The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.
So declared the delegates to the 1892 People’s (aka Populist) Party convention. The parallel to our present discontents is striking.
Though written more than a century ago, the Populist critique of American national development has an eerie familiarity and relevance today. Like Americans of that period, we face a crisis of monumental proportions. It is a democratic crisis, and some worry the nation may not long endure. The fault lines are widening and deepening as the presidential election approaches. Perhaps most unsettling to them, and to us, is their conclusion that “the people are demoralized.”
Today, cherished beliefs in progress and exceptionalism are viewed with skepticism; and liberty, justice and citizen equality are at risk. Partisan extremism and subversive violence are on the rise; a sense of shared identity is left wanting. As historian Lawrence Goodwyn observed of these long-ago Populist reformers, “They saw the coming society and they did not like it.” The same can be said of many today.
The Populists issued their third-party manifesto on the eve of a presidential election. Symbolically, they chose July 4 — Independence Day — to put forward a vision for an alternative America, free from the corruption and deceits that infested the national character.
Convinced the major political parties had sold out to special interests, the Populists imagined themselves reclaiming the soul of America. Though they did not gain control of the national government, what they had to say is worth noting as we ponder our own quandary.
Often described as romantic Jeffersonian idealists, or backward-looking nabobs unable to cope with the new industrial realities, the Populists could be forward-looking reformers who championed what utopian novelist Edward Bellamy called a “cooperative commonwealth” to offset the growing political and economic disparities of the 1890s. Populists lamented the political influence of an unrestrained moneyed class. More egalitarian than radical, they retained a faith in government’s ability to redress grievances and improve the general welfare. Though anti-monopolist they were not anti-capitalist, a distinction that bears remembering. And not surprisingly, they worried about what sort of world their children would inherit.
Their 1892 party platform was adopted at a national convention in Omaha, Nebraska, and included a hundred different principles and policy positions. The Omaha Platform is chiefly remembered for three bold reforms: financial policies that included the free and unlimited coinage of silver; an end to land giveaways to the railroads, mining and timber companies; and federal takeover of the railroads and communication industry “in the interest of the people.” Long before it became popular, the Populists called for a graduated tax on personal income, labor protections, farm price parity, and “a free ballot and a fair count in all elections.” Take note!
While some of these positions may seem esoteric or outdated, they had real and substantive consequences in their day. Populism’s economic agenda favored small farmers and producers unable to compete or meet their credit obligations. Similarly, the call for price parity in agricultural products and the nationalization of railroads was meant to extend government protections to family farms squeezed by middlemen in the marketplace.
Ending the federal land grant program, which doled out millions of acres at no cost, sought to curb the economic and political power of large corporations in Western states and territories. Land, they said, is the “heritage of the people.” An income tax would shift the burdens of government expenditures from the working class to wealthier citizens.
The Populists could be naive, even simple-minded in their approach to regulatory reform. For a brief moment, they imagined a cultural shift that brought factory workers and farmers into a mass coalition to transform the political economy.
The worst of them could play the politics of race and disenfranchise Black voters. However, the best among them labored to overcome racial divisions and bring Black and white farmers into a grassroots alliance resting on mutual interest and shared responsibility. That they failed on both accounts does not diminish the vision and legacy they bequeathed.
Fusion with the Democratic Party in 1896 marked the movement’s high point and foreshadowed Populism’s collapse by 1900. That year, fledgling novelist L. Frank Baum published his parody, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Each of the principal characters — teenage Dorothy, the Scarecrow (agricultural man without a brain), Tin Man (industrial laborer without a heart) and Cowardly Lion (who lacked the courage of his convictions) — represented some segment of the heartland. So, too, did the Munchkins, wee folk from the provinces, and the Wicked Witch of the East (where banks and corporations headquartered) and the West.
Fittingly, in the novel, Dorothy’s slippers were silver, with the ability to take her back to a more tranquil homestead. And one should not forget the Wizard, the presumed all-powerful but impotent braggart of Oz, whose hot air balloon carried the emblem of the Nebraska State Fair.
If truth is stranger than fiction — then and now — as our own Election Day approaches, we would be well served to remember the Populists and their vision of a more just and equitable America.
Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University. His most recent publication is “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” (Penn State Press 2020).