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Rodney Roe

Rodney Roe
Clayton, Georgia, USA
November 22
I currently place myself among the curmudgeons of the world. Always thinking about why things are, and how they may be better, I tend to rant at times, but mostly I just look for a reasoned discourse. I have previously worked as a cotton scout, grocery bag boy, cannery worker, and am a physician. I am married, have two daughters and four granddaughters. I retired due to vision loss in 2005 after a 30 year career as a hospital pathologist. Fortunate to have a wide range of interests, life following retirement has been good.

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NOVEMBER 4, 2011 4:33PM

Populism in the Twenty-first Century

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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.


  Martin Luther King, jr

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.



Picture form

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.



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Someone mentioned that the Tea Party was a populist movement which set me to asking, "What is the essence of populism?" It all depends on who "they" are.
This is quite post on a lesson in history and information on the present situation. Rodney. What deregulation has caused is unimaginable and I'm baffled by how a solution will be found to its devastating effects. Thank you for the work that's gone in here.
Martin Luther King was not a populist. The KKK were populists, the anti-government and anti-northern-elite segregationists were populists. The German Nazis were populists. Populism is all about the supposed "common man" crying out how much of a victim he is, and how some all-powerful and super evil minority is messing everything up. Martin Luther King never said that whites were evil or the enemy or messing everything up. OWS claims classic populist victimhood and attaches enormous power to a super evil sinister minority: the one percent. The Tea Party does the same thing, just from the right: their evil enemies are immigrants, elites, scientists, and so forth.
It occurred to me that the author might have written that Martin Luther King was a populist - something no historian or political scientist would suggest - because he was uncomfortable with the fact that King's opponents were populists and, like most populists, were politically & culturally conservative. And now that everyone acknowledges that OWS is populist, people might wonder, "Are they conservatives too?" There are certainly examples of left-wing populism, although most populists in America were and are conservative.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
--upton sinclair

"One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
--victor hugo

occupy party reaches critical mass/seismic effect--now what?
@ peterchullo 14 ~ the concept that populism has a left and right is understandable but not a current point of view. What is necessary to a populist movement is the notion that a group of "the people" is being oppressed by a group of the elite. There is no left and right in populism, so populist movements may arise in any group. Ergo, we have the Tea Party espousing conservative ideals and the Occupy movement with what most would call liberal ideology.
@ vzw ~ Not yet at critical mass. Maybe soon.
@ FusunA ~ I'm a student of Santayana who is credited with saying that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Understanding today depends on understanding the past, don't you think? This is not the first time that I've been accused of giving a history lesson. I just don't find history boring.
There is no left or right in populism? With a straight face you're telling me that the Nazis were not right-wing populists and that the Occupy Wall Streeters are not left-wing populists? Over and out and good night.
the important part of populism is that it can only occur in a non-democratic society. when people can create a citizen initiative, they act as citizens.

but when when they have no formal power to act, they protest, and they support demagogues. a 'demagogue' after all, is just one 'who speaks for the people.'

protest and populism in general have little effect, for only the person who writes law and commands the army, that guarantees the law becomes action, can be the master of the state.
Thanks for this -- it's encouraging to know democracy can work if people are willing to invest thier blood, sweat and tears.

I'd also like to make mention of some other influential movements -- the Abolition Movement -- the Women's Suffrage Movement -- the Progressive Movement, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Fighting Bob Lafollette of Wisconsin -- and as important as any, the Union Movement.

Then there's the other side of the coin -- the Temperance Movement, which gave us Prohibition, and the American Independent Party Movement of the Sixties, which in my view was the predecessor of today's Tea Party movement.
@ peterchullo 14 ~ perhaps I misspoke. What I meant to say is that populism is not inherently left or right. Populist movements can come from either direction.
@ al loomis ~ refer to Tom Cordle's comment.
@ Tom Cordle ~ those were all important movements in our history. I only hit what I considered the high points. The Temperance, Abolition and Woman's Suffrage movements were very influential movements, and are examples of how the goals of a populist movement are not inherently good or bad simply because they come from "the people". I had forgotten about the American Independent Party...can you imagine our country if George C. Wallace and Curtis E. LeMay had won? Their platform does sound very much like that of the Tea Party:
"1. Peace abroad and domestic tranquility at home.

2. An enlightened and advancing educational program, assisted but not controlled by the federal government.

3. Job training and opportunity for all Americans willing and able to seek and bold gainful employment.

4. An alliance and partnership with the private sector of our economy seeking an end to poverty among our people.

5. Efficiency and prudence in governmental spending leading to a helpful and stable economy free from the need for ever continuing taxation.

