Blog #45 – Brief History of Populism
Populism is a political philosophy that crosses party-lines but tends to put an emphasis on what the people want vs. what the political, economic, or religious elites desire. The interesting thing is that populism can be as diverse as the anti-government Tea Party Republicans that arose in 2009-10 as well as the Ralph Nader-inspired Green Party in 2000-2004. Racist Alabama governor George Wallace also had strains of populism running through his 1968 presidential campaign, and we even saw a counter-populist movement in 2010-2011 in the Occupy movement (most famously Occupy Wall Street) with its 99% vs. 1% rhetoric. No matter what the politics, populism usually has an “us vs. them” element to it.
In many respects, the agrarian revolt of the late 1800s is a reaction to the 2nd industrial revolution. There were so many more millionaires by 1900 than in 1800 in America, and this situation seemed like the money was being made not only on the backs of industrial workers but also on the huge piles of surplus food that American farmers had grown. It had seemed to many people during the late 1800s that the American government had been seized or controlled by a small, wealthy elite who controlled government for their own gains. Democracy seemed a joke b/c laws designed to protect farmers or unions (Sherman Anti-Trust Act / Interstate Commerce Act) backfired or were written to hinder reforms. In fact, the entire size and scope of the government’s functions seem foreign to today’s active federal government (in 1880, the federal workforce was 100,000 whereas today it hovers around 2.5 million). The government bought back the Greenbacks issued during the Civil War, and by 1879, the country was back on the gold standard (which limited the amount of money put into circulation, harmful to debt-ridden farmers), and banks controlled the amount of money in circulation, not a federal institution.
As the textbook tells us, the Grange organized in 1867 originally as a social group but quickly mobilized cooperatively-owned stores, grain elevators and warehouses. The Grange were trying to reduce the cost of railroad shipping, the trust that they targeted as Farmers’ Enemy #1. The Grange also tried to get many local legislators elected. In 1878, the Greenback Party (a pro-labor group) got 14 members elected to Congress and ran General James Weaver for President against Garfield and Hancock in 1880. General Weaver only got 3% of the popular vote that year.
In the 1880s and 90s, amidst high rates of loan defaults and bankruptcies, the Farmers’ Alliance was forged to combat these problems. However, the Alliance was divided along racial lines (Black farmers had to make their own Alliance), property vs. sharecroppers, and regional lines (the West didn’t agree with the South). However, the Alliance members did agree on some things: nationalization of the railroads (making them government owned); abolish national banks (like the Federal Reserve that would be created in 1913); a progressive income tax where the rich paid higher rates than the poor (this became law of the land in the 16th Amendment in 1913); and other schemes that would benefit farmers. The Alliance would eventually elect 40 lawmakers from the South and challenge the eastern “plutocrats” for control of the country.
The farmers’ alternatives were “success and freedom, or failure and servitude.”
J.D. Fields, Texas Farmers’ Alliance.
Not only were the railroad freight rates to blame for the farmers’ economic plight, but it was also the banks’ high interest rates and the non-inflationary money policies practiced by the federal government. By the early 1890s, the Alliance became the Peoples’ Party (or the Populists) which wanted to represent all of the working classes in America and not just farmers. It won support of miners and industrial workers in Idaho and Colorado and attracted veterans of the old Knights of Labor union when the PP condemned the use of private police forces to break strikes. Orators quoted Thomas Jefferson to show the evils of banks and large corporations (which by 1892 had become the most important business organization). In 1892, the Populists ran James Weaver again, but this time he earned more than 1 million votes before losing to Grover Cleveland. The Populists won four states (Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, and Kansas) and elected three governors and fifteen party members to Congress.
Part of Weaver’s success can be found in the Populist platform. They added not only the income tax, abolition of national banks, and nationalization of the railroads from the Alliance plan, but they also added direct election of U.S. Senators (to be adopted in 1913 in the 17th Amendment); the recognition of unions to exist (which would occur in 1914 and 1935); and in many states, women’s suffrage (legalized in 1920 by the 19th Amendment). The Populists also worked hard to unite black and white farmers in the South for a common goal of higher wages. Blacks, however, hesitated to break with the Republicans, the party of Lincoln.
“…we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even [Supreme Court]. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists… The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.”
The Populists had hoped to change the role of government to becoming a more activist one, one that would curb the power of corporations. But the Populists weren’t around as a party to see their reforms become law when the reform spirit continued into the 20th Century with the Progressive Era (1900-1915).
1. Assess the Populist movement as a reform movement – was it effective or not? Why?
2. How does the Populist movement compare with the Tea Party and / or Occupy Wall Street movements? Similarities and differences? (use the sites below or the ones in the first paragraph).
250 words minimum total. Due by Friday 1/11 in class.
Bailey, Thomas Andrew, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2009. Print.
Goodwyn, Laurence. Introduction to the Populist Movement. http://www.ratical.org/corporations/PMSHAGAintro.html