Populism: A political movement championing the people against the elite.
A number of populist movements have arisen in the history of the U.S. The issues creating the movements have varied because the definition of “the people” and “the elite” have varied.
Populism is often spoken of in a derogatory manner by some members of the media, those holding political power, and the wealthy. There is no mystery about why this is true. Populist movements seek to change society in fundamental ways.
A brief history of American Populist movements:
The first populist movement in the U.S. occurred following the American Civil War. What began as a rural agricultural social society, the Patrons of Husbandry, became an organization that sought to improve farming practices and allow for exchange of ideas. Farmers throughout the South and Midwest struggled with low prices for their produce and sought ways to improve their return. They correctly identified problems with railroad monopolies and attendant high transportation costs, bank corruption, and high cost of farm equipment and supplies as items to be addressed.
Following the Panic of 1873 a sort of credit union was organized to solve the problems of corrupt banks, and group purchasing was established along with the building of cooperative grain elevators. Solving the problems with the railroads culminated in a Supreme Court decision in Munn vs. Illinois (1876) which upheld a number of laws termed the “Granger Laws”. A later case, the Wabash Case, brought by the railroads overcame all of the gains made by the Granger Laws. (1) The positive effect of this movement was that following the establishment of The Greenback Party, The Farmer’s Alliance, and, finally, the Populist Party, farmers were identified in Washington as a force to be reckoned with. Ultimately, the Grangers returned to their original purpose, that of being a social organization.
One of the weaknesses of this movement was that, in focusing on outside forces as the causes of their woes, they overlooked the fact that overproduction was one of the major causes of low prices. The building of cooperative grain elevators helped in smoothing out the fluctuations by storing grain in poor markets and selling grain in good markets.
HUEY P. LONG “Every Man A King”
Picture courtesy of the Social Security Administration
A sort of radical populism was created by Huey P. Long, Governor of Louisiana (1928-32), and United States Senator beginning in 1930. Huey Long was from the piney woods of North Louisiana, and built a populism built on the concept of a struggle of the “little man” against wealthy corporations. Coming as he did during the early days of the Great Depression, at a time when property values were depressed, many were unemployed, and there was a great disparity between the wealthy and everyone else, he became extremely popular.
“The Kingfish” was a phenomenon. He entered law school as a high school dropout, gained a law degree in a year, and set his sights on the White House. Furthermore, he called for a number of reforms including, a guaranteed income of $5,000/yr, a limit on incomes to $1,000,000/yr, a limitation of personal wealth to $50,000,000, and a legacy benefit of $5,000,000. (2) Also, he advocated a national old-age benefit to everyone over 60 years of age.
Excerpt from Long’s “Share Our Wealth” speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate: (1933)
“People of America: In every community get together at once and organize a share-our-wealth society--Motto: Every man a king
Principles and platform:
1. To limit poverty by providing that every deserving family shall share in the wealth of America for not less than one third of the average wealth, thereby to possess not less than $5,000 free of debt.
2. To limit fortunes to such a few million dollars as will allow the balance of the American people to share in the wealth and profits of the land.
3. Old-age pensions of $30 per month to persons over 60 years of age who do not earn as much as $1,000 per year or who possess less than $10,000 in cash or property, thereby to remove from the field of labor in times of unemployment those who have contributed their share to the public service.
4. To limit the hours of work to such an extent as to prevent overproduction and to give the workers of America some share in the recreations, conveniences, and luxuries of life.
5. To balance agricultural production with what can be sold and consumed according to the laws of God, which have never failed.
6. To care for the veterans of our wars.
7. Taxation to run the Government to be supported, first, by reducing big fortunes from the top, thereby to improve the country and provide employment in public works whenever agricultural surplus is such as to render unnecessary, in whole or in part, any particular crop….
1. To limit poverty:
We propose that a deserving family shall share in our wealth of America at least for one third the average. An average family is slightly less than five persons. The number has become less during depression. The United States total wealth in normal times is about $400 billion or about $15,000 to a family. If there were fair distribution of our things in America, our national wealth would be three or four or five times the $400 billion, because a free, circulating wealth is worth many times more than wealth congested and frozen into a few hands as is America's wealth. But, figuring only on the basis of wealth as valued when frozen into a few hands, there is the average of $15,000 to the family. We say that we will limit poverty of the deserving people. One third of the average wealth to the family, or $5,000, is a fair limit to the depths we will allow any one man's family to fall. None too poor, none too rich.
