May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
A clipping selected at random from a generous stack tells me that the would-be Democratic candidate Tom Harkin is pitching a “populist, sharply partisan message.” I get the impression that the two adjectives are interchangeable. Another clip predictably calls David Duke a “populist.” That’s no surprise either. I have heard the word applied to Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan in previous campaigns—in fact, to practically every candidate who did not outright propose restricting government to the rich, the wise, and the well born. Or as my friend the editor of this magazine has put it, to everyone who doesn’t hold an office or own a bank.
It is largely a matter of intellectual laziness or ignorance on the part of writers who either use the word as a synonym for demagogue (“a leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace”) or apply it to anyone who speaks generously about “the people.” In that case we can include in the populist hall of fame such diverse characters as Abraham Lincoln, the Communist leaders of the People’s Republic of China, and the elite, property-owning males who, in 1787, put their names to a document whose preamble reads: “We, the people … do ordain and establish this Constitution….”
Well, I object loudly on behalf of the Populists, the true and originals. My American Heritage Dictionary defines a Populist as “a member or supporter of the Populist Party.” (This is not a plug; Forbes Inc. does not own the AH dictionary.) And it happens that the party was launched nationwide precisely one hundred years ago, on July 2, 1892. Primarily but not exclusively a wave of Southern and Western protest spurred by hard times on the farm, it seemed to have a brief chance to break the two-party monopoly in American politics. Maybe for both those reasons it was on the receiving end not only of avalanches of ridicule and rage during its short (approximately ten-year) life but also of some bad press from historians in our own time. Clarifying the record seems an appropriate centennial observation, even in this very short space.
It has to be said first that some voices in the party (also known as the People’s party) invited rough play in debate because they were not exactly judicial themselves. Listen to the preamble to their platform, adopted at their first national convention in Omaha: ”… meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few…. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
Steamy stuff, that. It was the work of the Minnesotan Ignatius Donnelly, by turns lawyer, legislator, and businessman, and occasional novelist. His bestknown novel, Caesar’s Column , was a fantasy of a future totalitarian world state that kept the population cowed by giant airships. But there was more to Populism than Donnelly, and the heart of the platform was not so wild a dream. Its demands included a graduated income tax, postal savings banks, and a managed currency—all of which have come to pass—plus government ownership of railroads and telegraphs, a commonplace in European countries. Other “expressions of sentiments” included support for the secret ballot, the direct election of senators, the initiative and referendum—and a one-term limitation for the President and the Vice President! Populists took very seriously their stated goal of restoring government to the people.
But it was economic distress that fueled the rebellion. The founders of the new party were mainly cotton and wheat farmers, hurting desperately from a long, deflationary squeeze between falling agricultural prices, on one hand, and, on the other, rising interest rates, freight charges, and production costs that they argued were artificially boosted by trusts and the tariff. They had been trying in vain to get relief from the Republicans and Democrats. In going the third-party route, they hoped to repeat the 1860 upset victory of the Republicans, who were then a new party (four years old) themselves. The two-party lock on politics was not taken as Holy Writ.
The 1892 and 1894 results inspired some confidence. A bone-cracking depression fell on the country. The Populist presidential candidate of 1892, Civil War general James B. Weaver of Iowa, got more than a million popular and twenty-two electoral votes. The party also elected three governors in 1892. In 1894 it won six Senate and seven House seats. In both years, by combining with other “outs”—with Republicans in the solidly Democratic South and Democrats in the GOP-dominated Wheat Belt, it made gains in several state legislatures. It almost won complete control of the government in Kansas.
But in 1896 the Populists were done in by a combination of forces, starting with their narrow base in only some parts of rural America. This time they named a “fusion” presidential candidate—thirty-six-year-old William Jennings Bryan, already nominated by the Democrats. Bryan is now remembered chiefly for his fundamentalist, anti-evolution, and prohibitionist views in the 1920s. But he happened to believe truly that the voice of the people was that of God, and he became a sturdy advocate of progressive economic and humanitarian causes, like the restriction of child labor and votes for women.
In 1896, however, he was best known for a stem-winding speech in favor of the free coinage of silver at an artificially high price, which concluded: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” He focused so tightly on attacking the gold standard that the Republican opposition crucified him , as an economic nitwit who would open the door to runaway inflation and make every contract in the nation worthless. (Since the 1930s every major nation in the world has gone off the gold standard without civilization collapsing, but that is another story.)
It was a bitterly fought campaign, and Bryan lost decisively, but he returned for two more unsuccessful presidential runs. It was otherwise with the Populists. They were virtually destroyed after being caricatured in the press as loonies howling for simple-minded economic cure-alls. Certain vulnerable leaders and practices were singled out for attention and became stereotypes. Men like the Kansas congressional candidate Jerry Simpson, known as Sockless Jerry because he disdained to wear silk hose like his patrician opponent. Women like Mary Elizabeth Lease, who famously but unprovably told farmers that they needed to raise “less corn and more Hell.” And the Populist governor of Kansas described by the young Emporia editor William Alien White as “an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bath-tub in the State House.” What ridicule left undone, returning prosperity finished, and the Populists disappeared back into the two-party structure.
Forgotten in the heat of combat—and by an America getting ever farther from its agrarian roots—were serious Populist proposals for agricultural credit and crop-storage systems that were later adopted in modified form by the New Deal. Likewise Populist efforts to recruit women candidates and to build collaboration between black and white farmers in the South, though that effort was tragically reversed after 1896.
Populist rhetoric also opened the party to attack by mid-twentieth-century historians. Populist campaign talk—as superheated as most—spoke of dark conspiracies between Wall Street and foreign bankers, often referred to as “Shylocks” and “Rothschilds,” to force the gold standard on the world and cut pounds of flesh from helpless debtors. And Georgia’s Thomas Watson, the Populists’ last presidential nominee (in 1904), became a virulent Jew- and Catholic-baiter as well as a white supremacist in his later years. So in the 1950s historians like Richard Hofstadter and Oscar Handlin argued that the Populists were among the forerunners of fascism, anti-Semitism, isolationism, Red hunting, and other forms of political paranoia.
Those views have since been modified or refuted by such scholars as Walter Nugent and Lawrence Goodwyn. Nugent, in a close study of Kansas Populists, demonstrates that Populism there was a normal response to economic distress and that the thousands who voted and held office under Populist banners were as rational and as tolerant of their neighbors of all faiths as were Republicans and Democrats—maybe more so.
The intent here is not to thump the tub for the Populists but to note the importance of historical context and the stubborn longevity of old bromides. The Populists fought their 1892 and 1896 campaigns in a hurting, angry, divided country that had learned how to produce plenteous wealth but not quite how to deal with the threat to popular government created by the inequality that came with the new industrialism. I trust the problem sounds familiar in 1992. The Populists addressed themselves brazenly to this issue with accusations and proposals, good or bad, that scared a lot of people for reasons that were good or bad. It isn’t surprising that their opponents counterpunched by identifying the word populism with class hatred and envy or mindless truckling to the masses with shirt-sleeve talk and pretty promises.
But there’s no reason for the word to be used that way now any more than to employ the term Wall Street as merely an alternative name for organized greed, or banking as a synonym for licensed theft. Knowing in advance that the cause is probably lost, I suggest that Populist be capitalized only and used with proper respect for historical accuracy. And for that matter, with respect for rank-and-file Populists, who, as much as any of the makers of our past, deserve serious attention.