The Populist Fantasy

Looking forward to 2004, liberals and progressives have become embroiled in an argument over whether Democrats ought to embrace or reject populism. Pro-business moderates -- or, more precisely, anti-anti-business moderates -- have lambasted Al Gore's 2000 campaign for overemphasizing "economic populism" and for slighting the "pro-growth" agenda advanced by the Democratic Leadership Conference and its current leader, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Neopopulists, on the other hand, disparage pro-business Democrats and proclaim that the party must become, once again, the standard-bearer for populism if it is ever to reclaim its principles and regain power. Arianna Huffington, one of the more prominent exponents of this view, proclaims that the country needs "an explosion of populist outrage." And recently, in these pages, two men who command respect for virtually everything they write, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira [See "Why Democrats Must Be Populists," Sept. 9, 2002.], argued for an embrace of populism.

Both the moderates and the neopopulists agree on one point: that attacks on corporate corruption and economic injustice amount to populism. Similarly, the news media have often described Gore's recent public pronouncements, as well as his 2000 campaign, as "populism," and Maureen Dowd even calls Gore's populism "fire-breathing."

There is nothing distinctively populist, however, about criticizing corporate misdeeds, just as there is nothing distinctively conservative about promoting economic growth and a healthy business environment. Long ago, back in the 1930s, the Democratic Party fused these two seemingly antagonistic appeals and made them the bedrock of modern liberalism. Yet now each side wants to claim that one of those appeals is the true soul of progressivism, with the news media egging them on.

Unless these populist fantasies, pro and con, are exposed and banished, the Democrats could well destroy themselves -- a likelihood made all the more tragic because it would arise out of fundamental misunderstandings of the party's history.

Populism Then

What was populism? At its core, it was agrarian dissent after Reconstruction against the inequities of the high industrialism and mercantile exploitation that were transforming the United States. Great Plains farmers felt betrayed by the Republican Party, just as small farmers and sharecroppers in the South felt betrayed by the Democrats. The Republicans had fallen into the grip of an eastern industrialist combine that ruled through congressional leadership, dominating a weak presidency. The Democrats had turned into a Jim Crow party, ruled by local Bourbon elites. Picking up on certain Jeffersonian and Jacksonian appeals that long predated populism, the movement focused rural outrage at how one way of life, based on independent family farms, was being supplanted by another, based on capitalist dependence and the merciless whims of the market.

To their credit, the original populists argued in favor of various regulatory reforms that would give governments (especially state governments) greater powers to check the excesses of unbridled corporate power, including the regulation of railroad rates. But that is not all the populists stood for. They indulged in a variety of crackpot financial schemes, made famous by the likes of William "Coin" Harvey and designed to inflate the currency. They harbored nativist and anti-Semitic fanaticism. They battled, in their southern political base, over racial issues and whether disenfranchised blacks were their allies or their foes. Above all, they proclaimed a disdain that bordered on hatred for cities and for the conniving parasites who inhabited them.

"You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard," William Jennings Bryan declared in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896. "We reply that our great cities rest upon our broad and great prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city of the country."

Populism combined both the visionary ideals and the curdled anger of late-19th-century American dissent. And the curdled anger doomed it. At the movement's political crossroads, in the presidential election of 1896, the Populist Party-endorsed Democrat Bryan was defeated, receiving, not surprisingly, no appreciable support from the immigrant urban working class. For American workers, the Republican William McKinley's high-tariff, lunch-bucket politics made more sense than agrarian demands for the recoinage of silver and the vindication of a doomed American pastoral. Even in the 1890s, populism never spread much out of the Deep South and the Great Plains.

The New Deal Alternative

The national Democratic Party took more than a decade to shake off Bryan and the populists, finally doing so when Woodrow Wilson was nominated in 1912. By the time the modern party emerged 20 years later with the advent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a new breed of reforming Democrats, especially in the big northern cities and industrial states, had firmly grabbed the initiative away from the old-line agrarians. In part the shift was cultural, as anti-prohibition, immigrant-friendly "wets" overcame the rural-based, crypto-nativist "drys." Unlike the populist movement, the New Deal included at its center Catholics and Jews. But the more profound changes had to do with politics and political economy.

