August 2012

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POPULIST POLITICAL MOVEMENTS

Historical Precedents for the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party


by Peter Bearse

Recall the old saying: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” American history is full of past struggles that aimed to reform American politics and create a government of, by and for “We the People.” Many of the failed struggles bear a curious resemblance to those now underway. There are lessons to be learned from failure.

The most germane of historical precedents go back over 125 years. The major themes of past struggles have been:



What’s the crosscut among these?: “Big” vs. “Small”, as in big business vs. small, the “little guy” vs. “Mr. Big”, individuals vs. large organized groups, whistleblowers vs. big organizations (business or governmental), big government vs. small, etc.


These sorts of struggles go back to the very beginnings of our republic. Perhaps the earliest financial “bailout” occurred early in George Washington’s first administration when “Alexander Hamilton (the nation’s 1st Secretary of the Treasury) attempted to use a government bailout of speculators to concentrate power in banking estates controlled by his friends and allies.”1

Another example that resonates with our own times, Shay’s Rebellion, had occurred a few years earlier in 1786. Daniel Shays was a poor farmhand from Uxbridge, Massachusetts when the Revolution broke out. He joined the Continental Army where he fought at the battles of Lexington, Bunker Hill and Saratoga, and was wounded in action. In 1780, he resigned from the army unpaid and went home to find himself in court for the nonpayment of debts. He soon found that he was not alone in being unable to pay his debts, and so began organizing for debt relief. The situation led to local riots. Other Central Massachusetts towns joined in the rebellion. Shrewsbury supported a staging area for a large march of 400 individuals on the Worcester courthouse in 1786 in an attempt to block the foreclosure of mortgages.

The financial situation leading to the rebellion included the problem that European war investors (among others) demanded payment in gold and silver, but there was not enough such currency to pay the debts. Thus, wealthy urban businessmen tried to squeeze whatever assets they could get out of rural smallholders. Since the smallholders did not have the gold that the creditors demanded, everything they had was confiscated, including their houses.

At a meeting convened by aggrieved commoners, a farmer, Plough Jogger, encapsulated the situation:

"I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war, been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and all rates...been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth...The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers."2


Shades of the Tea Party now!, except that the TP has not yet resorted to riots or rebellion!

Lynn also reported that:


For more than half a century after the Civil War…a small clique of men seized control of the new railroad and telegraph systems, then consolidated their power over many other important sectors of the economy.”


He then went on to relate how, through “two great pushes…the people forced their representatives to enact law after law designed to disperse power (via) “bottom-up reconstruction of our economy.” These initiatives were effectively turned around by the 1970’s, as “the generation of Rockefeller and Morgan…centralized control over entire industries…”3 This was supposedly followed by a new, new “Wikinomics” economy, open and free. But as Seabrook has shown, this, too, is threatened by anti-competitive behaviors among a new wave of big boys, including Oracle, Amazon, Google and Facebook.4 Lynn’s earlier remark about earlier “assaults” on competition still holds true today: “And this time, the assault (is) more subtle, and camouflaged by myth, euphemism and outright falsehood…”5 The latter have been systematically documented by John Kenneth Galbraith in one of his final books, THE ECONOMICS OF INNOCENT FRAUD: Truth for Our Time. Innocent?


Is it any surprise, then, that populist movements to restore some balances of power between “We the People” and big, economic combinations of money and power have periodically arisen in our republic? Read on for more relevant history and examples.


People's Party (United States)


The People's Party, also known as the "Populists", was established in 1891. It was most important in 1892-96 but gradually faded away. Based among poor, white cotton farmers in the South and hard-pressed wheat farmers in the plains states, it represented a radical crusading form of agrarianism featuring hostility to banks, railroads and generally, elites of all stripes. It sometimes formed coalitions with labor unions. In 1896, the Party endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. The terms "populist" and "populism" are commonly used to connote broadly people-based, anti-elitist political appeals in opposition to established interests and mainstream parties.


