Creating Populist Symbols

If anyone doubted the philosophical bankruptcy of the Democratic Party today all one need do is to take note of those Democrats still persistently pointing their accusatory fingers at Ralph Nader for Al Gore's loss in the 2000 presidential election. Clearly, the Democratic Party, as it is known to most people today, has become unredeemable and hardly worth investing our meager resources, abundant energy and time in saving itself from itself.

We are barely into 2003 and already we have a situation, best described recently by Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column: "The Democrats are pathetic. With Tom Daschle out, they don't even have seven dwarfs. They have six coifs, and that's not counting Hillary."

Reflecting on this nation's political history, however, the lessons that came out of the 19th century agrarian populist revolt can be instructive. The demise of the agrarian populists came when they allowed themselves to be sucked into the Democratic Party in 1896, and let their basic message ultimately get diluted in the gold and silver issue, and then have their fate sealed in the aftermath of their defeat by the scapegoating and recriminations that came within their own ranks. But even though they lost the presidency, which incidentally was the first presidential election where big money reared its ugly influential head, they achieved some remarkable successes in the Congress and on the state level.

They did the latter by simply taking their message not only to the people through the multitude of local newspapers and town meetings, but by simply eliciting from the various candidates and incumbents running in legislative races a pledge that they would abide by those agrarian populist principles enunciated in the Omaha Platform of 1892.

Reflecting on recent political history it is ironic that one can almost trace precisely the demise of our two-party political system to the emerging reluctance by both parties to deal with substantial issues in their political platforms for fear of offending their corporate paymasters.

Even as agrarian populism posed a number of specific economic solutions to the farm crisis, it is important to remember that the popular monetary issues of the day, i.e., silver and/or gold were only ephemeral ones.

Reflecting on populism's analysis of the nation's emerging financial elite, the pre-eminent populist historian Lawrence Goodwyn has pointed out that it is difficult to find a political doctrine narrower and more self-serving than the American banking hierarchy's fixation on "sound money."

"... the artificially contracted currency of the gold standard had three undeniable and linked products: it curtailed the nation's economic growth; it helped measurably to concentrate the capital assets of the nation in the pockets of the nation's bankers; and it helped measurably to consign generation after generation of non-banking Americans to lives of hardship and dependence.

"Beyond this, the triumph of the political and cultural values embedded in the gold standard provided the economic foundation for the hierarchical corporate state of twentieth century America."

With that kind of perspective in mind the focus of Farm Alliance members, as declared in their Omaha Platform, was a rebellion against the American political party system. In order to restructure the nation's financial and economic system, the Alliance rejected both major parties, which they accused of being in "harmony with monopoly."

There were certain other noteworthy principles which also emerged out of the "agrarian revolt" of the 1880s.

William Lamb, the leader of the Alliance radicals and perhaps populism's most articulate theoretician, spoke to one of those major principles in a historic 1886 open letter to the Rural Citizen.

Lamb saw the society of his day being dominated by manufacturers and their agents. The traditional image of the farmer as the "hardy yeoman" of the Jeffersonian era was quite out of place in the growing American corporate state at the turn of the century. He believed the farmer of the new industrial age was a "worker" and the "labor question" was the central issue and that the organized farmers of the Alliance should join with the organized workers of the Knights of Labor.

As business centralized, Lamb contended, farmers who continued to strive for friendship and parity with the commercial world were simply failing to comprehend "what is going on against us." Members of the Alliance had to put aside such naivete:

"[W]e think all members should show the world which side they are on ... and we are looking forward for men that will advocate our interests, those who are working against us are no good for us ... we know of a certainty that manufacturers have organized against us, and that is to say if we don't do as they say, we can't get their goods ... Then for it to be said that we are unwise to let them alone, we can't hold our pens still until we have exposed the matter and let it be known what it is we are working for."

One other characteristic of the populist revolt that deserves attention was the movement's resistance to racism and racist propaganda throughout the South. In a determined effort against incredible odds they sought to win political rights for blacks and defend those rights against white terrorism. At the same time they called for a spirit of tolerance between the races so that the two could make a real effort in achieving some measure of economic and social justice and work together as one for the achievement of common ends. Historian C. Vann Woodward portrays the results of that effort:

"The Populists failed, and some of them turned against the Negro as the cause of their failure. But in the efforts they made for racial justice and political rights they went further toward extending the Negro political fellowship, recognition and equality than any native white political movement has ever done before or since in the South."

It should also be noted here that because some elements within the farm communities began to generalize their attack upon the Eastern and English financiers and industrialists of the time into an attack on the Jews there is an assumption that the early agrarian populist movement was anti-Semitic in nature. Prominent American historian William Appleman Williams, however, disputes that assumption.

"Having read a vast number of Populist papers, letters and proceedings, it is my considered judgment that the incidence of anti-Semitism was very low. Those who maintain otherwise are unconvincing ... Jews did enjoy great power in European and American financial circles during this period. They further took great pride, as they had traditionally, in exercising that power. Hence to attack them for possessing and exercising that vast economic power is not prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism.

Although many of the "populist" farm policy seeds would later flower in the form of constructive state and national farm and anticorporate legislation, the Peoples Party demise as a political force came in the 1896 presidential election when the silverites captured control of the party, amalgamated with the Democrats as William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of the "populist" rhetoric, and were beaten decisively by William McKinley and the Republicans.

Completely ignored in the struggle for the Democratic minority House leadership, was the candidacy of a real progressive who entered the race at the last minute. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Dem.-Ohio), a long-time champion of family farm agriculture and farmers' rights, got little attention from the media, but what she had to say was far more interesting than most of the pseudo-populist tripe coming out of Washington, D.C. lately.

"To win," Kaptur charged, "our party must adopt a reform paradigm. We will never raise more money than the Republicans -- never! We must elevate the non-money wing of the Democratic Party and create populist symbols to convey our message."

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email;

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