The People’s Party or Populist Party of the early 1890s marked a departure in American politics. Populism mobilized millions of men and women—farmers and workers, middle class activists and urban reformers—to challenge corporate power. In doing so it made major political innovations that have had a lasting impact. The Populist movement and its legacy provide the starting point for a historically grounded definition of the populist current in American politics.
Populism was responsible for three major innovations. First, on policy. The Populists introduced a set of economic reforms aimed at creating a more equitable and just society. They demanded the creation of a progressive income tax to redistribute wealth and fund public needs like education and infrastructure. They demanded government regulation over key sectors of the economy and public ownership of the railroads, the telegraph, and national banking. They demanded an end to the gold standard and a flexible national currency to lift the economy out of the depression of the 1890s. And they demanded federal credit for farmers, and union rights and the eight-hour day for workers. All of these measures represented innovative changes in the U.S. political economy, and the Populists of the 1890s pushed them into the center of political debate.
The second involved its class nature. The Populist Party was founded as an “industrial confederation” of the Farmers’ Alliance, the Knights of Labor, and other farm and labor interest groups. It was joined by currency and tax reformers, and urban and middle-class activists. But cotton and wheat farmers, coal miners, and railway workers formed the base of the coalition. This made Populism the most successful class-based political movement in U.S. history to that point, and perhaps ever.
And the third involved its methods. Populism looked to achieve its goals through extending democracy. Populists believed that “knowledge is power,” and they conducted wide-scale campaigns of adult education, building networks of lecturers, institutes, and inexpensive literature. To break corporate political influence, they demanded the direct election of senators, and direct democracy (referendums, initiatives). Populism also brought hundreds of thousands of women into the movement and worked effectively for women’s suffrage.
Populism in its heyday resembled the labor and democratic socialist parties then emerging in capitalist countries around the world. But it soon fell to America’s two-party system, when Democrats took up Populist reforms and garnered Populist votes. Some former Populists, like Eugene Debs, joined the Socialist Party, and most of the rest regrouped in the progressive wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. The progressives of the 1910s enacted Populist demands for the income tax and direct election of senators. The New Deal realized Populist demands for union rights, farm credits, and financial regulation. And politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders continue this tradition, even reviving the old Populist plan to turn post offices into banks to provide low-cost financial services to working people.
After World War II, Cold War-era scholars theorized that mass movements like Populism carried the danger of fascism and other horrors of the time. The historian Richard Hofstadter came up with the notion that the left-wing Populism of the 1890s had “soured” into the right-wing extremism of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Populism, according to this notion, was a shapeshifting menace at the root of the American politics of conspiracy, demagogy, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, and intolerance.
This notion has been proven wrong by generations of historians. The Populists had their share of conspiracists, and some Populists would later join the Ku Klux Klan. But they were no match for the anti-Semites, xenophobes, conspiracists, and demagogues among the corporate elite and within the Republican and Democratic parties. The Populists’ record of interracial cooperation was marred by prejudice and even hostility, but here, too, they proved no match for the militant Negrophobes and white supremacists of the Democratic Party. That’s what makes the Hofstadter notion so perverse. The 1890s was a moment in history when millions of working people responded to hard times in a movement that was by multiple measures relatively democratic, tolerant, and humane.
A variation of the Hofstadter notion is that populism is a style or language that transcends ideology: an appeal to the people against the elites, a politics of anger and discontent. But since the advent of universal male suffrage, in a system of winner-take-all elections, virtually all candidates have learned to appeal to the majority of voters (the people) and voice discontent against those in office (elites). Again, the irony here is that the Populists of the 1890s did not invent this style, but they did pioneer a political culture of careful deliberation.
Taking a cue from Hofstadter, journalists and pundits regularly employ the image of a shape-shifting populism because it allows them to dodge the ideological issues that make their business uncomfortable. Tea Party activists, for example, described themselves as conservative and right wing. But journalists preferred stories about Tea Party “populism” because they had more cachet than the familiar stories of conservatives and rightists. And the ambiguity of the term in the American context allowed journalists to avoid the appearance of ideological judgment. This is in contrast to Europe, where the term “populism” carries a strongly pejorative connotation of right-wing and racist nationalism.
