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The Promise of Populism

Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America

by Lawrence Goodwyn
Oxford University Press, 702 pp., $19.95

Populism” is a bad word in the current American political vocabulary and has been for a long time. Any aspirant for elective office who is tagged with the term or makes bold to own it himself is rendered immediately vulnerable to suspicions of a sinister sort. In circles of acknowledged sophistication the identification is sufficient to damn a candidate’s motives and associate him with a host of symbols of that which is low, demagogic, retrograde, and irrational in the American tradition of democratic politics. As soon as Jimmy Carter admitted that his acceptance speech before the Democratic Convention in New York was in part inspired by a Populist heritage his fate was sealed with those in whose minds the prevailing stereotype was fixed.

Just how that stereotype took the shape it now has and found lodgment in the modern American mind is a complicated story. Part of the story consists of coincidence, class bias, and the sort of irrational components that account for most political stereotypes. But to a much greater degree than with most the dominant stereotype of Populism is the product of serious if misguided historical scholarship, now nearly half a century old, filtered down and further colored and misread by many minds and vulgarized by the press.

To begin to sort out misconceptions is to determine what we are talking about. Like the terms “capitalism,” “communism,” and “democracy” the tag “populism” has been applied to a fantastic variety of phenomena. Something bearing that name or tagged with it by theorists has appeared in many countries. A conference of international scholars in London nine years ago opened its summary report of findings with the words: “A specter is haunting the world—populism.”

Movements under that name have cropped up in Russia, France, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Romania, and parts of Africa, in addition to the United States. They have appealed at various times and places to working class, middle class, and peasants, to left-wingers and right-wingers, to parliamentarians and totalitarians, to fascists and social democrats. They have sprung up in developed as well as undeveloped countries, in urban as well as rural populations, in depressed as well as boom periods, and have manifested both reactionary and forward-looking aspirations. Experts are hard put to find common denominators. They speak of the phenomenon as more of a style than a theory, a dimension of political culture rather than a system, a situation rather than an ideology.

The American encounter with Populism in the late nineteenth century was one of the earliest. It happened to coincide in time, though in no other way, with the Populist outbreak in Russia. These two classic historical examples seem to have been the only two that called themselves “Populist.” They had little else in common and were mutually unaware of each other, save for an American borrowing of a Russian idea of government credit for peasants. Russian Populism consisted largely of intellectuals without a mass following, while American Populism was a mass movement that earned the contempt and hostility—then and since then—of most intellectuals. Difficulties of further comparison might be illustrated by visualizing the contrast between the figures of Czar Alexander II and President Grover Cleveland as symbols of what the two movements opposed.

Much of the trouble with the current American stereotype stems from loosely applying the term “populism” with a small “p” to a lot of people who were never Populists at all, many who were mortal enemies of the movement, and some who derived their notions of the concept from foreign experience or ancestry. The only legitimate use of the term as applied to the American experience and heritage is with reference to those who called themselves Populists and joined the party of that name in the 1890s. To avoid confusion the term will be consistently spelled here with a capital “P.”

American Populism, together with the National Alliance from which it flowered, constituted the largest and most powerful movement attempting the structural reform of the American economic and political system in the nineteenth century. On the eve of the consolidation of the corporate state, the eve of the period that trimmed the participating electorate down to its present 50 percent or less, the Populists sought to establish a cooperative common-wealth and curb the power of finance capitalism. They attracted millions of followers and actually set up their own cooperative markets in the 1880s. But they were too advanced to be accepted by a complacent Gilded Age.

In their time the Populists held out the best promise of filling the gaping hole in the active electorate of the future normally occupied by a social democratic party of some sort in other democracies. That hole is still filled in the American electorate by the largest number of nonvoters in any democracy. Distrusting all candidates and both parties, they seem incapable of conceiving of any political alternative to apathy.

Granted the Populist effort was a failure and its aspirations probably impossible from the start, it would seem to have earned enough for its boldness and nobility of purpose to get a serious hearing from posterity. Those professing concern for the present crisis of democracy and freedom would seem especially obliged, not to accept it as a model, but to respect its memory and purposes, understand its errors, and learn from its mistakes. Instead these very people have grown accustomed to using “Populism” as a favorite term to opprobrium and disparagement, if not contempt. They have fixed on Populism, or what they have loosely and often wrongly identified with it in all periods of American history including the present, as embodying the seamy and sinister side of democracy.

The bill of particulars in the indictment of Populism is staggering and the burden of odium it bears is comparable with that loaded on the back of any doctrinal depravity in our history. It would seem to have become by common consent the favored scapegoat for the sins of the tribe. Among them are assorted phobias including anti-Semitism, racism, nativism, and xenophobia, a combination that fostered “hatred as a kind of creed.” Populists have been accused of isolationism, imperialism, jingoism, and anti-intellectualism, and charged with paranoidal obsessions, conspiratorial delusions, and nostalgic dreams of restoring the past.

