Where are the Populists?

Michael Collins

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”  William Jennings Bryan, 1896

Populism is broadly defined as “political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes.” The majority are  deliberately held down by the financial elite.  Removal of the financial elite is the vehicle to realize the “people’s needs and wishes.” (Graph)

The statement from William Jennings Bryan is pure populism. It becomes less pure as he proceeded with his speech. He used a metaphor of burning down the nation’s big cities since they were, he claimed, the stronghold of the financial elite and support for the gold standard for currency.

In practice, populism almost always entails anger and resentment.

A combination of factors has the United States ripe for populist sentiments. The financial collapse which surfaced fully at the end of the Bush administration resulted in help to both the major financial firms and the people. The financial firms got $14  trillion dollars worth of bailouts. The people got $1.8 trillion in President Obama’s stimulus package, much of which consisted of tax cuts for political favorites.

On a more basic level, the disparity in wealth shows that the top just 5% of the population controls 59% of the nations wealth. Include the next 5% and you find that 10% of the population controls 71% of the wealth. The parties and the media can trot out all the diversions they want, people know this and they’re increasingly upset as the recession/depression bears down on the vast majority of citizens.

Major Populist Efforts in the Past

Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech of 1896 expressed agrarian populism at a time when large portion of the people lived and worked  in rural areas. It was at the expense of working class people in cities, thus denying a unified movement of those at the bottom of the financial ladder.

Bryan is a good model of how populist politicians operate. They divide the the working class and poor by race or locality  and then enunciate the message of class exploitation tailored to the target subgroup, in this case rural citizens.

Georgia’s populist governor, Thomas E. Watson, a contemporary of Bryan, went so far as to establish the Populist Party (People’s Party).   This met with some success but, like Bryan, Watson retreated to race baiting since his cause was ultimately his own political aggrandizement.

One of the few populists who might have been competitive in a national campaign was Huey Long, the Governor then Senator from Depression era Louisiana. His populist message was clear and he spoke to all citizens without geographic or racial division:

According to the tables which we have assembled, it is our estimate that four percent of the American people own eighty five percent of the wealth of America, and that over 70 percent of the people of America don’t own enough to pay for the debts that they owe.

How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what’s intended for 9/10th of the people to eat? The only way to be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub that he ain’t got no business with! Huey P. Long, Dec. 11, 1934

Long established Share Our Wealth clubs all over the country and was to the left of the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Due to the clarity of his message, Long was a far greater threat to the powerful than Roosevelt. He had a record of using public works and education to help the poor and working classes and he advanced universal beliefs of economic rights without the racism almost always associated with Southern populism. He was compromised by charges of corruption and his national effort, tied to his persona, collapsed after he was murdered in 1935.

There are other examples of politicians who pushed populist themes. The late George Wallace’s campaign for president contained populist elements. But like Bryan, this was tied to an overarching theme of racism. Arguably, Wallace’s rhetoric was incorporated into Nixon’s Southern strategy but with the presence of corporate insiders at the top of the ticket.

Where is Today’s Populist Movement?

It’s not likely that there will be one, although politicians and parties will take advantage of the suffering of citizens by co-opting the populist message without offering a real program. It is nearly impossible to have a sustained political movement without a a strong  ideological foundation.

On a national scale, true populists don’t exist. The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley was attributed to Brown’s self portrayal as a “regular guy.” Hotline commented, “he’s nailed the populist-style retail politicking.”

That’s fine for election time but Brown is already on record for supporting big banks maintaining tax cuts for the very rich, and minimal interventions for the majority of citizens to deal with the economic crisis.  Ironically, there is  a strong case that Brown’s election was due to a populist-like protest against the bailouts the Democrats have bestowed on big banks.

The Democrats have had brief  moments of populist expression. When his bill to help with soaring foreclosure rates failed, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) exclaimed, the banks, “frankly, … they own this place.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said recently,  “The truth is — let me break the bad news to the American people — big money interests control the United States Congress.”

Each Senator returned to the fold after their statements. Durbin continued as Senate Whip, gathering votes for a middle of the road corporatist agenda. After he criticized of big money interests, Sanders supported the big-money-friendly Senate health reform bill.   No Senator and few members of Congress have adopted redistribution of wealth the centerpiece of their agenda.

A sustained populist movement requires a central statement on the current distribution and future redistribution of wealth.  Adopting that position is a deal killer when it comes to campaign fund raising, the ticket into modern electoral politics.

One consistent national voice for universal social justice, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, (D-OH), has been consistently maligned and marginalized with the result that his message is buried.

There have been political movements based on social justice, a reasonable distribution of wealth, services, and opportunities.  The  Socialist Party of America  presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs’, stated a strong case for the wisdom of the people and the need to end politics as usual:

In the Republican and Democratic parties you of the common herd are not expected to think. That is not only unnecessary but might lead you astray. That is what the “intellectual” leaders are for. They do the thinking and you do the voting. They ride in carriages at the front where the band plays and you tramp in the mud, bringing up the rear with great enthusiasm.  E.V. Debs, June 16, 1918

The Debs campaign ended shortly after this speech when the administration of President Woodrow Wilson charged and convicted Debs under the Espionage Act based on his opposition to the World War I draft in the same speech.  He was jailed and his public career was finished.

That lesson may have inspired the current politics of don’t ask, don’t tell.   Don’t ask too often about the distorted national priorities and don’t tell the people what they already know; that the distribution of wealth has captured the vast majority in a never ending game of catch up that cannot be won under the current political and economic system.


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Eugene V. Debs, The Canton Ohio Speech, June 16, 1918

Kucinich Electrifies Convention Arena, August 26, 2008