Jim Hightower, The Hightower Lowdown, 2009 - Populism is not a style, nor is it a synonym for "popular outrage." It is a historically grounded political doctrine (and movement) that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic fight against the moneyed elites.
The very essence of populism is its unrelenting
focus on breaking the iron grip that big corporations have on our
country--including on our economy, government, media, and environment.
It is unabashedly a class movement. . .
Fully embracing the
egalitarian ideals and rebellious spirit of the American Revolution,
populists have always been out to challenge the orthodoxy of the
corporate order and to empower workaday Americans so they can control
their own economic and political destinies. This approach distinguishes
the movement from classic liberalism, which seeks to live in harmony
with concentrated corporate power by trying to regulate its excesses.
seeing liberalism at work today in Washington's Wall Street bailout.
Both parties tell us that AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, and the rest
are "too big to fail," so taxpayers simply "must" rescue the management,
stockholders, and bondholders of the financial giants in order to save
the system. Populists, on the other hand, note that it is this very
system that has caused the failure-so structural reform is required.
Let's reorganize the clumsy, inept, ungovernable, and corrupt financial
system by ousting those who wrecked it, splitting up its component parts
(banking, investment, and insurance), and establishing decentralized,
manageable-sized financial institutions operating on the locally
controlled models of credit unions, co-ops, and community banks. . .
true portrait of populism is rarely on public display. History teachers
usually hustle students right past this unique moment in the evolution
of our democracy. You never see a movie or a television presentation
about the movement's innovative thinkers, powerful orators, and dramatic
events. National museums offer no exhibits of its stunning inventions
and accomplishments. And there is no "populist trail of history" winding
through the various states in which farmers and workers created the
People's Party (also known as the Populist Party), reshaped the national
political debate, forced progressive reforms, delivered a million votes
(and four states) to the party's 1892 presidential candidate, and
elected 10 populist governors, six U.S. senators, and three dozen House
This was a serious, thoughtful, determined effort by
hundreds of thousands of common folks to do something uncommon: organize
themselves so--collectively and cooperatively--they could remake both
commerce and government to serve the common good rather than the selfish
interests of the barons of industry and finance.
While the big
media of that day portrayed the movement as an incoherent bunch of
conspiracy-minded bumpkins, the populists were in fact guided by a
sophisticated network of big thinkers, organizers, and communicators who
had a thorough grasp of exactly how the system worked and why. Most
significantly, they were problem solvers--their aim was not protest, but
to provide real mechanisms that could decentralize and democratize
power in our country. The movement was able to rally a huge following of
hard-scrabble farmers and put-upon workers because it did not pussyfoot
around. Its leaders dared to go right at the core problem of an
overreaching corporate state controlled by robber barons. Populist
organizers spoke bluntly about the need to restructure the corporate
system that was undermining America's democratic promise. . .
the Populists were undone, not by their boldness, but by leaders who
urged them to compromise and to merge their aspirations into the
Democratic Party. In the presidential election of 1896, they nominated
the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, whose "cross of gold"
campaign focused on the monetary issue, avoiding the much more appealing
structural radicalism of Populism. Outspent five to one, Bryan lost a
close race to William McKinley, the Republican who was financed and
owned by Wall Street. . .
The party was killed off, but not the
Populist spirit. Persevering in separate political forms, the
constituent components of populism--including unionists, suffragists,
anti-trusters, socialists, cooperativists, and rural
organizers--continued the struggle against America's economic and
political aristocracy. Indeed, populists defined the content of national
politics for the first third of the 20th century, forcing the
Democratic Party to adopt populist positions, spawning the Progressive
Party, elevating two Roosevelts to the presidency, and enacting major
chunks of the agenda first drawn up by the People's Party.
There's a difference between
populism and liberalism. Populism means listening to the people
and hearing what they have to say. Liberalism says, "The
people are idiots; let's find out what the experts think."
-- Jay Waljasper, Utne Reader
A mortgaged home, an empty
stomach and a ragged back know no party. We will live to write
the epitaphs of the old parties: "Died of general debility,
old age, and chronic falsehoods." - Mary Lease, People's
The right tries to steal populism
Progressive Populist, 2010 - Many people confuse the demagoguery of politicians such as former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the Tea Party movement with populism. They have turned the definition of populism around and it’s time that progressives reclaim the good name of populism.