To this indictment for alleged faults of their own have been added charges of responsibility for inspiring evils of later generations. Some degree of Populist inspiration has been found in such American miscreants as Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and Father Charles Coughlin, while abroad traces of the same influence are discovered in both Nazism and Stalinism.

Lawrence Goodwyn’s long Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America is the first scholarly study of the movement on the national scale to appear in forty-five years. It replaces and extensively revises the interpretation so long dominant, that of John D. Hicks in The Populist Revolt (1931). Hicks is not entirely to blame for the distorted bill of indictment outlined above. Oddly enough, his was basically a friendly treatment. Goodwyn maintains, however, that Hicks missed the essential dynamics of Populism and by his misreading opened the way for the later distortions and misinterpretations.

The chief error was to permit what Goodwyn calls “the shadow movement” that accompanied Populism to be mistaken for the real thing. The real thing was the culture of political revolt that grew out of the years of Alliance cooperatives and the elaborate program of structural economic and political reforms that was forged in that struggle, beginning in the 1880s. The shadow movement was the effort to substitute for that entire program and the radical spirit that animated it the single demand for the free coinage of silver and a flabby opportunism of trimming and compromise for the sake of office.

The attitude of the radical “real thing” Populist toward the shadow movement is typified by a statement of Tom Watson, the Georgia leader: “Viewed from any standpoint, this single-plank party is fatally objectionable. The scheme is a trap, a pitfall, a snare, a menace, a fraud, a crime against common sense and common honesty.” The scheme nevertheless won the support of many Westerners and several Southerners who called themselves Populists, and a great many more in the mid-Nineties who never did but were commonly identified as such. Confusion of shadow with reality enabled later writers to describe the charlatanry and demagoguery of such foes of Populism as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and James Hogg as the genuine article and take the mouthings of W.H. “Coin” Harvey and William Jennings Bryan as authentic voices of Populism.

Another mistake of Hicks, according to Goodwyn, was his emphasis upon Western and “frontier” influences on the origins and character of the movement. It is certainly true that the Western states were never subjected to the radical influences attributed to the Southern Alliance, with its four million members, forty thousand “lecturers,” and thousands of cooperative exchanges for buying and selling. By contrast the Northwestern Alliance was a feeble organization with ineffectual leadership and fewer than ten thousand members. Save for Kansas and the Dakotas, the Western states were never caught up in the fires of revolt that raged in the South.

It is to the South, but especially to Texas, that Goodwyn turns to dig out the roots and origins of the mass movement and its radicalism. “In ways people outside the South had difficulty perceiving,” he writes, “the crop lien system became for millions of Southerners, white and black, little more than a modified form of slavery.” With blacks at the bottom and most whites little if any above them, they lived year in and year out in debtor’s peonage at a level of privation and humiliation that was “un-American” by any reckoning. Classes normally and natively conservative were ripe for radicalization before Populism reached them. The process began with an incubation period of ten years in the Farmers Alliance of Texas. It reached the radical and expansive stage in 1886, stimulated in part by the Great Southwestern Strike of railroad workers that year. Organizers then swept out over the Southern states, into the West, and eventually established the order in forty-three states and territories.

The best and most original part of Goodwyn’s huge book is that on the Farmers Alliance and the role it played in preparing the way for Populism. If he is right—and I suspect he is—that the Alliance cooperative movement was “the animating essence of American Populism,” it is too bad he could not tell us more about the workings of those thousands of exchanges and warehouses and why they failed.

Another valuable contribution this book makes is that on the black Populists. The author has made a special study of racial tensions and interracial cooperation during and after the movement that adds many new insights. He points out that blacks brought a much more sophisticated and cautious perspective to bear on the politics of insurgency than did whites. They had no purely “economic” way out and had to worry about survival before they could worry about economic injustice. Their leaders knew that if they relinquished their power base in the Republican party they faced the probability of being left with no foothold at all in the electoral process. In spite of this they dared to play a significant part in the third-party revolt.

There is more to be learned in this book about the Populist party as a whole and its workings in the various states than in any other one volume. It is old-style history, however, as most history still is, and it leaves unanswered questions that the new-style history addresses. Among them are such questions as who were the Populist voters anyway? To what class did they belong and to what race? And to what party had they previously belonged? Other historians of Populism (including the reviewer) have left them unanswered too. But we still need to know the answers to these and many other questions that are left hanging, and to some that are unasked.

In spite of certain shortcomings, this volume does many valuable things. For one, it restores to Populists authentic historical association with their own movement, an association they have been denied. It distinguishes clearly between a shadow movement that was a caricature and the reality that deserves respect. It removes the Populists from the psychopathic clinic and assumes them to be no less rational than their critics. It reveals modern America still bound to nineteenth-century orthodoxies from which the Populists rebelled. It restores roots of present movements that had been severed with the past. And quite as important as these things, the book makes it more difficult to discredit any mass protest against existing institutions by labeling it “Populist.”

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