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Populism in The United States


Populism (from the Latin term populus, usually translated as "the people") is the name of a group of ideologies that stresses the need for a more equitable distribution of economic, political, and cultural power. Populists argue that an elite of some form or another holds an unfair concentration of political and economic power and typically that government intervention is required to counteract this injustice. Occasionally, this belief in the unfair concentration of power leads to complex theories about the subtle mechanisms by which many are oppressed and the belief that only the "common people" have the moral where-withal to see through these manipulations. Nevertheless, such theories often penetrate the subterfuge of those in power and work to form a rallying point for those being unfairly treated.

Populists typically valorize the traditional over the contemporary, small-town and rural culture over cosmopolitan and urban culture, and basic or simple values over more complicated versions of morality and ethics. "The people" are seen as the exemplars of virtue and are marked off from the corrupting influence of large-scale government and grand economic powers. Often these beliefs lead populists to advocate the suppression of less traditional ways of life, cultural beliefs, and foreign influences. Because of this, populists are sometimes painted as culturally backward and suspicious of any form of diversity. At the very least, populists are usually seen as alarmists and often as merely reactionary. Such characterizations, however, are not always accurate but rather represent a means by which those who wish to maintain the status quo discredit their more radical adversaries.

I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty—the cause of humanity.

SOURCE: William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" speech (1896).

In many cases, populists depend upon a mythological and often heavily nostalgic portrait of their own pasts and their own traditions. Rather than carefully critiquing their traditional ways of life alongside the problems of more contemporary movements, populists often eschew outside influences in a wholesale fashion, preferring a romanticized version of their accepted way of life. By offering such familiar notions of virtue, however, populism can serve as a call to action against oppressive forces that might otherwise obscure or erase the many achievements of the past and the lessons that can be culled from their study. Hence populism is not so much a political theory as it is a political strategy. While certainly not always a conscious tactic, populism may take the form merely of a rhetorical appeal to these notions of basic fairness, suspicion of a perceived class of elites, and a desire to return to a simpler life.

Populist movements often occur in reaction to perceived cultural changes brought about by technological and economic development that the populists find threatening. Populism is hence often a movement to shore up local and more traditional values over and against values deemed too new or from outside sources. Populism often takes the form of consolidating one's in-group, of working to ensure that one's way of life may continue, or of efforts to prevent further encroachment of the large-scale over the small. These movements work to halt or alter such changes, but often with unintended consequences that are themselves significant changes.

Populism may take a variety of forms; historically, powerful populist movements have arisen on both the left and the right. On the left, populists are usually concerned with hedging the power of big business. Left-leaning populists are suspicious of free-market capitalism, with its consequent growth and monopolization of power in the hands of an economic elite of the privileged few. Right-wing populists, by contrast, typically work to curtail the reach of government power, seeing the real threat to traditional ways of life in the form of bureaucracy, standardization, and intrusive legal power. In either case, what is usually advocated is some sort of regulation on the broad exercise of power by the suspected group in favor of more local or small-scale organizations. Populists on the left, for example, typically praise the virtues of smaller and locally owned businesses, whereas more conservative populists prefer a movement of government power away from the national or federal level and into local and regional sources.

Perhaps the best known and most influential populist movement is the rise of the People's Party in the late-nineteenth-century United States. Throughout the American South and West, an increasing level of discontent grew among farmers and other rural workers. It was felt that the more urban Northeast areas of the country harbored an increasing concentration of economic and political power and that the formation of political organizations such as the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party was necessary to consolidate and give voice to these concerns. Added to this discontent was the position of black farm laborers, many of whom joined the Colored Farmers' Alliance, an organization formed in Houston County, Texas, in 1886 in response to the segregating practices of other populist organizations but which eventually spread throughout the South. These organizations were based in part upon the social and cultural ties made by the work of the Patrons of Husbandry, or National Grange, an older organization of farmers founded shortly after the end of the Civil War. Other predecessors include the Union Labor Party, the Knights of Labor, the National Labor Reform Party, and the Greenback Party.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the People's Party in the United States had elected governors, sent members to Congress, and had many successes with local elections. The party advocated women's suffrage, temperance, and various reforms in national and state policies involving land use. The People's Party was often at odds with the interests of railroad companies, banks, and other large business organizations and fought hard against the gold standard. Many of the issues important to women, such as suffrage and temperance, however, were later taken out of the party's platform in the interest of gaining larger popular support. By 1896, the People's Party joined with the Democratic Party to support William Jennings Bryan's failed presidential campaign. Shortly thereafter, the party began declining as many of its members became Democrats or lost interest in large-scale national politics.

The history of the People's Party is only one example of populist organizations' activities. Populism, in fact, is not a unified theory or movement at all. There are as many populists as there are identifiable groups of people. Populism represents an attitude about the nature of a given social and political situation. It holds that there are those in power who hold that power unfairly, secretly, or in an unjust concentration. Regardless, this elite class wields such power at the expense of others—these others being "the people." The populist claims to speak for these people, to represent their interests and their values. The populist wants to challenge, react to, and undermine the elite's claims to legitimacy and to fairness. The populist, instead, appeals to "common sense," "common values," and "basic fairness" in her or his attempts to reclaim a more traditional way of life, an exposure of the elite's secretive machinations and plots, or a more equitable distribution of cultural, economic, or political power.

Stephen Barnes

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