What Was Populism?
by Thomas Frank
Populism was the first of America’s great economic uprisings, a roar of outrage from people in the lower half of the country’s social order. It was a quintessential mass movement, in which rank-and-file Americans came to think of the country’s inequitable system as a thing they might change by common effort. It was a glimpse of how citizens of a democracy, born with a faith in equality, can sometimes react when the brutal hierarchy of conventional arrangements is no longer tolerable to them.
Populism was also our country’s final serious third-party effort, the last one to stand a decent chance of breaking the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats. In the 1890s the two main parties were still basically regional organizations, relics of the Civil War; Populism transcended that system by making an appeal based on class solidarity, aiming to bring together farmers in the South and the West with factory workers in northern cities. “The interests of rural and civic labor are the same,” proclaimed the famous 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, and “their enemies are identical.” By which the Pops meant those who prospered while producing nothing: bankers, railroad barons, and commodity traders, along with their hirelings—corrupt politicians who served wealth instead of “the people.”
This was, of course, a time of unregulated corporate monopolies, of in-your-face corruption, and of crushing currency deflation—and it was also a time when everyone agreed that government’s role was to provide a framework conducive to business and otherwise to get out of the way. That was the formal ideal; the execution was slightly uglier, a matter of smoke and exploitation, bankruptcy and foreclosure, of cabinet seats for sale and entire state legislatures bought with free-ride railroad passes.
Against this backdrop came the Populist revolt. The rightful subject of the government’s ministrations, populism insisted, was not business at all but the People.
It all began in the 1880s when farmers started signing up by the thousands for a cooperative movement called the Farmers’ Alliance. America was still largely an agricultural nation, and in the places where Populism eventually took root farmers made up overwhelming majorities of the population.
They were not particularly affluent majorities, however. In the South, farmers tended to be desperately poor, borrowing against future crops to buy food and necessities. The merchants from whom they borrowed took pains to ensure not only that the farmers never got out of debt but that they took the merchants’ dictation on what to grow and how to grow it. What to grow always turned out to be cotton, and as the southern farmers produced crop after bumper crop of the stuff, the price only sank.
Farmers in the West, meanwhile, found themselves at the mercy of a different set of middlemen—local railroad monopolies and far-off commodity speculators. Like their brethren in the South, they worked and borrowed and grew and harvested; they watched as what they produced was sold in Chicago and New York for good prices; and yet what they themselves earned from their labors fell and fell and fell. In 1870, farmers received forty-three cents a bushel for corn; twenty years later in eastern Kansas it sold for ten cents a bushel, far less than what it cost to grow. Accounts from the period describe corn lying around on the ground with no takers; corn burned in stoves for heat.1
To such people the Farmer’s Alliance made a simple proposition: Let’s find out why we are being ruined, and then let’s get together and do something about it. Education was the first order of business, and the movement conceived of itself as a sort of “national university,” employing an army of traveling lecturers. Chapters of the movement ran lending libraries; radical rural newspapers (of which there were many) sold cheap books about agriculture and political reform.2
The movement also promised real results for farmers, by means of rural cooperatives and political pressure. And the Farmers’ Alliance spread like a wildfire. By the end of the 1880s it had millions of members, mainly in the South; the Colored Farmers’ Alliance (the southern Alliances were segregated) represented a million more; similar farm groups in the northern states brought additional millions into the radical fold. News reports marveled at the enormous audiences that would turn out to hear Alliance speakers—crowds of the size typically found at modern-day football games, gathering in a pasture somewhere. A novel published at the time describes the way American minds began to change:
People commenced to think who had never thought before, and people talked who had seldom spoken. . . . Little by little they commenced to theorize upon their condition. Despite the poverty of the country, the books of Henry George, [Edward] Bellamy, and other economic writers were bought to be read greedily; and nourished by the fascination of novelty and the zeal of enthusiasm, thoughts and theories sprouted like weeds after a May shower. . . . They discussed income tax and single tax; they talked of government ownership and the abolition of private property; fiat money, and the unity of labor; . . . and a thousand conflicting theories.3
At first, the political program of the Farmers’ Alliance focused on a handful of big issues: the regulation of railroads, federal loans to farmers, and currency reform of a kind that would help debtors. The Alliance developed positions on a whole host of other matters as well: it supported free trade, for example, and votes for women, and secret ballots on Election Day. Thanks to the movement’s vast numbers, conventional politicians in every farm state began to pay attention, promising to act on the farmers’ demands.
But somehow the politicians never delivered. The power of business over the state legislatures always turned out to be too great to overcome. The same thing on a larger scale was obviously true of Congress in Washington, D.C. And while the politicians triangulated, the farmers’ position worsened.
Something profound had taken place, however. The farmers—men and women of society’s commonest rank—had figured out that being exploited was not the natural order of things. So members of the Farmers’ Alliance began taking matters into their own hands. In Kansas and a few other western states they went into politics directly, styling themselves as the People’s Party, a new organization with a new agenda. In the fall of 1890 they challenged and in places overthrew the dominant local Republicans, turning out old-school senators and representatives and replacing them with leaders from their own movement.
Over the next few years, the party organized itself nationally, and at their gathering in Omaha in the summer of 1892 they formally announced their program to the world. By this time the Knights of Labor and a number of other unions were on board, along with most of the reform-minded farm groups of the era, and so the People’s Party declared itself to be “the first great labor conference of the United States and of the world,” bringing together “the producers of the nation” from both the country and the city. They denounced “capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts,” and they declared that “the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” In that heyday of American inequality, that golden age of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, the Populists alone saw things clearly:
The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.4
In 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, a Civil War general from Iowa named James B. Weaver, won 22 electoral votes, and by following a strategy of “fusion” or coordination with local Democrats, the party managed to elect governors in several western states ordinarily controlled by the Republicans. In the South, where the dominant group was the conservative “Bourbon” Democrats, the Populist revolt met with disaster. The party of white supremacy casually cheated the Pops out of victories that should have been theirs. The only southern state where the third party prevailed was North Carolina, where fusion with the local Republicans brought Populism into power in the middle of the decade. To this subject we shall return anon.
Social class was essential to how the Populists understood their situation, and they talked often about what they called “the producing class.” But the phrase they favored above all others when speaking of the toilers was “the people.” As in: “We the People.” As in: “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” That was the struggle as they saw it: the “plain people” versus the power.
