Group Seeks to Resurrect `Real' Populism

Article excerpt

JUST THE MENTION of William Jennings Bryan can whip Don Kemner into a frenzy.

To Kemner, a retired Chesterfield insurance agent, Bryan - the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 1896 - is a symbol of the life and death of the 19th-century populist movement.

Bryan had captured the hearts of many defectors from the fledgling People's Party, founded in the late 1800s on the belief of farmers and laborers that corporations were unfairly calling all the shots and driving average Americans to financial ruin. For various reasons, including an improving economy, Bryan's defeat took much of the populist movement down with him. Next week, a local group that includes Kemner is heading to Texas to take part in a convention aimed at resurrecting that old fight against corporations. The convention will officially kick off "The Alliance," a movement started by Ronnie Dugger, former editor and publisher of The Texas Observer, a venerable political publication. Dugger struck a chord among disaffected liberals and progressives with his 1995 article in The Nation magazine: "Real Populists Please Stand Up." His contention, then and in a speech here last month, is that liberals had better get their act together - and fast. The "populism" moniker shou ld be reclaimed, Dugger said, "from its many hijackers - the Wallaces, the Dukes, the Gingriches" in the conservative camps. Conservatives are abusing the real meaning of populism, he says, to confuse and mislead the public about the real state of the nation's government and who counts. In Dugger's opinion, the average American has no voice in either the Democratic and Republican parties. The entire political system, he says, is under corporate control. "We're not self-governing anymore. We still have the forms of democracy, but the content that is permitted to pass into law is bought and paid for by the corporate oligarchy." Whether you buy that argument, Dugger clearly wants to tap into the same discontent that feeds various outsider movements, from Ross Perot to the militias. With the doggedness of a political Johnny Appleseed, Dugger has been traveling around the country to form Alliance chapters at every stop. He says he has formed at least three in Missouri: two in Kansas City and one in Columbia, Mo. Louise Green and other local allies hope Dugger's appearance two weeks ago at Webster University also will bear fruit. They were heartened by the crowd of 50 or so who showed up to hear Dugger speak, despite a lack of publicity. "We sent out 20 letters, that's all," Kemner said. Daniel Hellinger, a Webster University political science professor known for his 1980s activism in Central America, came out of curiosity. …

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