The People's Party grew out of agrarian unrest in response to low agricultural prices in the South and the trans-Mississippi West. The drive to create a new political party out of the movement arose from the belief that the two major parties, Democratic and Republican, were controlled by bankers, landowners and elites hostile to the needs of the small farmer. The movement reached its peak in 1892 when the party held a convention in Omaha, Nebraska and nominated candidates for the national election. The party's platform, commonly known as the Omaha Platform, called for the abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours and Government control of all railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. In the 1892 Presidential election, the Populist nominee, James B. Weaver received 1,027,329 votes. Weaver carried four states (Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada) and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota as well.


The party flourished most among farmers in the Southwest and Great Plains. It also made significant gains in the South but faced an uphill battle given the firmly entrenched monopoly of the Democratic Party. Success was often obtained through electoral fusion. The party allied with the Democrats outside the South, but with with the Republicans in Southern states. For example, in the elections of 1894, a coalition of Populists and Republicans led by Populist Marion Butler swept state and local offices in North Carolina. The coalition would go on to elect Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell as Governor in ’96.


The Populists actively included women in their affairs. Some southern Populists, including Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, openly talked of the need for poor blacks and poor whites to set aside their racial differences in the name of shared economic self-interest.


The 36-year old William Jennings Bryan was the "fusion" candidate of the Democrats and the People's Party in 1896. The Democratic Party thereby put forth many of the People's Party's causes at the national level. Yet, the Democrats had nominated Bryan primarily on the basis of his advocacy of “free silver” as a solution to the economic depression and the maldistribution of power. One of the great orators of the day, Bryan generated enormous excitement among Democrats with his "Cross of Gold" speech. In the summer of 1896, he appeared to have a good chance of winning the election if all the Populists voted for him.


The Populists had the choice of endorsing Bryan or running their own candidate. After great infighting at their St. Louis convention they decided to endorse Bryan but with their own vice presidential nominee, Thomas E. Watson of Georgia. Watson was cautiously open to cooperation, but after the election would recant any hope he had in the possibility of cooperation as a viable tool. Bryan's strength was based on the traditional Democratic vote (minus the middle class and the Germans). He swept the old Populist strongholds in the west and South and added the silverite states in the west, but did poorly in the industrial heartland. He lost to Republican William McKinley by a margin of 600,000 votes, and lost again in a rematch in 1900 by a larger margin. A major factor was, for the first time, the influence of big-money politics in the 1996 campaign, led by the fund-raising of Mark Hannah, a Republican Senator from Ohio who was McKinley’s political manager. He is famous for saying: “There are three things most important in politics. One is money. I can’t remember the other two.”


The effects of fusion with the Democrats were disastrous to the Party in the South. The Populist/Republican alliance which had governed North Carolina fell apart in North Carolina, the only state in which it had any success. By 1898, the Democrats used a violently racist campaign to defeat the North Carolina Populists and GOP. In 1900 the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement of the blacks.

Populism never recovered from the failure of 1896. For example, Tennessee’s Populist Party was demoralized by a diminishing membership, and puzzled and split by the dilemma of whether to fight the state-level enemy (the Democrats) or the national foe (the Republicans and Wall Street). By 1900 the People’s Party of Tennessee was a shadow of what it once was. In 1900, while many Populist voters supported Bryan again, the weakened party nominated a separate ticket of Wharton Barker and Ignatius L. Donnelly, and disbanded afterwards. Populist activists either retired from politics, joined a major party, or followed Eugene Debs into his new Socialist Party.


Historians’ Perspectives on Populism


Since the 1890s historians have vigorously debated the nature of Populism. Most scholars have been liberals who admired the Populists for their attacks on banks and railroads. Some historians see a close link between the Populists of the 1890s and the progressives of 1900-1912, but for the most part, the link was reactionary. “Progressives”, like many of the nation’s founders, feared popular democracy and associated populism with “mobism.“ Most of the leading progressives (except Bryan himself) fiercely opposed Populism. Thus Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Norris, Robert LaFollette, William Allen White and Woodrow Wilson strongly opposed Populism. It is debated whether any Populist ideas made their way into the Democratic party during the New Deal era. The New Deal farm programs were designed by experts (like Henry Wallace) who had nothing to do with Populism.