It is common to cast Populism as the end of something, as the farmer’s last political stand or the terminus of nineteenth-century radicalism. With a slightly wider focus, the arrival of Populism looks a lot more like the shock of the new. “A new way of looking at things,” in the words of historian Lawrence Goodwyn; “a mass expression of a new political vision.”5 This was the first movement in American politics that demanded far-reaching government intervention in the economy in order to benefit working people, and contemporaneous accounts of the movement often describe its arrival as a sort of epiphany, a “Pentecost of politics,” a moment of sudden, mass enlightenment. Consider this description of a gathering of Texas Populists:
For a whole week they literally lived and breathed Reform: by day and by night they sang of Populism, they prayed for Populism, they read Populist literature and discussed Populist principles with their brethren in the faith, and they heard Populist orators loose their destructive thunderbolts in the name of the People’s Party.6
In truth, that vision was manifesting all over the world in those days. The Pops won the support of a significant chunk of the emerging American labor movement, and in some places the People’s Party was basically a labor party. As such, Populism was part of a great wave of working-class political movements then rising up in the industrialized countries. The British Labour Party was founded at about the same time, and Populists on occasion looked to it for inspiration. The Australian Labor Party, for its part, actually considered adopting the name “People’s Party” in homage to what then looked like a powerful new force in the United States.7
Like these other groups, the Pops concentrated their efforts on economic issues and the closely related matter of electoral reform. By and large, they stayed away from the culture-war issues of the day. This surprises the modern-day student of the movement: the Populists may have had a churchly way of speaking, but for the most part they refrained from denouncing ordinary people for their bad values. Questions like prohibition, for example, threatened to break the Populist coalition apart and therefore had to be avoided despite the distaste of many Pops for liquor and saloons. With their singular focus on economics, they regarded many of the controversies of the day as traps or distractions.
Populist rhetoric oscillated between passionate denunciations of injustice and methodical, even boring exegeses on complicated economic problems. “Starvation stalks abroad amid an overproduction of food,” roared a typical Populist j’accuse of 1891; within a few sentences, however, it had gone from hot to cold, calling on readers to
calmly and dispassionately examine the facts which we are prepared to submit in support of our claims. . . . [I]f the facts and arguments we present can be refuted we neither ask nor expect your support.
These were peculiarly math-minded reformers. Look over introductions to the reform cause like the 1895 pamphlet What Is Populism?, and you will find a detailed, plank-by-plank exposition of the party’s economic program: its demands for a government-controlled currency, for government control of the railroads, for rooting out political corruption . . . and precious little else.8
Many of Populism’s causes are familiar to us today: the regulation of monopolies, the income tax, the initiative and referendum, the direct election of senators, and so on. They are familiar because they have largely been achieved.
One item on the list of Populist grievances requires a lengthier explanation today, however. For many Americans of the late nineteenth century, currency deflation was the single greatest issue facing the nation. At that time, the worth of the dollar was fixed to the value of gold: the “gold standard.” As a result, the amount of dollars in circulation could not increase unless the government’s reserves of gold—a scarce metal—increased as well.
One consequence of the gold standard was painful, constant deflation. Since the population and the economy were both growing explosively, and since the number of dollars in circulation could not grow with them, dollars became scarcer every year and constantly increased in value. If you were a banker, this was a fantastic situation. If you were a debtor—and farmers were debtors—the gold standard was dreadful. It meant you had to repay what you had borrowed using dollars that were now far more valuable than they had been when you took out your loan. Debt of this kind was not something you paid off easily; it was a condition in which you struggled all your days, a form of servitude, almost.
“Fiat currency” was the hard-core Populists’ proposal for solving this problem. It would have authorized the government simply to print the nation’s medium of exchange however it chose and then to establish its value by administrative pronouncement, without any reference to precious metals. (This is the system we have today, incidentally.) The other remedy Populists embraced was “free silver”: simply replacing the limited reserves of gold with a more plentiful supply of silver. Since silver was being mined all the time in America, the money in circulation under a silver standard would stand a better chance of keeping up with the economy’s growth.
“Free silver” proceeded to catch the imagination of certain classes of Americans in a way that is difficult to understand today. Silver became the object of a sort of crusade in the 1890s, a symbol that made everything fit together. Silver would not only solve the problem of deflation, people thought; it would humanize capitalism. Silver would bring back fairness. Silver represented democratic virtue and workerist authenticity. Gold, meanwhile, came to stand for aristocratic privilege and deathly inequality. As the silver craze swept America, the Populists saw their fortunes ascend with it—ascend so rapidly that eventually free silver came to crowd out everything else the party stood for.
In 1893 the national economy went into one of its periodic recessions—this time it was sharp and painful. Banks and businesses failed all over America and especially in the West. Unemployment came close to 20 percent, with millions thrown out of work. Homeless people roamed the country. There were of course no federal programs in place for relief or stimulus or recovery; the crisis response of the Grover Cleveland administration in Washington consisted of an aggressive campaign of . . . buying gold.
The plight of the unemployed was of little concern to the country’s economic authorities. But the confidence of bankers and investors was a different matter: such people had to be assuaged. They had to be convinced of the government’s unswerving devotion to economic orthodoxy, meaning the gold standard. And this the Democrat Cleveland set out to do. To stave off a panicked run on the nation’s gold supply, he stockpiled gold and then he stockpiled more gold. He made deals with bankers, keeping them happy with guaranteed profits, so that they wouldn’t withdraw that precious yellow stuff. He worked hard to restore their confidence. Above all, he stockpiled that gold.
Before long, outrage was no longer confined to farm country; all over America working people were learning what the Populists had figured out a few years previously. In the summer of 1894, a local strike at the Pullman passenger-car plant in Chicago blew up into a vast national conflagration. In solidarity with the workers at Pullman, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, refused to handle trains with Pullman cars attached. Rail traffic throughout the country quickly came to a standstill. President Cleveland took a break from stockpiling gold to order the U.S. Army into Chicago; his Justice Department tossed Debs in jail for obstructing the mail.
An even more spectacular event occurred that same year when one Jacob Coxey, a Populist from Ohio, conceived of the idea of “a petition in boots”—an army of unemployed men that would march to Washington, D.C., to make plain the miserable economic conditions in the hinterlands. From all over the country, jobless people joined up with Coxey’s Army and, several weeks and a few borrowed train rides later, they arrived in the nation’s capital: the first-ever mass protest march on Washington. Their demand was that the government hire unemployed people to build roads and other infrastructure, paying for it with deficit spending. Respectable Washingtonians laughed at the cockeyed suggestion and at the dirty tramps who supported it: what a bunch of cranks! D.C. police tossed Coxey in jail for walking on the Capitol lawn.
The Populists seemed perfectly positioned to take advantage of these dreadful developments. They were, after all, the self-proclaimed party of working people and economic grievance. They loudly deplored the methods used by the Cleveland administration to smash the Pullman strike in the streets of Chicago, and after the strike was over the Pops embraced Eugene Debs as their newest hero.9
Meanwhile, as the hard times deepened and the Democratic administration did its grotesque favors for the banking community, the mania for silver grew and grew. Both of the old parties remained committed to the gold standard, leaving only the Populists standing outside this tidy consensus of the orthodox and the comfortable. Never before had the reformers’ charge that the two parties ignored the real issues seemed more obvious, more self-evident. Populism was going to ride the silver escalator to the top. Reform was on the march; Populism was unstoppable.
