The Populist Fantasy: Wrong History, Wrong Politics. (Populism A Dialogue)

By Wilentz, Sean | The American Prospect, October 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Populist Fantasy: Wrong History, Wrong Politics. (Populism A Dialogue)


Wilentz, Sean, The American Prospect


LOOKING FORWARD TO 2004, liberals and progressives have become embroiled in an argument over whether Democrats ought to embrace or reject populism. Pro-business moderates--or, more precisely, anti-anti-business moderates-have lambasted Al Gore's 2000 campaign for overemphasizing "economic populism" and for slighting the "pro-growth" agenda advanced by the Democratic Leadership Conference and its current leader, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Neopopulists, on the other hand, disparage pro-business Democrats and proclaim that the party must become, once again, the standard-bearer for populism if it is ever to reclaim its principles and regain power. Arianna Huffington, one of the more prominent exponents of this view, proclaims that the country needs "an explosion of populist outrage." And recently, in these pages, two men who command respect for virtually everything they write, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira [See "Why Democrats Must Be Populists," Sept. 9, 2002.], argued for an embrace of populism.

Both the moderates and the neopopulists agree on one point: that attacks on corporate corruption and economic injustice amount to populism. Similarly, the news media have often described Gore's recent public pronouncements, as well as his 2000 campaign, as "populism," and Maureen Dowd even calls Gore's populism "fire-breathing."

There is nothing distinctively populist, however, about criticizing corporate misdeeds, just as there is nothing distinctively conservative about promoting economic growth and a healthy business environment. Long ago, back in the 1930s, the Democratic Party fused these two seemingly antagonistic appeals and made them the bedrock of modern liberalism. Yet now each side wants to claim that one of those appeals is the true soul of progressivism, with the news media egging them on.

Unless these populist fantasies, pro and con, are exposed and banished, the Democrats could well destroy themselves--a likelihood made all the more tragic because it would arise out of fundamental misunderstandings of the party's history.

POPULISM THEN

What was populism? At its core, it was agrarian dissent after Reconstruction against the inequities of the high industrialism and mercantile exploitation that were transforming the United States. Great Plains farmers felt betrayed by the Republican Party, just as small farmers and sharecroppers in the South felt betrayed by the Democrats. The Republicans had fallen into the grip of an eastern industrialist combine that ruled through congressional leadership, dominating a weak presidency. The Democrats had turned into a Jim Crow party, ruled by local Bourbon elites. Picking up on certain Jeffersonian and Jacksonian appeals that long predated populism, the movement focused rural outrage at how one way of life, based on independent family farms, was being supplanted by another, based on capitalist dependence and the merciless whims of the market.

To their credit, the original populists argued in favor of various regulatory reforms that would give governments (especially state governments) greater powers to check the excesses of unbridled corporate power, including the regulation of railroad rates. But that is not all the populists stood for. They indulged in a variety of crackpot financial schemes, made famous by the likes of William "Coin" Harvey and designed to inflate the currency. They harbored nativist and anti-Semitic fanaticism. They battled, in their southern political base, over racial issues and whether disenfranchised blacks were their allies or their foes. Above all, they proclaimed a disdain that bordered on hatred for cities and for the conniving parasites who inhabited them.

"You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard," William Jennings Bryan declared in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896. "We reply that our great cities rest upon our broad and great prairies. …

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