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Populism—An introduction

Populism is a term that doesn’t travel well. Last summer in a conversation, a visiting university professor from Scandinavia called Sarkozy, an anti-immigrant French politician who would ultimately replace Chirac, a “populist.” I objected, claiming that a Frenchman who took such political positions probably misunderstood a political philosophy invented by immigrants on the American frontier. “Start a trend,” I pleaded, “even if this definition of ‘populism’ has become standard usage in the EU, you should try not to use the term as a catch-all description of political backwardness--out a sense of historical accuracy.”

It would be unfair to pick on a Finn describing French politics in English because there IS a certain element in USA that uses the term “populism” in exactly the same way. Joe Klein of Time magazine summed up the elite Washington view in a Slate essay when he described populism as a “witlessly reactionary bundle of prejudices: nativist, protectionist, isolationist, and paranoid.”

Anyone who took political science from any self-respecting liberal arts college in USA probably learned to spout the same reactionary nonsense. But in the land where Populism was invented, such academic indoctrination often fails its accomplished task. The late writer Molly Ivins, a hero of American progressives, proudly called herself a Populist and proved her credentials on a regular basis. The cultural Texas Populism of her youth proved more durable than her fancy Ivy League education.

Molly Ivins could reject the slanderous definition of Populism even if packaged by elite academe because the story they teach has a fatal flaw--it is almost totally untrue. Of course, an historically authentic Populist like Ivins probably already knew the traditional answer to elite slander even before she left for school--the opposite of Populism is Elitism.

This political fact explains much of the open hostility expressed by folks who deliberately misdefine “populism” into a word of slander. It also explains why the people who will attempt to get the USA back from the criminals and warmongers who have been so heavily represented in the age of Bush the Dim, will probably describe themselves as Populists and will employ traditional Populist appeals.

A brief history of Populism

There was a real political party in USA called the People’s Party.  It was founded in 1892 in Omaha Nebraska.  Party members called themselves Populists.  Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota wrote the party platform. A Google search on Donnelly reveals 147,000 hits and there are probably that many opinions of him, but one of my favorites was written by an Australian.  Donnelly was a gifted public speaker and a prolific writer who was Minnesota’s first Lt. Governor and served 4 terms as a Republican Representative to Washington.  Upon his return, he became the organizing force behind the National Farmer’s Alliance in Minnesota.

The People’s Party was an outgrowth the National Farmer’s Alliance which was formed to address the deplorable conditions of rural life following the Crash of 1873.  As a result, at LEAST 95% of Populism was about economics.  The cultural descriptions of populism have almost always been formulated by Populism’s enemies.

Make NO mistake, Populism has enemies precisely BECAUSE of their economic doctrine.  The cultural criticisms are merely the distraction.

The Economics of Populism

Corruption is Public Enemy #1.  Life is difficult enough without having to support a parasitical class.  Rid ourselves of corruption and our public sector and infrastructure will bloom.

Public education.  A poor person is as likely to have a good student-offspring as a rich one.  (Perhaps MORE likely.)  Universal education will uncover those most skilled to organize the community’s necessary tasks.

A MIXED economy.  The REASON regulated capitalism works better than deregulated capitalism is because regulations protect the honest operator.  Take away industrial regulation, and the result is Enron--scheming thieves creating economic opportunity from industrial sabotage.

Democratic controls on the creation of money.  If there is not strict regulation of financial institutions, they become dictators.  Or as James Carvelle put it when he heard the Goldman-Sachs instructions on what part of Clinton’s 1992 promises to the middle class were going to be forgotten, “In my next life, I want to come back as the bond market.”

Usury Laws.  High interest rates cause class warfare and other harmful distortions. 

The cultural assault on Populism 

Let’s see.  The Populists wanted democratic, public controls over the creation of credit.  They wanted to cap interest rates.  They wanted to regulate large enterprise.  They wanted to give poor kids the same shot at success as a rich one.  And they wanted to throw crooks out of public life.

Guess what--this agenda has made them powerful enemies.  Enemies who actually owned colleges the way John D. Rockefeller owned the University of Chicago.  How hard do you suppose it was for John D to find a professor willing to write about those silly peasants and their goofy ideas?

If you wrote that Populists were dirty, uneducated, hicks, chances are you would be gainfully employed--especially in academe where collegial committees are formed to determine what is respectable thinking. 