Then something crazy happened. As the recession deepened, the Democratic Party began to turn against its sitting president, the banker-coddling Grover Cleveland. When the Democrats gathered for their convention in Chicago in the summer of 1896, pandemonium broke loose. Not only did the party denounce its own president, but it declared its intention to toss the gold standard itself overboard. Then they nominated for the presidency the virtually unknown William Jennings Bryan, a thirty-six-year-old free-silver advocate from Nebraska who talked as much like a Populist as did anyone from the Cornhusker state.
Eastern respectability reeled as it beheld one of the country’s two traditional parties apparently captured by radicalism. The actual radicals in the People’s Party, meanwhile, reckoned with the very different problem of seeing a powerful rival swipe the idea upon which they had strategically placed all their hopes. Meeting right after the shocking Democratic convention, the Populists felt they had little choice but to throw in their lot with Bryan. Fusion had been a successful strategy for the party at the state level, and now Populist leaders hoped to follow it into the executive branch in Washington.
The gamble was a painful one for certain Populists, however. Not only did it mean selling out their far-reaching reform program in favor of one issue, but many among the party’s southern and black contingents had risked their lives to make a stand against the Democratic Party. For them to come crawling back because their colleagues wanted to endorse Bryan was a humiliating prospect.10
Still, the wager was done. The crusade was launched. It was free silver against the gold standard, with Populists and Democrats standing more or less united to defeat the plutocracy. When Bryan proceeded to lose to Republican William McKinley, Populism fell mortally wounded.
The People’s Party struggled on for a few more years, but after the catastrophe of the 1896 election its fate was sealed. The party immediately broke into squabbling factions. Its conventions, scheduled for large auditoriums, were attended by embarrassingly small crowds. At length the economy recovered, even for farmers. Agricultural prices rose and, thanks to various technological advances, the global production of gold increased enormously, finally erasing the problems of deflation.
Meanwhile, the two big parties slowly came around to the Populist innovations. Populist voters gradually made their way back to their previous partisan homes, while a chunk of the leadership joined the Socialist Party. By the first few years of the twentieth century, the third party’s grievances and its evangelical style seemed dated and easy to forget.
Populism’s list of demands, however, did not perish. It lived on and met with success. The direct election of U.S. senators, for example, was secured through the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1913. Railroads were regulated and so was the telephone system. Other monopolies were broken up. Women got the vote. Rich people got the income tax. Beginning in the 1910s, farmers got a whole host of programs designed to protect them from speculators and middlemen and the ups and downs of the market. Putting unemployed people to work on infrastructure eventually became a standard element of economic policy.
In monetary policy, Populism also won in the end. The country finally came off the gold standard in 1933. Ultimately the United States moved to adopt the most radical Populist demand of them all, a managed or “fiat” currency—although we didn’t do it fully until 1971, some eighty years after Populism first came thundering over the prairies.
These items make up “The Populist Contribution,” a phrase that a long-ago historian used to describe this list of belated triumphs.11 For scholars of that generation, Populism was a chapter in the story of democracy’s advance, part of a long-running drama in which the American people faced off against aristocratic financial interests. The movement aimed “to make of America a land of democratic equality and opportunity,” wrote historian Vernon L. Parrington in 1930—“to make government in America serve man rather than property.” Populism showed that egalitarian aspirations lived and were capable of prevailing even in the country’s most corrupt, most plutocratic period.12
The ideology of Populism was not a difficult thing for historians in 1930 to identify. Its signature ideas—equality, hostility to privilege, anti-monopoly—were part of a radical nineteenth-century tradition that could be traced to Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. One reason that historians knew this was because the Populists said so all the time. The Jefferson the Pops admired is easy to pinpoint—it was the Jefferson who declared that banks were “more dangerous than standing armies,” who believed that the natural divide between political factions fell between “aristocrats and democrats,” who once urged a friend not to be intimidated by “the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people.”
Understood in this way, Populism is not only a radical tradition, it is our radical tradition, a homegrown Left that spoke our American vernacular and worshipped at the shrines of Jefferson and Paine rather than Marx. We may have lost sight of the specific demands of the Populists’ Omaha Platform, but the populist instinct stays with us; it is close to who we are as a people. We may gag at political correctness, but populism endures; populism is what ensures that, even though we bridle against the latest crazy radical doings on campus, we also hate snobs and privilege with the core of our collective democratic being.
Over the last century, observers called countless movements and politicians “populist” because they were reminiscent in some way of the original. The People’s Party, however, was one of very few movements to apply that word to itself, to proudly call itself “Populist.” For decades after its brief flowering, it remained virtually the only example of the species, the number one definition of the word in English-language dictionaries.
It is therefore surprising that modern-day thinkers who assail what they call populism only rarely bother to consider the movement that invented the word. Of the contemporary anti-populists I describe in this book, almost every single one is employed by an American news outlet, university, or think tank, and yet they attach the term far more frequently to the deeds of the Le Pen family in France or the rhetoric of South American politicians than to the group that revolutionized U.S. politics in the 1890s. Some of these experts seem unaware that the People’s Party existed.† Others mention it only casually and in passing.‡
Still, in their characterization of populism as a threat to democracy—an “ism” as insidious in its own way as communism used to be—these present-day thinkers are doing far more than calling into question various racist demagogues: they are also attacking the American radical tradition. That is ultimately what’s in the crosshairs when such commentators insist that populism is a “threat to liberal democracy”; when they announce that populism “is almost inherently antidemocratic”; when they declare that “all people of goodwill must come together to defend liberal democracy from the populist threat.”13
These are strong, urgent statements, obviously intended to frighten us away from a particular set of views. Millions of foundation dollars have been invested to put scary pronouncements like these before the public. Media outlets have incorporated them into the thought feeds of the world. They are everywhere now: your daily newspaper, if your town still has one, almost certainly throws the word “populist” at racist demagogues and pro-labor liberals alike.
When we fact-check the claims of this anti-populist onslaught, however, we find that they miss the reality of the original Populist movement as well as the many subsequent expressions of the populist credo. Again and again, upon investigation, the hateful tendencies that we are told make up this frightful worldview are either absent from genuine populism, or are the opposite of what it stood and stands for, or else more accurately describe the people who hated populism and who have opposed it since back in the 1890s.§
I do not point all this out merely as a historical corrective; that is just the starting point. This book has larger ambitions. As we shall see, anti-populism always serves as a tool for justifying unaccountable power. As such, it is a doctrine worth exploring in its own right. But the immediate and urgent task before us is to rescue from the anti-populists the one radical tradition that has a chance of undoing the right-wing turn.
