WASHINGTON, D.C. - This week’s podcast was about populism in America, including its history and appearances in today’s politics. An earlier post looked that the words themselves – “populist” and “populism.” This post gives a quick tour of some American populisms.
Before populism was ever really an “ism,” it was simply a nickname for members of the People’s Party of the 1890s. In an email interview, the historian Charles Postel said:
The Populist Party was a farmer-labor party, whose policies laid much of the foundation for the Progressive Era reforms of the early twentieth century. The progressive income tax, the direct election of senators, flexible monetary policy, and the regulation of commerce, were among the numerous reforms that the Populist Party first succeeded in pushing into the center of American political debate. The common denominator of these reforms was to use the power of government, and especially the federal government, as a counterweight to the unprecedented power of railroad, banking, and other corporations, and to use the power of government to address the unprecedented crisis of inequality that, as the Populists put it, was making the United States into a country of tramps and millionaires.
In the early part of the 1900s, when people talked about populism, they were probably talking about the People’s Party and its progressive legacy. “Until the 1940s,” according to Michael Kazin in “The Populist Persuasion,” “conservative populism was an oxymoron.”
There were ugly political movements in the early part of the century that did use the style and rhetoric we now associate with populism. But they weren’t conservative in any meaningful sense.
“Sensational foes of modernist culture such as the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and Father Coughlin in the late 1930s did attempt to stir up the pious masses against an elite they accused of having un-Christian designs on the nation,” Kazin wrote. “But neither sought to preserve the economic status quo.” These were hardly reformers either. Lunatic fringe is perhaps a better description.
But that changed with McCarthyism in the 1950s, a movement that used the populist style but that was so conservative it was reactionary. Importantly, it was housed in the Republican Party. It also had a broad grip on the country for a sustained period of time.
McCarthyism almost gave populism a permanent bad name, says Postel:
… In the 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era, an influential group of scholars went in search of the American roots of fascism and intolerance. And they came to the conclusion that the Populist revolt of the 1890s - the political expression of the rural heartland - was the tap-root of American anti-Semitism and McCarthy-style demagogy and intolerance. The most influential such study was Richard Hofstadter's “Age of Reform” that won the Pulitzer Prize and is still widely read and widely influential. In a time when all ideology was suspect, Hofstadter and his colleagues had discovered a non-ideological explanation for the emergence of McCarthyism on the far-right of American politics.
However, historians who actually studied the Populists of the 1890s, vigorously and successfully refuted Hofstadter's claims. In reality, the Populists were one of the most tolerant and humane political phenomena of their time. In reality, far from a movement of demagogues, Populism was a movement of mass adult education in the Enlightenment tradition. In reality, Populism was not ideologically ambiguous, but represented farmer-labor class politics, parallel to the emergence of farmer-labor and social-democratic politics elsewhere in the capitalist world at that time.
Nonetheless, what the historians said on this matter could not undo the damage that Hofstadter and others had done.
Populism came to be associated with a famous phrase of Hofstadter’s, “the paranoid style in American politics.” And paranoid strain of populism continued after McCarthyism, most prominently in the form of George Wallace and the militant opposition to integration in the 1960s.
Kazin argues that populism – the word – had a kind of redemption in 1960s with the successes of the New Left, feminism and civil rights movements. “We have a surfeit of free-swinging populist talkers now,” wrote Kazin in 1995. We still do.
Google Ngrams tracks the use of words in books and is very cool. It shows Kazin is right. Here is an Ngram chart of the use the words “populist” and “populism” in English-language books from 1900 to 2013:
Postel points out that rhetoric in the style of populism existed long before the word became common. “There is a long political tradition in America of speaking in the name of the ‘plain people,’ the ‘silent majority,’ or the ‘middle class,’” Postel said. “And in this political tradition ordinary citizens are invariably pitted against some type of elites who abuse their power.”
It is important to point out that this tradition did not start with the Populist Party, and this was not a particular feature of Populism. It started much earlier, with the advent of universal white male suffrage. Politicians of all types, including elite slave owners like Andrew Jackson, learned how to win elections by appealing to the "common man" against various perceived and real elites. That's how you win a majority of votes in America, where elites never make up a majority of voters. In the 1890s, the Populists spoke in the name of the "people" against the corporate elite. But the conservative enemies of Populism spoke in the name of the "forgotten man," and promised a "full dinner pail" to the working class voter. Franklin Roosevelt would later champion the "forgotten man" against "economic royalists," and Richard Nixon would champion the "silent majority" against the liberal elite. This is the language of American politics.
And populism is now a word in that language that contemporary politicians and political wordsmiths very often see as positive and want to claim. There are arguments over who is a legitimate populist and who isn’t. Sometimes it’s an insult. But mostly, populism is a word with romance and power in our political thesaurus.
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