Episode 94: Populism

Host: Henry Weincek, Institute for Historical Studies
Guest: Steven Hahn, New York University

1892populistposterPopulism seems to describe everything in America these days, from politics to styles of communication. Some might say that it’s used so often, and in so many context, that it’s lost most of its meaning. But populism, or the movement from which it gets its name, arose in a specific context in American history at the end of the 19th century, and revisiting the history of this specific movement can help us understand how and why the term is used the way it is in present day politics.

Our guest for this episode, Dr. Steven Hahn of New York University, literally wrote the book on populism and helps us turn this political buzzword into a historical phenomenon from a time period in American history that has a number of parallels with our own.

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Populism emerged, you argue, in the rural American South in the 1880s. What was going on in that particular time and place?

Well, you know, the South underwent a number of really significant transitions in the mid to late 19th century. One was that slavery was abolished, and the south as well as the rest of the country made a transition from being organized around slave labor to being organized around new forms of free labor. The other major transition that took place is that lots of small farmers, people who had been non slaveholders or small slaveholders before the Civil War, and who were on the edges of the market economy, grew mostly subsistence crops and were drawn in to the cotton economy. And they began growing more cotton. And in and of itself, it would not necessarily have been a big problem. But by the 1880s, the cotton market had begun to deteriorate. And so by that point, small landowners, were under enormous amount of financial stress, because the prices that they got for the cotton were having a difficult time matching the cost of production. So they were losing money. Some of them started to lose their land and fall into the ranks of tenants, and sharecroppers, and there was a great deal of distress in the agricultural economy generally, but especially among people who had not really been deeply involved in market agriculture before the Civil War. So for them, it was a pretty traumatic transformation.

And so how did that economic anxiety move into government? How did those the social economic anxieties become political?

Well, as is often the case, when people go through fairly stressful, and at some points, traumatic change, they try to figure out what’s going on around them, and who’s to blame for circumstances that they find themselves in. Now, the country as a whole was really in the transition toward an industrial capitalist economy. That meant a numbers of things: that wealth and power were being concentrated into fewer hands; that control over important resources was sort of left in private rather than under public control; and that usually when societies industrialize the countryside pays the price. I mean, that was one of the things that happened as a result of the Civil War, the major agricultural sector of the country that had political power was the South and most of the southern states succeeded to join the Confederacy.

The new political economy that was organized in the United States after the Civil War, clearly benefited people who lived in cities, people who were in manufacturing: protective tariffs, things of that sort, a national banking system, that favored urban rather than rural places. And so the costs of doing agricultural production were growing. Not only were prices going down, but credit was becoming more expensive to get. And people who are in rural areas know that there are times of the year when they don’t have cash on hand, they’re gonna have to borrow. So all of these things sort of flowed together. And for many people who were sort of experiencing this, they wondered about the role that certain groups in American society were playing. Their most direct contact were with people who were merchants, who were selling them goods and also selling them their cotton. But they also recognized that the balances of political power in the United States were shifting at the same time in the south and other parts of the country.

There were independent political movements like the Greenback movement, which was very important in the 1870s and 1880s in the south and elsewhere, cities as well as rural areas. And the Greenback was raising questions about who controlled the money supply. Money is the great enduring question in the 19th century: what is money and who controls it? And the greenbackers were calling for an inflationary currency – they wanted more money in circulation, but they were also suspicious about private banking and so that they wanted the supply of money in public hands. I mean, that was sort of the essence of greenbackism. So, in that context, people in the south who were also undergoing these changes were influenced because Greenback are starting to organize and various parts of South–including Texas where they had a pretty substantial base in the 1870s and into the early 1880s– and began promulgating a view of the relationship between individual producers, other people who were called non producers and the organization of the government which they felt favored non producers at their expense. So I think it’s sort of set up an environment where their distress could be turned into a critique of the economic relationships that were coming into being.

When we hear populism now, I think we more associate it with kind of a manner of speaking and a style. But it seems that what you’re suggesting is that it was a very specific set of principles and political objectives.