But in the American historical context, no, Donald Trump is not a populist. He is a right-wing white nationalist billionaire who lives in a gilded tower in Manhattan who just happens to shake his finger and raise his voice for political effect. And no, Trump’s economic protectionism isn’t populist either. In the 1890s, the GOP was known as the party of Wall Street and the corporate elite, but Republicans also understood the need to win workers’ votes. Come election time, they would promise to provide a “full dinner pail” by raising tariffs to protect jobs in key industries. Meanwhile, the Populists viewed protectionism as a tax on working people and a subsidy for corporate plutocrats.
In the late nineteenth century, Southern Democrats campaigned as the party of white supremacy, and the Republicans relied on the anti-immigrant vote. The Populists mainly appealed to voters with their economic agenda. But they refused to speak out against lynching or segregation, and interracial collaboration between white and black Populists was too often narrow or nonexistent. This is partly because of the presence of white supremacists within the Populists’ ranks. It was partly a tactical means to blunt the charges from the Democratic Party that the Populists were race traitors. And it was partly because they believed that confronting racial injustice would draw attention away from their economic program, which would benefit working people of all races.
In the early twentieth century, white progressives and democratic socialists continued to maintain that matters of race were a distraction from the fight against the monopolists and Wall Street, even as the lynching crisis raged and blacks were stripped of their voting rights. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt believed that anti-lynching legislation would make it politically harder to achieve his New Deal proposals to provide economic protection for mainly male farmers and workers, even as Roosevelt’s white southern allies ensured that black farmers and workers would be systematically excluded from this protection. The result was a policy apartheid that is still deeply embedded in American society.
The presidential election debacle served as a powerful reminder that there are a lot of white male voters without college degrees. The raw numbers suggest that there is a case to be made for the Democratic Party regaining these voters by a more singular focus on their economic security. In other words, with less attention to voting rights, police killings, immigration reform, women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and similar “distractions,” the Democrats can win white men to a class project of economic justice.
But a return to a Rooseveltian compromise is no longer viable. We have the historical example of the New Deal, and the disturbing consequences that it had for racial and sexual equality. The working class has changed, and the rights of women and people of color are more than ever working-class rights. When the white supremacist bloc was an essential part of the Democratic coalition, there were tangible political advantages to not offending that bloc. Over the last 30 years though, that bloc has switched to the GOP, and under the present alignment the political arithmetic is no longer so clear.
Working people need as much populism as they can get: effective taxes on the superrich; universal health care, parental leave, and free university education; restoring the right to organize unions and livable wages; financial regulation and post office banking; and democratic access to the ballot and outlawing the purchase of the political process by corporations and billionaires.
No doubt, these measures and more are necessary to confront a crisis of inequality and to provide the essentials of a humane society. People are working and will continue to work for these changes in many different ways, and the stronger the movements for change the greater likelihood of long-term success.
That said, history suggests that more populism is no guarantee as a short-term remedy for the Democratic Party’s electoral problems. In 1896, the Democrats fused with the Populists and took up the demands for the progressive income tax, the eight-hour day, and limiting the power of Wall Street. They lost that election, and six of the next eight presidential elections, and they would have lost all of them if in 1912 the GOP hadn’t split into two and divided its votes.
It would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the weird election of 2016. The returns suggest that having a candidate as dynamic and politically agile as Barack Obama at the top of the ticket can’t hurt. But down ballot it is notable that more populist candidates were no more successful than more centrist candidates. In the decisive upper Midwest, both progressive and centrist Democrats continued to take a beating at the hands of right-to-work anti-labor Republicans. Even in Minnesota, where Hillary Clinton won, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lost both houses of the legislature. This is the crisis the Democrats face, as the GOP consolidates control of offices from school boards to state houses across some 32 states. It will take commitment, resources, and effort to compete for those offices. And, given our two-party system, it will take effective coalition-building.
In the 1890s, the Populists won only in state and local elections where they formed “fusion” coalitions. One of the biggest victories came in North Carolina, where “fusion” between black Republicans and white Populists led to funding public schools, voting rights protections, and other reforms. This history has served to inspire North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement, led by William Barber and the North Carolina NAACP. Barber describes Moral Mondays as a “populist fusion” of economic justice, labor rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, LGBT rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection.
The defeat of North Carolina’s GOP governor Pat McCrory was one of the few bright spots of last fall’s election. The Moral Mondays movement had worked hard for this victory. The GOP met this setback by stripping the incoming governor of the powers to govern, showing that, in the land of Trump, the forces of white nationalism and corporate privilege have only intensified their will to power. This and so much more suggests the need to dig in for a long and difficult fight.