are about their dai­ly toil in the field and the work­shop. They are hon­est, unsus­pect­ing, patri­ot­ic, and devot­ed to their respec­tive par­ties. The work that is to rob and ruin them is being done under cover.

The cor­po­ra­tions — appar­ent­ly whol­ly indif­fer­ent — hav­ing deter­mined whom they wish to elect to the Unit­ed States Sen­ate, the next thing in order is to secure the nom­i­na­tion of suit­able Leg­isla­tive can­di­dates — men who can be trust­ed to do their bid­ding. Secure in this, no effort or expense is spared to insure a tri­umph at the polls. Usu­al­ly the name of the man whom they intend to elect to the Sen­ate is kept in the back­ground. The can­vass is made whol­ly with ref­er­ence to oth­er issues. But as soon as the elec­tion is over, a venal sub­si­dized press which has been par­ty to the con­ceal­ment dur­ing the cam­paign, sud­den­ly throws off the mask and dis­cov­ers that the sen­a­to­r­i­al ques­tion is all impor­tant and you then hear of noth­ing else.

They sud­den­ly dis­cov­er that Mr. A or B is just the right man for the posi­tion, and the one above all oth­ers whom the par­ty and the State should delight to hon­or. At the prop­er time head­quar­ters are opened at the State Cap­i­tal, and a lav­ish expen­di­ture of mon­ey begins, while the peo­ple look on with amaze­ment and won­der where the mon­ey comes from. The local manip­u­la­tors, many of whom were par­ties to the con­spir­a­cy from the begin­ning, are sent for and kept upon the ground as a guar­an­ty that the var­i­ous bar­gains made through­out the State, shall be car­ried out. Then comes the par­ty cau­cus, which all must attend and to whose decrees all must sub­mit or lose their par­ty stand­ing. Final­ly the major­i­ty of the cau­cus, which is usu­al­ly a minor­i­ty of the Leg­is­la­ture, nom­i­nates the cor­po­ra­tion can­di­date and the drunk­en brawl that has ren­dered the State Cap­i­tal dis­or­der­ly for a fort­night or more, is at an end and the peo­ple are betrayed. 

Weaver, of course, lost. But the accu­sa­tions he lev­eled at the 1892 sta­tus quo (includ­ing the rev­e­la­tion that cor­po­rate inter­ests were pur­chas­ing Sen­a­tors) res­onat­ed with enough Amer­i­cans at the time to earn him 22 elec­toral votes, the most any third par­ty can­di­date had received since the Civ­il War. Many of the social poli­cies he pro­posed, fur­ther­more, did not go away. Indeed, some­times pop­ulists win even when they lose by mak­ing it impos­si­ble for the pow­ers that be to con­tin­ue ignor­ing the peo­ple and issues the move­ment mobi­lized in its prime. If Don­ald Trump’s record shat­ter­ing stock mar­ket, for exam­ple, ulti­mate­ly fails to turn into jobs that pay more Amer­i­cans a liv­able wage, it’s like­ly Bernie Sanders’ core eco­nom­ic mes­sage — that gov­ern­ment should work for the peo­ple not Wall Street, and that no one work­ing full-time should be liv­ing in pover­ty — will be echoed again, all the more loud­ly, in four years.

As Uri Friedman’s piece in The Atlantic does a thor­ough job of explain­ing, pre­cise­ly because pop­ulism is an ide­o­log­i­cal chameleon — often sup­ple­ment­ed with what­ev­er author­i­tar­i­an, nation­al­ist or social­ist incli­na­tions held by those lead­ing the par­tic­u­lar move­ment — pop­ulist vic­to­ries can (and often do) man­i­fest in all man­ner of ter­ri­ble ways around the world. Oth­er times, they change the polit­i­cal realm for the better.

Once pop­ulis­m’s pow­er has been suc­cess­ful­ly har­nessed, progress for the peo­ple” depends on how that group is defined and the trust­wor­thi­ness of the pop­ulist lead­ing the charge.

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John Collins is the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. He lives between Min­neapo­lis and La Pointe, Wis­con­sin, a vil­lage on Made­line Island in Lake Superior.
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