Well, what became populism and the Populist Party emerged in the 1890s, but it built off movements that were coming before, both in terms of its program, and in terms of its forms of political organization. Nonetheless, it had a clear platform, and had to do with expanding the money supply and therefore favoring debtors at the expense of creditors, meaning agricultural, and even urban producers, at the expense of merchants and other financial interests. It had to do with the abolition of national banks, which were in private hands, and the federal government taking over the functions of printing money and controlling the money supply. It talked about nationalizing the means of transportation and communication.

So, the idea was that important resources and infrastructures that were central to the way in which the economy was organized, should not be in private hands, they talked about the end of what they called alien land ownership, which meant that foreign syndicates who would buy up land and basically make it more difficult–raise the price of land and make it more difficult for small producers to have farms of their own–should be abolished. They talked about the free and unlimited coinage of silver at a certain ratio, because there had been major silver strikes out in the Rocky Mountains. And they saw this as a way of inflating the money supply and making money more available and reducing the rates of interest. They talked about the direct election of United States senators, because at that point, senators were elected by state legislators. So, there was a whole program that they saw as a way of readjusting, at the very least, the balances of power in the United States and shifting them back away from the major manufacturing and financial interests, who they believed were using their control over wealth to corrupt the political system.

I mean, that was a language that you will always hear in terms of critique of wealth and power, which is about corruption. Using money to further advantage themselves, so that they enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people. That’s why they use the language of aristocracy. They talked about the robber barons, and the money kings. The idea that there were these throwbacks, aristocrats–something that had been apparently defeated at the time of the American Revolution had kind of reasserted themselves. So I think one of the things that certainly differentiates that particular moment from one we’re in now, where populism has become a broad label to characterize all sorts of political activity mostly organized around anger toward established interests, whoever they are, or established interest and their apparent clients. People who don’t call themselves populists, who don’t belong to any populist party, as opposed to the end of the 19th century, where there really was a party–it was called the People’s Party, but also called the Populist Party, and people who supported it called themselves Populists.

And this is at the same moment, there’s a lot of labor agitation going on in factory towns and cities, the Knights of Labor and similar types of organizations. Can you compare that perhaps more urban movement with the more rural agrarian movement that you’re talking about?

Yes, that’s a very good question. First of all, I think they’re interesting political and ideological bridges between the two because greenbackism is a phenomenon that has a very strong base in industrializing cities as well as in the stressed countryside of market and export agriculture. Again, ideas that wealth and power have been concentrated into too few hands–something we hear about all the time these days, in which wealth and power has corrupted the political system, in which private banks should be abolished, in which greenbacks said the money supply should be expanded or contracted in the interest of producers, in which producers themselves-small scale operators-should have more power and should get more benefits from public policy. So that was the bridge, the problems were there too.

First of all, if you looked at industrializing cities, the working class was mostly foreign born or first generation immigrants. Many of them were from Europe, increasingly, from Southern and Eastern Europe, they were Catholics, they were Jews, they spoke different languages, they had their own communities. And what’s more, they were dependent on buying cheap goods from the rural areas, right, to feed them selves in the countryside. You’re looking at White, native born Protestant people who are looking to raise prices of the crops that they grow. So there’s economic tensions between them. And then as constituencies they’re very different culturally.

So the Knights of Labor–it’s good that you mentioned that because, you know, we think about the Knights of Labor, mostly in its industrial settings. But the Knights of Labor was organized in many, many different areas of the country, including in the south, they organized rural workers, especially black workers in the south. But not only them, they organized people who were in small scale rural industries. This is true in the south. It was true in the West, but I think it was very difficult to maintain. And as a movement ongoing–so, the Populists in the 1890s, for example, didn’t do well in industrial cities east of the Mississippi River, but they did well among workers in the Rocky Mountain states. They did well among some workers in the far west, and in places like Idaho, where there was a tradition of radicalism among miners, among timber workers, among people who lived in these small, smaller Western towns. So that’s where the bridge worked out much better politically, but the Populists did best in rural areas of the plains of the south and of the Rocky Mountain West. East of the Mississippi River, the Populists never really did very well. Although the Democratic Party which had a complicated relationship with the Populists did better.

