Posts Tagged ‘The Populist Revolt’

Looking back on the Populist era

January 31, 2012

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.

(more…)