The first item in the bill of charges against populism is that it is nostalgic or backward-looking in a way that is both futile and unhealthy. Among the many public figures who have seconded this familiar accusation is none other than the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who in 2016 criticized unnamed politicians for having “embraced a crude populism that promises a return to a past that is not possible to restore.” What he was taking aim at was obviously Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again,” which implied that the country’s best days lay in the past.14
Obama’s understanding of “populism” as a politics of pointless pining for bygone glories is unremarkable, but a more accurate noun for this sentiment would be “conservatism”—the political philosophy that defends traditional ways. The agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century did no such thing. Populism called for radical reforms that would have put this country on an entirely different trajectory from the finance-capital road we followed.
Indeed, the Populists believed in progress and modernity as emphatically as did any big-city architect or engineer of their day. Their newspapers and magazines loved to publicize scientific advances in farming techniques; one of their favorites was a paper called the Progressive Farmer. For all their gloom about the plutocratic 1890s, the Populists’ rhetoric could be surprisingly optimistic about the potential of ordinary people and the society they thought they were building.15 This did not mean, however, that the Pops simply welcomed whatever happened as an improvement on what had happened the day before. It was not a step forward to pack the nation’s wealth into the bank accounts of a handful of people who contributed nothing; real progress meant economic democracy as well as technological innovation.
Anti-populism is similarly misleading on the crucial matter of international trade. In a 2017 paper about the “populist backlash of the late nineteenth century,” the Hoover Institution historian Niall Ferguson tells us flatly that hostility to free trade has always been one of the signature issues that define populism, because populism, as he puts it, is always a “backlash against globalization.” Lots of other scholars say the same thing: William Galston of the Brookings Institution, for example, tells us that populism has always been “protectionist in the broad sense of the term”; that all forms of populism stand “against foreign goods, foreign immigrants, and foreign ideas.”16
When applied to Gilded Age America, these arguments are almost entirely upside-down. If you look up where the parties stood on the then-important issue of tariffs, you find that the great champions of protectionism were in fact big business and the Republicans. The man responsible for crushing Populism first rose to fame as the author of the “McKinley Tariff,” the very definition of a backlash against free trade. It was William Jennings Bryan’s Democrats who were the true-believing free-traders of the period.¶
It’s also worth remembering that agrarian organizations in America have nearly always supported free trade, for the simple reason that American farmers export huge amounts of food and because many of the things that farmers consume can be purchased more cheaply overseas. And sure enough, among the various manifestos of the Farmers’ Alliance is found the following: “We further demand a removal of the existing heavy tariff tax from the necessities of life, that the poor of our land must have.” Indeed, the Populists were so passionate about encouraging trade that a number of their legislators enlisted in a scheme to build a publicly owned railroad running from the Great Plains to the Texas Gulf Coast, which would theoretically allow farmers to export directly to the world without having to pay the high freight rates imposed by private railways. That’s how actual Populists regarded protectionism—in precisely the opposite way from what modern scholars assure us populism always does.17
Contemporary experts further inform us that populists feel an “instinctual antagonism” to government agencies, particularly of the sort that are insulated from politics.18 While this is certainly true of modern-day conservative Republicans (who despise regulation of business) and of Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom (who fear the unaccountable bureaucracy of the European Union), it is almost precisely the opposite of the viewpoint of American Populists.
In point of fact, the Pops came out of the reform tradition that invented the modern independent regulatory agency,** and historians generally acknowledge that the People’s Party was the first to call for large-scale government intervention in the economy—by which I mean, intervention on behalf of ordinary people, not corporations. Their 1892 Omaha Platform spelled it out clearly: “We believe that the powers of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded . . . as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
The Populists wanted the government to own and operate the nation’s railroads, to manage the currency, to take possession of land owned by speculators, to set up postal savings banks, and a dizzying list of other interventions. The third party’s hopes for government assistance were one of the things that made Populism seem so sick and twisted to men of respectability at the time. “The Populist faith in the ‘Gover’ment’ is supreme,” observed one of the earliest students of the movement, in 1893.
The Government is all-powerful and it ought to be all-willing. When a Populist debtor is approached by a creditor his reply is actually often in these words: “I can’t pay the debt until the Government gives me relief.” This intervention or saving grace of the Government is a personal influence to him, a thing of life. What shall minister to a mind diseased like the Populist’s? Only constitutional remedies.19
Yes, ordinary, working-class people once demanded that government get bigger and take over vast chunks of the economy. That was what American liberalism was all about, once upon a time, and it started with Populism.
Authoritarianism is a grave danger that always attends the rise of populism, modern-day scholars assure us. The menace of “authoritarian populists” is one of the important themes in Yascha Mounk’s book, The People vs. Democracy. Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, meanwhile, argues that populists “weaken” democracies by “undermining the norms that sustain them,” thus raising the specter of authoritarianism. “When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions,” he warns in his best-selling book, How Democracies Die.20
Now, there is no doubt that Donald Trump is a norm-violating, would-be autocrat. And attributing his authoritarianism to his “populism” draws on the long-running scholarly tendency to find that virtually all working-class movements are tyrannies-in-waiting.21
If the original 1890s Populists were authoritarians, however, they were some of history’s most ineffectual tyrants. Discipline was always poor in the People’s Party: the organization could never shake what the historian Charles Postel calls its “nonpartisan and anti-party origins”; it started splitting into factions soon after it got going. The Pops were even lousy at selling out. After endorsing the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896, they were unable to convince the Democrats to reciprocate and accept the Populist choice for the vice presidency.
Then: the Pops and their Sunday-school hero William Jennings Bryan were torn to pieces in one of the most brutal demonstrations of military-style politics ever seen in this country, a coldly efficient electoral massacre organized by William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the tycoon warlord of the Republican Party. The GOP is estimated to have outspent the Democrat/Populist campaign by twenty or thirty to one that year. To this day, by one standard of measurement, the Republican effort of 1896 still holds the record for the most expensive presidential campaign of all time.22 To study that famous contest and announce that the Populists were the authoritarian team in the match would be a pants-on-fire outrage.
In one of the more distorted charges, virtually everyone who writes on the subject nowadays agrees that populism is “anti-pluralist,” by which they mean that it is racist or sexist or discriminatory in some other way. The source of this sin is said to be populism’s love of “the people,” a concept that always supposedly excludes big parts of the population for being inauthentic or ethnically different. Populism’s hatred for “the elite,” meanwhile, is thought to be merely a fig leaf for this ugly intolerance.23
Something like this is true in today’s world: The leader of the Republican Party denounces elitists in what he calls the “global power structure” and also sets nativist hearts a-thumping with his promises of a wall along the Mexican border. And so, liberal intellectuals conclude, the two must be connected. Movements that criticize elites in the name of the people are by definition opposed to the colorful mosaic of complex modern societies; intolerance is encoded in populism’s very DNA.
