Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Populism’s personalities have manifested themselves differently at various times: as an agrarian phenomenon backlash to industrialism, as a nationalistic phenomenon bypassing the existing power structures, and as a political phenomenon rebelling against the elite. At its heart, populism is a reaction against change. It tends to come from the lower and working classes, the so-called “common men,” against technological, intellectual, and political innovation. The populist impulse tries to preserve a way of life and a distrust outsiders, including the power elites who rule and make decisions and the immigrants and foreigners who compete against the populists in the marketplace. As populism began as a reaction against industrialism, it primarily is a product of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
It is not unusual to hear candidates, platforms, and even political parties described as populist by pundits and analysts. The word seems to mean different things to different people, or everything to everyone. Populism in its varied forms has appeared across the world, but perhaps no nation has provided a better illustration of the varieties and patterns of the political theory than the United States.
The seed of populist thought began with the War of Independence and its promise that the people could liberate their government from the hands of elites far away and take control of it themselves. The egalitarian spirit of the Declaration of Independence—”all men are created equal”—and the empowerment of the U.S. Constitution—”We the people”—reinforced this promise. Two visions informed this impulse. First, the experience of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the subsequent Great Awakenings in North America fostered belief in a personal God who could be reached by individuals without the mediation of a religious hierarchy. This religious change also socialized people to expect breaks with old churches and the establishment of new ones, emotional rhetoric, vivid oratory, and communal meetings. In other words, people learned to question authority, break with tradition, and gather to enjoy intense community building.
Another building block of what became populism was the message of the Great Enlightenment, the idea that individuals could be reasonable and rational—and that the past and the people in it often were not. The permission to think for one’s self, and to criticize the traditions that came before, including the systems of government and privilege, fed into the populist mentality. Many revolutionary writers such as Thomas Paine, who supported the War of Independence, drew from the rationalist religion of the Enlightenment when appealing to the masses to rise up against England.
Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President from 1801 to 1809, served as a kind of proto-populist figure. Though not a true democrat in the sense that he didn’t support direct decision making by all citizens for all affairs of state, Jefferson did present a striking change from his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams. Both behaved more like kings than commoners. Jefferson, on the other hand, downplayed ceremony, wore bedroom slippers to official meetings, and delighted in undermining the mystique surrounding public office. His heart, too, was with those he called “yeoman farmers,” the individuals who worked small subsistence farms, who supported themselves by their labor, and who guarded their rights with zeal. Jefferson believed these agrarians were the key to the survival and stability of the nation, and in this sense anticipated the foundations of populism.
Perhaps the first true populist leader in the United States was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), president from 1829 to 1837. A war hero and frontiersman, Jackson ran on a “let the people rule” platform that appealed to the masses—who in turn stormed the White House after his inauguration to eat and drink and celebrate the election of one of their own. Jackson thanked his supporters by putting them into office, creating a new precedent called the “spoils system,” in which a leader dispensed appointments to loyal followers upon election.
The U.S. entered into a period of uncontrolled inflation, agitated by wild speculation in Western lands. In July of 1836, Jackson sought to stem the tide by issuing by issuing Specie Circular, which declared that the federal government would only accept hard money for the purchase of public lands. The edict simply added to the difficulties of sound banks, helping to precipitate the Panic of 1837.
Jackson was also known for his policy of Indian removal. Believing that the massive transfer of Native Americans beyond the Mississippi River was ultimately the most human policy, he signed over ninety resettlement treaties with various tribes. Thousands of Indians found themselves forced to migrate along a “Trail of Tears.”
In May of 1830, Jackson vetoed appropriations for the Maysville Road, a major artery stretching from Maysville, Kentucky, to Lexington. In his message, he denied that internal improvements were a federal responsibility. Yet, by the time he left the presidency, he had authorized more federal funds for such activity than all of his predecessors combined, and was especially enthusiastic when they were sponsered by loyal democrats.
Jackson attacked those he saw as elites living off of the work of the common people and called for equality of opportunity and access for everyone. Labor unions, abolitionism, and suffrage and temperance campaigns blossomed as local grassroots reforms gained momentum. Later, Abraham Lincoln, president from 1861 until his assassination in 1865, and his image—to many whites, the everyman who grew up without privilege in a small log cabin in the woods, and to many blacks, the great emancipator and champion of the disenfranchised—built upon the image of Jackson and further burned populism into the mind of Americans.
