Sam Smith, 2008 – American populism has a long past. It began when the first Indian shot the first arrow at a colonist attempting to foreclose on his hunting grounds. As early as 1676, the farmers in Virginia were upset enough about high taxes, low prices and the payola given to those close to the governor that they followed Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.
One hundred and ten years later found farmers of Massachusetts complaining that however men might have been created, they were not staying equal. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays they took on the new establishment in open rebellion to free themselves high taxes and legal costs, rampant foreclosures, exorbitant salaries for public officials and other abuses. The rebels were routed and fled.
The populist thread weaves through the administration of Andrew Jackson, an early American populist who recognized the importance of challenging the style as well as the substance of the establishment value system. It was a time when it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a banker to get into the White House, a problem bankers have seldom had since.
It was the end of the nineteenth century, though, that institutionalized populism, and gave it a name. The issues are familiar: economic concentration, unfair taxation, welfare and democracy. Critics are quick to point out that they also included racism and nativism, which was true in some cases, but it has been traditional for liberal historians to emphasize these aspects while overlooking the rampant class and ethnic prejudices of the more elite politicians they favored.
In the end, the most debilitating, discriminatory and dangerous form of extremism in this country is found in the middle — with its cell meetings held in the committee rooms of the US Congress, its slogan “Not Now” and its goal of maintaining the timorousness of the people towards their leaders. A true populist revival could change this but the merchants of moderation will do what they can to control and blunt it.
As a party, the populists were not particularly successful, but it wasn’t long before the Democrats bought many of their proposals including the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions, and the eight hour workday. It’s not a bad list of accomplishments for a party that got just 8.5% of the popular vote in the only presidential election in which it ran a candidate on its own.
The growth of an urban left and the influence of transatlantic Marxism overwhelmed rural-oriented populism, which also suffered due to racism and regionalism. European socialism got a much better break under Roosevelt than did the native populist tradition although there were notable exceptions such as the rural electrification program. In the end, however, neither ideological socialism nor pragmatic populism could hold their own against the emerging dominant style of contemporary liberalism, which espoused human rights and civil liberties even as economic welfare was carefully constrained by a prohibition against the redistribution of wealth or power.
The Democrats came to emphasize the worst aspect of socialism, concentration of power in the state, while failing to expend a proportionate amount of energy providing the supposed benefit of the shift: economic and political justice. The growth of the economy, aided by a couple of wars, obscured this development until the sixties, when the forgotten precincts began to be heard from: first blacks, then one mistreated group after another – including young non-college educated whites – until today we find ourselves a country of angry, alienated minorities, bumblinq around in the dark looking for a coalition to wield against those in power.
Here lies the great hope in the rediscovery of populism. More than any other political philosophy it offers potential for those who serve this country to seize a bit of it back from those who control it. It emphasizes the issues that should be emphasized: economic justice, decentralized democracy and an end to the concentration of power.
Populism’s hidden army is the non-voter. A study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, found that “Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that’s not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. . .
A review of Doppelt and Shearer’s work notes that “In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities.”
If those of voting age simply turned out in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would be about 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That’s a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.
But there are also big problems. We have, for example, reached a stage where many minorities have produced enough winners that the greater number of losers not only have to battle their oppressors but the indifference of, and misleading impressions caused by, their own role models. All pressure groups – farmers, labor unions, women, ethnic groups – have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the citizens at the bottom of each of these causes – the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the tip-dependent waitress, the slum dweller – has hardly been allowed a bite. We have created the superstructure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.
Not even the organizations supposedly dedicated to correcting this imbalance have been up to the task. The Black Congressional Caucus remains silent as the toll mounts of black young men sent to prison or to their death thanks a war far more deadly to them than Iraq, namely the war on drugs. The major women’s groups are far more interested in Nancy Pelosi than in women working at Wal-Mart. In fact, the most effective women’s and minority groups in the country are unions like SEIU and Unite Here, which actually help some of those most in need.
Unlike New Deal and Great Society liberals, contemporary liberalism has cut its close ties to populism and instead is content to drive its SUV to the church of Our Mother of Perpetual Good Intentions. The goal is to believe the right thing, unlike populism, whose goal is to do the right thing. Faith vs. works.
Interestingly, populism – despite its bad rap – has far more potential for creating the diverse, happy society of which the liberals dream. The reason for this is that hate and tension are directly related to people’s personal social and economic status. Both the old Democratic segregationist and the new GOP fundamentalist understood and exploited this. They made the weak angry at each other, they taught the poor of one ethnicity and class to blame those of another for their troubles. Karl Rove is just the George Wallace of another time.
But you won’t break this cycle with feel-good rhetoric and rules. You break it by creating a fairer and more decent society for everyone. You don’t do it with political correctness; you do it with economic and social equity.
