Saturday, June 22

Why do they fear Populism?

When a political leader or their movement is referred to as Populist it is most commonly employed as a slur.

The image we’re instructed to conjure is one of a snake-oiled salesman preying off the unwashed, too dim to understand their betrayal of democracy and all things proper.

While the term – and its hysterical response – made a comeback in the Trump era, the campaign against Populism started in the 19th century when it wasn’t aimed at a rabid Right at all, but against a socialist movement that looked for a time to be slow-walking toward the White House.

The American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s represented a remarkable crescendo in the symphony of social movements that had gathered momentum in the turbulent aftermath of the Civil War. Farmers, wage earners, women, and other marginalized sectors of society converged to form the People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populist Party. This was not just a political entity but a fervent crusade against the entrenched might of corporate power and the pervasive chasm of economic inequality. The Populists stood as the last truly formidable third-party movement in United States history.

To appreciate the magnitude of their impact, consider that Populist candidates triumphed in gubernatorial races across nine states and seized approximately forty-five seats in the US Congress, including an impressive six seats in the Senate. The apex of their influence was perhaps in 1892 when James B. Weaver, their presidential candidate from Iowa, garnered over a million votes, translating to more than 8 percent of the total. These figures were not merely statistical; they signified a seismic shift in the political landscape.

The Populist Party distinguished itself from conventional political parties. It was a dynamic coalition, an alliance of the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and various other reformist movements, collectively described by the Populists as a “congress of industrial orders.” This robust amalgamation provided the People’s Party with its formidable strength and distinct character, reflecting the aspirations of working people for egalitarian cooperation and solidarity. Their vision was strikingly akin to the labour, farmer-labour, and social-democratic parties that were simultaneously taking shape in Europe and other parts of the world.

Most controversially, the Populists sought to fracture the monolithic white supremacist dominance in the post-Reconstruction South by forging alliances between white and black farmers and labourers—alliances that were ultimately crushed by force. Despite these setbacks, their ideology served as a beacon for subsequent waves of American reformers, inspiring the Progressives, the architects of the New Deal, and factions of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. Martin Luther King Jnr would pay respect to them in his speech at the culmination of the Selma march.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

Rev Martin Luther King, Jnr – Montgomery Alabama March 25, 1965.

Predictably, the adversaries of this indigenous radicalism were elitist and unsavory. The original Populists fell victim to the presidential campaign of William McKinley, who employed every conceivable stratagem to depict them as deranged, alien, unclean, and driven by sheer lunacy and violence. The New Dealers, in turn, faced the vitriolic onslaught of the Liberty League and similar factions, who denounced the Roosevelt administration as a totalitarian catastrophe.

Pres. William McKinley

The term Populist, being a by-word for a morally untenable politics was first employed by the enemies of the Left.

Other movements, such as McCarthyism have been labelled populist yet had no features of the original movement. The irony of its attachment now to Trump is that, while purposed as a moniker for a feral, far-Right base, Trump won 2016 in the Rust Belt by effectively attacking Hillary Clinton and the establishment from the Left. He deserved the title because he campaigned like a genuine Populist, despite governing like a vanilla conservative. 

The same could be said of our own Jacinda Ardern. Her initial pitch to the public was a Populist one, but once in power continued the alienating technocratic model that the organised Left have held on to stubbornly for decades. The trajectory of Trump and Ardern are remarkably similar in both their appeal and eventual betrayal of their supporters.

Use of the term today, primarily by the organised Left, is rarely examined. We can put that down to a forgivable lack of awareness of a 19th century flash-in-the-pan movement whose opponents wanted it forgotten. But it nevertheless reveals something about the contemporary Left, who seem to view any coalition not prepared to accept bourgeois values to be politically illegitimate. Once upon a time, we called this conservatism, and it was generally accepted that Leftism had no comment to make on the culture of the poor.  

A viable coalition of the working poor and marginalised groups is always going to strike fear into an establishment, be it in the 19th century or today. And with the term Populism now sullied probably beyond redemption, and with privilege to defend and a failure to address inequality to distract from, why reinvent the wheel?

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