You alluded to race in your last answer. How did race figure into the Populists’ coalition? Did it drive a wedge within what was ultimately an economic alliance?

Well, you know, in some ways, the social base of the Populist Party would have been the least likely people you would imagine to engage in some kind of biracial political coalition. Most of them had been non-slaveholders before the Civil War, they were small agricultural property owners, they might have been tenant farmers as well. They have a sort of history of racist ideas and hostility to African Americans who were enslaved. Part of it was they kind of saw slaves and big landowners as joined at the hip. And therefore they were angry at both of them for being you know, sort of part of the elite. But nonetheless in the south of the post Civil War period, those who wanted to chart an independent political course wanted to break away from the predominant Democratic Party–at least for white people–recognized very early, that it was going to be very difficult for them to win unless they were able to attract as many votes as possible. And so some of the more enlightened among them recognized that they needed to try to forge some kind of alliance with African Americans who had gotten the franchise after the Civil War had exercised it very, very determinedly and diligently and, even after the end of reconstruction, continued to vote, continued to elect people to office wherever they could.

In those areas where African Americans were still mobilized politically they were an important force in local and state politics, so white insurgence had to pay attention to them. In some places, they were able to forge an alliance over time. Texas is one of the places in which this happened, because there’s a deeper tradition of white support for the Republican Party, for the Greenback Party, for independent parties, that some of the stresses of the post Civil War period were particularly acute, especially in East Central Texas. And in some places that alliance not only took shape in the late 1870s, but it endures through the 1890s and required violence on the part of conservative whites to destroy it. I. I. In other areas, the alliances were thinner and more temporary. But often times, , , there was a direct pitch to African American voters, which said, you know, we’re in the same economic boat. It was an economic argument that as smaller producers and tenants in the countryside that were suffering because of the low prices for crops, the high interest rates, we have to pay on credit, the political manipulation that’s going on, that’s preventing any opposition to the Democratic Party from getting getting organized. And as a result, we need to, you know, vote together for the Populist Party. And this began to accomplish what I think the Republican Party had initially imagined for the reconstruction period–to try to build itself as a political organization dependent on the votes of African Americans and of more humble whites. It didn’t work out during Reconstruction.

But in the by the 1890s, and in some places earlier on, there were ways in which this worked out. One of the places where it worked out most formidably was in the 1870s and 1980s in Virginia, where they had a movement called the Readjustor movement, which joined up more humble white agriculturalists in the western part of the state, with African Americans in the southern and eastern part of the state. And they took control of the state government, and they elected a senator. And they actually brought about significant social and political reforms before they also were toppled in large part through violent means. But I think one of the limits of all this was that most white—-{and there were exceptions–but most of them really weren’t interested in what African Americans really wanted, and what their interests and concerns were. They were interested in their votes. And so African Americans, with some exception were tentative allies. Most African Americans did not vote Populist. They continued to vote Republican, because that was the party of emancipation. That was a party of political rights, even though by the late 19th century, the Republican Party was pretty much abandoning them and those who did vote Populist, you know, I wouldn’t say were committed Populists, but they were hoping that if the Populists won, the power of the dominant economic and political interests in the south and other parts of the country might be weakened,

Would you judge populism as a political movement as a failure or success, or somewhere in between?

Well, you know, it’s a funny thing. On one level, you could argue that many of the things that the Populists were interested in came to be. We have direct elections of United States senators, we have a Federal Reserve System where the money supply actually is in government hands, as opposed to private hands. There are other reforms that have to do with farm legislation that effectively creates cooperatives. One of the things that I neglected to mention was the Populists were interested in what was called a sub Treasury system, which was going to be a nationwide system of co-ops. The idea was to sidestep the power of local merchants and finance capital elsewhere, where farmers could bring their crops, deposit their crops that could be held back for sale when the price went up, and on the value of the crops get credit at low rates of interest. Well, in in point of fact, by the 20th century, this kind of farm policy, which has to do with price supports that comes in, like the Agricultural Adjustment Act that comes in in the New Deal and some legislation earlier in the 1920s was a version of what the Populists proposed.

