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The histories of populism.

"Why have so-called populist movements in recent years been largely driven by conservatives?" This is the question correspondent Liz Halloran asked historian Michael Kazin in a "Q and A" published on the National Public Radio Web site in 2010, background for readers and listeners who wanted to understand the emerging Tea Party movement. I had a different question. Few if any of the most prominent Tea Party leaders and candidates were referring to themselves as populists, so why should we? Some people might wonder: What does it matter? Isn't this just a question of semantics or, at most, historical interpretation? On the contrary, I think the populist tradition of cooperative action, mass organizing, and nonpartisan reformism holds important lessons for the modern civic renewal/deliberative democracy movement. As Harry Boyte pointed out in a Kettering Foundation study called "We the People Politics," authentic populism has three elements: "It builds civic agency. It is based on a reconstructed public narrative in which values of equality, respect for working people and work, inclusion and participation are central. And, it is civically educative, developing people's public identities, imaginations and skills" (p. 17).

Getting back to Liz Halloran's question about the link between conservatism and populism, historian Kazin answered it this way: "Liberals pretty much had the argument on their side until the 1960s, when conservatives got the upper hand. Liberals were in power, and there was a perception among some that they were going to do a lot of big things and failed. They didn't eliminate poverty or defeat communism in Indochina, for example. They were perceived as having all this power, but failing to make America a better place." It's a plausible theory, but I have a different one. As I read the history, it was liberals who changed their ideas about populism--and this was long before the 1960s--not the other way around. I see the divorce between liberalism and populism as part of a larger break with the tradition of independent politics and nonpartisan structural reform.

Of course, historians and journalists have been puzzling and bickering over the meaning of populism since the earliest years of the movement. Frederick Jackson Turner was a young associate history professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1893 when he was asked to give a paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which was convening that year on the grounds of the World Columbia Exposition in Chicago. It was there that he first presented his "frontier thesis" of American democracy, which was partly an attempt to explain the strange rumblings of agrarian discontent in the American heartland. A commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the Americas, the Chicago exposition combined the attractions of an amusement park with a convention center showcasing the latest in technology and consumer goods. No one had ever seen so many electric lights in one place. As a celebration of the old and new, the fairground was a fitting setting for Turner's thesis on the significance of the frontier in American history, though the session was sparsely attended for there were too many distractions. Even the chairman of Jackson's department skipped his presentation, ironically enough, to visit Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Earlier historians tended to ignore the West, focusing instead on the ideas, exploits, and political maneuverings of Virginians, New Yorkers, and Bostonians. Turner was interested in the interplay of politics, geography, culture, and character. The experience of the frontier, he argued, forged distinctive traits in the American character, a "restless nervous energy," inquisitiveness, independence, and a "practical, inventive turn of mind." But it would be a mistake to view his essay, as many do today, as a simple-minded celebration of conquest and rugged individualism. "Selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits," he wrote. "Individualism in America, has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs, which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wildcat banking" (p. 223).

Reading from the latest report of the U.S. Bureau of Census, Turner concluded that the West was now so settled that a distinct "line of frontier" could no longer be discerned, and he wondered what this would mean. "Failures in one area can no longer be made good in another area by taking up land on a new frontier," he later wrote in the Atlantic Monthly. "The conditions of settled society are being reached with suddenness and with confusion.... The frontier opportunities are gone. Discontent is demanding an extension of governmental activity on its behalf." A country that had been profoundly influenced by the "westering" experience was now being "thrown back upon itself," and one consequence of this change--which, by the way, the prim Turner disapproved of--was the growth of a radical political movement among farmers and westerners who were breaking with the frontier tradition of self-sufficiency and beginning to agitate for relief from the federal government. That movement, of course, was populism.

In 1893, a deep depression had set in after investors in Europe began disinvesting from American stocks to convert their holdings to gold. The contraction led to the collapse of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which set off a panic on Wall Street. By the end of the year, more than 15,000 businesses had failed, including 642 banks. President Grover Cleveland, convinced that the problem was inadequate gold holdings by the government, called Congress into session to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act, a compromise measure that required the government to buy a certain amount of silver each year for coinage. When Great Britain closed the Indian government mints to silver that summer, the value fell from 80 cents to 62 cents an ounce.