It’s a funny thing, though: the example of Populism once inspired intellectuals as they went about attacking racism. C. Vann Woodward, the legendary historian of the American South, writes in his memoirs that he was drawn to the subject of Populism as a young man because it “compelled reconsideration” of the racist shibboleths of the South’s Democratic Party elite: “progress, prosperity, peace, consensus, white solidarity, black contentment. . . .” The young Woodward meant to shatter these stupid, stifling complacencies, and when he discovered the South’s Populist past as a graduate student in the 1930s, he thought he had found the weapon with which to do so.24
This is because attacking racist shibboleths was something that certain Populist leaders famously did during the movement’s brief career. The South in the 1890s was filled with poor farmers both white and black, and keeping these two groups at each other’s throats was virtually the entire point of the region’s traditional politics. “A generation of white-solidarity indoctrination,” as Woodward called it in his classic Origins of the New South, ensured poverty for both groups but unchallenged power for the “Bourbon” Democratic elite.
Populism’s strategy for taking on the region’s one-party system, as Woodward described it, was to organize “a political union” between white and “Negro farmers and laborers within the South,” a shocking affront both to racist tradition and to the interests of the local moneyed class.25 The Pops, Woodward continued, “ridiculed the clichés of Reconciliation and White Solidarity.”
The bolder among them challenged the cult of racism with the doctrine of common action among farmers and workers of both races. The very existence of the third party was, of course, a challenge to the one-party system as well as to white solidarity.26
In 1892, the Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia declared in a national magazine that “the People’s Party will settle the race question” by addressing the common economic interests of black and white farmers. Watson then spoke to those farmers directly: “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”27
This is not to say that white southern Populists were racial liberals or that they practiced what they preached; they weren’t and they didn’t. What they did do, however, was defy the Bourbon Democrats of the South, for whom white solidarity and the suppression of African Americans were the monolithic first principles of political consciousness. Populism’s very existence was an attack on these doctrines.
At times, the People’s Party appeared to be making progress toward its stated ideal of class-based political action across the color line. Charles Postel reminds us that the marchers of Coxey’s Army deliberately violated segregated norms and that they were often helped along the road to Washington by black churches. In some southern states, the Pops struck fusion deals with local Republicans, the party to which many blacks were still loyal. By this device, for example, the Pops and the Republicans were able to defeat the Democratic Party of North Carolina and take over the government of that state for several years.28
“Poverty has few distinctions among its victims,” observed Hamlin Garland in an 1897 novel set amidst the rise of Populism. Describing a protest of Kansas farmers, he wrote, “The negro stood close beside his white brother in adversity, and there was a certain relation and resemblance in their stiffened walk, poor clothing, and dumb, imploring, empty hands.” The spectacle, Garland continued, was “something tremendous, something far-reaching. The movement it represented had the majesty, if not the volcanic energy, of the rise of the peasants of the Vendee.”29
The Colored Farmers’ Alliance was the name of the group that organized black farmers alongside the whites-only southern Farmers’ Alliance. Leaders from the Colored Alliance were essential in launching the People’s Party; in some respects they were well ahead of their white brethren in calling for a third party.30 But Black Populism, as it is now called, was ultimately a fruitless effort. Everywhere in the South, the Pops hit the wall of violence and vote fraud that blocked the progress of anyone who challenged white solidarity. When the new party made its debut in southern elections in 1892, black voters were attacked and a number of them were murdered, a direct reflection, according to a recent study of Black Populism, of “the political threat posed to the Democratic Party by the coalition of black and independent white voters.” Violence of this kind continued here and there across the South until Populism was completely vanquished.31
Nor was the commitment to equality professed by many white Populists truly sincere. Some of them turned out to be just as committed to white supremacy as were the Southern Democrats they meant to defy. Many others thought racism and segregation were grounded in science.32 And later on, once Populism had begun to weaken, the same Tom Watson who wrote such admirable words in 1892 reemerged as one of the nation’s most notorious racists, producing (according to the historian Woodward) a stream of “tirades against his onetime allies of the Negro race that were matchless in their malevolence.”33
The point here is not some precise accounting of the Populists’ record on race—summary: they meant well but didn’t deliver. The critical thing to understand, for present purposes, is that the Populists were not the great villains of the era’s racist system. That dishonor went to the movement’s archenemies in the southern Democratic Party, leaders who were absolutely clear about their commitment to white supremacy.34
The modern-day association of populism with “anti-pluralism” misses the historical target in several other crucial ways. For example, the Pops were the only party of their time to feature women in positions of leadership. In Kansas, the movement was singularly identified with the outrageous adventures of one Mary Elizabeth Lease, a dynamic orator who traveled around the state in 1890, damning Republican politicians and (according to legend) advising her audiences to “raise less corn and more hell.” A quieter, more executive role was played in that same state by the journalist Annie L. Diggs, whom a Kansas City newspaper once called the “unqualified dictator of the Kansas Populists . . . the first woman boss in American politics.”35 Again, not all Populists supported women’s suffrage, but enough of them did to secure women the right to vote in several of the western states where the party was strong.
On the question of immigration, which was just as controversial then as it is today, the People’s Party was of two minds. Its 1892 Omaha Platform—like the platforms of the two major parties—opposed “pauper” immigration on the grounds that it “crowds out our wage-earners.” The man the party chose as its presidential candidate, however, was a forthright supporter of open immigration, demanding in stormy Populist style:
Are we still an asylum for the oppressed of all nations, or are we about to become a policeman for the monarchs and despots of the old world—a despicable, international slave-catcher, under a world-wide fugitive slave law—engaged in the business of arresting and returning to their cruel task-masters the poor slaves who are fleeing hither to become citizens and to escape from hopeless conditions?36
Toward immigrants themselves the People’s Party was remarkably open. A granular investigation of the attitudes of Kansas Populists toward immigrants found precisely the opposite of what present-day theorists insist is always the case with populism. Kansas in the 1890s was a state filled with just-arrived people, and the Populists competed vigorously for their votes; Populist officeholders, meanwhile, came from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and so on.37
As it happens, there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic hate group at work in the 1890s. But it wasn’t called Populism. It was the American Protective Association (APA), and the political organization through which it preferred to do its work was that norm-defending organization known as the Republican Party. Here is how the Populists of Kansas regarded the APA, as laid down in a resolution adopted (“nearly unanimously,” according to the historian who discovered it) at the party’s state convention in 1894:
Resolved, That the People’s party, as its name implies, is the party of the people, and hence the enemy of oppression and tyranny in every form, and we do most emphatically condemn such conduct as un-Christian, un-American, and as totally opposed to the spirit of the Constitution of our country and we pledge our best efforts to defeat such organizations and to protect as far as we are able every individual of every nationality, religious creed and political belief in his sacred right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.38
This is curious, is it not? So many denunciations of populism for its “anti-pluralism,” and yet here are the Populists themselves loudly attacking intolerance and anti-pluralism.