For the first century of its existence, the United States was primarily an agricultural nation. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, new economic realities meant that the traditional farming interest and the new labor interest were warily watching the growing industrial economy. Independent political groups with populist goals began to appear: the Patrons of Husbandry in 1867, the Knights of Labor in 1869, the Greenback Party in 1876, the New York Farmers’ Alliance and Texas Farmers’ Alliance in 1877, the Farmers’ Alliance in 1877, the Northern Farmers’ Alliance in 1880, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance in 1886, the Southern Farmers’ Alliance in 1887, and the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union in 1889. These groups called for railroad regulation and tax reform. After the Panic of 1873, which caused agricultural prices to plummet, many populists blamed the government’s currency policy and the bankers and industrialists they believed determined it. As a result, they added another demand to their list: the unlimited coinage of silver.
The groups discovered that they could not get the attention of the Democratic and Republican parties while acting as separate entities. When neither major party made a commitment to the silver question in their 1892 presidential conventions, a third convention was held at Omaha to combine the different interests and create the Populist Party. Its goal was to take the Democratic Party’s place as the second-most popular party in the nation. The platform it adopted called for specific economic policies: the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, plentiful paper money, the end of national banks, government ownership of all transportation and communication, eight-hour workdays, pensions, and a revision of the law of contracts. Members’ anti-immigrant position manifested itself in a call for new immigration rules and laws forbidding the ownership of property by non-citizens. The platform also supported the direct election of U.S. senators. With its partnership of western and southern farmers and eastern industrial workers, the Populist Party nominated James B. Weaver as its candidate for the presidency. Though he polled more than one million votes, he lost to Grover Cleveland (1837-1908).
In the next presidential election, the Democratic Party borrowed the Populists’ main tenet by adopting the issue of free silver coinage and nominating the eloquent William Jennings Bryan for its presidential candidate. Most populists voted with the Democratic Party instead of their own. However, the numbers still were not enough to defeat the Republican Party and its candidate, William McKinley (1843-1901). The 1896 defeat drove a further wedge between the urban and rural members of the populist coalition, and the Populist Party disintegrated. Some of its platform issues such as the direct election of senators came to pass despite the short-lived nature of the party organization.
The twentieth century brought several different incarnations of the populist persuasion. The first two decades primarily belonged to labor, especially as represented by the American Federation of Labor and its co-founder and president until 1924, Samuel Gompers (1850-1924). The main goals of labor were higher wages, shorter hours, and greater freedom. Labor found friends in the new breed of anti-corporate journalists who fed on scandal, such as William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), as well as investigative journalists known as “muckrakers” who examined business in search of questionable practices to expose. Many reform laws were passed and standards introduced. After Gompers’ death, the end of World War II, and the economic boom that followed, however, the labor movement lost ground.
The next wave of grassroots political action appeared as temperance societies. Although various groups had existed for decades to fight the ills of alcohol and drunkenness, a growing consensus among rural, religious, business, and women’s groups gained attention through the well-organized Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition Party. After World War I, mass enthusiasm for prohibition swelled and the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. Rather than creating a sober society, though, the law created a generation of outlaws dedicated to bootlegging, smuggling, and organized crime. In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed prohibition.
The next face of populism didn’t come from the Democratic Party on the left, but from the Republican Party on the right. Just as agriculture and labor and temperance had judged that their communities, values, and way of life had been under attack by elites, so, too, in the post-World War II era, did the conservative mainstream believe their Christian, capitalistic society was under attack from within by the forces of communism. Perhaps the most famous anti-communist crusader was Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). In 1950, he announced that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. The resulting “Red Scare” led to congressional hearings to root out so-called subversives; investigators ruined others’ careers even when un-American activity could not be proven. Eventually the Senate censored McCarthy for his behavior and the press exposed many of his unsubstantiated claims, but by then the seeds of anti-communist, nationalist populism had been planted among Americans. This conservative wing of populism reemerged in the 1960s behind the figure of George Wallace (1919-1998).
Wallace, who became governor of Alabama in 1963, was an avowed states’ rights supporter and segregationist. He blocked the doors of the University of Alabama in 1963 when two black students tried to attend classes. His rhetoric blamed the Washington establishment for imposing views on the American South—and, in some cases, North, especially Northern labor—with which they did not agree; he tied issues of race, religion, and anti-communist nationalism together to present an image of a way of life threatened by so-called liberal politics. In 1968, he ran for president as the candidate of the American Independent party, the platform for which read like a populist primer-the campaign’s slogan was “Send Them a Message!” “Them,” no doubt, was the Washington (and northeastern) elite. Wallace won five southern states and 46 electoral votes.
In 1972, Wallace entered the Democratic presidential race, but his candidacy was virtually destroyed by an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed below the waist. He returned to serve Alabama as governor from 1983 to 1987. Wallace remains one of the most-controversial political figures of the twentieth century, but variations of his anti-Washington fervor can be found in both the writings of the People’s Party of the 1890s and in politicians campaigning for office in the twenty-first century. In The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter calls Wallace “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics.”