Yet when Howard Dean made his comment about wanting to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt. By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn’t think they qualified as Democratic voters.
The decline of liberalism has been accelerated by a growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of “cultural creatives” saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.
The black writer, Jean Toomer once described America as “so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes.” Writing in 1919, Toomer said, “It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.”
So what might a populist agenda look like? Let’s look at two examples – neither a paragon of virtue – yet far better, and stunningly so, than any of today’s politicians in starting programs that helped large numbers of people. Their legacy was not to be found in their own amply noted inadequacies but in the adequacies they made possible for others. In a time of shallow political celebrities incapable of even modest achievement, these men remind us what democracy was meant to be about.
The first was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Here’s how Wikipedia describes him:
In his four-year term as governor, Long increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana from 331 to 2,301, plus an additional 4,508 2,816 miles of gravel roads. By 1936, the infrastructure program begun by Long had [doubled] the state’s road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .
Long’s free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state’s mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year. . .
As an alternative to what he called the conservatism of the New Deal, Long proposed legislation capping personal fortunes, income and inheritances. . . In 1934, he unveiled an economic plan he called Share Our Wealth. Long argued there was enough wealth in the country for every individual to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, but that it was unfairly concentrated in the hands of a few millionaire bankers, businessmen and industrialists.
Long proposed a new tax code which would limit personal fortunes to $50 million, annual income to $1 million (or 300 times the income of the average family), and inheritances to $5 million. The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000-3,000 (or one-third the average family income). Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free primary and college education, old-age pensions, veterans’ benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, and limiting the work week to thirty hours. .
Long, in February 1934, formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country, and Long’s Senate office was receiving an average of 60,000 letters a week. Pressure from Long and his organization is considered by some historians as responsible for Roosevelt’s “turn to the left” in 1935, when he enacted the Second New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and Social Security; in private, Roosevelt candidly admitted to trying to “steal Long’s thunder.”
The other example is Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s gross mishandling of Vietnam has obscured memory of the fact that he fermented the greatest number of good domestic bills in the least time of any president in our history. Again, some examples from Wikipedia:
Four civil rights acts were passed, including three laws in the first two years of Johnson’s presidency. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of literacy or other voter-qualification tests that had sometimes served to keep African-Americans off voting lists and provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes. It also reinforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by authorizing the appointment of federal voting examiners in areas that did not meet voter-participation requirements. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination and extended constitutional protections to Native Americans on reservations. . .
The War on Poverty . . . spawned dozens of programs, among them the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youths develop marketable skills; the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the first summer jobs established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school; Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor; the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient; and Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children.
The most important educational component of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. . . initially allotting more than $1 billion to help schools purchase materials and start special education programs to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. The Act established Head Start, which had originally been started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, as a permanent program.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a National Teachers Corps to provide teachers to poverty stricken areas of the United States. It began a transition from federally funded institutional assistance to individual student aid.
The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 offered federal aid to local school districts in assisting them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability until it expired in 2002
The Social Security Act of 1965 authorized Medicare and provided federal funding for many of the medical costs of older Americans. . . In 1966 welfare recipients of all ages received medical care through the Medicaid program. . .
In September 1965, Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act into law, creating both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. . .
The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects in the form of matching funds to cities and states . . . The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966 were enacted, largely as a result of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed.
Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965 required packages to carry warning labels. Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires products identify manufacturer, address, clearly mark quantity and servings. . . Child Safety Act of 1966 prohibited any chemical so dangerous that no warning can make its safe. Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 set standards for children’s sleepwear, but not baby blankets. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 required inspection of meat which must meet federal standards. Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales. Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968 required inspection of poultry which must meet federal standards. Land Sales Disclosure Act of 1968 provided safeguards against fraudulent practices in the sale of land. Radiation Safety Act of 1968 provided standards and recalls for defective electronic products.
It is virtually impossible to conceive of any elected official today being as productive as Johnson and Long. Yet Johnson never went to business school; he was just a teacher. And Long took the bar exam after one year at Tulane Law school and then went out and sued Standard Oil. These were not people who are meant to succeed by today’s distorted and ineffectual standards, yet they did. In fact, if you want to find anything comparable one of the few names that springs to mind is Harry Hopkins who put millions to work within months for FDR. Hopkins was a social worker by trade. With such leaders, hearts and smarts were the credentials they really needed.
What would a new populist program look like? It might include things like this:
– Universal healthcare with no trough-slopping by insurance companies
– A housing program in which the federal government would be an equity partner with lower income house purchasers. It would be a self-sustaining program as each partner would get their equity back when the house was sold.
– An end to usury in credit card lending.
– Pension protection
– A revival of high quality vocational training
– Election reform including instant runoff voting and public campaign financing
– Expansion of cooperatives and credit unions