On the other hand, I think it’s not incidental that these policies come into being after the Populists were defeated. So the Populists were regarded as a very threatening movement. But their ideas could be embraced later on when the sort of radical edge of populism no longer had to be confronted. So I do think that part of the legacies of Populism show up in the left wing of the progressive movement, they show up in 20th century American socialism. We have to remind ourselves that some of the strongest socialist states in the 1910s were Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, right? And to look at the New Deal. . Where Populist sensibilities, you know, still have real traction. And it was also a time, as it works out, that the first scholarship on Populism is being written that looks at Populism as a progressive force in American society. To this day, I think it’s a reminder, that popular mobilizations can be very effective politically, even if you’re not necessarily happy about, you know, what they’re pursuing. So I think that that’s one of the things we we have so many of the things Populists were interested in did come to being, but certainly the relative disempowering of the countryside was not transformed, you know. The rural population has shrunk, the number of farms has declined dramatically over time, and the power that had been out there, and the kind of cultural force that may have been, there is what did not endure.

And I’ll just close with the present time. Is it possible to draw any parallels between the populist movement of the 1880s with the present day strain of populism?

Well, certainly one of the things that you can’t help but see is that in what we call the Gilded Age of the second half of the 19th century, post Civil War, 19th century, that issues about concentration of wealth and power, economic inequality, political corruption, that comes from the use of well, for political purposes, was a central issue. The Populists are only one of many, many independent political movements, labor movements that organize themselves in response, and mount a critique of American industrial capitalism in the latter quarter of the third of the 19th century, using similar languages that we see now. There’s no question that the concentration of wealth and the overall problem of economic inequality, which has become especially pronounced in recent decades, is very much part of the popular unrest. Certainly, among those who feel that they have been disadvantaged, it has not taken the same kind of organizational form, because in the 19th century, it led to rural organizations, urban organizations, labor organizations, really organizations that were among workers and producers. Whereas today, you know, most of this, this content is not organized. I mean, one of the remarkable things about this recent election is that, you know, Donald Trump was elected president without doing anything in terms of really on the ground mobilization, he didn’t! I mean, it was incre–it’s actually astonishing that it happened. So you don’t have those forms of organization.

As a result, there’s no agenda, there’s no clear you know, if we get elected, we’re going to do this, this, this and this, all of which are going to contribute to readjusting the balances of power. There’s sort of fantasies about bringing jobs back. But it’s not about who holds power, they’re not challenging the power employers have over employees, they’re not suggesting that labor be empowered through organization so that they could advance their own demands. So none of the critique is really tied to the kind of organization that was developing in the 19th century, and I think, ended up taking an agenda and turning it in a direction of political elections. Now, I think it’s much more inchoate. And it’s very hard since the word populism is used in so many contexts here and elsewhere. And it’s attached to so many different kinds of movements, mostly of the right, but not entirely, whose only shared identity is a dissatisfaction with the behavior established elites, whatever that means. So I think the Populists knew who they were up against, and they named them and they knew what they wanted to do, and they laid it out and whether people think that, you know, there’s been discussion and debate about how effective their proposals might have been. But there is no question that had the Populists won political power, or even had the Democratic Party won political power, it would have affected the way in which the political economy of the United States was organized that one might say, well, there is no way they’re going to win. And maybe that’s true. But even in the election of 1896, which was, you know, really the last substantial one in which the Populists had a presence they lost the electoral vote pretty substantially, but the popular vote was very, very close and, you know, that’s, that’s significant. So I see circumstances that are similar, but in terms of the very nature of the political movement, insofar as it is one now, I think there’s still that they’re quite different.

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