The coalition of conservatives that followed McCarthy and his plea for the people to retake Washington survived into the 1980s as the Religious Right, with political-spiritual leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This grassroots movement relied on churches and other institutions outside of the traditional party structure to gather and maintain support for family values, strong defense, a government legislating in the social realm but unobtrusive in the economic sphere. This populist group feared big business less than big government and big interest groups such as those revolving around gender, race, and the environment. The coalition tended to be Republican but also drew from the southern wing of the Democratic Party—such as those who had supported Wallace— and propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency from 1981 to 1989.
Perot and Buchanan
The xenophobia of the earlier labor movement reemerged in the 1990s with a backlash against free trade. Ross Perot (1930-) formed a short-lived following with a mix of labor, religious right, and independent voters. His nationalist rhetoric played to the McCarthyist patriots, but his concerns about immigration and protectionism referred back to the Populist Party of Weaver and the Democratic Party that had absorbed it. His Reform party placed candidates in high positions such as the governor of Minnesota, but soon platform issues such as the national debt were adopted by the major parties and the purpose behind the separate party seemed to vanish.
Like Perot, Pat Buchanan also fought to create a successful coalition around concerns about immigration and democracy in the 1990s, but found that the Wallace-like rhetoric that gained supporters in the 1960s did not do so thirty years later. Backlash against the Electoral College system after the disputed presidential election of 2000 offered yet another reflection of the beliefs of the Populist Party and its concern about direct democracy.
American populism began the twenty-first century as a mixture of labor and immigration concerns on the left and religious and family values concerns on the right. The September 11, 2001, destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., created a groundswell of grassroots nationalism that transcended party. At is core, however, rested deep anxieties about immigration, economy, and values—worries that the common people were under attack, that a new definition of modernity displaced the mainstream, that a way of life was endangered by a sinister few. In short, the initial reaction of a nation in crisis revealed a populist mind set.
Theory in Depth
Several core beliefs form the foundation of populism. First, the theory embraces rule by the people. In practice, this translates as democracy—not its close relative, republicanism, in which representatives of the people rule, because these representatives might act for their own interests instead of the interests of the people. Decisions should come from the people themselves, according to populist theory. This has translated into revolt against monarchs, as in Russia, and support for new leaders who bypass traditional power structures, as in Latin America. In the United States, the populist impulse for democracy has shown itself in the desire to elect U.S. senators directly and to abolish the Electoral College system.
A second core concept of populism is that of the minority elite and majority imperiled. In every form of populism, supporters have believed that the decision-making authority of the state rested with an elite who was out of touch with the mainstream—privileged monarchs, entrenched oligarchies, even the “Washington insiders.” In many cases, populists have painted these elite not as unfortunately uninformed, but as willfully ignorant of the plight of the common people, unaware because the members of the elite are busy pursuing their own interests; not surprisingly, these interests seem, at least in populist rhetoric, to be contradictory to the interests of the mainstream.
A third basis for populist theory is the idea of the good and legitimate political action as one that springs from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The grassroots nature of populist movements worldwide springs from this conviction. In the village, on the street, from the union, within the church: these are the places from which political action flows, not only because these venues are near and convenient, but also because they should be the birthplace of citizens’ participation. In this sense, the personal is political; the living room is the nation on a much smaller scale.
Reaction, then Action
Despite the fact that populism as a theory contains several core concepts, painting the theory in an abstract manner is difficult. At its heart, populism is not about central principles and consistent assumptions; in effect, populists do not adopt a system of thought and then behave accordingly. Populism is about reaction, not action, and as such, it has evolved gradually. James Weaver reacted against wealthy interests and the assault on the farmer; Juan Perón in Argentina reacted against the oligarchy and the assault on labor; Jerry Falwell reacted against secularization and the perceived assault on family values. All believed they were standing up for the common people, the backbone of their nations, the quiet majority that had been exploited and endangered by the powerful elite.
At its most narrow and shallow, populism is a desire to displace a system with one that can offer more for its constituents—hence the rise of dictators who buy the people’s affection with money, policy, or inspiring rhetoric. The people might not even be getting a regime that gives them a greater voice in the process; it might be enough that the new elite went through the motions of appealing to the masses—in fact, it might be enough that the new elite is just different than the old one. The impetus here need not be one of high political theory. Instead, it might simply be the knee-jerk instinct of a given people at a particular time.