The silver bust turned western boomtowns to ghost towns overnight. An estimated 45,000 Colorado miners were laid off in the month of July. In Aspen, Colorado, where the 1890 census listed the working population as 2,200, 2,000 workers lost their jobs. In Leadville, one-third of the workforce left town. The Pueblo Steelworks closed and a dozen banks failed in Denver. Coin's Financial School, William Hope Harvey's 1894 jeremiad against the gold standard, is estimated to have sold somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million copies. It inspired debating societies and speakers' bureaus. A congressman from Mississippi complained that newsboys were hawking the book at every train station and cigar store. Economists wrote newspaper columns and entire books to refute his theories. "'Politics down here has gone mad,"' said an editor in Kentucky quoted by Richard Hofstadter in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics. "'Every crank in the country is loose and nothing less than a stone wall will stop them"' (p. 281).

Coin's Financial School belongs to a genre of nonfiction that no longer exists, the mass-market reformist tract. It's fair to suppose that reading habits were different in the late nineteenth century from those of the twenty-first. The Christian socialist Edward Bellamy sold more than a million copies of his utopian novel Looking Backward. The circulation of Henry George's Progress and Poverty is said to have been second only to the Bible. "The books of Henry George, Bellamy, and other economic writers were bought as fast as dealers could supply them," wrote a contemporary observer of the Farm Belt quoting in John Hick's study, The Populist Revolt. "They were bought to be read greedily; and nourished by the fascination of novelty and the zeal of enthusiasm, thoughts and theories sprouted like weeds after a May shower.... They discussed income tax and single tax; they talked of government ownership and the abolition of private property; fiat money, and the unity of labor ... and a thousand conflicting theories" (p. 132).

Most of all they discussed the potential merits of "bimetallism," the free coinage of silver at a ratio to gold of sixteen to one. The leading bimetallist politician of his day was Representative Richard "Silver Dick" Bland of Missouri, a twenty-year veteran of the cause. In 1895, Bland cut back on his grueling speaking schedule because of ill health. His booking agency, the Brockway Lecture Bureau of Pittsburgh, gave the job to a junior congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan. A champion of tariff reform, Bryan was also an advocate of women's suffrage, the graduated income tax, and regulation of banks and railroads. "I don't know anything about free silver," he told an audience in 1892. "The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later." Bryan put himself through an intensive self-taught course on monetary policy and bimetallism, leaning heavily on the arguments of "Coin" Harvey.

In 1896, Bryan he won the Democratic nomination for president after giving his classic "Cross of Gold" speech. He also sought and won the People's Party (Populist) endorsement, though not without some resistance from movement leaders. Some populists objected to the way the silver issue oversimplified the money question and crowded out other reform demands. This conflict surfaced at the party's national convention when the delegates endorsed Bryan but not his vice presidential candidate, Arthur Sewall, a pro-silver shipping magnate from Maine. The Populist endorsement brought support in the South and West, but it reinforced Bryan's reputation as a radical in the states where populism was weak. Cleveland Democrats defected from the party and ran their own separate candidate, undercutting Bryan's political and financial support. Preachers attacked Bryan from their pulpits, and editorialists denounced him as a bomb-throwing anarchist who wanted to subvert the natural order of American society. When he spoke at factories, workers had to stand quietly and show no emotion or risk being fired by their bosses. At a campaign rally in Connecticut, Yale undergraduates pelted Bryan with tomatoes. Bryan Democrats could be blackballed from gentlemen's clubs if they admitted supporting the Great Commoner. As Louis Koenig notes in Bryan: A Political Biography, Henry Cabot Lodge accused the Democrats of nominating "an unknown stump orator" and "filling their platform with all kinds of revolutionary and anarchistic doctrines" (p. 205).

During the campaign, Bryan stumped up and down the country, while McKinley sat on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, declining to make campaign appearances. Cleveland party boss Mark Hanna raised the largest political war chest in American history, an estimated $16 million. Bryan, in contrast, could barely pay his campaign workers. He couldn't afford a private coach, so he crisscrossed the nation like a traveling salesman, keeping a copy of the railroad timetables in his vest pocket so he wouldn't miss the transfers. Hanna sent hundreds of surrogate speakers into the field. Sometimes they would go ahead of Bryan and memorize phrases from his standard stump speech, revealing his most compelling arguments and funniest punch lines to the crowds so his speech would seem stale by the time the Democrat delivered it. Bryan had a gimmick of asking for a show of hands from people in the crowd who carried gold with them, so pickpockets traveled on the train along with the campaign staff and made note of those who raised their hands. Sometimes Bryan would have to interrupt himself to point out felons to the police.

