UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 13, 2009

POPULISM: WHAT HISTORIANS AND THE MEDIA DON'T TELL YOU

Jim Hightower, The Hightower Lowdown - Populism is not a style, nor is it a synonym for "popular outrage." It is a historically grounded political doctrine (and movement) that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic fight against the moneyed elites.

The very essence of populism is its unrelenting focus on breaking the iron grip that big corporations have on our country--including on our economy, government, media, and environment. It is unabashedly a class movement. . .

Fully embracing the egalitarian ideals and rebellious spirit of the American Revolution, 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 its 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 the management, stockholders, and bondholders of the financial giants in order 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 clumsy, inept, ungovernable, and corrupt financial system by ousting those who wrecked it, splitting up its component parts (banking, investment, and insurance), and establishing decentralized, manageable-sized financial institutions operating on the locally controlled models of credit unions, co-ops, and community banks. . .

The true portrait of populism is rarely on public display. History teachers usually hustle students right past this unique moment in the evolution of our democracy. You never see a movie or a television presentation about the movement's innovative thinkers, powerful orators, and dramatic events. National museums offer no exhibits of its stunning inventions and accomplishments. And there is no "populist trail of history" winding through the various states in which farmers and workers created the People's Party (also known as the Populist Party), reshaped the national political debate, forced progressive reforms, delivered a million votes (and four states) to the party's 1892 presidential candidate, and elected 10 populist governors, six U.S. senators, and three dozen House members.

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.

While the big media of that day portrayed the movement as an incoherent bunch of conspiracy-minded bumpkins, the populists were in fact 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. Populist organizers spoke bluntly about the need to restructure the corporate system that was undermining America's democratic promise. . .

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

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, cooperativists, 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.

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