Give Me That Old-Time Populism

By Jim Van Der Pol

The reappearance of populism, this time as a right wing tool of the corporates, is a wake up call for any Democrat who is pleased to think that populists just need to behave themselves and “give Obama a chance.” And if the Democrats hope not to get blown out of Washington in 2010 they would do well to study the matter. A shift has happened.

It has to do with the fact that the world of the populists of the early 20th century no longer exists. That world consisted of small towns and the farming population that formed them. The values held by those populists, the values they saw themselves fighting for, were conservative values, having to do with stable families, neighbors that could be relied upon, farms and businesses that could be passed on to the next generation, the possibility of a decent livelihood earned by the work of one’s own hands in one’s own place. The populists fought a fight that was viewed as radical by Wall Street partly because it was in defense of real conservative values.

Here in the 21st century we have to a large extent been made homeless. Oh sure, we mostly have houses and apartments to sleep in and help us keep warm in winter. But homes are less common; those places which feature several generations living in place over generations are in short supply indeed. It is little use denying that many of us have talked a great deal about the wonders of this mobility, but it is difficult to get around the fact that we are essentially a mobile and rootless population because it is convenient for the corporate structure, which likes mobility in all things, including both capital and labor. Mobile people are compliant people. They don’t stand and fight.

We country folk have come the farthest down this difficult trail because it was in the countryside that people depended upon cooperation with each other to get the things done that couldn’t be done by the individual. We often have in the not so distant past depended upon each other for our very lives. So the hard edge of this massive sociological change is more evident out here in this countryside that has been pretty much emptied over the last half century, but it has its impact everywhere. Suburbs are places people leave every day to make their living. The ethnic neighborhoods the cities formerly were made up of have increasingly melted into a widespread gentrification. Difficult to be found among us is the place we can go where, when we need to go there, they must take us in. Increasingly, we find a substitute on the Internet. For many of us, particularly young rural men, the available substitute is the military.

The late prairie writer Paul Gruchow understood this. In his essay “What we teach rural children” he explores the reaction of a son and grandson who see their German immigrant grandfather dispossessed when the military seized his farm for an ammunition dump in WWII. Gruchow explores three choices for the descendants. One, to think of the grandfather as a weakling; two, to lose themselves in rage and the conviction that they will always be taken; or three, to take the side of power and go to work for the organization that has won. This is the story of our lives here in rural America. And it is the third option, the movement toward power, that describes our relationship with corporate power. We have essentially joined up. That is why we don’t have the gumption in Congress to knock Wall Street down to size.

We are shocked to see “populist” connected with right-wing causes because of a massive and ongoing confusion over the meaning of the word “conservative.” We think our market economy is conservative. It is not. And this toxic mix of a radical and, in its pure form, destructive ideal like capitalism, with the deepest longings of the human heart for home and the relative safety of a stable circle of known human companions is what gives our right wing its goofy edge. Look at the signs and statements: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” shows an attachment to and dependence upon a program of social service coupled with no willingness to admit to government involvement in it. “I’ll keep my guns and money, you keep the change” has in it the same core worry as the Medicare statement. You can hear it if you listen with a sympathetic ear: “Are they going to take this away from me too?”

We should admit that there is nothing wrong with a longing to be at home. That further, any human should be able to expect not to have his/her livelihood or home meddled with by any market economy merely to the benefit of the wealthy of the world. There is nothing wrong with anyone thinking their place is better than any other place. That is called patriotism, which only goes sour when it becomes a synonym for military and economic conquest. We have a right not to have our religion meddled with, including our lack of religion for those of us who prefer that approach, as long as we leave others to their beliefs.

Government is the target because the corporate tricksters who organize the tea parties have a real agenda they are not sharing with their “grassroots.” But government makes an easy target because it has so often been the errand boy for corporate power. And we need to notice that the same people who seem to be around the bend about taxes and the Second Amendment and who have trouble understanding what single-payer health care for the elderly really is, have it right on the money about the banker bailout, whether their corporate manipulators like it or not. It is about dispossession again.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2009

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