But all of Bryan's energy couldn't compensate for the massive show of solidarity among elites (and apathy among working people) in states where the prices of silver or cotton were not primary concerns. In the meantime, gold discoveries in the Klondike, South Africa, and Australia were beginning to increase the world supply of bullion, and huge shipments of gold began flowing into the coffers of the federal government and largest New York banks. With crop failures in India, wheat prices began to rise precipitously, reaching an all-time high, bad timing for the single-issue Bryan, who won twenty-six states but lost the popular vote by 20 percent and failed to win a single industrial state.

The tragedy of historical populism is this: First the populists tried to form cooperative ventures to break the crop lien system, with limited success. Next they formed independent populist parties at the state level to challenge the two major parties, achieving limited success. Finally, they tried to ally themselves with labor groups and other anti-monopoly organizations to form a national populist party, but in the end, they staked it all on Bryan's ill-fated single-issue campaign of 1896. The Farmers Alliance had created a vast network to organize financially beleaguered farmers. After 1896 the party was literally over. As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in his book Democratic Promise, the "new style of democratic politics had become institutionalized, and its cultural boundaries were so adequately fortified that the new forms gradually described the Democratic Party of opposition as well as the Republican Party of power. A decisive cultural battle had been lost by those who cherished the democratic ethos" (p. 537).

Populist-Liberal Breakup

"The cure for the ills of democracy," reformer Jane Addams is reputed to have said, "is more democracy," but her words reflected an older strain of populist-progressive thinking that would go out of fashion after World War II. Having won five presidential elections in a row, liberal Democrats were now enmeshed in the establishment and such super democratic reforms as the initiative, the recall, or the abolition of the Electoral College seemed less appealing, even risky. American liberalism, noted Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his book the Vital Center, had for many years been "almost inextricably linked with a picture of man as perfectible, as endowed with sufficient wisdom and selflessness to endure power and to use it infallibly for the public good. The Soviet experience, on top of the rise of fascism, reminded my generation rather forcibly that man was indeed imperfect" (pp. viii-ix).

Even before the war, many artists and intellectuals were beginning to rebel against the kitsch populism of the New Deal era, of the artist Thomas Hart Benton, the poet Carl Sandburg, the novelist John Steinbeck, and the singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, when everyone from Jesus to Abe Lincoln was enlisted into the popular front against fascism. One of the greatest and most influential of these early neo-conservatives was Richard Hofstadter, whose masterful Age of Reform transformed liberal thinking about the populist-progressive tradition. An earlier generation of Progressive and New Deal historians had focused on the economic grievances and political reforms of populists, but Hofstadter analyzed their emotions and hidden motivations, using terms like "status anxiety" and "paranoia." He dug deep into some of the forgotten dystopian fiction of eccentric populists and bimetallists like Ignatius Donnelly and Coin Harvey, finding a trove of conspiratorial thinking and anti-Semitism.

In a mostly favorable essay later published in his book the Burden of Southern History, C. Vann Woodward worried that Hofstadter might be replacing one stereotype for another. "The old one sometimes approached the formulation that Populism is the root of all good in democracy," wrote Woodward, "while the new one sometimes suggests that Populism is the root of all evil" (p. 147). Woodward was not alone. Two of Hofstadter's former students, historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, read an early draft of the Age of Reform and gave this warning in a joint letter, which David Brown quotes in his book Richard Hofstadter. An Intellectual Biography. "The anti-Semitism--this is bad. ... When one describes evidences of anti-Semitism as you do, the modern reader simply cannot avoid the picture of fascism and the gas chambers ... the inevitable conclusion--in spite of everything--will be that populism and German fascism have much in common" (p. 107). As Hofstadter noted, there were no pogroms or anti-Jewish laws associated with the populist movement, but the conspiracy-mongering and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the free-silver literature was both repellant and redolent of a conspiratorial worldview. In his book the "Paranoid Style in American Politics," Hofstadter directly linked populism with intolerant, anti-intellectual movements through history, such as the Know Nothings, Anti-Masons, and witch hunters of the McCarthy era. His powerful essay fixed in many liberal minds the image of populism as ugly, irrational, and reactionary.

