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Just Plain Folks
What strange vehicle could accommodate a crew as disparate as this? Hint: In any election year they’re all
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Yet, when one looks back with the perspective of three quarters of a century, it is clear that the Populist Party proved a seedbed of twentiethcentury political and social changes. Most of the specific programs it urged have been written into law in whole or in part, or the objective has been achieved in another way; the results are generally accepted as necessary in a modern democracy. Equally surely, it makes little sense in the America of the 1970’S to look for a Populist in the iSgo’s sense of the word. However much the movement reached out to other groups, it was fundamentally agrarian, and a Populist of that vintage would be sharply incongruous in a United States that has not only become predominantly urban but is rapidly passing beyond to the suburban. Many of the Populist leaders had about them the antique clamor of the boondocks, whether “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, wearing socks but adopting the nickname as a flamboyant political trademark; Mary Elizabeth Lease, she of the rococo hats and the ululating rhetoric, summoning the farmers to raise “less corn and more Hell ”; or the “Sage of Nininger,” Ignatius Donnelly from Nininger, Minnesota, fervid advocate not only of economic change but of all kinds of doctrines that suggested too many lonely nights on the prairie.
But the millions who marched with the “Sage” or with “Sockless” Simpson were not only Populist Party men but populists—with a small p . Their ideals, prejudices, self-interest, sentiments, and cussedness tied back into dozens of strands in the American past. Populism with a small p has been far more inclusive and immeasurably more important than the Populist Party; even in the 1890’s it touched large numbers of men and women who did not follow the leadership of the Donnellys and Simpsons. No mere set of legislative demands, which could be achieved and forgotten, or the habits of a particular time and region, which could become outmoded, populism has been a long-running mood, a credo, at times almost a secular religion.
The heart of populism has been a glorification of “the people,” defined in a way that permitted them also to be called “ordinary folks” or “the average man.” “The people” have been the sturdy, hard-working pillars of democracy, who ought to run the nation because of their “true Americanism,” sound common sense, moral strength, and instinctive understanding of the needs of the little man. They are the best custodians of the nation not only in political and economic matters but in all parts of living; they are not corrupted by the “frills,” “wild spending,” and “decadent habits” of the “overeducated” and “overrich.”
“The people” of the Populist Party, like those of most previous populisms, were basically white, Protestant, “Anglo-Saxon.” Since the 1890’s various groups of the populist-minded have continually redefined who “the people” are, including in the later categories millions of decided non-Wasps. Because to be “the people” is to be the best, “the people” have usually turned out to be an exclusive or largely exclusive group—the group of the person proclaiming “the people” and of his ardent sympathizers. And from this apotheosis of “the people” has flowed a potent array of specific attitudes.
The populist-minded have not been the families most likely to send their children to college, or at least to the more prestigious institutions, and they have not produced a large number of intellectuals and experts. The whole doctrine of the wisdom of “the people” rebels against the idea that certain men and women, by virtue of special talents or training, know better and can do better. In general, the populist tradition has been markedly skeptical of “book learning” and can be accurately called both anti-intellectual and antiexpertise.
The tendency has been accentuated just because populism, more than a set of political and economic propositions, has been a faith shot through with emotion. You discover what to advocate or whom to vote for more from the heart than from the mind, particularly the mind when it has been warped by too many books and too much hairsplitting—”from the pouring out of the goodness in us just plain folks,” in the words of Mary Elizabeth Lease.
Consequently, the populist-minded have tended strongly toward the simple, sweeping solution. At heart, an Ignatius Donnelly staked his hopes on free silver, and this one program would not only end economic woes but purify the entire life of the nation. Before and after Donnelly many worshippers of “the people” have been equally devoted to a series of one-shot cures, so dogmatically expressed and so expansive in promises that they can only be called panaceas. This simplistic approach has been most pronounced in foreign affairs. At times the populist-minded have been for bellicose diplomacy, or prowar; during other periods they have been isolationist. But whatever the doctrine, it has been militant, rampant, with no use for those who hesitated or proposed the in-between. The concept of a foreign policy intricately worked out, balancing national interests against national capabilities and recognizing that the safest road is often one full of curves, is simply alien to the populist mentality.