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Populism Is Not A Style

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Gosh, everyone's a populist now: the corporate-funded teabag rallies, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck -- pretty much anyone or any group claiming to speak for the people and doing it in a mavericky, mad-as-hell fashion is labeled "populist" by the media.

But wait -- those people are to populism what near beer is to beer, only not as close. Time for a reality check. Populism is not a style, it's a people's rebellion against the iron grip that big corporations have on our country -- including our economy, government, media, and environment. It is unabashedly a class movement. Try to squeeze Lord Limbaugh into that philosophical suit of clothes!

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 excesses.

We're 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 them 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 failed giants by ousting their top execs, splitting the behemoths into their component parts (banking, investment, and insurance), and reducing them to decentralized, manageable-sized financial institutions.

A movement

American populism has a phenomenal history that has largely been hidden from our people. The Powers That Be are not keen to promote the story of a mass movement that did -- and still could -- challenge the corporate structure. Thus, the rich history of this grassroots force tends to be ignored entirely or trivialized as a bunch of rubes who had some arcane quibble involving the free coinage of silver.

In fact, 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.

The populists were 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.

"Wall Street owns the country," declared Mary Ellen Lease in 1890. A powerhouse orator who took to the stump and wowed crowds at a time women were not even allowed to vote, Lease laid out a blunt message: "Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags... The people are at bay, let the bloodhounds of money who have dogged us beware."

These farmers and laborers were largely impoverished and powerless, yet even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building. So, after all sorts of starts-and-stops, populists found five ways to organize the movement and make their mark.

ECONOMIC. In 1877 before populism even had a name, it had a mission, which was to do something -- anything -- about the spreading economic plight of farmers all over the country. They faced rampant gouging by bankers, crop-lien merchants, commodity combines, railroad monopolies, and others. Government was worse than unresponsive: it sided with the gougers.

An economic alternative was needed, and it came out of Texas. Known as the Farmers Alliance, it created a network of cooperative enterprises that could both buy supplies for farmers in bulk and pool their crops to sell in bulk, bypassing the monopolists, getting better prices, and giving farmers a modicum of control over their destinies. It was an idea that worked.

Alliances were soon being formed throughout the South, the Plains states, the upper Midwest, and all across the West, bringing more than a million farmers into a common economy. This was a vast, multi-sectional structure of radical economic reform, creating a new possibility that its leaders called a "cooperative commonwealth."

CULTURAL. The Alliance created the means for ordinary people to learn what a democratic culture really is and to implement a vision of an alternative way to live. These were working-class families who'd been treated as nobodies by the influentials who ran things, But - whoa! - now these outcasts were running something, and they mattered, both individually and as a group.

It was transformative for them. Lawrence Goodwyn, author of Democratic Promise, the definitive book on the populist phenomenon, sees the cultural awakening as they key triumph of the Alliance: "[The cooperative experience] imparted a sense of self-worth to individual people and provided them with the instruments of self-education about the world they lived in. The movement gave them hope -- a shared hope -- that they were not impersonal victims of a gigantic industrial engine ruled by others but that they were, instead, people who could perform specific political acts of self-determination.

MEDIA. To stay connected and provide a steady flow of energy, the movement relied on a concerted program of communication. This required the Alliance to create its own media - over a thousand populist magazines, newspapers, books, and hundreds of poems flowed from the movement. The communication lynchpin, however, was the Alliance Lecture Bureau, a stable of trained, articulate speakers - 40,000 strong! - who regularly traversed the country from New York to California, bringing information, insight, and inspiration to all corners of Populist Nation.

COALITIONS. Though it created serious tensions in various Alliance chapters, the movement kept trying to broaden its base by joining hands with other groups that were also confronting corporate power. Early on, its leaders reached out to the emerging labor movement, even supporting strikes by the Knights of Labor. This stand was a defining moment for the Alliance, for it heralded the co-op movement's shift into a more radical political phase.

An even tougher match-up for the leadership was with black farmers, who had organized their own Colored Farmers National Alliance with about a million members. Aside from the obvious barrier that entrenched racism presented to this possible coalition, there was such a strong feeling of a shared fight that real and successful efforts were made together. "They are in the ditch just like we are," a white leader pointed out. The eminent historian C. Vann Woodward has said flatly that, "Never before or since have the two races in the South come so close together as they did during Populist struggles."

The Alliance also included what was, at the time, a remarkable number of women activists. They made up roughly one-quarter of the membership and held many key posts.

POLITICS. By the mid-1880s, the Alliance reached a point where it had to abandon its original stance of non-partisanship and start flexing its political muscle. The big commodity brokers and railroad barons were brutalizing the co-ops with monopoly tactics, and bankers were squeezing the Alliance's marketing co-ops by refusing to provide loans. The major political parties, which were in harness to these moneyed interests, offered no relief.

Finally, Alliance delegates met in Omaha on July 4, 1892, to found the People's Party of America, proudly branding themselves "The Populists."Now they could run their own people for offices up and down the ballot, campaigning on a broad platform to counter the "corporations, national banks, rings, trusts... and the oppression of usurers" in order to advance the common interests of "plain people." The party put forth an amazingly progressive agenda:
  • The first party to call for women's suffrage.
  • An eight-hour day for labor, plus wage protections.
  • The abolition of the standing army of mercenaries, known as the "Pinkerton system," which violently suppressed union organizers.
  • The direct election by the people of U.S. Senators (who were chosen by state legislatures at the time).
  • A graduated income tax.
  • Legislation by popular initiative and referendum.
  • Public ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs.
  • No subsidy for private corporations for any purpose.
  • Prohibition of speculation on foreign ownership of our public lands and natural resources.
  • A free ballot and fair count in all elections.
  • Civil-service laws to prevent the politicalization of government employees.
  • Pensions for veterans.
  • Measures to break the corrupting power of corporate lobbyists.

What happened

Ultimately, the Populists were undone, not by their boldness, but by leaders who urged them to compromise and merge their aspirations into the Democratic Party. In the presidential election of 1896, the People's Party nominated Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whose "cross of gold" campaign focused on the "free silver" issue, avoiding the much more appealing structural radicalism of Populism. Outspent five to one, Bryan lost the race to William McKinley, the Republican who was financed and owned by Wall Street.

The People's Party, having surrendered its independence and soul at a time the Alliance was being gutted by the money interests and the press, lost favor with its own faithful - and withered into a parody itself.

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, cooperatives, 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.

Though the Powers That Be don't want us connecting with this stunning "Populist Moment" in our democratic history, a majority of folks today hold within them the live spark of populism -- which is an innate distrust of corporate tycoons and Wall Street titans and an instinct to rebel against them. The moment can come again. As Goodwyn tells us, "the triumph of Populism... was the belief in the possibility it injected into American political consciousness.