More bound in time and place is the agrarian instinct of populism, the inevitable backlash against industrialism—or, in the case of the 1990s and supporters of Ross Perot, industrialism’s backlash against the information age. Regardless, it is the expression of anxiety about change and what the new world would mean for the economic and political lifestyle of the people it left behind. It is about a people feeling displaced by new national or world realities, people struggling not to be forgotten. A feeling of entitlement accompanies this world view; if the people are the government, then the government should pay to preserve the people’s lifestyle. The Populist Party’s platform, for example, included a list of things the government could do to institutionalize and reward the party members’ way of life. In a sense, those populists were trying to mold the apparatus of the state to meet their self-interest, the same thing they claimed their political rivals had done.
For example, the Populist Party called for measures to protect agricultural interests and labor concerns. This included an increase in circulated currency via the unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax that would require the wealthier to pay more and the poorer to pay less, government ownership and regulation of the railroads, economic protectionism to benefit those in agriculture, and the direct election of U.S. senators, for example. They supported other measures, too, designed to strengthen political democracy—they did, after all, believe their views were held by a majority of U.S. citizens—and give farmers comparative economic power with business and industry leaders.
Different scholars have viewed this movement in various ways across the years. Some in the early twentieth century viewed populists as the forerunners to another, albeit more urban, reform movement known as progressivism. Economic historians played into the “frontier thesis” first articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner and viewed populism as an answer to the frontier desire for economic inclusion and attention, with “frontier” applying both to the geographic location of the populists as well as their figurative positions within the economy and society. Later scholars of ideology found the populists to be less on the frontier than behind the times, motivated by irrational fears and a combination of knee-jerk racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, and class envy as they bemoaned a process—industrialism—that could not be undone. Some intellectuals in the 1960s reacted against this interpretation and argued that populists represented the underprivileged and challenged not industrialism but capitalism. Recent historians have looked less at the economic policies of the populists and more at their social and cultural impacts and their call for democracy as a lifestyle as well as a system. Needless to say, the legacy of the agrarian populists in the United States remains a contested and controversial subject for scholars and students alike.
The most theoretical and abstract of the strains of populism is the desire for inclusion, for involvement, for greater participation and less control by the elite. The call for direct democracy in the ideal world, or at least increasingly democratic institutions of government in the real world, follows from this point. Even in so-called democracies, the efficiency of republicanism remains in tension with the values of democracy.
As a grassroots campaign, populism is less of a political theory than a political reaction. Its various faces reflect core ideas, but also illustrate variations in how they are applied, from Abraham Lincoln to Nazi leader Adolph Hitler.
The Cross of Gold Speech
Since populism often appears as a popular, grassroots movement carried by emotional orations and symbolic acts, no systematic literature of populism exists. Even the publications of populist leaders have targeted mass readership, and so seem more like propaganda than political theory. Three significant forms of populist expression remain the speech, the party platform, and the editorial.
When William Jennings Bryan addressed the Democratic Nation Convention in Chicago on July 9, 1896, his speech so impressed the crowd that he received two parties’ presidential nomination, that of the Democratic and Populist parties. Bryan addressed the issue of free coinage of silver, a policy that would have helped in the short-term farmers and others hurt by deflation, and criticized those who wanted the government to stay with the gold standard for currency— Eastern bankers and Washington insiders, according to the populists. Bryan was not an economist, and did not even pretend to understand the issue from a fiscal point of view. In true populist form, he stated, “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.”
When he spoke, Bryan touched on every populist theme: the War of Independence, Christianity, and the underdog common man. Excerpts from his speech prove the skill and populist nature of his address:
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Convention: I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were a mere measuring of abilities; but this is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty— the cause of humanity…. Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between ‘the idle holders of idle capital’ and ‘the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country;’ and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of ‘the idle holders of idle capital’ or upon the side of ‘the struggling masses?’ That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them. You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country. My friends, we declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth; and upon that issue we expect to carry every State in the Union. I shall not slander the inhabitants of the fair State of Massachusetts nor the inhabitants of the State of New York by saying that, when they are confronted with the proposition, they will declare that this nation is not able to attend to its own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Not once did Bryan mention Black American farmers or their role in the future of the party or the country.
Despite the backing of two parties, William Jennings Bryan could not win the presidency. Decades later, George Wallace, 1968 presidential candidate of the populist American Independent Party, also faced defeat in election to the White House. The 1968 platform for the American Independent Party, like Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, hit on traditional populist themes such as labor, nationalism, and Christianity. The platform’s preamble reflects this well. It specifically called for an education program “assisted but not controlled by the federal government,” peace at home and abroad (meaning an end to the Vietnam War and thus an end to the growing anti-war movement), and controlling government spending. Wallace’s anti- Washington rhetoric can be heard by many of today’s politicans as they campaign for office.
