Sunday, February 15, 2009

Populism and populism

In response to Sarah's post on reclaiming "populism" for the left, let me express why I find it a scary term.

In principle, I totally agree that "the people" should be in control of society and not a bunch of politicians and bankers. But the reality of populist movements in American society has generally not been good. The unleashed anger of the white working class has all too often manifested itself by attacking people for difference. It's allowed ugly racism and anti-Semitism to replace organizing for the well-being of all poor people.

I am probably permanently scarred on the term because of the Populist movement of the late 19th century. I don't want to get into too much detail on the movement's aims because they are so obscure and related to specific economic problems of late 19th century rural states. But here's the basic story. Farmers in the Plains and South were getting screwed big time by railroad interests who charged expensive and unfair rates to farmers to get their goods to market. The Gilded Age was a time when big corporations dominated American life and the railroads were among the most powerful. They worked with other monopolies to buy Congress and ensure zero regulation, including how much they paid their workers or how much they charged people to use their services. There were other issues as well that were forcing farmers into poverty, including a glutted cotton market that impoverished Southern farmers.

Beginning in 1867, farmers began to organize into the Grange movement, which was a sort of social organization of farmers. Although not particularly political at first, as conditions worsened and attempts to improve their collective economic lot failed, they turned their anger upon eastern bankers (i.e., Jews), railroad companies, and the "human vampires" who sucked the blood of the American farmer. In its early years, this movement seemed fairly successful. Between 1869 and 1874, farmers in several Midwestern states got laws passed limiting what railroads could charge. But the railroads successfully challenged these laws and in 1886, the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in Wabash v. Illinois.

The Grange declined but farmers continued organizing into the Farmers' Alliance, which during the 1880s and early 1890s was a dominant force in many states. At first, the Alliance even included black farmers, who organized into associated but segregated Colored Farmers Alliances. In 1890, the Farmers Alliance met in Ocala, Florida to put together their political platform. It called for the graduated income tax, direct election of US senators, more credit, regulation of transportation and communication networks, and other economic ideas that are pretty obscure today. In 1892, they ran James B. Weaver for President who won Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada, as well as electoral votes in Oregon and North Dakota. In 1896, the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan took over their platform, in particular the free coinage of silver, which was meant to increase currency and cause inflation, thus solving the very serious currency shortages that meant that farmers could not get credit. He lost and the high tide of the Populist movement passed. But many of the Populist ideas were adopted by the Progressive movement and became law during the 1900s and 1910s.

So what's the problem? Despite the early flirtation with biracialism, as time went on, Populism turned nasty. Always saturated with the anti-Semitism so dominant in American society during these years, Populist attacks upon Jews became harsher. Moreover, when people's economic woes didn't subside and when the path to changing those problems seemed impossible, that frustration and hatred turned upon black people, intellectuals, and anyone else who seemed different and threatening.

The biggest issue of course was racism toward African-Americans. Again, for the turn of the century South, the early years of Populism are about as good as it got. Even as late as 1900, poor whites and blacks worked together in North Carolina to briefly come to power. But many of the early Populist leaders spent the rest of their career as race-baiting small p populists, stirring up the anger of farmers who brought them to power by promoting white supremacy. Arguably the worst example is Tom Watson, the long-time Georgia politician. In his early years, Watson supported working with blacks. But after the failure of the Populists, he turned into a national firebreather for white supremacy. He remained in power through race baiting of the worst kind. He inflamed public opinion against the Jewish factory manager Leo Frank who was convicted (probably wrongly) of killing a girl who worked for him. When Frank's sentence was commuted in 1915, Frank was dragged from his jail cell and lynched after Watson had demagogued the issue for his own benefit and fanned the flames of anti-Semitic hatred. Watson also became a fanatical anti-Catholic, calling for the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan to fight against this menace.

William Jennings Bryan, while not exactly a Populist, knew that the anger of the poor at the outrages they claimed to suffer at the hands of outsiders kept him a leading national figure. He failed in his three runs for president and was not a particularly good Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. But he was popular and powerful enough to achieve these high positions of power. He's most known today for his defense of Tennessee's anti-evolution law in the Scopes Trial of 1925. In some ways, the Scopes Trial is the epitomy of small p populism for me. It's about poor white outrage over outsiders they see destroying their lives--in this case eastern elitist intellectuals who supposedly rejected God and hated religion.

So when I think of "populism" as a concept, I think of the race-baiting Tom Watson, the anti-intellectual William Jennings Bryan, and the millions of Americans who turned to hate when their economic outrage was awoken but not empowered. I think of the millions who listened to Father Coughlin in 1935 and Bill O'Reilly in 2009 as the descendants of America's historical populism. So when we talk about becoming populists ourselves, I have to know what that means exactly and how people will respond differently than in the past. Who are "the people?" What happens if they start turning toward hate when the big corporations retain control? Have we moved past such possibilities in today's society? Will people not turn against immigrants in violent ways?

There's no doubt that I get too hung up on the semantics of these things. But it's a lot easier to call for a populist movement than to control that anger if you actually do manage to raise the ire of millions. If that anger is channeled into concrete goals, it can be a good thing. CIO organizing in the 1930s is a great example of this. But if it is left free to flow in whichever way, it can also be dangerous.