The Populist Persuasion: An American History

By Michael Kazin

New York: Basic Books, 1995

381 pages, $24.

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America

(Abridged from Democratic Promise)

By Lawrence Goodwyn

New York: Oxford University Press, 1978

349 pages, $9.95

"IS THE language of populism, continually renewed to chill a fresh elite and warm a fresh array of ordinary folk, still the language we need?" Michael Kazin's The Populist Persuasion leaves this question for his readers to ponder, the book having answered only in a "firmly equivocal" fashion.

Kazin, an advocate of the anti-communist Left, is equivocal because so many 20th-century, self-styled populists betrayed egalitarian hopes dear to the left: Father Charles Edward Caughlin, an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, descended from a popular radio-show host, critical of "economic royalists," to bombastic, anti-Semitic demagogue, accusing FDR of communism; Joe McCarthy, the virulent anti-communist crusader, borrowed the folk rhetoric of populism to advance his cause at the expense of civil liberties; and George Wallace the once-proud racist, who divided the white populace along class lines as part of a populist criticism of corporate power.

Besides its susceptibility to the politics of the right, populism suffers at the hands of politicians and consultants who use it as an electioneering slogan. Yet Kazin is reluctant to let populism pass either to the right or to political spin doctors. Populist language is that of democracy, of the powerless fighting for power -- more an "impulse than an ideology." As a persuasion it has served as a vehicle for the weak to address the strong throughout the 200 years of the republic. Kazin is not ready to give it up.

In this era of political hyperbole, hypocrisy and confusion there is little agreement as to what exactly populism is. Kazin rejects two definitions before settling on a third. One asserts that Populism (the only one, says the author, deserving a capital 'P") is nothing if not a mass movement of the sort that cycloned across the nation in the last quarter of the 19th century. Another allows populism to be anything remotely popular, like consumer goods, Rush Limbaugh or Bruce Springsteen -- items as likely to be cultural as political. Kazin splits the difference and understands populism as an "elastic and promiscuous," always political language that regards "ordinary people as a noble assemblage" intent on taking wrongly appropriated power from self-serving elites.

This language-centered definition considerably extends populism's scope from the movement-oriented Populism described and explained in historian Lawrence Goodwyn's unsurpassed 1976 work, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America.

Though Goodwyn's Populism does involve a particular type of political language, it is fundamentally a matter of long-term political organization and action. Kazin in no way rejects organization and action, but he takes a serious step away from Goodwyn's strict, insurgency-oriented definition and gives populist politics -- as a persuasion -- a wider range of opportunity. While Kazin's account cannot successfully prevent Pat Buchanan or trendy Madison Avenue advertisers from politically and economically exploiting populism, as a persuasion it is nonetheless available for Leftist efforts to incite democratic renewal. Goodwyn's richly detailed and impassioned account of Populism definitively illustrates the impressive successes, despite the ultimate failure, and high political standards of Populists. Kazin lowers the standards somewhat. Is what he does worth it? Is the populist persuasion politically viable?

POPULISM as a persuasion pales in comparison to the democratic culture that 19th-century Populists created. Starting with a handful of farmers in Lampasas, Texas, in 1877, the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union grew into an institution with 150 newspapers and 40,000 lecturers. Farmer editors and lecturers first educated themselves and then spread out to educate the masses, explaining the large economic context of a crop-lien system that held small property owners and the landless in an endless cycle of labor and debt. Newspapers, lectures, Alliance meetings, picnics and parades were the constituents of a self-made culture that allowed the farmers to speak and learn in a protected atmosphere out of reach of the conservative, mainstream press or corporate power brokers. Because the farmers owned their own culture, a culture of democratic discourse, they were able to develop the economic and political strategies -- a sub-treasury system to give farmers access to currency; a cooperative system for the storage of wheat and cotton that was a tool for political recruitment -- that enabled them to challenge established centers of political and economic power.

Goodwyn emphasizes that the most important aspect of Populist culture was its ability to become collectively self-confident enough to challenge the culturally enforced system of deference -- the first line of defense for the powers that be. Over a period of 15 years, the Populists organized, educated, recruited, and politicized themselves. They developed a democratic culture in which people learned self-respect and mutual respect, the character traits of real democracy, culminating in the creation of the People's Party in 1892.