What makes populism truly dangerous, our modern-day anti-populist experts concur, is that it refuses to acknowledge the hierarchy of meritocratic achievement. In its deep regard for the wisdom of the common person, it rejects more qualified leaders . . . which is to say, it rejects them, the expert class.
The election of Trump, with its implicit rebuff of the Ivy League approach of the Obama years, inflated this particular fear into a kind of national nightmare. A man of remarkable ignorance about our system of government had been placed in charge of that system. A cartoon in the New Yorker captured the absurdity with a scene of airline passengers in a populist mutiny of their own: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us,” bellows one of them. “Who thinks I should fly the plane?”
“If the elites go down, we’re all in trouble,” warned a 2017 headline in the Boston Globe. David Brooks informed readers of the New York Times that “populism” is the word we use to describe the hatred of “excellence” by the mediocre. Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, announced in Foreign Affairs that “America lost faith in expertise” due to a psychological syndrome in which stupid people are unaware of their own limitations while fine, scholarly people are peer-reviewed and know how to avoid confirmation bias. For good measure, he equated populism with “the celebration of ignorance.”39
Understanding recent history as a showdown between peer-reviewed expertise and mass ignorance is at the core of the anti-populist tradition. “Voters are very ignorant, and always have been,” write the political scientists Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes in a 2017 paper, “More Professionalism, Less Populism.” Therefore, the two argue, the populist goal of increasing public participation is inherently wrongheaded; experts are the ones we should be empowering. “Like it or not,” the two experts write, “most of what government does simply must be decided by specialists and professionals.” Quoting one of their professional peers, they conclude that we must have a “new professional class to set the agenda.”40
This is the recurring nightmare we will encounter throughout this book: the horror of populist anti-intellectualism. In its hyper-democratic folly, experts agree, populism believes that one person’s ideas are just as good as another’s, and hence it refuses to recognize learning or accomplishment. As a British politician put it just before the Brexit vote: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
Populism is the mob running wild in the streets of Washington, bellowing for beer and cheap gasoline. Meritocracy, meanwhile, is populism’s diametric opposite: the mind that must rule the corpulent political body of America. Meritocracy is rule by well-graduated people who have dutifully climbed every ladder, rung every bell, and been rewarded for their excellence with their present high stations. Yes, meritocracy is an elitist system. But the only alternative to it is to place the fragile bureaucracy of, say, the State Department in the hands of a blundering dunce who can’t find Pakistan on a map.
This harkens back to one of the essential philosophical problems of democracy: that the people will always be too ignorant to rule themselves. It’s a question that vexed Jefferson and Madison, and now it vexes us, under the name of populism.
But does this archetypal dilemma really describe the Populist ideal? Was 1890s Populism a “celebration of ignorance” or a species of human stupidity?
No. The real problem with Populism—with all genuine populisms over the years—was the opposite: that ordinary people had come to understand their interests all too well and were now acting upon that knowledge.
Populism was a movement of books and newspapers, of reformers who believed in what the historian Postel calls “progress through education” with the earnest faith of the nineteenth-century uplifter. Think of the vast encampments of rural families listening to lecturers from the Farmers’ Alliance, or of the lending libraries the Alliance set up all over the place, or of the universities that leading Populists helped to establish.41 There were Populist newspapers, hundreds of them, started in order to contest the mainstream media of the day and to spread the gospel of reform. In their pages the reader would find cheap left-wing books for sale; the editor of the famous Appeal to Reason newspaper, for example, dispensed political tracts under the headline, “Books Laboring People Should Read: To Remain Ignorant Is to Remain a Slave.”42
But neither did Populism call for rule by experts. Populism was about mass enlightenment, not the empowerment of a clique of foundation favorites or Ivy League grads. On the money question, Charles Postel tells us, the Pops thought it “could and must be understood by the people whose business interests and livelihoods were affected by it.” Experts were regarded as helpful guides to the issue. But the Populists also understood that, in a democracy, ordinary working-class people were the ones who had to make the decisions, and so they educated themselves and prepared to “wrest the levers of monetary power from the corporate elite.”43
In short, Populists both loved knowledge and rejected professional elites. The reason was because the economic establishment of that age of crisis was overwhelmingly concerned with serving business, not the people. The Populists mistrusted professional elites, in other words, because from their perspective those elites had failed.
A good illustration of what I am describing can be found in the 1895 pamphlet What Is Populism?, in which the author recounts all the different measures urged by “the financial doctors” upon “the plain people” as cures for their distress. Farmers and the government, we are told, followed the advice of these physicians, and “our illness continued and our suffering increased.” In response, professional economists prescribed different, even sharper rounds of austerity, and still the economic disaster of the 1890s mounted.
“Let me tell you a secret,” the Populist author confides. “The people have lost confidence in the professional skill of these physicians; they are reading up their own case; they reason that . . . a wrong financial policy must be the cause of financial distress; that a reversal of that wrong financial policy is the only rational and certain remedy.”44
Does losing faith in professional economics mean that “the people” rejected learning across the board? Does it mean they celebrated ignorance? No: the author of What Is Populism? was in fact a professor of mathematics at Willamette University in Oregon. What he was criticizing was what we might call expert failure. The problem was not knowledge, it was orthodoxy: “financial doctors” who trusted blindly in the gold standard and in one another.
Proving that the experts had failed was a favorite set piece among reformers of the period. They loved to imagine leading financiers and academics—the stuffed-shirt, consensus crowd of their day—laid low by the steel-trap reasoning of some ordinary person. The outstanding example of this device is Coin’s Financial School, William Harvey’s best seller of 1894, in which bankers, economists, and newspapermen are humiliated by the overwhelming logic of a small boy who somehow happens to be an expert on free silver.
In the course of his story, Harvey mocks the mental processes of his exalted antagonists, depicting the minds of businessmen as tools of leading financiers. “On all such questions as a National finance policy their ‘thinkers’ run automatically,” repeating whatever they have heard some banker say. And yet, as with other favorite Populist documents, Coin’s Financial School was packed with tables and numbers: its point was not to discredit learning but to challenge conventional wisdom—to encourage people to figure out their predicament for themselves.
