Just Plain Folks

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Within the last year or so the New York Times correspondent C. L. Sulzberger has written of President Nixon’s “evident populist feeling,” and another Times man, Anthony Lewis, remarked that Lyndon Johnson was “beyond doubt a genuine populist.” A number of observers have stressed the “populist strain” in the “Kingfish” from Louisiana in the iQ3o’s, Senator Huey Long; in Wisconsin’s Communistphobe of the igso’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy; in the 1968 Democratic Presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey; and in the Alabama candidate for President in 1972, Governor George Wallace. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, campaigning for the West Virginia governorship, discovered that he had “populist instincts,” while Mayor John Lindsay of New York City and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, seeking the White House, took to making pronouncements about who was the true believer—”populist” McGovern attacking Lindsay as a “Park Avenue populist” and “populist” Lindsay denouncing George Wallace as a “phony populist.” The Philadelphia Bulletin referred to the city’s new mayor, Frank Rizzo, as an “urban populist”; delegates from seven national organizations assembled in Dallas to launch a “new populism.” And the Harvard research psychiatrist Robert Coles, having intensively interviewed many middle Americans of the early 1970’s, summarized that among “ordinary” or “average” Americans, “everywhere I hear a kind of populism expressed.”

The word populism is coming back in a rush. The whole raft of references provokes another look at that phenomenon of the 1980’s, the People’s Party of the United States—more generally known as the Populist Party—which has long seemed about as pertinent to contemporary affairs as buckboards, Lydia Pinkham pills, or President Benjamin Harrison.

In certain respects the story of the Populist Party can be simply and swiftly told. During the decades after the Civil War the farmers of the West grew increasingly irritated by low prices for their crops; mounting costs for the manufactured goods they purchased; tight money, which made their mortgages seem that much more onerous. They found allies in the agrarian areas of the South, in a variety of reform movements in the cities, above all in the grinding depression of 1893 which made almost any lower-income man wonder whether he should not have heretical thoughts. Dominated by its Western agrarian element, the Populist Party gave its greatest push to free silver, the unlimited coinage of silver which would have cut mortgages by inflating the currency. But catching up the demands of decades of dissidence within all kinds of groups in many parts of the nation, the party went far beyond this.

It sought to break the power of railroads, middlemen, corporations, “all entrenched money.” To do this it urged “democratizing” political changes and sweeping government intervention in economic life: the secret ballot, the initiative, the referendum, and the direct election of United States senators; a continuously flexible currency system controlled by the federal government; public ownership of the railroad, telephone, and telegraph companies; the strengthening of regulatory commissions like the Interstate Commerce Commission and the establishment of new ones; a graduated income tax; and an eight-hour day for labor.

In 1892 the Populist Presidential candidate received more than eight per cent of the national vote, and the party became the first new one to carry a state since the founding of the G. O. P. in 1856. Voters also elected five Populist or populist-minded senators, ten representatives, three governors, and some 1,500 county officials or state legislators. In 1896 the Populists formed a coalition with the Democrats in backing William Jennings Bryan, and they not only aided considerably in his strong run for the Presidency but sharply upped their own state and local victories.

Suddenly, within the next few years, the Populist roar subsided. General good times were returning; the most goading grievance of farmers, tight money, was alleviated without legislation by a sizable increase in the gold supply. The Populist Party was torn by the incongruity of its factions—the agrarian and labor elements were largely indifferent to each other when they were not at each other’s throats. The early tendency of the southern wing of the party to try to unite the poor, white and black, permitted it to be clobbered by old-line politicians as the vehicle of the “nigger lovers.” By the early 1900’s the Populists as an organized party had ceased to matter in American political life.