This more skeptical historical view of populism held until the late 1960s, when a younger generation of historians in search of an authentic radical past began to reconsider the populist legacy. In his book the Democratic Promise, Lawrence Goodwyn wrote of populism sympathetically as an authentic popular movement with a coherent and historically unique vision of a "democratic commonwealth." Goodwyn and Hofstadter clearly disagreed on the merits of populism, but their writings were, in effect, the bookends of a revised historical consensus about the nature and geography of the movement, one that emphasized its southernness and radicalism over the more moderate and political wing in the West. The true "wellspring of Populism," wrote Goodwyn, "came not from the more moderate alliance groups in the west and plains states, but from the southern radicals who "attempted to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism" (p. xvii).

Frederick Jackson Turner saw western populism as a response to the closing of the "safety valve" of cheap land on the frontier. New Deal-era historian John Hicks also looked West in his study of populism. Far more than Hofstadter or Goodwyn, he explored the ideas and actions of western "moderates" like Senator William Allen of Nebraska, whose "good government" approach to populism was virtually indistinguishable from that of the early-twentieth-century progressives. The populists and Progressive had another thing in common--fusion. Fusion voting allowed parties to cross endorse and voters to cast a ballot for a major party candidate on a Populist ballot, or vice versa. The strategy meant that independent parties could fuse with major parties without losing their distinct identities. Typically, western populists formed fusion coalitions with reform-minded Democrats. (In the South, some populists fused with reformist Republicans.)

"Populist proposals in favor of independent voting did much to undermine the intense party loyalties that followed the Civil War," noted Hicks in The Populist Revolt. "Its growth depended almost wholly on its ability to bring voters to an almost complete renunciation of old party loyalties ... many Republicans became Democrats via the Populist vote. Many Democrats became Republicans" (p. 409). This reshuffling of the partisan deck was an important precondition for the success of liberal reformers in the early twentieth century, and many of the demands first vocalized by the populists would be adopted during the Progressive Era, including a national income tax, women's suffrage, regulation of the railroads, and an eight-hour workday.

Fusion voting revived the fortunes of the Democratic Party in unionist states, such as Colorado and Nebraska--parts of the country where its share of the popular vote after the Civil War had dwindled to about one-tenth of the electorate. Fusion was so successful, in fact, that Republican majorities across the country mounted an all-out campaign to abolish it. Today, only a handful of states allow fusion, among them New York, where there is still a small, independent party presence. In Structure, Process, and Party: Essays in American Political History, Peter Argersinger makes a convincing argument that the suppression of fusion contributed to the dramatic decline of voter turnouts in the early twentieth century. "Fusion helped maintain a significant third party tradition by guaranteeing dissenters' votes could be more than symbolic protest, that their leaders could gain office, and that their demands might be heard," he wrote (p. 56).

Populism as Style

In 1964, a high school teacher named Henry Littlefield wrote an essay in the American Quarterly titled "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism." The Tin Man (whose joints needed constant oil to function) represented the industrial worker, Littlefield argued. The intellectually insecure Scarecrow embodied the American farmer. The Cowardly Lion represented the Populist-Democratic fusion presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, an avowed pacifist. Like Jacob Coxey's army of the unemployed in 1894, the ragtag group sets off for Emerald City (Washington) to demand relief from the Wizard, who in Littlefield's theory represented the American president. The Yellow Brick Road symbolized the gold standard, and Dorothy's magic shoes--silver, not ruby red as in the movie--bimetallism. Other historians and history buffs have added new interpretations over time. "Oz" was the abbreviation for ounces, the measure of silver and gold. Dorothy's dog Toto represented the temperance movement, and so on.

Sadly, Littlefield's theory has been debunked by a succession of academic killjoys. Oz author L. Frank Baum, a onetime newspaper editor, was not, according to the debunkers, a Bryan Democrat. In fact, he had written editorials criticizing populism. One historian even unearthed a poem Baum published in a Chicago newspaper praising William McKinley. A historian of consumer culture interpreted the Wizard of Oz not as a critique of the political and economic system but as a celebration of consumer capitalism and abundance. Noting that Baum was a Theosophist and a former window-dresser, this historian found the book to be an optimistic, therapeutic text. The Emerald City did not represent Washington but the Oz-like "White City" constructed in Chicago during the World Columbia Exposition. Of course, all of the above could be true--Baum could be a Republican, an optimist, and a Theosophist and still have had his own private populist joke about the Cowardly Lion and the Yellow Brick Road. Littlefield said he came up with the Wizard of Oz theory as a way of making the politics of the 1890s come alive for his student. The details of the theory may be wrong, but the spirit of it is right. For most of us, the independent politics of the nineteenth century seems Oz-like strange and removed from our day-to-day lives.