Like George Wallace, Richard Viguerie, author of such books as The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead and The Establishment vs. The People, came at populism from the conservative Republican side. His article represents the third major kind of populist work, the editorial. In the October 19, 1984, issue of National Review, Viguerie penned “A Populist, and Proud of It.” Excerpts from this work show that the primary message of American populism changed little in a century:
Populists stand in opposition to the elitists who believe that people are not smart enough to manage their own affairs and that, therefore, the government should select intelligent, qualified persons to run society—”intelligence” and “qualifications” being measured by the degree to which a person conforms to an establishment stereotype…. The People’s (or Populist) Party of the 1890s was not, after all, the band of racists and socialists that some writers have described. In some cases they advocated socialist measures, to break up the concentration of power in the hands of the establishment. But it did so because the establishment had first used the power of government to enrich itself at the expense of farmers and workers.
Theory in Action
Populism’s many forms—as a backlash to industrialism, as nationalism bypassing the power structures, and as a drive against the elite—are evident in the examples of Russia, Latin America, and the United States.
Populism developed into the dominant radical impulse in Russia in the nineteenth century. The revolutionary writer and leader Aleksandr Herzen (1812-1870) fueled the movement. In the historical agrarianism of Russia he saw the key to the nation’s future. He believed that the traditional peasant communes of rural Russia could serve as the model for a cooperative commonwealth that, through its abolition of private property and emphasis on the common good, could skip the capitalist growing pains exhibited by Great Britain and the United States and move directly to socialism. His idealization of the peasantry, appeal to “go to the people,” and encouragement of rebellion influenced many of the students and intellectuals of the early to mid-nineteenth century.
In 1861, Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881) freed the serfs in one of his many reforms. The freeing of the serfs—a symbolic crescendo that really didn’t change the peasants’ lives all that much—along with the wake of revolutionary thought from the west enticed the Russian youth, and a populist movement grew. Thousands of Russian students tried to get the peasants in the rural areas to join them in a call for more reforms, but the peasants generally didn’t follow the intelligentsia call for revolution. The leaders of the movement grew frustrated, and their actions grew more and more violent. There were frequent assassination attempts against the tsar.
By the 1870s, most populists had grown disillusioned with the idea that the people would rise up and take control of the government; instead, these revolutionaries decided they would have to topple the government first and then give it to the people. The goal was the same, but the strategy for achieving it had changed. The anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, whose writings and activism inspired Spanish laborers to band with the syndicalist movement and fight in the Spanish Civil War, played to a different audience in his native Russia: disillusioned, alienated intellectuals. With Bakunin’s work as an inspiration, small groups of mostly student revolutionaries turned to terrorism to attack the tsar and the monarchical system in general.
One of the fruits of this movement was the secret society Land and Liberty, which was formed in 1876. Their efforts to promote a mass uprising resulted in their expulsion from the countryside. The most violent wing of the group formed the People’s Will in 1879. In 1881, members of this terrorist society finally succeeded in assassinating Tsar Alexander II. Other populists opposed such violent tactics. Rather than seek change immediately, they placed their hopes in gradually winning public support, which they sought with propaganda and education. Even though terrorist activities represented only one part of the populist impulse in Russia, interest in the theory began to wane. Moreover, when Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894) took over, he repealed many of his father’s reforms. The spirit of the movement—from both ends—was over, and Russia slipped back to a complete totalitarian state.
Georgy Plekhanov, a former member of Land and Liberty who embraced populism but denounced violence, formed the League for the Emancipation of Labor in 1883. His views began to change as he read Karl Marx and began to work with fellow radicals such as Vladimir Lenin. Soon he doubted that the agricultural ideal of the peasant commune would be possible without allowing capitalism and industrialism to progress first. Plekhanov left populism behind and became the father of Russian Marxism. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the country faced a communist, not populist, future and the agrarian village was replaced with urban factories.
Russia’s experience with populism fell into the category of an agrarian phenomenon rebelling against industrialization. The elite intelligentsia idealized the lives of country peasants and sought to bypass the turmoil of industrialism by creating a network of loosely confederated communes dedicated to working on the land. The movement failed for two reasons: first, the violence used by the fringe-group terrorists backfired and turned the mainstream away from their message. Second, populism became sidelined by the momentum of Marxism, which had seduced populist leaders and the mainstream imagination.
Populism also has appeared as a nationalistic phenomenon bypassing the power structure of a given country, which is what happened in Latin America. The first country to experience this form of populism was Argentina. Juan Perón first gained power as a member of the military regime that seized control of Argentina in 1943. Perón nursed a fierce ambition and an abiding interest in social policy. He courted the labor class by a combination of clever advances: he criticized the former ruling oligarchy and foreign imperialists, playing on old resentments; he offered wage increases, pensions, and benefits; he preached social justice and national strength; and he praised Argentine industrial and military power. When he ran for president in 1946, Perón won easily. Together he and his remarkable actress wife, Eva, or Evita, who became even more popular than her husband, continued to cultivate a base of support among laborers. Perón’s rise to power marked a revolutionary period in Argentine history and sparked similar patterns in other Latin American countries.