Some historians see the populists as forward-looking liberal reformers. Others view them as reactionaries trying to recapture an idyllic and utopian past. The latter may owe somewhat to the fact that populism originated among hard-pressed farmers seeking government relief. Well-educated, “Progressive” thinkers saw agriculture as an un-progressive, declining sector. They saw industrialism as the wave of the future. Some saw populists as radicals out to restructure American life.


Much recent scholarship emphasizes Populism's debt to early American republicanism. Clanton (1991) stresses that Populism was "the last significant expression of an old radical tradition that derived from Enlightenment sources that had been filtered through a political tradition that bore the distinct imprint of Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Lincolnian democracy." This tradition emphasized human rights over the cash nexus of the Gilded Age's dominant ideology.


Frederick Jackson Turner and a succession of western historians depicted the Populist as responding to the closure of the frontier. Turner explained:


The Farmers' Alliance and the Populist demand for government ownership of the railroad is a phase of the same effort of the pioneer farmer, on his latest frontier. The proposals have taken increasing proportions in each region of Western Advance. Taken as a whole, Populism is a manifestation of the old pioneer ideals of the native American, with the added element of increasing readiness to utilize the national government to effect its ends.”


The most influential Turner student of Populism was John D. Hicks, who emphasized economic pragmatism over ideals, presenting Populism as interest group politics, with have-nots demanding their fair share of wealth which was being leeched off by nonproductive speculators. Hicks emphasized the drought that ruined so many Kansas farmers, but he also pointed to financial manipulations, deflation in prices caused by the gold standard, high interest rates, mortgage foreclosures, and high railroad rates. Corruption accounted for most such outrages. Populists presented popular control of government as the solution, a point that later students of republicanism emphasized.


In the 1930s, historian C. Vann Woodward stressed the southern base, seeing the possibility of a black-and-white coalition of poor against the overbearing rich. Georgia politician Tom Watson served as Woodward's hero. In the 1950s, however, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. Hofstadter discounted third party links to Progressivism and argued that Populists were provincial and conspiracy-minded, with tendencies toward scapegoat-ism manifested as nativism, anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism. In light of this way of thinking, the antithesis of anti-modern Populism was modernizing Progressivism with such leading progressives as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, George Norris and Woodrow Wilson -- all vehement enemies of Populism,


Michael Kazin's The Populist Persuasion (1995) argued that Populism reflected a rhetorical style that manifested itself in spokesmen like Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s and Governor George Wallace in the 1960s. Postel (2007) rejects the notion that the Populists were traditionalistic and anti-modern. Quite the reverse, he argued, the Populists aggressively sought self-consciously progressive goals. They sought diffusion of scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale incorporated businesses, and pressed for an array of state-centered reforms. Hundreds of thousands of women committed to Populism, seeking a more modern life, education, and employment in schools and offices. A large section of the labor movement looked to Populism for answers, forging a political coalition with farmers that gave impetus to the regulatory state.


Notwithstanding the decline of their party, populism had many electoral successes. Besides electing 11 governors and numerous other state and local officials, approximately forty-five members of the party served in the U.S. Congress between 1891 and 1902. These included six United States Senators.6


Historical Perspectives Arising From Transformations of the Economy


One of the reasons for the failure of a brand of populism that first arose from a predominantly agrarian economy is “The Great Transformation” of the economy from agriculture to industry.7 This was far from just a transformation from an economy dominated by one sector to an economy dominated by another. It was also a transformation from “small” to “big” -- from an economy dominated by predominantly small-scale enterprise in small places to one dominated by big business in big cities. These shifts broke a traditional link between the economy and politics -- the close associations between self-reliant, self-employed individuals involved in the self-governance of small communities. These associations came to be secondary to the connections between big business and big government. The links between people and politics shifted to people as the consumers of a politics marketed to them by others through the media, just as their roles as entrepreneurs or producers of goods shifted to those of employees and consumers.


The association between big business and big government grew steadily because of the needs of both sides. Big business needed consistency and uniformity of taxation and regulation to expedite dealings in national and international markets. Big government grew because people looked to government to exert more influence and even control over the economy after major failures of the economic system (including government) were exhibited with a vengeance during several severe downturns and the Great Depression. Both Progressives and New Dealers believed that only big government could exert any control over big business. Bigness begat bigness.