Populism is still a hot topic, but only in its deracinated, symbolic form. Politicians are thought to be "populists" if they eat fatty foods, drive pickup trucks, or speak idiomatically with southern accents and western drawls. Modern populism is mostly a politics of cultural resentment divorced from any substantive program of political or economic reforms. Within the Democratic Party, however, a debate over the merits of "economic populism" seems to recur every few years like dinosaurs and hula hoops. It surfaced, for example, in 2000 when Al Gore made his "people versus the powerful" speech at the Los Angeles Democratic Convention and again in 2002 when the newspapers were full of lurid details about crooked securities analysts, creative accountants, and plummeting 401k values, and liberal Democrats wanted to adopt a more populist style of argument in the upcoming midterm elections. A group of moderate Democrats, however, thought it would be rash to break out the pitchforks and overalls. In Senator Joe Lieberman's view, Al Gore's "economic populism stuff" had backfired in 2000, alienating middle-class voters and costing Democrats the election. Not so, according to John Judis. Writing in the American Prospect in 2002, he pointed out that Gore's poll rating had actually spiked after his "people versus the powerful" speech at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. If Democrats renounced populism in the wake of the Enron scandal and a sagging economy, the party would "forfeit an excellent chance to keep the Senate in Democratic hands and win back the House of Representatives."

Historian Sean Wilentz weighed in, arguing that both sides were wrong. Economic liberalism should not be confused with economic populism, he cautioned. Populists "indulged in a variety of crackpot financial schemes" and "proclaimed a disdain that bordered on hatred for cities and for the conniving parasites who inhabited them." It wasn't until the Democrats shook off their Bryan populism in the 1930s, Wilentz argued, that a successful liberal coalition emerged. "To the extent that they favored using government to attack the plight of ordinary Americans, they bore a vague resemblance to the populists," he wrote. "But in everything that mattered--an appreciation of the democratic potentials of industrial capitalism, an acceptance that the old yeoman America was dead and gone--they repudiated populism." New Deal-era liberals did repudiate populism to the extent that they were more accepting of industrial capitalism and willing to accept the passing of an agrarian society, but the influence of populism lingered in the South and West for a generation or so, only to be fully extinguished in the 1990s, when political polarization, sectionalism, and redistricting brought about the virtual extinction of the southern, populist liberal Democrat. In Texas, where I grew up, a feisty populist liberal like Ann Richards could still win a statewide election in 1990, although just barely. But even that lingering populism was largely a question of style and rhetoric.

We remember the emotions of populism, the folksy style, even the paranoia, but not the substance or lasting influence on the Progressive democratic reform movements of the early twentieth century. Without an authentic, grassroots movement or a credible political strategy that is more meaningful than a de facto factional veto power, populist slogans are meaningless, farcical even.

DOI 10.1002/ncr.21125


Argersinger, Peter. 1992. Structure, Process, and Party: Essays in American Political History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharp.

Boyte, Harry. 2011. We the People Politics: The Populist Promise of Deliberative Public Work. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

Brown, David. 2007. Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. 1976. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Halloran, Liz. 2010. "What's Behind the New Populism: Interview with Michael Kazin." National Public Radio, February 5. storyId=123137382.

Hicks, John. 1931. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers Alliance and the Peoples Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1955. The Age of Reform; From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Vintage Books.

Hofstadter, Richard. 2008. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. New York: Vintage Books.

Judis, John. 2002. "Why Democrats Must Be Populists." American Prospect, September 9. why-democrats-must-be-populists.

Koenig, Louis. 1971. Bryan: A Political Biography. New York: Putnam and Song.

Littlefield, Henry. 1964. "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism." American Quarterly 16 (1): 47-58.

Schlesinger, Arthur. 1949. The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Turner, Frederick J. 1893. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Annual Report of the American Historical Association 199-227.

Turner, Frederick J. 1896. "The Problem of the West." Atlantic Monthly, September. past/docs/issues/95sep/ets/turn.htm.

Wilenz, Sean. 2002. "The Populist Fancy." American Prospect, October.

Woodward, C. Vann. 1960. The Burden of Southern History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Michael McGrath is editor of the National Civic Review.
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Author:McGrath, Michael
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Date:Jun 22, 2013
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