For example, Rómolo Betancourt and his comrades led Acción Democrótica, the mainstream political party in postdictatorial Venezuela. In the footsteps of Perón in Argentina, they promised substantial benefits to members of the labor and middle classes in return for support of reform and a generally capitalistic system. Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brazil, had a similar story in the 1950s and 1960s; though not strictly populist in philosophy, he did harness the successful populist strategy of Perón and Betancourt to gain a following from the bottom up and rise to power. A variation on this theme appeared after World War II with the rise of Christian Democratic parties, which drew their platforms for social reform from Roman Catholic teachings. These popularly based groups first achieved power in Chile with the presidency of Eduardo Frei (served from 1964-1970) and then followed in Venezuela and El Salvador.
The United States
The United States’ experience with populism predated those in Russia and Latin America and exhibited a split personality. On the one hand, the United States had its own version of agrarian backlash like that of Russia. On the other hand, American populism also was a political phenomenon of rebellion against the elite. The agrarian experience took shape with the advent of the People’s Party in the 1890s. This grassroots movement responded to the economic complaints of southern and western farmers as the nation’s economy changed in response to the Industrial Revolution.
As the American population slowly spread west in the nineteenth century, railroads went with them. An increasing number of people lived in rural areas, the number of farms exploded—at the start of the Civil War in 1861 there were two million farms in the United States; by the end of the century that number had tripled. The farmers needed the railroads to ship their crops to the big cities.
Farmers usually had to borrow money from banks to pay for equipment or railroad transportation of their products. However, the bankers or railroad executives could charge whatever prices they desired. According to Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, in the late 1800s a farmer “had to pay a bushel of corn in freight costs for each bushel he shipped.” In addition, farmers’ profits were going steadily downward. Some farmers rented their land—some historians estimate that 90 percent of Southern farmers rented their land. Many lost their farms and had to become laborers on another farmer’s land. Then that farmer would lose his job, and there would be two looking for work. And so on and so on.
In 1877, a group of farmers in Texas formed the Farmers Alliance. Nine years later, a group of Black farmers in Texas formed the Colored Farmers Alliance. That same year, members of the Farmers Alliance met in Cleburne, Texas, and produced a document known as the Cleburne Demands. They called for the government to regulate railroad costs and increase the money supply by allowing silver—instead of only gold—to be used as legal tender. Many farmers thought a huge part of the problem was a shortage of the money supply, making it even harder to get the shrinking number of dollars that were out there. The farmers began to work together to buy equipment and supplies in groups, thus at lower costs.
The movement spread like wildfire among farmers in the South and Midwest—some estimates have the Farmers Alliance numbers at almost half a million members by 1890. And it was in 1890 that the Populist Party formed. Many of its newest members were from the Farmers Alliance. The Populists actively sought the Black vote. Many local chapters of the Party were interracial, with debates among black and white farmers, although many aspects of segregation did find their way into the meetings.
In 1892, the Populists (or People’s Party) nominated James Weaver for president. Democrat Grover Cleveland won the election.
The populists demanded that the government intervene in the economy to help small producers. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, ran for the presidency on a populist platform and lost. His defeat signaled that the end was near for the agrarian populist movement in the United States. Indeed, the Colored Farmers Alliance was against the idea of giving up the populists’ independent movement to ally themselves with the Democrats, but the rest of the People’s Party did not listen.
The Twentieth Century
The political phenomenon of rebellion against the elite in the United States has appeared and reappeared several times. The grassroots movement that propelled Andrew Jackson into the White House from 1829 to 1837 used the rhetoric of electing “one of the people” to rally support; the same was true for the election of Washington outsider Jimmy Carter in 1976. The rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s with its call for a return to family values, the presidential candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and the subsequent creation of the Reform Party, and the popular reaction against the Electoral College after the disputed presidential election of 2000 all represent populist drives to eliminate the barriers between state power and the people. At its best, this movement fueled activism and reform; a classic example of this was the growth of suffrage, temperance, and abolitionist groups, among others, in the wake of Jacksonianism. At its worst, the harnessing of popular energy led to something close to mass hysteria; the extremes to which the anti-communism of the McCarthyism movement reached in the 1950s reflected this problem.
The examples of how populism has differed illustrate several aspects of the political theory. First, a nation’s phase of development affects the nature of populism. The United States and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century were primarily agricultural countries experiencing early industrialism with its corresponding urbanization, mechanization, and specialization. This becomes important when looking at the Third World at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century, since Third World nations reached the same position the United States and Russia reached a century earlier. The history of populism provides a clue to what kind of activism and impulses to expect in the Third World.
