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Just Plain Folks

May 2024
15min read

What strange vehicle could accommodate a crew as disparate as this? Hint: In any election year they’re all

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.

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.

Always there is the enemy. The mood has varied greatly in intensity, but to the populist-minded, at any given time “the people” are being deprived of their deserved power and respect. The control is being usurped, the recognition reduced to snickers by “money men,” “big shots,” “blue bloods,” “pointy-headed intellectuals”; and these traducers must be recognized for what they are and combatted if America is to remain a genuine democracy. And the enemy is widely deployed: the rich or wellborn or well-placed in the local community, and the powerful far away in Washington or in other metropolises.

The development of the United States early took a shape in which a good deal of the political, economic, and cultural clout was concentrated in cities, particularly the urban centers of the northeastern states, “the East,” as the Populists had called them. In the South and West populism has been not only an individual but a regional feeling against “the East.” The abrasion has not been confined to the poor or barely comfortable, but has characterized many of the “best people” of communities, who have not liked the attitudes and customs being projected on them by still more “uppity” people someplace else. The feeling has been sharpened by the fact that so often the forces of evil have not seemed readily graspable; they were, to use the traditional phrases, “invisible” and brought a sense of being “put upon” and “squeezed” by the myriad tentacles of an “octopus.” As the whole country has become urbanized, other sections have developed “Easts” of influence—Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta. Yet the old belligerence against the traditional “East,” if softened, has certainly not disappeared.

“The people,” moreover, must act like the people, showing their down-to-earth quality and their disdain for the ways of those who claim sophistication. All Americans, swept along by the standardization of taste, have more and more dressed, furnished their homes, eaten, even played alike. But the history of populism has been a story of a dogged nose-thumbing at “fancy dans,” “ultras,” and the “new-fangled” in general. The history goes on in the millions of post-World War 11 Americans who have taken an acrid pleasure in not raising or lowering their skirts at the decree of New York, spurned button-down shirts because Ivy Leaguers wore them, denounced public expenditure for the “wayout” ideas of symphony orchestras or sex education in the schools, or pronounced anathema on professors, commentators, and anyone else who told them that the ways of American living were changing and changing for the better.

In the United States of 1972 none of the leaders and few of the masses represent all the major attitudes of populism. But in recent decades many up and down the line have shown broad streaks of certain of its thoughts and emotions, often in powerful combination.∗

∗As 1972 goes on, “populism” is being used so much and in so many different ways that an attempt to generalize about all the meanings and connotations given to it would produce bedlam—for example, the Philadelphia Bulletin applying the word to the law-and-order mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, and Mayor John Lindsay of New York applying it to himself and associating it with his feeling for the “street people.” The rest of this article confines itself to discussing the “populism” of recent decades only insofar as the ideas and attitudes fit into the broader, long-running national tradition.

Not surprisingly, the South, with its large poor, uneducated population and its historic antagonism to “Eastern” economic and cultural power, has kept producing a politics that most resembles traditional populism. Sometimes the drive has been racist, sometimes not. Without particularly using Negro-baiting, in the 1930’s Senator Huey Long of Louisiana seized absolute control of his state and extended his appeal through the South and lower Midwest by combining actual help to lower-income people of Louisiana—free school textbooks, improved roads, tax breaks, a largesse of statejobs—with a mockery of the “nabobs” in New Orleans and in Washington. His “Share-the-Wealth” program was the free silver of its day. His mottled face, his Just-us-nobodies speeches, and his clodhopper theatrics (he was quite capable of sweeping his place setting at a luncheon to the floor and yelling, “Give me a knife and fork—I don’t know how to handle all this!”) were the ordinary people being very ordinary indeed.

In 1968 and 1972 Presidential candidate George Wallace, from neighboring Alabama, has depended largely on the anti-integrationist theme but placed it within his general declarations of speaking for “us real Americans, down-to-earth Americans, in my state and throughout this great nation of sensible people.” Wallace’s spectacular defiances of civil-rights actions by the federal courts or the White House have the authentic ring of the champion of the plain people against enclosing enemies in the “East,” who are “trying to maneuver their plagues down our throat.” Venturing north, campaigning during his 1968 Presidential effort in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, Wallace was classic. His suit carefully suggestive of Sears Roebuck, his naturally clear and sharp English skillfully mangled, he talked of “all those experts and bureaucrats and professors from Harvard and Princeton and what-have-you, who tell us how to run this country. We did pretty well without them for a long time. Don’t you think we ought to take back the control?” The applause was loud and long.

