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The People's Party, Rural Unrest and the Origins of American Populism

01/11/2016 18:30

Throughout what has been one of the most heated and bitterly divided presidential election campaigns in American history, "populism" has been an ever-present buzzword. Used and abused in an attempt to understand Donald Trump's success, it is a term with roots lying deep within the history of American politics.

To understand populism, and especially its American strain, one has to examine the movement's origins and, in particular, the People's Party, a short-lived yet influential group that lay the foundations for the likes of Trump over 120 years ago.

Even before a serious economic depression caused havoc in the 1890s, a sharp drop in agricultural prices had hit farmers in the south and west of America. With prices falling by two-thirds between 1870 and 1890, farmers struggled to break even, and many became so burdened by debt that banks moved in to take control of vast swathes of land.

Out of this uncertainty came the People's Party, who rose to prominence in the early 1890s as they rallied against the "Eastern elite" that they held responsible for the low prices and poor working conditions facing farmers. Hostile to both the Democrats and Republicans, the People's Party (or Populists, as they were also known) quickly became popular with rural workers.

Just a year after the party was formed, a ticket composed of James B. Weaver, a one-time member of the proto-populist Greenback Party, and James G. Field, a former Confederate general and semi-retired farmer, stood as candidates in the 1892 presidential election and went on to win the popular vote in five states.

Driven by widespread anger and frustration, the vast majority of their support came from impoverished areas in the southwest, and in a handful of districts in Nevada, which had been particularly badly hit, they received as much as 90% of the vote.

As the economic situation worsened and the unemployment level rose, the party continued to grow and went on to achieve further success in the 1894 midterms, where they won over 10% of the vote. A Republican-Populist fusion in the south resulted in gains for both, crushing the incumbent Democrats and resulting in the largest midterm election victory in American history.

Their electoral success would be short-lived, however, as its decision to support the populist Democratic presidential nominee Williams Jennings Bryan in 1896 caused a split within the party, which would eventually merge with the Democrats soon after. But they had already made a sizeable impact on both of the major parties, and they lay the foundations for many of the populist movements that would follow.

Whilst elements of the populists' support were driven by a widespread dislike and distrust towards President Grover Cleveland, their views and rhetoric were clearly fuelled by discontent from a particular section of society, one that saw their problems as being caused by a distant "elite" that had no care about their concerns.

Mimicking the current state of American politics, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans successfully addressed the issues that were causing rural workers in the south and west such distress, opening up a chasm that the Populists quickly filled. Discontented farmers, like the white working-class voters currently fuelling Trump's campaign, were angry and enthusiastic in their wish for change, but in America's rigid two-party system, the deep but narrow nature of their support base meant that the Populists were never able to attract the numbers needed to achieve success nationwide.

Their impact shouldn't be downplayed, however, and nor should the lessons that we can learn from them about 21st-century populism. Like many of the movements that followed, the Populists were fighting broadly from the left economically but over time began to veer to the right on issues concerning race and religion. Their fight against so-called "elites" led to sections of the party blaming a wide range of people for their problems, and anti-Semitic talk of an "evil global conspiracy" began to seep into its rhetoric.

Under circumstances that resemble some of the issues currently facing industrial workers in an increasingly globalised America, Populist supporters struggled to respond to the challenges of modernity, resulting in a tendency towards scapegoatism that became increasingly racist and nativist.

This move to the right could clearly be seen in the language used by prominent Populist leaders such as Marion Butler, a senator from North Carolina who, through his newspaper the Caucasian, criticised the Democrats' decision to appoint African-Americans to office and argued that the Populists were the "true white man's party".

After fusing with the Democrats in 1896 and failing to recreate their early successes in the 1900 presidential election, a small band of supporters re-organised the People's Party and fought for the presidency in both 1904 and 1908. Their nominee in both was Thomas E. Watson, a former member of the House of Representatives who had once, like many early populists, supported black enfranchisement.

However, after 1900, he began to espouse a whites-only vision of populism that saw African-Americans as being at least partly responsible for the oppression of the white rural workers. By 1908, Watson was identifying in public as a white supremacist, and his run for president in the Populists' final election saw such views form a cornerstone of his campaign.

Whilst the People's Party came to an end in 1908, the populist foundation that they put in place continues to play an important role in American politics. From Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s to Barry Goldwater and George Wallace three decades later, populist rhetoric has continually reared its head during periods of economic uncertainty, and the current presidential campaign is just the latest example.

In Trump's vehement diatribes against Mexican immigrants, Islam and the "liberal elite", one can clearly see elements of the 19th-century Populists, whose influence can still be felt in the increasingly fractured political landscape of 2016.

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