Second, the experience of Latin America reflects the opportunities for leaders—not always benevolent ones—to appeal to the people, sidestep regimes, and play upon popular convictions as positive as national pride and personal self-respect and as negative as class hatred and virulent xenophobia. For these leaders to be successful, hostilities and resentments must exist within the labor and middle classes, and the existing regime must be stagnant, or at least apparently uninvolved with the issues concerning the non-elite. Although this face of populism has toppled ruling parties without bloodshed, it also has powered movements as destructive as the rise of Adolph Hitler and German Nazism in the twentieth century.
The last face of populism, political reaction against the elite, seems to be a normal force of change in many nations, often achieved peacefully. In the United States, for example, this need for popular involvement often is seen in small but meaningful ways, such as in the use of referendum, or voting on legislation passed by representative assemblies; popular initiative, through which regular citizens can bypass the legislature and offer legislation for voters to decide on in a referendum; and recall, which allows voters to demand an early election if unsatisfied with their representatives.
Analysis and Critical Response
Populism as a political theory and movement defies simple categorization due to the number of faces it has worn. The specific form populism takes changes depending on which elite and/or government it is reacting against. Even so, the impulse for the common person to have direct say in the government without the rule of the elite can be analyzed in the context of its history.
The most obvious problem with populism is its name. The term “populist” has been stretched to encompass so many ideas it is almost meaningless. Richard A. Viguerie agreed that the term was not ideal when he wrote in his 1984 article “A Populist, and Proud Of It”: “If there is a better word than ‘populist’ to describe the people I’m referring to, I will gladly use it. In 1982 my magazine, Conservative Digest, ran a contest to find a better word, and there were six hundred entries, but nobody came up with anything better than ‘populist.’ So I guess we’re stuck with it.”
Populism refers to movements and activism concerned with small-scale agricultural life in the face of modernism, but it also refers to pro-industrial leaders who sidestep the power structure to woo the support of labor; therefore, India’s Mahatma Ghandi and Argentina’s Juan Perón can be called populists. Populism refers to the ways in which a ruler evokes the nationalism and xenophobia of a people to rally them around large causes, and yet it also refers to the ways in which a leader empathizes with the most unassuming background of people and values equality; therefore, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and the United States’ Abraham Lincoln might be said to be populists. If all four can be populists, is the word too abstract, too loose, too all- encompassing to have meaning? Aside from the lack of specificity of the term, other analytical points can be raised. Certainly empowering the people can be a positive thing; populism, after all, provided a springboard for abolitionism and feminism, among other things. Criticisms of populism, however, also exist.
One interpretation of populism is that it is a more recent manifestation of a long pattern of opposition in human societies: those at the center versus those at the periphery. The center of power, of course, has changed often in terms of philosophy and location. For several centuries before the advent of populism, this duality was the “crown and town” opposition; those at court got to know the monarch and draw closer to power and influence, while those in the towns lived far away from the kings and queens and not only had little power and influence, but also lived a different lifestyle in a different economic and political atmosphere than the one at court. In the case of U.S. populism, then, the crown might be the banks of New York City or the government buildings of Washington, D. C., while the town might be the farm in Georgia, the factory in Detroit, or the church in Missouri.
Another interpretation of populism views agrarian populism as the true embodiment of the political theory. In this approach, populists formed a democratic movement that provided the last and most articulate critique of corporate capitalism before the realities of the industrial age ended the agrarian lifestyle, and thus the only real alternative to commercial culture, permanently. This view suggests populists had the insight to realize that corporate capitalism did not promise or provide wealth for everyone; the populists themselves were proof that the new economy could hurt as well as reward.
This interpretation credits the populists with more foresight than could have been possible, however— the development of the economy in Russia and the United States, for example, was not inevitable. In fact, Russia and the United States as illustrations prove how differently the development might have evolved. To call the populists prophets of corporate capitalism, then, when corporate capitalism did not yet exist fully, is using hindsight unfairly. Moreover, the claim that corporate capitalism did not benefit the populist seems strained, since the populists did not really take part in that economy. They were not corporate capitalists. In a sense, they were apart in their own agrarian economy, and their failure to join the growing new one— and not the new one itself—caused part of their plight.
