Where are the Populists?

Michael Collins

are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you
just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity
will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if
you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find
its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
William Jennings Bryan, 1896

Populism is broadly defined
as "political ideas and activities that are intended to represent
ordinary people's needs and wishes." The majority are  deliberately
held down by the financial elite.  Removal of the financial elite is
the vehicle to realize the "people's needs and wishes." (Graph)

statement from William Jennings Bryan is pure populism. It becomes less
pure as he proceeded with his speech. He used a metaphor of burning
down the nation's big cities since they were, he claimed, the
stronghold of the financial elite and support for the gold standard for

In practice, populism almost always entails anger and resentment.

combination of factors has the United States ripe for populist
sentiments. The financial collapse which surfaced fully at the end of
the Bush administration resulted in help to both the major financial firms
and the people. The financial firms got $14  trillion dollars worth of
bailouts. The people got $1.8 trillion in President Obama's stimulus
package, much of which consisted of tax cuts for political favorites.

On a more basic level, the disparity in wealth
shows that the top just 5% of the population controls 59% of the
nations wealth. Include the next 5% and you find that 10% of the
population controls 71% of the wealth. The parties and the media can
trot out all the diversions they want, people know this and they're
increasingly upset as the recession/depression bears down on the vast
majority of citizens.

Major Populist Efforts in the Past

Bryan's Cross of Gold speech
of 1896 expressed agrarian populism at a time when large portion of the
people lived and worked  in rural areas. It was at the expense of
working class people in cities, thus denying a unified movement of
those at the bottom of the financial ladder.

Bryan is a good
model of how populist politicians operate. They divide the the working
class and poor by race or locality  and then enunciate the message of
class exploitation tailored to the target subgroup, in this case rural

Georgia's populist governor, Thomas E. Watson, a contemporary of Bryan, went so far as to establish the Populist Party
(People's Party).   This met with some success but, like Bryan, Watson
retreated to race baiting since his cause was ultimately his own
political aggrandizement.

One of the few populists who might
have been competitive in a national campaign was Huey Long, the
Governor then Senator from Depression era Louisiana. His populist
message was clear and he spoke to all citizens without geographic or
racial division:

to the tables which we have assembled, it is our estimate that four
percent of the American people own eighty five percent of the wealth of
America, and that over 70 percent of the people of America don't own
enough to pay for the debts that they owe.

"How many men
ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what's
intended for 9/10th of the people to eat? The only way to be able to
feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring
back some of that grub that he ain't got no business with!" 
Huey P. Long, Dec. 11, 1934

Long established Share Our Wealth
clubs all over the country and was to the left of the newly elected
Franklin D. Roosevelt. Due to the clarity of his message, Long was a
far greater threat to the powerful than Roosevelt. He had a record of
using public works and education to help the poor and working classes
and he advanced universal beliefs of economic rights
without the racism almost always associated with Southern populism. He
was compromised by charges of corruption and his national effort, tied
to his persona, collapsed after he was murdered in 1935.

are other examples of politicians who pushed populist themes. The late
George Wallace's campaign for president contained populist elements.
But like Bryan, this was tied to an overarching theme of racism.
Arguably, Wallace's rhetoric was incorporated into Nixon's Southern
strategy but with the presence of corporate insiders at the top of the

Where is Today's Populist Movement?

not likely that there will be one, although politicians and parties
will take advantage of the suffering of citizens by co-opting the
populist message without offering a real program. It is nearly
impossible to have a sustained political movement without a a strong 
ideological foundation.

On a national scale, true populists
don't exist. The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha
Coakley was attributed to Brown's self portrayal as a “regular guy.” Hotline commented, “he's nailed the populist-style retail politicking.”

That's fine for election time but Brown is already on record for supporting big banks maintaining tax cuts
for the very rich, and minimal interventions for the majority of
citizens to deal with the economic crisis.  Ironically, there is  a
strong case that Brown's election was due to a populist-like protest
against the bailouts the Democrats have bestowed on big banks.

The Democrats have had brief  moments of populist expression. When his bill to help with soaring foreclosure rates failed, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) exclaimed, the banks, “frankly, … they own this place.” Sen. Bernie Sanders
(I-VT) said recently,  “The truth is -- let me break the bad news to
the American people -- big money interests control the United States

Each Senator returned to the fold after their
statements. Durbin continued as Senate Whip, gathering votes for a
middle of the road corporatist agenda. After he criticized of big money
interests, Sanders supported the big-money-friendly Senate health
reform bill.   No Senator and few members of Congress have adopted
redistribution of wealth the centerpiece of their agenda.

sustained populist movement requires a central statement on the current
distribution and future redistribution of wealth.  Adopting that
position is a deal killer when it comes to campaign fund raising, the
ticket into modern electoral politics.

One consistent national
voice for universal social justice, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, (D-OH), has
been consistently maligned and marginalized with the result that his
message is buried.

There have been political movements based on
social justice, a reasonable distribution of wealth, services, and
opportunities.  The  Socialist Party of America  presidential
candidate, Eugene V. Debs', stated a strong case for the wisdom of the people and the need to end politics as usual:

the Republican and Democratic parties you of the common herd are not
expected to think. That is not only unnecessary but might lead you
astray. That is what the "intellectual" leaders are for. They do the
thinking and you do the voting. They ride in carriages at the front
where the band plays and you tramp in the mud, bringing up the rear
with great enthusiasm.  E.V. Debs, June 16, 1918

Debs campaign ended shortly after this speech when the administration
of President Woodrow Wilson charged and convicted Debs under the
Espionage Act based on his opposition to the World War I draft in the
same speech.  He was jailed and his public career was finished.

That lesson may have inspired the current politics of don't ask, don't tell.   Don't ask too often about the distorted national priorities and don't tell
the people what they already know; that the distribution of wealth has
captured the vast majority in a never ending game of catch up that
cannot be won under the current political and economic system.


This article may be reproduced in whole or in part with attribution of authorship and a link to this article.

Eugene V. Debs, The Canton Ohio Speech, June 16, 1918

Kucinich Electrifies Convention Arena, August 26, 2008

No votes yet


We're going to have a rash of populist tactics without any real populism. Time to gear up for the onslaught! Scott Brown is just the first of many fakirs who will take advantage of public ire.

"Furthest from him is best, whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme above his equals." Milton