These developments led to a subtle but steady shift away from a basic premise of the American republic: That the economic system should promote civic behavior sufficient to sustain the republic, and the promotion of such behavior should be an objective of economic policy as well as public education. What “civic behavior”? -- That of an independent, open- and civic-minded, well-informed citizen concerned for the well-being of his community as well as his own. This vision of a model citizen was transformed through the economic transformation(s) cited earlier, the concomitant growth of advertising and a shift in economic thinking from “classical” to Keynesian.


With the latter shift institutionalized during the Great Depression, government intervention into the economy shifted away from “laissez faire” to government management to promote macro-economic growth and consumption. What is the “model citizen” consistent with the latter? -- A person who is devoted to promoting his own economic growth and consumption, one thereby less cognizant or concerned with how his or her neighbors are doing.8 Two liberal writers state:


“…cultural conservatives are right to worry about the coarsening effect of popular entertainment which, together with the advertising that drives it, induces a passion for consumption and a passivity towards politics…“


Contrast these tendencies with the “old days” on the Plains, when neighboring farmers would help each other to “raise the roof” of their barns, even if they wouldn’t invite each other to dinner.9

Lessons for the Populist Movements of Our Own Time -- The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street


Historically, we see a broad movement arising out of adverse economic circumstances that became the basis of a people-based (populist) political party. The party grew, notwithstanding internal divisions, other great difficulties, and frequent misrepresentation of the party by the media. It had many electoral successes at the state and local level, often by allying with both major parties in “fusion” tickets. Populist ideas were co-opted by the major parties, but they could not prevail or survive on their own as the basis for a 3rd party.


Is past to be prologue? That is one of the major questions to be faced as we try to get big money out of politics and bring people back in . As indicated at the outset of this section, there are just too many similarities for the Tea Party (TP) and Occupy Wall St. (OWS) to ignore -- between the current situation faced by themselves and those which confronted populists of the past. The only significant difference lies in labeling. Do tea partiers consider themselves to be “populists”? Some do; more should. For at its best, populism was fundamentally conservative in the tradition of Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln -- representing a constitutionally republican, people-based politics. That is why my previous book was subtitled “A Conservative Populism.”10


OWS folks unabashedly self-identify as populists, as fighting for “the 99%”. Yet, they, too, have lessons to learn from the failures of past populist movements. One lesson is common to both the TP and OWS, that of danger -- of being co-opted by either major party either ideologically or organizationally.


Many Tea Partiers learned from Glenn Beck that there are good reasons to question the influence of the so-called “Progressive” era. Long before Beck, however, a political scientist found that the Progressive movement had “debased the American political system” and led to “undemocratic reforms.”11 There are other lessons to learn, too. The similarity of the Progressive era to our own is eerie. In light of this congruence, how can we imagine avoiding the mistakes of past populists so that “We the People” can prevail as we have not in the past?


PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., July 21, 2012. Comments welcome to: peterjamesbearse@yahoo.com.



1 Lynn, Barry C. (2012), “Killing the Competition,” HARPERS MAGAZINE (February), p.34.

2 These paragraphs and quotes on the Shays Rebellion rely heavily on Wikipedia’s section on the topic.

3 Lynn, op. cit., p. 31.

4 See Seabrook, John (2012), “Streaming Dreams,” NEW YORKER (Jan. 16).

5 Lynn, op.cit., p. 31.

6 Most of this section has been drawn and paraphrased from WIKIPEDIA.

7 See Polanyi, Karl (1957), THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

8 Greenberg, Stanley B. and Theda Skocpol (1997), THE NEW MAJORITY: Toward a Popular Progressive Politics. New Haven: Yale University Press.

9 See Kemmis, Daniel (1986), “Barn Building, Cooperation and the Economy of the West,” NORTHERN LIGHTS (November/December)

10 Bearse, Peter (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism. Lafayette, LA: Alpha Publishing.

11 See Lipow, Arthur (1996), POLITICAL PARTIES and DEMOCRACY. Chicago: Pluto Press.