The most compelling and least flattering interpretation of populism is that it was and is a reactionary force that maintained a backward-looking stance by means of a conspiratorial view of history. This view has three components. First, populism could not exist on its own in power; it does not set forth distinct principles, but rather moves in opposition to other things. It does not act; it reacts. Second, populists have tended to be at the end of social and economic trends, trying to preserve—and, in some senses, institutionalize—ways of life that no longer apply easily to the technology and demands of the time. Perhaps the most disturbing of the components is the third: the conspiratorial view of history. To have the “us” of populism, the oppressed, requires the “them” of populism, the oppressors. “The man” always put and puts the “little guy” down. The Populist Party, or People’s Party, platform of 1892 put it this way: “A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world.” American agrarians believed the eastern bankers had conspired with the Washington elite to disenfranchise the farmers. Likewise, the U.S. anti-communists believed that the U.S. State Department was full of communists planning to subvert American family values. The worst-case scenario of this kind of thinking results in xenophobia—it is the fault of foreigners—or racism, sexism, and, in the case of Germany’s Nazism, anti-Semitism. Blaming groups often leads more to hate and scapegoatism than productive strategies for growth.
Populism in Oz
The U.S. agrarian experience with populism not only changed the political landscape of the nation, but some say it also produced an enduring achievement in American literature: Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900 after the peak of the agrarian populist movement, offered an entrancing children’s story that doubled as an allegory of the American populist drama. The theory was first advanced by Henry M. Littlefield in his 1964 article “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism” from American Quarterly. More than a few historians and critics have echoed Littlefield’s findings.
The symbolism of the story centered around the key issue of the populist platform: free silver. The story of Oz—the word “Oz” itself a play on the abbreviation for ounce, the standard measure of precious metals—included the clashing images of the yellow brick road, a symbol of the gold standard on which the economy was based, and magic silver shoes (which were changed to ruby slippers for the movie because the producers felt that color looked better against the yellow road), which spoke to the desire by populists for free coinage of silver. Just as Dorothy found the road to be restrictive, but the shoes to be the answer to her needs, populists hoped the addition of elastic and abundant silver to the economy would limit the power of bankers and help the common people to preserve—or, in Dorothy’s case, return—home.
If Dorothy served as a symbol of the United States, unknowing and innocent, held in the sway of gold without realizing the true liberating power of silver, then her companions also reflected other actors in the story of populism. The Cowardly Lion, for example, roared loudly but did little; in the same way, the great orator William Jennings Bryan made stirring speeches but failed to win the presidency despite repeated attempts. Perhaps the Tin Man represented the overworked and underpaid eastern workers, dehumanized and self-destructive regardless of how hard they worked, while the Scarecrow symbolized the Midwestern farmers facing drought and ruin, and in the Emerald City, or Washington, D.C.,The Wonderful Wizard of Oz took the place of the U.S. president. Some critics see the Wicked Witches of the East and West as banker bosses and railroad barons, as well; after all, the book often returns to the theme of a people dominated and enslaved by powerful tyrants, whether they be the Munchkins trapped by the Wicked Witch of the East or the flying monkeys abused by the Wicked Witch of the West.
The Wizard of Oz became an American classic as a book, a play, and a motion picture, most notably as the 1939 Judy Garland film. At its core, however, it presented not a celebration but rather a sympathetic critique of the rise and fall of American populism. The farmer, the laborer, the politician—the U.S. public— in the novel traveled to the nation’s capital to request that their wishes be fulfilled, but each of the wishes were somehow oversimplified or self-delusional. The Scarecrow really had a brain, for he was clever and shrewd, if somewhat unpolished; likewise, the Tin Man and the Lion already had a heart and courage, respectively, even if they did not know how to capitalize on their assets. Dorothy could have returned home at any time—she, too, possessed the means to help herself throughout the novel. More important still, the U.S. President ended up to be an everyman with no special powers to remake the world with magic.
At the end of the novel, silver had lost its magic as the shoes disappeared, agricultural interests reclaimed Washington as the Scarecrow ruled the Emerald City, industrialism pushed west with the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion remained a player in the woods, just as Bryan remained active though never in charge. The newly freed Munchkins and flying monkeys had to negotiate their own way in this new reality. The naïveté of the characters’ wishes gave way to the more complex reality of the changing world; the simplicity of their desires proved to be distractions rather than real reflections of their needs. In short, Baum appreciated the problems the populists raised, but found the solutions they offered to be naïve and overly elementary. The populists, he implied, often were their own worst enemies. In order to meet the challenges of a changing nation, they had to help themselves; in their doing so, Baum suggested, the movement known as agrarian populism all but disintegrated.
Of course, there are plenty of historians who may not wholeheartedly agree with Littlefield’s analyis. William R. Leach offered another interpretation of Oz—as a celebration of the American big city. There are likely plenty of readers who believe it is simply a wonderful tale of fantasy. At any rate, it does offer a different and very interesting way to study the dynamics of Populism in the late-nineteenth century.