Mass enlightenment largely disappeared from the reform tradition in the decades after Populism was defeated. Instead of “self-education and self-mobilization,” Postel reminds us, “the initiative passed to expert women and men, with professional training and administrative posts.”45
And so it is today. Liberalism as we know it now is a movement led by prosperous, highly educated professionals who see government by prosperous, highly educated professionals as the highest goal of protest and political action. Where once it was democratic, liberalism is today a politics of an elite.
What makes this particularly poignant is that we are living through a period of elite failure every bit as spectacular as that of the 1890s. I refer not merely to the opioid crisis, the bank bailouts, and the failure to prosecute any bankers after their last fraud-frenzy; but also to disastrous trade agreements, stupid wars, and deindustrialization . . . basically, to the whole grand policy vision of the last few decades, as it has been imagined by a tiny clique of norm-worshipping D.C. professionals and think-tankers.
In this moment of maximum populist possibility, our commentariat proceeds as though the true populist alternative is simply invisible or impossible. You can either have meritocracy or you can have Trumpism. Those are the choices, the punditburo proclaims: You must either be ruled by gracious, enlightened experts or by racist, authoritarian dunces. Between them there is no middle ground and no possible alternative.
Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Frank
* Before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution (1913), senators were chosen by state legislatures.
† Yascha Mounk, in The People vs. Democracy, suggests that “one of the earliest populists to rise to prominence” was Jörg Haider, an Austrian rightist whose heyday was in the 1980s and ’90s (p. 114). Similarly, the home page of the Stanford Global Populisms Project tells us that populism was “initially associated with Latin America in the 1990s” before migrating to the United States and giving us President Donald Trump. This seems like the place to mention that the founder of Stanford University, California senator Leland Stanford, was briefly considered as a Populist presidential candidate in 1892 (Hicks, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmer’s Alliance and the People’s Party [University of Nebraska Press, 1959 (1931)], p. 234).
‡ The saga of the People’s Party is related briefly in Populism: A Very Short Introduction by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser (Oxford University Press, 2017), but the details of the movement are weirdly garbled. For example, the authors explain the rise of Populism by pointing out that “economic changes, such as the coining of silver, affected the rural areas particularly hard.” As we have seen, Populists actually supported the coining of silver as a way of relieving rural hardship.
§ Only one of the present-day populism experts openly acknowledges that the 1890s Populists do not fit the current, voguish definition. This is Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University, who writes that “the one party in US history that explicitly called itself ‘populist’ was in fact not populist,” by which he means, the people who invented the word were not the racist, authoritarian demagogues Müller wishes to associate with the word (What Is Populism? [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016], p. 85). This is admirably forthright of Müller, to be sure, but it somehow doesn’t lead him to do the obvious thing—stop using the word “populist” to describe racist, authoritarian demagogues. Instead he gives us an entire book doing exactly that and then exempts the 1890s Pops from his critique. If historical reality conflicts with fashionable political theory, I guess, it is reality that must give way.
¶ For the record, here is the statement on trade from the Democratic Platform of 1896, on which Bryan ran for the presidency: “We denounce as disturbing to business the Republican threat to restore the McKinley law, which has twice been condemned by the people in National elections and which, enacted under the false plea of protection to home industry, proved a prolific breeder of trusts and monopolies, enriched the few at the expense of the many, restricted trade and deprived the producers of the great American staples of access to their natural markets.” See more at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/1896-democratic-party-platform.
** The world’s first modern independent regulatory agencies were midwestern state railroad commissions, set up at the behest of the Granger movement in the 1870s. The Grangers were the direct ancestors of the Farmers’ Alliance, which became the People’s Party. See Chester McArthur Destler, American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (Quadrangle, 1966 ), p. 10.
1. John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party (University of Nebraska Press, 1959 ), pp. 56–57. On the price of corn in 1890 see The Annals of Kansas: 1886–1925, vol. 1, ed. Daniel W. Wilder (Kansas State Historical Society, 1954–56), p. 92.
2. Hicks, The Populist Revolt, p. 130; Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (Oxford University Press, 2007), chapter 2.
3. The quotation is from Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West (Harper & Brothers, 1902), pp. 133, 136. As quoted in Hicks, The Populist Revolt, p. 132.
4. This is a quotation from the Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, approved July 4, 1892, as reprinted in Hicks, p. 440.
5. Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 33.
6. Roscoe C. Martin, The People’s Party in Texas: A Study in Third Party Politics (University of Texas, 1933), quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Louisiana State University Press, 1951), p. 274.
7. British Labour Party: According to the historian Chester McArthur Destler, the remarkable effort to bring the squabbling labor unions of Illinois together under the Populist banner in 1894 involved writing a state platform that imitated the “political program of British labor.” Chester McArthur Destler, American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (Quadrangle, 1966 ), p. 176. Australian Labor Party: David McKnight, Populism Now!: The Case for Progressive Populism (Newsouth, 2018), p. 15.
8. 1891: From a statement issued by the Kansas People’s Party in 1891 and quoted in Hicks, p. 221. T. C. Jory, What Is Populism? (Ross E. Moores & Co., 1895).
9. The Populists made a bid for the votes of urban, industrial America that year, bringing together Chicago’s squabbling labor unions under the People’s Party banner for a local electoral campaign. But the strategy didn’t work. Despite impressive public displays of solidarity, including a rally featuring Debs, his lawyer Clarence Darrow, and the old-time abolitionist Lyman Trumbull, the Populist-Labor coalition fizzled at the polls. See Destler, American Radicalism, chapters 8 and 9.
10. Postel, The Populist Vision, pp. 271–75.
11. “The Populist Contribution” is the final chapter of John D. Hicks’s 1931 book, The Populist Revolt.
12. Parrington, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, vol. 3 of Main Currents in American Thought (Harcourt Brace, 1930), p. xxiv.
13. “Threat to liberal”: This is, again, a quotation from the “About” page of the Stanford Global Populisms Project. “Almost inherently antidemocratic”: Anna Grzymala-Busse, director of the Global Populisms Project, on a Stanford radio program on June 30, 2018, available at https://soundcloud.com/user-458541487/the-future-of-populism-political-movements-w-guest-anna-grzymala-busse. “All people of goodwill”: Max Boot, a columnist for the Washington Post, in his 2018 book, The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (Liveright, 2018), p. 212.
14. Obama, “The Way Ahead,” The Economist, October 8, 2016.
15. The Populists’ attitude toward progress is the subject of Charles Postel’s important 2008 study of Populism, The Populist Vision. For an example of Populist optimism, see the 1893 inaugural address of Kansas governor Lorenzo Lewelling, in which he hails “the dawn of a new era in which the people shall reign.” The speech is reprinted in Norman Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), pp. 51–54.
