Looking back on the Populist era

Political issues in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s were very like those of today—business monopoly, the power of banks and Wall Street speculators, declining income for working people, increasing concentration of wealth in the upper 1 percent, and a two-party system in which both parties were captives to corporate wealth.

John D. HIcks’ classic 1931 book, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party, told the story of the political revolt of farmers in the Great Plains and the South against that system.  I read this book in hope that it would offer lessons for reform in the present day.

Unlike today, farmers who worked the land were a large percentage of the American people, and a majority in some states.   They organized politically and eventually formed a third party whose leaders were regarded as both dangerous revolutionaries and ridiculous crackpots.  The populist goal — an agricultural economic based on prosperous small independent farmers — was not achieved.

But over time many of their ideas came to be enacted into law.  The lesson of the Populist era is that political reform is more than the art of the possible.  Sometimes it takes leaders who are able to redefine what is possible.

The Great Plains region’s economic distress arose partly from the way that region was settled.  The U.S. government opened up the Far West for settlement by giving large land grants to railroads, who in turn sold the land to settlers in order to have customers.  As a result, the Great Plains and Rockies were settled with lightning speed, compared to the Mississippi Valley in an earlier era.  But farmers on the new lands found themselves with heavy mortgage debt, working land that was less fertile than in the old Midwest and often subject to the monopoly power of a single shipper for their crops.

Most Great Plains farmers had large mortgages.  In those days the dollar was based on gold.  Economic activity increased faster than the gold supply and the purchasing power of the dollar continually increased.  This meant that, adjusted for deflation, the burden of debt constantly increased.

Poor farmers in the South also had to deal with debt and monopoly, as well as special problems of their own.  The whole region was impoverished and reduced to frontier-like conditions by defeat in the Civil War.  Many poor farmers, both black and white, were sharecroppers—tenants of big landowners who paid a share of their crops as rent.  Often the sharecroppers had to borrow money from the landlords each year to financing that year’s planting.  Often they were required to buy necessities from the landlord’s store.  They, too, had debts which they had no realistic hope of paying off.

In the economic depression of the 1870s, which historians now think was as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s, railroads, banks and agricultural middlemen were in a strong enough position to make sure they got paid no matter what.  Individual farmers were not.

Poor farmers in the Great Plains and the South formed state Farmers’ Alliances, which shared information on best farming practices, formed co-operatives to maket their crops and endorsed political candidates.  The state Alliances coalesced into a Northern Alliance and a Southern Alliance; the latter had a Colored Alliance as a kind of auxiliary.

Hicks provided a lot of information about the leaders and inner workings of the Northern Alliance and the Southern Alliance, but, reflecting the attitudes of his time, told virtually nothing about the Colored Alliance.  It would be interesting to understand the workings of a segregated political alliance between blacks and whites in that era.

Farmers in the Great Plains, disillusioned with the two major parties, formed a People’s Party, which came to be known as the Populist Party.  The populists advocated railroad regulation, banking reform, help to farmers in marketing their crops and coinage of silver to expand the money supply.  The silver issue came to dominate populist thinking, and gained their platform the support of mining interests in the Rocky Mountain states.

The People’s Party captured a number of state legislatures and governorships, but their inexperienced and often eccentric leaders accomplished little in the few years they were in power.  In 1892, they ran James B. Weaver for President.  He carried Kansas, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada and got electoral votes in North Dakota and Oregon—as strong or stronger in the silver mining states as in the farm states.

The populist movement in the South was stymied by the race issue.  Democratic leaders argued that, by splitting the white vote, the populists threatened white supremacy.  Many populists remained within the Democratic Party.  Some of the most rabid racists, such as Pitchfork Ben Tillman of South Carolina, were also economic radicals, by the standards of the day.

In 1896, the Democratic Party adopted most of the populist platform and nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska for President.  His main issue was expanding silver coinage.  The populists decided to support him rather than running their own candidate.  Bryan carried the South, the Great Plains and the Rockies, but was defeated by William McKinley, who received 51 percent of the popular vote and nearly two-thirds of the electoral vote.  After that the populists were never able to reconstitute the People’s Party.

The populists hoped to gain the support of industrial workers in the big cities, who has their own complaints about big business, but this didn’t happen.  The farmers and the industrial workers were just too different in terms of religion, ethnicity and cultural attitudes.  Neither did the populists gain much support among the prosperous farmers of the old Midwest and the East, who generally had more fertile land and less debt.  In American history, divisions based on region, race, religion and ethnic identity have usually overridden division based on economic class.

Support for populism waned in the 1890s.  Economic recovery brought a measure of prosperity to the farmers.  Gold strikes in the Klondike, Australia and elsewhere brought an increase in the gold supply and an end to deflation.

Mainstream politicians such as Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt regarded the populists as dangerous revolutionaries and also as crackpots.  But as Hicks pointed out, many populist proposals came to be adopted.  The federal government tried to support crop prices.  Railroads were regulated.  Monopolies were in theory outlawed.  The Federal Reserve System provided some control over the money supply.

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Why has there been such a change in the regional base of the Democrats, who supposedly represent working people, and the Republicans, who supposedly represent big business?

The usual explanation is that, in our era, issues such as abortion rights, gay rights and school prayer, which did not exist in the Populist era, override economic issues.  While there is some truth in that, I think the more important reason is that, just as in the Populist era, neither party represents the economic interest of struggling working people.  This was pointed out by Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter With Kansas?  and Joe Bageant, in Deer Hunting With Jesus.

Click on What Good Are Democrats? for my earlier post on Frank’s and Bageant’s books.

Click on What’s the Matter With Liberals? for Thomas Frank’s analysis of the Democrats’ failure to be populists.

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