The anti-Communist splurge of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the i95o’s was a striking instance of the unending flexibility of populism. McCarthy was scarcely a Wasp bespeaking the ancient discontents of the backcountry. He was an Irish Catholic of the Irish Catholics; his appeal was stronger in the cities than in rural areas; his political stamping ground was one undreamed of in the iSgo’s, the Cold War. Different as things might be, McCarthy had the shaggy manner, the one-two-three, all-encompassing issue, communism, and sneers and the shillelagh for “Communists on college faculties and in big skyscrapers, who tell us we are dumb and that Communism and world affairs are so complicated we don’t understand them. I’ll tell you how to understand Communism: Smash it!” With unerring instinct the senator chose as a prime target Secretary of State Dean Acheson, son of a Connecticut Episcopal bishop and of an heiress; Groton, ’11, Yale, ’15, Harvard Law School, ’18; partner in the distinguished Washington law firm Covington and Burling; elegant with his crisp reddish mustache, his London-draped tailoring, and his hundred-acre horse farm, Harewood, outside the capital.

During his rise in national politics, Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas often said that “they” would never permit a Southerner to be the Democratic nominee for President. Once Chief Executive, he was in many ways a broad-based national leader, but he was also still the son of a none-too-successful farmer-realtor-politician in Johnson City, and he had made his way to power against the persistent scorn of the liberal northern wing of the Democratic Party. As President, he retained a thoroughgoing suspicion of “Eastern” publications like the New York Times and Time magazine (“They would never treat F.D.R. and Kennedy like they treat me!”), tried halfheartedly to woo intellectuals and then turned rancorously against them. Aides told him that, functioning in the shadow of John Kennedy, he ought to show more of his own sophistication, which was considerable. Once in a while he did. Mostly, out of pride and out of—to use his words—“my feel for the way to get to the real people,” he went bellowing and sentimentalizing across the nation in traditional just-us-ordinary-fellows style.

In some measure the L.B.J. foreign policy was a product of very eastern “Easterners” feeding facts and arguments to the President. But the ultimate decisions were made and the final tone set in the Oval Office. The lunge into the Dominican Republic and the headlong Vietnam war were both in the spirit of the man who said of the Dominican intervention, “By God, the Marines are coming!” and who went to Asia and proclaimed, “Let’s hang the coonskin on the wall.” When the criticism of his Vietnam policy mounted, Lyndon Johnson remarked again and again, “They’ll never approve of what I do, because I didn’t go to their fancy colleges.”

One of the main reasons for the Populist Party successes in the 1890’s had been the fact that the decade marked a transition in American life from an agrarian to an urban civilization, and such periods of dislocation have always accentuated the populist mood. It is spurred in the 1970’s by a passage from a New Deal to a post-New Deal, an urban to a suburban, a machine to a technological society.

Strenuous efforts to lift the general standard of living have resulted in a massive new middle class, living much better than its parents but continually jabbed, worried, irritated. Daily these newly comfortable are discomfited by the attendant black revolution; by inflation; by a technology become so powerful that it has a good deal to do with determining everything from who goes into political office to what the children eat; by bearded, beaded, and clamorous student dissidents; by intellectuals who tell middle America that they should want Negroes in their schools and neighborhoods; by the mass media, most of whose stellar figures are on the side of onrushing modernity and easily appear to be calling other attitudes cloddish—in short, by a whole world that refuses to settle down into sensible middleclass ways. The definition of “the people” is shifting, but the reaction is familiar. The new “people,” the middle classes caught in a radically changing society, feel condescended to, thwarted, buffeted, beleaguered.