In place of the old agrarianism, the New Deal Democrats accepted the modern industrial economy of their time as a given and sought to use the machinery of the state to combat the Great Depression and extend capitalism's blessings. Instead of the nostrums of "Coin" Harvey, they endorsed policies drawn from John Maynard Keynes, Adolph Berle and other thoroughly modern, unpopulist thinkers. To the extent that they favored using government to attack the plight of ordinary Americans, they bore a vague resemblance to the populists. But in everything that mattered -- an appreciation of the democratic potentials of industrial capitalism, an acceptance that the old yeoman America was dead and gone -- they repudiated populism.

FDR's successor, Harry Truman of Missouri, came from a small-town background where there had been a populist movement. But Truman's "give 'em hell" rhetoric against the monopolists and the Republicans sought to advance the New Deal rather than to restore populist nostalgia. Similarly, when President John F. Kennedy confronted Big Steel, forcing it to reverse a price hike, he never presented it as populism but simply said that he was governing as a Democrat. President Lyndon Johnson, who was intimately familiar with populist movements of the past, sought to complete the New Deal. His Great Society was a modern industrial society, not an agrarian, anti-business throwback.

Populism Again?

Even after FDR and the Democrats largely supplanted it, populism did persist in mutated forms. There was the strong-arm populism of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, who preached that under his enlightened rule every man would be a king. There was the racist populism of George Wallace and, later, the Southern GOP populism of Lee Atwater, denigrating (much as Bryan had done) the "pointy-head pseudo-intellectuals." More recently we have had the simplistic populisms of Ross Perot the high-tech industrialist, Pat Buchanan the television talk-show pundit and Ralph Nader in his Green Party reincarnation.

What all of these populisms have in common is an appeal to anger, frustration and incomprehension against a simplistically drawn, diffuse colluding class, whether it be corrupt politicians, new-world-order internationalists or global capital. What further unites these wildly disparate populist pretenders is their protectionism -- a protectionism, ironically, that the original populists vehemently opposed as the essence of eastern industrial evil. Paul Starr put it well in The American Prospect two years ago [See "Why I'm Not a Populist," Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2000.]: "The populist mind suspects conspiracies in high places, often in league with foreign influences, and appeals to a kind of insular Americanism that is suspicious of both immigrants and other countries. The grievances that populism taps are no doubt genuine. Its rhetoric and remedies are oversimplified and dangerous."

The great mistake is to equate this long-discredited political strain with any and all criticisms of corporate corruption and injustice. Neopopulists do so by fabricating a flimsy legacy that supposedly begins somewhere in the 1830s with Andrew Jackson and runs through Bryan, to FDR and all the way to Bill Clinton. New Democrats do so by accepting most of that false genealogy and blaming it for all that went wrong with the party after 1968.

The modern Democrats are not an anti-business party and have never been so. The New Deal aimed not to destroy capitalism, but to save it from dogmatic, myopic capitalists. When Al Gore, or any other Democrat, criticizes corporate malfeasance, or the gutting of environmental laws, or the corrupt pharmaceutical lobby, or Social Security privatizers, or Big Tobacco or Big Oil, he or she is standing up for traditional post-New Deal Democratic principles that all Democrats ought to uphold: that there are times when the public interest must take precedence over narrow corporate desires, interests and influence.

It is the Democratic cream without the old curdled populism.

Those progressives who want their populism pure and simple might as well enlist with Nader and ensure Republican dominance and national calamity for the foreseeable future. Those Democrats who want to attack populism and rebuild a robust economy would do better to aim their fire at Nader and at the white, southern pseudo-populists who control the Republican Party.

Both sides ought to recognize that the Democratic Party's history since Bryan has been a struggle to transcend the politics of mere outrage and make the nation a better and more secure place for all its citizens. There may be legitimate debates over matters of emphasis in an ever-evolving world. But fighting over phantoms will foster only a counterproductive factionalism. The ghost of William Jennings Bryan was exorcised a very long time ago. Why bring it back?