Since the late 19th century, populists have believed that government should protect working people, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers from predatory corporations. Dick Armey, the former Republican congressional leader, and Freedom Works, the conservative non-profit organization he founded that is funded by business executives, have tried to turn that populist tradition on its head in organizing the Tea Party movement to protect corporations from government regulation.
Populism is part of the venerable American tradition of rebellion, but it dates back to the Farmers Alliance that formed in Lampasas, Texas, in 1877 in an attempt by farmers to overcome the power of commodity brokers and railroads through collective action. When Democratic and Republican elected officials failed to support the Alliance’s economic agenda, the People’s Party was formed in the 1890s in an attempt to create a national political movement to advance that agenda.
The People’s Party, also known as the Populists, sought to bring together white and black farmers and workers in the South and Midwest with the Knights of Labor, an early industrial union in the Northeast, to make government a force for economic justice. The original 1892 platform declared, “We believe that the power of government — in other words, of the people — should be expanded ... as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
In addition to their economic reforms, the Populists sought democratic reforms such as a secret ballot, direct election of senators, the vote for women and initiative and referendum to let the public pass laws when their legislators refused to budge. The Populists also sought a graduated income tax, public ownership of railroads, telegraph and telephone systems, an eight-hour workday and replacement of national banks with a savings bank operated by the Post Office for the benefit of working people.
The Populists achieved political successes in the South and West, carrying four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nebraska) in the 1892 presidential election. The party, often working in fusion with one of the two “major” parties, elected many state officials and members of Congress in the South and West. A coalition of Populists and Republicans swept statewide offices in North Carolina in 1894. But the Populists lost much of their appeal when the Democrats adopted much of their agenda in 1896.
After the Populists were defeated in 1896, Southern Democrats enacted “Jim Crow” laws to disenfranchise blacks and segregate them to prevent future biracial coalitions from forming. Laws were enacted in many states to stop “fusion” campaigns, where two or more political parties support a common candidate. (Fusion remains legal in eight states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Vermont.)
Many of the Populist causes were adopted by Progressives in the early 20th century and the New Deal in the 1930s. But ever since World War II, the right-wing corporatists have engaged in a sustained counterattack to drive a wedge between farmers and labor and between white and black voters. We think the Tea Party movement is part of that reactionary counterattack. If they’d like to change our minds, they can get to work whipping their Republican senators on Wall Street reform.
Populism and the Democratic Party
Sam Smith, 2008 - There have only been two Democratic presidents over the past three-quarters of a century who have gotten significantly more than 50% of the vote: Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom received 61% in one election. While neither fit the definition of a populist, many of their programs - from FDR's minimum wage and social security to LBJ's war on poverty and education legislation - were part of a populist agenda.
Since LBJ, the party has increasingly deserted its populist causes and been trapped between defeat and a tantalizing break-even division with the GOP.
Although current party and media mythology treats Bill Clinton and other Vichy Democrats as symbols of Democratic triumph this is far from the case:
- Clinton did no better than Kerry, Gore, Carter, JFK, and Harry Truman. All of them came within two percent of the midpoint despite markedly different styles and programs. It is fair to say that in each case, party loyalty proved more important than the candidate.
- Michael Dukakis, the unfairly assigned butt of party jokes, did three points better than Clinton in the latter's first election and only three points worse in the second. Even more striking, Dukakis beat or equaled Clinton's best percentage in 12 states including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, a record dramatically at odds with the spin of the Clintonistas and the Democratic Leadership Council.
- Democratic losses at the state and national level under Clinton were worse than any seen by a party incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Clinton proved a disaster for the Democrats. What happened in Congress this year was a partial recovery from this disaster.
In short, the only thing that has really worked for the Democrats have been campaigns heavily populist in nature.
American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.
One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.
The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.
It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.
In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle -- with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan "Not Now" and its goal of maintaining the timorousness of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.
As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn't long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It's not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.
The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.
The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another - including young non-college educated whites - until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.
Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.
Populism's hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University's School of Journalism, found that "Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that's not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . ."
Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to drive its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.
Interestingly, populism - despite its bad rap - has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people's personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.
But you won't break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don't do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.
Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn't think they qualified as Democratic vote