In 1971 United States Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, not yet withdrawn from the Presidential race, was announcing that he would campaign “populist style.” Formerly chairman of the Democratic National Committee, anything but a George Wallace racist, and a politician of considerable urbanity, Harris caught what he called the “populist frustration” of middle America when he went on to say: “Ordinary people feel just so left out. They feel their world is going under and they fumble to do something about it, but decisions are being made which affect their whole lives that they don’t seem to have any control over. …”

Richard M. Nixon, so decorous, coming to the Presidency from Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander, & Mitchell of New York City, and from years of identification with the conservative wing of the conservative Republican Party—Richard Nixon, a man of certain populist tendencies? At first thought the proposition seems ludicrous. Yet both he and his wife grew up part of a troubled, yearning middle or lower middle class in small-town California, with sharply developed feelings against what Mrs. Nixon, in her only outburst in almost three decades of public life, called “the snobs. ... I never had time to think about things like that—who I wanted to be, or who I admired, or to have ideas. . . . I had to work. I’m not like ... all those people who had it easy.” Recalling his years at Duke University Law School, Richard Nixon has remarked on various occasions that he was “not as slick or as well up on things as the eastern men” but that he had “staying power,” a readiness to “work, really work,” and a “sound sense of values—what really counts.” Battling hard up the political line, he found only skittish support and frequent hostility in the “Eastern Establishment” of the Republican Party. Since his first years in Congress Nixon had been a cherished target of intellectuals throughout the country, and most particularly in the Ivy League universities.

His coming to the Presidency has coincided with the populist-minded disquietude of the middle classes, and —granted the convolutions of an intensely political politician—he has been in considerable measure its spokesman. If the 1968 Republican campaign had one dominant theme, it was that Nixon stood for the “forgotten man,” for the middle classes. As Chief Executive, his actions and attitudes have been closely attuned to their economic, social, and psychological urges, whether expressed as the White House standoffishness toward the black revolution, Presidential vetoes of federal funds for the disadvantaged of varied types, or the celebrated administration attacks on the “effete snobs” of the “Eastern” communications industry and universities.

A White House touched by middle-class populism can also express itself by a general atmosphere of a revolt against revolts and by what President Nixon calls “the daily living of the good, regular life.” The tone is there in the Sunday services at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Julie’s heads-up declaration that she and her husband are “squares,” in the phone calls that keep going out from the President of the United States to the football coach, the bowler, the golfer who wins.

In her old age, retired if not subdued in Brooklyn, Mary Elizabeth Lease declared: “The party we fought for is just a memory. Our spirit marches on.” It has and it will. In the American democracy the attitudes and the emotions of populism are a permanent part of the national life, whatever forms they take.

And their long-running influence—for good or for bad? With its inherent tendencies, populism has been a persistent source of setting off one “people” against another; of snappish and unproductive provincialism; of denigration of a democracy’s supreme resource, the marshalling of facts and the thoughtful analysis of them; of a kind of crabbed distaste for talent, imagination, the reach to the richer nuances of living. In foreign affairs populism’s thrust has frequently been decidedly unfortunate. The world simply will not march to the self-righteous “common sense” of irritated farmers, rabid McCarthyites, or self-appointed savants of the new suburbs.

Yet the obverse of the coin is important. The Populist Party of the 1890’s became a herald of future decades because it expressed genuine needs for change if the United States was to go on preserving and expanding economic and social opportunities. The needs are always there, always shifting, always requiring the assertion of a new “people”; the middle classes of the 1970’s do have very real problems requiring very real solutions. If the foreign policies urged by the populist-minded have been something less than sagacious, they must be measured against the deficiencies of the actual international stance adopted by the United States during most of the twentieth century—in large part the creation of upper-educated, upper-income men. The populist-minded pressure for a “people’s” foreign policy has often amounted to a call for more control over international affairs by the Congress rather than the White House. An America with its present foreign woes, after years of post-World War n foreign policy making almost exclusively by Presidents, can scarcely be too sniffish about such an argument.

Populism’s anti-“Eastern” prejudice is a prejudice; it also points up the fact that America would be a good deal more healthy civilization if its resources were spread so as to develop all regions and all classes more equally. The populist quest for the good, simple life easily turns into a bore. Yet so do the patterns promulgated by a number of advanced thinkers, who seem to have a genius for devising doctrines that remove all meaning from living in a bathos of self-indulgence and delusion.

Those magicians who wrote the Constitution of the United States—and they seem more prescient with each passing decade—recognized the potential for good in all groups and set up a governmental system to give it outlet. They also faced the selfinterest and purblindness of every faction, and in the end depended less on the goodness of man than on restraining his evil. Warily, they constructed a government of checks and balances.

The long war between the established classes and populism has proved a nongovernmental, unofficial supplement to these checks and balances. The clash has been helterskelter, often bitter, at times nonsensical, but it has checked and balanced. Over the centuries the populist-minded have aided notably in blasting the established from their certitudes and self-interest, and the established have just as surely been helping to save “the people” from themselves.


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