Dave Buckhout .
Publication Date: 2004
To write about the Populist movement of the late 19th century requires an understanding of a complex, popularly unknown watershed in American sociopolitical history. The irony, even reward in gaining this understanding is to discover that the demands of the Populists—and the Farmers Alliance, the parent organization that spawned the movement—were simple ones. They can be collectively summarized in a desire as revered today as it was in the 1880s / ‘90s: the achievement of individual freedom through democratic participation. In theory this sounds like little to ask of a democratic republic. Yet over a century ago the exercising of this “right” by a mass movement of the agrarian working class touched off a war for control of America’s economic and political future.
Populism spread far beyond the borders of the American South, eventually finding fervent support in the Plains states and the Far West territories. But it was in the Deep South and Texas where the Populists’ radical ideological challenge of the entrenched powers spilled out onto the streets in a bloody brawl. Nowhere did it rise higher or fall harder. It was the agrarians’ charge that the monopolistic interests of banking, railroading, mercantile, and a litany of other industrial / commercial trusts, held the “producing class” farmers in a debtor’s slavery. And the fight to reform that sociopolitical landscape—and equally the fight to maintain the status quo—flooded the South in an epidemic of violent unrest. Economic manipulation, transparent election fraud, a scathing homespun press unlike anything in the modern era, corrupt opportunism, political (and actual) lynchings, threats, bribes, and murder—all of this ran rampant over what become a cultural power struggle, as much as it was a political and economic one. The overt racism that has come down as stereotypical of some Populists was real, but can be confined to its waning days in the early 1900s long after the derailment of its political party in the 1896 elections and the possibility of the movement affecting any real revolutionary change. And so, understanding the movement for what it truly was allows one trait to undercut all others that have become associated with the “uprising”: the inescapable poverty of small farmers.
Lawrence Goodwyn, in his signal work The Populist Moment, makes the convincing case that Populism was the most successful and sadly the last mass movement in America to affect real sociopolitical change outside of the established order. Given the impact of its legacy—C. Vann Woodward recorded the thoughts of many in stating “the New Deal was neo-Populism”—this is hard to deny. From the Socialist / Communist industrial-labor parties to Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives, the 1930s’ Minnesotan Farmer-Labor union to Ross Perot’s Reformers, third-party movements of the 20th century consisted of shadow movements lurking on the fringe. In the end their effect on electoral outcomes and as a result legislative outcomes—the true measure of influence—accomplished little outside of siphoning votes away from the two dominant parties. Further it is ironic that the most “worthy” third-party planks were often rapidly co-opted into “mainstream” political dialogue. Goodwyn would attribute this pattern of marginalization in part or in whole to the defeat of Populism’s short-lived, The People’s Party. For in the aftermath of its defeat, “what” of the established order would be open to revision was defined with clear constraints. The meteoric rise and subsequent plummet of the movement drove its opponents to delineate the boundaries for all future political discourse in America. And this would seem overtly cynical, if it weren’t so obvious a political reality today—over a century later.
The complexities of this turbulent era of agrarian revolt are formidable. Yet at its core were poor farmers simply wanting a fair deal.
* * *