The Chronicle Review

Populism With Brains

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William Jennings Bryan ran three times for president on a populist platform at the turn of the 20th century, and lost. But populism helped inspire some of the government's subsequent interventionist policies.
February 28, 2010

When President Obama sounded a populist note in the wake of the Republican victory in the Senate race in Massachusetts, conservative commentators went wild. Left-leaning populists (think the 1896 presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan or Senator Huey Long and his Share Our Wealth program in the 1930s) have been regularly vilified as hayseeds gone mad. The image of populists, tarred in the 1890s as a party of unkempt, uneducated madmen whose hatred for the rich would unleash anarchy on the Republic, lives on in the minds of contemporary detractors as an ignorant rabble simplistically dividing the country between Main Street and Wall Street. Echoing older caricatures, The New York Times's David Brooks reminded us the day before the president's State of the Union address that "simply bashing the rich and powerful will still not solve the country's problems."

But recent historical scholarship indicates that the real populists were not so simple-minded. During the depression of the 1870s, the Greenback Labor Party (which bequeathed its critique of the financial system to the People's Party 20 years later) criticized an unswerving dependence on the gold standard and pioneered a demand for federal control of the national currency and flexible interest rates. Attacked at the time as a collection of "wild-eyed fanatics," this early farmer-labor movement captured more than a million votes and 14 Congressional seats in 1878. Rebecca B. Edwards, a professor of history at Vassar College, reminds us in New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 (Oxford University Press, 2006) that the movement's core ideas ultimately prevailed in the form of the Federal Reserve system.

As for the populists of the Farmers' Alliance and People's Party era, according to Charles Postel, whose The Populist Vision (Oxford) won a 2008 Bancroft Prize, they, too, were more realistic and forward-looking in their prescriptions than their reputation suggests. Hardly anticapitalist but determined to reform a system that was, as Postel summarizes, overbreeding "tramps and millionaires" at the expense of the "plain people," those populists took seriously the goal, as later stated by Brooks, "to enhance competition and make it fair." Thus, while extolling what they called "self-help" and "cooperative" production, they also recognized the need for the selective but powerful hand of government. To that end, they called for readier access to credit, public ownership of railroad and telegraph networks, an eight-hour workday, and a progressive income tax.

Moreover, rather than backward-looking primitives or even a virtuous yeomanry resisting market-based development, the populists of that time, insists Postel, were determinedly modern people. An assistant professor of history at California State University at San Francisco, he takes pains to emphasize the business principles of Farmers' Alliance enterprises. Indeed, the economies of scale and centralized purchasing realized by farmers' wheat, dairy, and fruit cooperatives, he suggests, "paralleled the experiments in the warehousing and direct shipment of goods and supplies undertaken by Montgomery Ward and other corporations."

In addition, populists shared with their contemporary political rivals a firm belief in progress, as witnessed by their eagerness to engage the increasingly sophisticated communication and transportation systems of their day and apply the latest scientific knowledge to their own production proc-esses. (According to Postel, their adherence to "science"—in this case the pseudoscientific eugenic theories of their day—contributed to the separation of the whites-only Farmers' Alliance from their counterpart among African-American farmers and led to their active collusion in constructing the legislative framework of Jim Crow. In that, they were in league with most of their Southern white contemporaries.) What set them apart was their conviction that only a reckoning with corporate power and political influence could unleash the benefits of new models of business efficiency on the citizenry at large.

New scholarship generally partakes of what has been called the "new institutionalism" in political-history and political-science circles. Paying less attention than previous studies to the Sturm und Drang of electoral cycles and campaign rhetoric, institutionalists tend to focus on the intricacies of state welfare and fiscal policy­, in both theory and practice. Taking their cue from the sociologist Theda Skocpol's path-breaking Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Harvard University Press, 1992), historically minded political scientists have helped to set the stage for Postel's masterful synthesis. Gretchen Ritter's Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America (Cambridge University Press, 1997), for example, argues convincingly that populists' currency and credit reforms were no less subtle or practical than those of their political opponents: They were not defeated by "the anonymous forces of historical progress and economic modernity" but by "political choice, structural constraints, and historical contingency." In a yet more expansive study, Elizabeth Sanders's Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 (University of Chicago Press, 1999) points to organized farmers (and to a lesser extent organized labor) as the major impetus for the 20th century's interventionist state. Though ultimately passed off to bureaucracies susceptible to influence from the very interests they were created to control, regulations aimed at banks, railroads, telecommunications, and trade and antitrust policy, Sanders shows, all emerged from the sustained pressure of agrarian reformers before World War I.

To be sure, modern-day populist rhetoric is a most malleable substance, which can serve diverse agendas. In The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), the historian Michael Kazin tracks the elastic reach of "a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter." Indeed, devoid of concrete plans to democratize the economy, populist language in recent years, as Kazin documents, has more often tilted politically right than left. Kazin cites the 1968 presidential "backlash" campaign of George Wallace against "pointy-headed intellectuals" and "government bureaucrats" and Ross Perot's 1992 United We Stand attack on lobbyists and pro-Nafta "country clubbers" in the White House as recent examples of "conservative populism."

Yet, however we might wish to debate the programmatic details, it seems easy enough to distinguish varieties of faux populism—empty appeals to class resentment—from the real McCoy. One example of the former is Sarah Palin, who identifies with the cultural facade of the "plain people" but in no way addresses their economic circumstances. Another example is President Obama, whose on-again, off-again critiques of investment bankers who otherwise dominate the administration's key policy positions ring hollow. What the past tells us is: Only with a program for significant bank reform, foreclosure relief, tuition subsidies, and major public works (none of them a high priority of the current Democratic Congress) can anyone today claim the mantle of reinvigorated democracy at the heart of the populist mission. Fighting banks that were seizing their homes and land was an important part of farmers' recurrent revolt. As Woody Guthrie put it in the 1930s, "Some will rob you with a gun; and some with a fountain pen."

But today's worldwide recession also demands an international economic agenda from would-be reformers. Redressing imbalances between the global North and global South and restructuring the international financial system must be key aspects of a populist movement for the 21st century. To that end, one of the most powerful and easily grasped ideas coming out of the World Social Forum (an annual alternative economic conclave that originated in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2001) is the "Tobin tax," a tiny global tax on financial transactions named after its author, the late American economist James Tobin, and backed by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. It is aimed at both reducing short-term speculation on currencies and providing a fund for third-world development. Though Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain tentatively proposed a version of the Tobin tax at a G-20 finance ministers' meeting in 2009, it was immediately castigated by the international banking community and quickly withdrawn. "Populist economics" is not likely to come from the top down.

Populism has long ridden a historiographical roller coaster. As early as the 1959-60 issue of The American Scholar, C. Vann Woodward ("The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual") pointed to radical shifts in academic judgments of the original movement. What he called the neo-Populism of the New Deal era summoned forth an initially appreciative, even effusive scholarly embrace of the historical farmer-worker coalition, a judgment that soon gave way to a darker view influenced both by the irrational outbursts of fascism abroad and by McCarthyite upheavals at home.

Perhaps it is not surprising that today's economic hard times should give rise to a new neopopulism in academic circles. If so, however, word has yet to spread to the nation's punditocracy. For some, a mere feint in the direction of redistribution of power and wealth still raises fear of the Apocalypse. Detractors like David Brooks thus revel in the fact that "the history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat." Yes, the Great Commoner failed in his bids for the presidency at the turn of the 20th century. But, thinking of today's economic and financial crisis, isn't it the winners who have gotten us into this mess?

Leon Fink is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, author of The Maya of Morgantown: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.