Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pundits and Populism

William Jennings Bryan (Chicago Historical Society).

A history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago has weighed in with a thought-provoking essay on populism and its portrayal by the nation's political pundits.

Leon Fink writes that the image of "populists, tarred in the 1890s as a party of unkempt, uneducated madmen whose hatred for the rich would unleash anarchy on the Republic, lives on in the minds of contemporary detractors as an ignorant rabble simplistically dividing the country between Main Street and Wall Street."

As Fink points out, this kind of commentary continues a longstanding tradition dating back to the late 19th century, when agrarian radicals who denounced the nation's banking system and related economic were dismissed as ignorant rubes -- or worse.

In the years after the Civil War, advocates of greater use of paper greenback dollars to alleviate the deflationary pressures crushing farmers were characterized in the pages of the Methodist Christian Advocate as immoral. The publication argued that "atheism is not worse in religion than an unstable or irredeemable currency in political economy."

Variations on that theme continued through the end of the century. In the superheated presidential campaign of 1896, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan embraced the populist doctrine of "free silver" as a means of expanding the nation's currency, the Leon, Iowa, Decatur County Journal characterized supporters of the doctrine as "long haired, beer guzzling anarchists."

The populists (the lower-case "p" referring to both the party and its antecedents in the late 1870s and 1880s) of the era recognized the damage these kinds of critiques caused. The nation's newspapers, James B. Weaver complained in the early 1880s, "made business men believe that we were a set of hare-brained fanatics."

Weaver fought back by editing a newspaper of his own, the Iowa Tribune, devoted to the economic and political programs favored by agrarian radicals. In 1892, he published A Call to Action, articulating a wide-ranging populist critique of institutions ranging from the banking system to the Supreme Court.

Other populists responded by making tactical adjustments. As historian Michael Kazin has pointed out, Bryan avoided speaking on free silver when campaigning among wage-earning industrial workers in the urban North who rightfully feared the impact of inflation.

The monetary doctrines of 19th-century populists were only part of an ambitious political program that addressed a broad range of economic, social and political problems that emerged as the United States evolved into an industrial economy. That is often ignored by critics past and present.

The 1880 Greenback-Labor Party platform, for example, called for an eight-hour day, a graduated income tax, regulation of working conditions in the nation's factories and an end to child labor. The party further demanded that "every citizen of due age, sound mind, and not a felon, be fully enfranchised."

The monetary theories of 19th-century agrarian radicals have been largely forgotten, but in other important respects their ideas live on. Whether that's good or bad is for others to judge, but one thing is clear: populists and their antecedents forever changed the political landscape of the United States. Not bad for a set of hare-brained fanatics.


Kazin, Michael. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

McPherson, Edward. A Handbook of Politics for 1880: Being a Record of Important Political Action, National and State, from July 1, 1878, to July 1, 1880. Washington D.C.: James J. Chapman, 1880.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, Minn.,2008.

_______. "Get Ready for '96: The Decatur County Press, Partisanship, and the Presidential Campaign of 1896." Iowa City: Iowa Heritage Illustrated, 84 (Fall 2003).

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