The Populists cracked apart in 1896 when they fused with the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan, and hung their political hat on a narrow economic issue -- the coinage of silver -- destroying the value of their political culture. They gave up on the sub-treasury system, the purpose of which was to give farmers some control of the banking system, and settled for a simple expansion of the money supply to be overseen by established power; and they gave up on such major issues as the public ownership of railroads. The crackup was also fueled by the first modern political consultant and spin man, industrialist Marcus Hanna, who was extremely successful at soliciting corporate money -- oil and railroads -- for candidate McKinley. Add to that the first political, mass-advertising campaign and you have the basic pieces of the market-oriented politics that now overwhelms and seems to doom democracy's prospects.

THE LATEST effort to revive Populism advocates a mass, democratic insurgency in the spirit of the National Farmers Alliance, while speaking the flexible language of the populist persuasion. It comes from The Texas Observer's founding editor, Ronnie Dugger, longtime friend of Goodwyn, who was associate editor of the Observer in 1956. In his "Call to Hope and Action," published in the August 14/21, 1995 issue of The Nation (reprinted elsewhere in this issue), Dugger asks those concerned with the fate of American democracy to take populism back from its "misusers" and proceed to build a coalition to threaten corporate power. "We are ruled by Big Business and Big Government as its paid hireling and we know it," he writes. Difficulties abound. "We are Populists," says Dugger, using a capital P, "but we are many other things," a point also made by Kazin. We are different colors, different religions, employees, employers, unemployed, urban, suburban, progressives, liberals, union members, feminists, environmentalists, civil libertarians, socialists, moderates and even conservatives. The trick is putting it all together when so many are "shattered into subgroups ... or enclosed within one-issue or special focus organizations ..."

We do not share a crop-lien system that provides a well-lit target; we are out-matched by often subtle, very distant powers that are nonetheless massive, huge, and omnipresent, making pointed political action more difficult. Dugger takes a broad brush against the ubiquitous, jello-like institutions that operate the controls of the country. He needs Kazin's promiscuous language to make the populist case. Revealing his intense, life-long commitment to liberal individualism, and the problems involved in constructing a specific plan of action, Dugger says, "Our point, our purpose, is the well-being and enhancement of the person." A purpose most of us share but not one well equipped to direct a concentrated attack on concentrated power.

The difficulties discussed and indicated by Dugger's manifesto are, on the one hand, unique to late 20th-century populism; on the other hand we, like our forbears, have to create a democratic culture. But we must do so out of a consumer culture rather than the producerist culture that the Populists operated in.

Kazin makes a brief but extremely important point about contemporary populism in regard to consumer culture. The 19th-century farmers were at the tail-end of the producerist era in which, Kazin points out, "consumer" was roughly equivalent to "parasite." The producerist ethic admires labor that makes useful things, self-governance and local power, restraint in the pursuit of wealth, and a sense of the limits of human progress -- humility. This is a common-sense ethic for anyone toiling as a farmer. Quickly after the demise of the Populists, American culture became a consumer culture dependent on advertising, mass production, and mass consumption. It is this culture of consumption that we all share and which, at the same time, works to forestall coalition building.

Consumer culture, rather than engaging the public interest, or the cooperative commonwealth" as Goodwyn calls it, urges us to indulge private fantasies and desires in an ever-progressing pursuit of abundance and pleasure, a pursuit that sustains more than 60 percent of our Domestic National Product, dividing us and isolating us as we support it. Dugger clearly sees the problem as he points out how commercial television corporations "debase and doze people with foolish and violent programming." If late 20th-century populism is to be successful it will overcome the privatizing, exploitative thrust of consumer culture by organizing its own democratic culture with social goals more lofty than those hawked by Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Wall Street.

For all its problems, Kazin concludes, populism is "of great democratic and moral significance." Unless the "productive and burden-bearing classes" put populist language to use to leverage power from its corporate brokers, there is little hope for democratic renewal.

Todd Basch of Austin is writing a doctoral dissertation on Texas liberalism since World War II.



To Subscribe to the Progressive Populist
Return to Current Issue
Return to home page
Letters to the Editor...
Copyright 1995 The Progressive Populist. -- Revised October 29, 1995 --