6. Inclusion of the farmer in our program of prosperity through his own efforts rather than total reliance on government subsidy.

7. Reestablishment of the authority and responsibility of local government by returning to the states, counties and cities those matters properly falling within their jurisdiction and responsibility.

8. Ending the inflationary spiral of the past decade through fiscal responsibility and efficiency in all echelons of government.

9. The orderly and economical utilization of the natural resources of this nation coupled with a sensible program of conservation of these resources.

10. An insistence that the laboring man and woman be given his fair share of responsibility and reward for the development of the mighty potential of this nation.

11. A re-dedication of this country to the love of God and country and the creation of a judiciary mindful of the attitudes of the people in this regard."
The American Independent Party was, like the Tea Party, opposed to what George Wallace called "pointy headed intellectuals". Many of us would have been on the list, I'm afraid. I like Billy Connolly's definition of an intellectual;"... someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger."
While a number of my age cohort (born late in Great Depression) have bought the nonsense preached by the Tea Party, one must remember that its origins are not with the people, but that the operation is "astro-turfing" of the worst sort by ye old Koch Brothers and their ilk, who hate anything that takes one cent of their money, no matter how worthy the cause, how needy the recipient.
Ah, history. One of my favorite subjects. Some of the comments make me want to suggest that we let go semantics and focus on the history herein...and the history OWS and its iterations may be making as we type.
Thanks for your informative post!
@ sjmcm3 and Beauty 1947 ~ Of all the historical populist movements that started by Huey Long made the greatest impression. So, his vision of the elite - the ultra wealthy - was my vision of the elite. That is the reason that I had such a problem viewing the Tea Party as a populist movement because their vision of the elite causing the problems today is so different from my own.

The OWS and its various local variations view the very wealthy, correctly in my opinion, as the root cause of our current loss of jobs, mortgage meltdown, assault on the unions, ownership of Congress, maintenance of corporate welfare, and radical deregulation of industry. Populist movements can prevail. In the past they have changed the process and realized at least part of their goals. This movement is critical as a balance against the Tea Party which preaches the doctrine, a doctrine dis-proven again and again, that cutting taxes and freeing corporations from regulation frees up money to start businesses that create jobs.
Your last comment was chilling in its accuracy. How ironic that populist movements arise out of anger and fear, which in turn leads us to fear as much as yearn for a strong leader. Perhaps these new movements owe their lives to the dearth of singular leadership? Like I said: a chilling commentary.
And Jackson too. Good piece about a tendency in American politics that is rather important, if, it has another side to it, like Wallace, although, once blacks could vote, then he changed stripes on that issue very dramatically.
Very scary last sentence on an intensively researched and fascinating post. R - big time!
Congrats on the EP! rated with RRR
@ Nikki Stern - Thanks for stopping by. It struck me halfway through doing the research on this that a strong leader in a populist movement runs the risk of being a moth drawn to a flame, and the assassination of the leader has unpredictable effects on the movement.
@ Robin Robinson & Mary Ann Sorrentino - thanks for your comments and R.
@ Don Rich - George Wallace wasn't one of my favorite people, but he was, as I was reminded, the leader of a populist movement and there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life.

Peter Chullo said "Populism is all about the supposed ''common man'' crying out how much victim he is and how some all-powerful and super evil minority is messing everything up."

Close, but not quite. This is about common people losing themselves, or their individual selves, to the group, in a process that can be called "groupsism" (group-polarization, extremization, terrorization), or their collective selves to the all-powerful individual, the Godfather or Godmother or Maecenas, who they want to befriend and who wants to befriend them in a process that can be called "cronyism".

Both of these processes are basically political. Groupsism on the left, creating enemies and cronyism on the right, creating friends. So called friends and enemies, that is. Thing is, that a 3rd party is needed for fellowship between the two. For it is not about what happens between people in groups only, it is also about what happens in people between groups.
Being a Man i am shocked and dismayed that WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE was not mentioned in this piece on POPULISM. Wow! I wonder what Rodney's wife does evenings?
Populist movement don't need a charismatic leader. Do they? If a people's movement has no such leader what do you call it?
Isn't a populist movement just a people's movement. If so, net neutrality and whole foods are populist. And Wow! The same people!
Ha! Rodney's wife would have been part of the movement had there been no suffrage. She spends her evenings hen-pecking me.
Populist movements to my understanding are simply movements that start outside of the system by disaffected groups. The group may be women, a racial minority, an economically disadvantaged group, or just about any segment that feels that they cannot get redress through normal means. The Viet Nam war protests were such a movement.
Charismatic leaders may speed up the process, but they may also subvert it as Hitler and Mussolini did.