And so a fault line opened up between a self-defined elite and their self-defined task of smearing Populism, and the outsiders who wanted to crash the gates with their obviously superior economic agenda.  Sadly, the organized distraction was highly successful--almost NO modern reference to Populism refers to the economic agenda.

Regional Populism

Because Populism grew out of the economic problems of agriculture, different regions of the country had slightly different agendas based on the facts on the ground.  A tobacco farmer in Georgia obviously had another set of problems than say, a wheat grower in North Dakota.

The National Farmer’s Alliance was founded in Texas.  And Texas Populism has had a significant influence.  The economics department at the University of Texas at Austin was the best place to learn the economics of the Populists--especially under the legendary Clarence Ayres.  They now have James Galbraith so it is probably still possible to get an advanced degree from UT in some subset of Populist economic thought.

The Kansas variation was interesting because of abolitionist settlers--enough so Kansas entered as a free state.  The abolitionists tended to be well-read and so Kansas gave Populism more than its share of writers and speakers.

The Northwest arc of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota initially contributed just Donnelly.  But all would show amazing staying power.  North Dakota’s follow-on movement, the Non-Partisan League is arguably the most successful progressive political movement in history.  Minnesota would form the Farmer-Labor party (the FL in DFL), elect a governor who defined politics as pro-labor for 50 years, while the state university provided a home for variations on Populist economics such as Keynesianism.  Robert LaFollette, the guy who founded Progressive Magazine to explain his movement, still influences Wisconsin politics.

The South’s best organizer was Thomas Edward Watson of Georgia.  Southern problems included war related destruction, currency shortages, and a wounded or destroyed labor force.  To this pile of woe was added a corrupt band of marauders who were trying to make off with anything of value.

One especially favored form of piracy during Reconstruction was political corruption.  Watson was pretty pure about “all farmers, black or white, face the same economic hazards” for a long time.  Eventually, after losing several elections to petty graft--black voters purchased with trinkets--Watson decided to play the race card.  Next door in South Carolina, a cheap demagogue named Pitchfork Ben Tillman turned race-baiting into an art form and got elected to the US Senate.

Virtually all valid slander of the Populist movement is based on the actions of self-defined Populists of the post civil-war South.  The Populists from North Dakota or Kansas certainly have nothing to apologize for.  However, regional distinctions like this are minor inconveniences for someone who wants to slander an entire movement.

Populist examples

Probably the best way to understand Populism is to examine some of the better examples of the practice.

Best analytic tool.  Veblen classified knowledge into two groupings.  There was exoteric knowledge--the useful information necessary to support the community such as the melting point of tool steel, and esoteric knowledge--the kind of information that is not useful except to demonstrate that you have a lot of leisure time, such as what Marc Anthony said about Julius Caesar in the play by Shakespeare (or any question on Jeopardy).  One of the reasons that academics, whose earnings often depend on teaching esoteric knowledge, like to pick on the Pops, is that their scorn is so richly reciprocated.

Who proved Populist economics works?  Henry Ford

What economic principle did he prove?  In order for industrialized societies to thrive, workers must be able to buy back production.

Most interesting Populist cultural contribution.  Industrial Design is not simply an economically important skill, it is actually a profoundly political statement about art.  In the elitist definition of art, it must be done one at a time like an oil painting or a stone sculpture.  In the Populist definition of art; since machine tools can make perfect copies of any given design, the greatest artists should work for factories so that everyone can benefit from their great design genius.  Think Michael Graves designing for Target or anything at IKEA.

Favorite Intellectual.  No competition--Thorstein B. Veblen.  I have a web site mostly dedicated to recovering the history and reputation of this amazing genius.  Veblen is a triple-distilled version of Minnesota Populism--farm kid, son of prosperous immigrants, with a Ph.D. from Yale in the philosophy of Kant.  He was uniquely able to discuss the human condition from both an esoteric AND exoteric perspective.  Veblen, the intellectual’s intellectual, is the perfect response to those who would call Populism “anti-intellectual.”

Best Political Idea. “There is as good in the ranks as ever came out of them.”

See also:

Part Two: Populism--Size matters
Part Three: Populism--a matter of class
Part Four: Populism--Marxism NOT
Part Five: Populism--technological literacy

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