16. Niall Ferguson, “Populism: Content and Form,” a paper dated October 31, 2017, and presented at the Stanford “Global Populisms” conference (quoted with permission). Ferguson explicitly states that he is describing populism of the “late nineteenth century.” Ferguson has made the same argument in other venues, such as a 2016 issue of Horizons, a magazine published by the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development. William Galston, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (Yale University Press, 2018), p. 126.
17. The remarks about the “existing heavy tariff tax” appeared in the Ocala Demands, approved by the Farmers’ Alliance in December 1890 and reprinted in Hicks, The Populist Revolt, appendix B. The railroad to the Texas coast is described in R. Alton Lee, “The Populist Dream of a ‘Wrong Way’ Transcontinental,” Kansas History, Summer 2012. Here is how the historian C. Vann Woodward describes the southern farmer’s attitude toward the protective tariff on page 186 of Origins of the New South:
“Everywhere it was the pattern for poverty. As a producer and seller the farmer was subject to all the penalties of free trade, while as a consumer he was deprived of virtually all its benefits. It did not soften his resentment to reflect that out of his meager returns was extracted the tribute that built up the monopolies he hated.”
18. The quotation is from Eichengreen, The Populist Temptation, p. 2. See also Mounk, pp. 63–66.
19. Frank Basil Tracy, “Rise and Doom of the Populist Party,” The Forum 16, no. 2 (1893), p. 246.
20. Populists “weaken” democracies: See Levitsky’s paper “Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism,” which he presented at the Stanford “Global Populisms” conference (quoted with permission). “When populists win”: This is from Levitsky’s best-selling 2018 book, How Democracies Die, which he co-authored with Daniel Ziblatt, p. 22. In the latter we read: “What kind of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders do. . . . Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to ‘the people’ ” (p. 22). See also Levitsky and James Loxton, “Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes,” Democratization, 20:1 (2013).
21. Cf. Seymour M. Lipset’s famous 1959 paper, “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism,” which was included in his book Political Man and which I discuss further in chapter 5.
22. “Brutal demonstrations of machine politics”: I am following the vivid description of Matthew Josephson, The Politicos: 1865–1896 (Harcourt, Brace, 1938), chapter 19. Josephson estimates twenty or thirty to one on page 706. When we compare electoral price tags as a percentage of gross domestic product rather than in dollar amounts (even adjusted for inflation), it becomes apparent that the 1896 campaign absorbed a greater share of the country’s net worth than any other, before or since. See Matthew O’Brien, “The Most Expensive Election Ever . . . 1896?,” Atlantic, November 6, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/the-most-expensive-election-ever-1896/264649/.
23. Niall Ferguson tells us that “populism is a backlash against multiculturalism.” “When populists invoke the people,” writes Yascha Mounk, “they are positing an in-group—united around a shared ethnicity, religion, social class, or political conviction—against an out-group whose interests can rightfully be disregarded.” The economist Eichengreen insists that “the hostility of populist politicians to not just concentrated economic power but also immigrants and racial and religious minorities is intrinsic to the movement.” For a comprehensive summary of this viewpoint, see Uri Friedman, “What Is a Populist?,” Atlantic, February 27, 2017.
24. C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Louisiana State University Press, 1986), p. 31.
25. Woodward, Origins of the New South, pp. 244, 252. This narrative was to become one of the themes of Woodward’s career as a historian.
26. Ibid., p. 249.
27. Tom Watson, “The Negro Question in the South,” in Norman Pollack, ed., The Populist Mind (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), pp. 370, 371–72.
28. Coxey’s Army: See Postel, The Populist Vision, p. 258.
29. Hamlin Garland, A Spoil of Office (D. Appleton and Company, 1897), p. 358.
30. See Omar H. Ali, In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886–1900 (University Press of Mississippi, 2010), p. 76.
31. The quotation is from Ali, In the Lion’s Mouth, p. 80.
32. The two extremes are captured by Walter Nugent in The Tolerant Populists: Kansas, Populism and Nativism (University of Chicago Press, 1963) and Charles Postel in chapter 6 of The Populist Vision.
33. Woodward, Origins of the New South, p. 393.
34. Especially disturbing is the story of the white supremacy campaign in North Carolina in 1898, which not only destroyed Populism in that state but led to the armed overthrow of the municipal government of Wilmington. See Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), chapter 8; Woodward, Origins of the New South, pp. 277, 348, 372, etc.
35. “Or should we say bossess, bosserina, or bossy?” The Kansas City Journal, quoted in Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Summary of the Press Throughout the World, August 9, 1900, p. 166.
36. On the Populists’ inclusion of the “pauper immigration” plank, see John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (Atheneum, 1978), p. 346, note 13. The Populists’ candidate in 1892 was James B. Weaver; the quote is drawn from his campaign memoir, A Call to Action: An Interpretation of the Great Uprising, Its Source and Causes (Iowa Printing Company, 1892), p. 281. From the Democratic Platform of 1892: “We heartily approve all legitimate efforts to prevent the United States from being used as the dumping ground for the known criminals and professional paupers of Europe; and we demand the rigid enforcement of the laws against Chinese immigration and the importation of foreign workmen under contract,” etc. From the Republican Platform of 1892: “We favor the enactment of more stringent laws and regulations for the restriction of criminal, pauper and contract immigration.” The parties’ platforms can be found at the website of the American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu.
37. Walter Nugent, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism (University of Chicago Press, 1963).
38. The anti-APA resolution is quoted on page 163 of Walter Nugent, The Tolerant Populists.
39. Neil Swidey, “If the Elites Go Down, We’re All in Trouble,” Boston Globe Magazine, October 5, 2017. David Brooks, “The Rise of the Resentniks and the Populist War on Excellence,” New York Times, November 15, 2018. Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise,” Foreign Affairs, February 13, 2017. To his credit, Nichols acknowledges in this essay that experts often make mistakes. To his discredit, he quotes Richard Hofstadter as an expert on populism without acknowledging the overthrow of Hofstadter’s views on that subject.
40. Rauch and Wittes, “More Professionalism, Less Populism,” Brookings, May 2017. The final quote is from political scientist Bruce Cain.
41. See Postel, The Populist Vision, chapter 2; “progress through education” occurs on page 48. Lawrence Goodwyn estimates the number of Alliance lecturers at forty thousand in The Populist Moment, p. xxi. The university founded by a Populist leader was North Carolina State; the Populist in question was Leonidas L. Polk.
42. The Appeal’s list of books, in their issue for December 14, 1895, included titles by Karl Marx, Henry George, William Morris, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and the economist Richard T. Ely, in addition to the usual Populist favorites.
43. Postel, The Populist Vision, p. 281.
44. T. C. Jory, What Is Populism?, p. 4.
45. Postel, The Populist Vision, p. 286.