2. To limit fortunes:
The wealth of this land is tied up in a few hands. It makes no difference how many years the laborer has worked, nor does it make any difference how many dreary rows the farmer has plowed, the wealth he has created is in the hands of manipulators. They have not worked any more than many other people who have nothing. Now we do not propose to hurt these very rich persons. We simply say that when they reach the place of millionaires they have everything they can use and they ought to let somebody else have something. As it is, 0.1 of 1 percent of the bank depositors nearly half of the money in the banks, leaving 99.9 of bank depositors owning the balance. Then two thirds of the people do not even have a bank account. The lowest estimate is that 4 percent of the people own 85 percent of our wealth. The people cannot ever come to light unless we share our wealth, hence the society to do it.” (3)
Senator Long believed that everyone in the country should have the necessities; a house, an automobile, food and a radio. Needless to say, he was not popular with the wealthy in America. He planned to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 but was assassinated in 1935. His national influence faded, but his state organization continued. Legacies of Huey Long’s brand of populism were the establishment of Social Security under FDR, and expansion of Louisiana hospitals, highways, and educational institutions.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING “I Have A Dream”
Courtesy of the Seattle Times
The gains that black people in America enjoyed following the conclusion of the Civil War were erased in large part through a series of laws, especially in the South, that established a “separate but equal” policy that extended to all phases of society. Blacks went to separate churches, attended separate schools, had their own social clubs, their own section on public transportation, and even had their own restrooms and water fountains in public places. The problem, as everyone knows, was that there was no equality in any of these things.
As a child in grade school, for example, I started to school in a four room brick schoolhouse with outdoor toilets that looked identical to the “colored” grade school six blocks away. The difference was that at the end of my second grade year we had a new (asbestos ridden as it turned out) school building that was up to 1950s standards with running water and indoor toilets. When I graduated from high school the black kids were still meeting in the same four room schoolhouse.
The Civil Rights movement was, in essence, a populist movement. The “people” were the disadvantaged blacks and the “elite” were the whites who through decades of intimidation had kept the blacks in the community in a subservient social position.
The movement, led by men such as Martin Luther King Jr, sought, using the successful example of Mahatma Gandhi in India, to overturn this system through non-violent protest. The movement was bloody, ended up in Dr. King’s assassination, but was eventually successful.
Note that the identification of a leader in a populist uprising as the leading force in the movement often ends in the leader’s death.
The 21st century has seen the rise of two populist movements. Both are born of a feeling of unrealized promises. The difference is in who the people identify as the elite.
THE TEA PARTY “We Want Our Country Back”
The Tea Party arose in the events leading up to the 2008 General Election. Having no easily identified leader and espousing smaller government, lower taxes, elimination of entitlements, elimination of the national debt, abolition of deficit spending, protection of free markets, return to civic responsibility (supporting the cause), and belief in the people (the members of the tea party are capable of making their own choices). They were a noisy minority of truly disgruntled citizens feeling that they had become disenfranchised due to the actions of Big Government. (4)
The Tea Party elected not to stand as a separate political party, but instead to become a force in the Republican Party. Their goals are a libertarian approach to government and the economy.
Many of the Tea Party members are senior citizens, unemployed older Americans, and the tendency is for their demographic to overlap that of the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, but social conservatism is not a stated goal of the party. As with all populist movements, the cause of the group's ills is seen through the individual’s own prejudices. Members of the Tea Party tend to think that entitlement money is going to pay ‘welfare cheats’ when in actual fact many of the Tea Party members are recipients of the entitlements that make up the bulk of the Federal Budget, Medicare and Social Security. Faced with this fact the goal becomes one of reforming the programs to make them smaller and more efficient (getting rid of the cheats).
So, in the case of the Tea Party, the individuals referred to as the elite are not the wealthy, but those who are educated, liberal and interested in establishing beliefs based on fact. For many members of the Tea Party, belief trumps fact.
OCCUPY WALL STREET “We Are The 99%”
Picture form MinnPost.com
The Occupy Movement is still in its infancy. The overriding theme appears to be that, through a series of deregulations over the past three decades, corporations and, especially, the large Wall Street Banks, have taken away the American Dream. By a process of selling mortgages, forming derivatives of the mortgages, and selling the derivatives, responsibility on the part of the banks for making prudent loans was abrogated. Too many homes were built, too many homes were sold to individuals who could not afford the homes, and in the face of what appeared to be an ever upwardly spiraling housing market, individuals began to speculate in buying homes that they couldn’t afford at adjustable rates, imagining that they would ‘turn’ the property before the Adjustable Rate Mortgage went to a rate that they couldn’t pay. As everyone knows the housing bubble burst leaving many with primary homes and investments that they could not pay for. Because prices dropped so precipitously, the ‘owners’ owed more on the home than it was worth and resale at a price that would get the owner out of debt was impossible. Because of the deregulation of banks it has been nearly impossible to tell who owns the property after default, leading to foreclosed homes sitting vacant, deteriorating, while the Big Banks try to sort things out.
In the case of the Occupy Movement the issue seems to be bigger than a banking problem. The issue is the tremendous discrepancy in wealth and ruthlessness of large corporations in their efforts to destroy the middle class and further consolidate their wealth. Regardless of the extent of the sources of their frustration, the ‘elite’ appear to be the wealthy and large corporations.
Shades of Huey P. Long: There is not yet an Occupy leader to assassinate.