July 30, 2019
When we hear populism, we think Donald Trump. But we should be thinking Elizabeth Warren.Roundup
tags: populism, Trump, Warren
Gregg Cantrell holds the Erma and Ralph Lowe Chair in Texas history at Texas Christian University and is author of "The People’s Revolt: Texas Populists and the Roots of American Liberalism," forthcoming from Yale University Press.
Three years into the Trump era, the “p-word” is seemingly everywhere. No, not the word Trump infamously invoked when bragging about where he liked to grab women. But a word deemed by many political commentators to be just as vulgar: populism.
Trump, of course, is not the only politician to proudly wear that label. Nationalists such as Viktor Orban of Hungary, Marine Le Pen of France and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil also have been branded populists. Although leftists are occasionally deemed populists (see Hugo Chávez and Bernie Sanders), the word today is usually used to identify the right-wing authoritarian leader who cynically appeals to the fears and prejudices of the masses to gain and hold political power.
Yet populism is really more a style of political rhetoric than an ideology, one that pits ordinary people against a self-serving elite, playing to a sense that the political establishment has grown corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary people. As such, populism need not be a pejorative term. In fact, the roots of populism trace not to past authoritarians, but to Texas, where populism began as an egalitarian philosophy that looked nothing like what we see on the right today. The true heirs of this populist legacy, rather, are actually liberals like Elizabeth Warren.
Populism got its name in the 1890s, when the People’s Party burst onto the American political scene. Immediately dubbed “Populists,” the insurgent party’s adherents mounted the most serious third-party movement since the Republican Party a half-century earlier. Texas was one of the birthplaces of the party, a state that would become home to more Populists than any other.
This movement certainly believed that the “interests” — notably the mammoth corporations of the new industrial age — were aligned against the common people. With virtually all of the nation’s major industries effectively monopolized, with no protections for the worker, the consumer or the farmer who fed both, the Populists’ concerns were valid. With the two major parties both effectively bought and paid for by those same corporations, there were swamps aplenty that needed draining.
Farmers were particularly hard-hit, as crop prices declined year after year while prices for land, food, seed, implements and shipping steadily rose. In Texas, farmers demanded, and got, a state railroad commission to regulate railroad rates, only to see it rendered ineffective by the Democrats who ran the state.
Burned by that experience, they embraced the “subtreasury plan,” which called for the federal government to establish a nationwide network of warehouses where farmers could deposit their crops and receive low-interest government loans, paid in paper money, which would effectively take the country off the gold standard and ease the severe credit crunch that impoverished so many farmers.
This plan embodied many features that would become staples of American farm policy in the 20th century, and modern economists have noted its sophistication and efficacy. But it also meant a dramatic expansion of federal authority and the need for higher taxes. The rejection of the subtreasury plan by the major parties precipitated the creation of the People’s Party.
The party made common cause with organized labor, demanding protection for unions, a progressive income tax, public ownership of utilities (including the railroads) and regulation of trusts and other monopolies. It called for a public school system and criminal justice reform. All of these proposals were highly progressive in the late 19th century.
But most of the original Populists would be appalled to see the p-word applied to right-wing demagogues, autocrats and con-men. They would be heartened, however, to hear some of the rhetoric coming from progressives like Warren. Plans to curb the power of the large banks, big pharma, the oil companies and the increasingly monopolistic tech companies would resonate with Nugent, Rayner and Kearby. These proposals point to how liberals can, with a proper understanding of history, reclaim the mantle of the first Populists and restore the label — and the ideas that accompanied it — to the position of honor that it deserves.
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