(It’s Moonbat Time! @ 10:15 – promoted by buhdydharma )
It was a third party that captured 22 electoral votes and 4 states in a presidential race, elected governors in 7 states, sent dozens of legislators to Congress, and controlled all or part of numerous state Houses and Senates – yet it was only prominent on the national scene for a decade or so. The People’s (a/k/a Populist) Party was born of anger and frustration at the failure of either major party to look after the concerns of a large segment of their ostensible constituency, and in the course of their stampede across the American political landscape, they shifted Overtons, crashed gates, and exerted their forceful, righteous will upon the craven Democrats and sold-out Republicans of their day.
It’s a good thing we’re safely removed from that sort of (way) pre-9/11 thinking – it allows us to historiorant in peace about a time when conflicts of class, pretense, and presumptuousness rent asunder the House of Donkey, and ushered onto the stage a cast of characters straight out of The Wizard of Oz.
Historiorant: This marks the final episode in what’s become a three-part saga (after-completion edit: it’s also the longest HfK ever. Get comfy – you’ve been warned) of the rise and fall of Progressives in the late 19th century – and the fulfillment of a long-ago request from Land of Enchantment the Pombo-Slayer, who’s always had an amazingly prescient eye for historical diary topics with uncanny contemporary relevance.
Sisyphean Rock-Pushers Local #1892
Their roots were as deep as any of those planted by Euro-American settlers on the Plains and in the West – clear back to the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Plain Progressives who banded together to form the Farmer’s Alliance and the Grange. By the late 1880s, their indignation at being jerked around by The Man had reached a point that their anger simply could not (and would not) be assuaged by either of the major parties, and accordingly, they did what any self-respecting progressives true to their own ideals would do: they bolted and formed their own party.
Though the year started with high hopes and strident songs, the summer of 1892 turned out to be a tough one for the Populists. Their major allies, the Knights of Labor, were already in decline as a result of the Haymarket “Riot” and competition from the newly-founded American Federation of Labor, and the only-moderately-activist leadership of Terence Powderly just couldn’t rally the troops the way that the AFL’s fire-breathing Samuel Gompers could.
Historiorant: And who could blame the troops, really, when Gompers was out stumping with speeches like this:
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures,”
The AFL siphoned off many of the Knights’ skilled laborers, and the unskilled workers who were left – only about 100,000 in 1890 – found that they had little more than poverty in common with the farmers, who were swept up in arguments about sub-treasuries and bimetalism. Still, Populist and Knight leaders saw common cause enough to throw their lots together in 1892, and as things turned out, it was Populist, not KoL, inability to unite its membership that cost the party at the ballot box. At least some of this was the result of a split between the more compromise-oriented People’s Party members who wanted to achieve power through “Fusion” arrangements with either Democrats or Republicans, and purists like “Mary Yellin'” Lease, who energies were diverted from the national stage to the local as they fought against power-sharing agreements they felt would co-opt their values.
Though they didn’t get all that close to winning the presidency in 1892, the march of the Progressives went steadily on as Grover Cleveland‘s second (non-consecutive!) inauguration was quickly followed by the Panic of 1893 and a thoroughly depressing recession that only served to inflame passions for cheap money and a 16:1 silver/gold ratio among folks west of the Mississippi. The Populists looked forward to the 1896 elections, especially since more and more of them were infiltrating the Democratic Party through Fusion arrangements or with an eye toward usurping it the way the Spongebob Dobson cultists did the Republicans a century later – the defeat had shown them that perhaps the best way to get their own (silver-friendly) guy elected would be to take over the party apparatus of one of the intransigent old guard players, and they were more than willing to throw DINO Grover under the bus to do it.
It didn’t hurt their cause that President Cleveland seemed to be going out of his way to cause deep, divisive splits between his party’s various constituencies – silverites were pissed at his bullheaded support of gold, labor was incensed that Grover was now a strike-breaker who governed by court injunction, and more and more folks in general were starting to seem him as an indecisive tool. Regrettably for the reform-minded good guys, however, the country was afflicted with other social and societal ills, some of which went far deeper than simply having enough to eat or being respected at a place of work.
A Racism So Noxious that You Want to Build a Time Machine so that You can Go Back and Kick Some Asses
This was an era (only 30 years removed from the Civil War) in which racism comprised whole planks of party platforms, so while a poor white man in North Carolina would seem at first glance to have very similar interests as a poor black man in North Carolina, it was quite possible – through the magic of racist fear mongering – to get the white guy to vote against his own interests with the ardor of a modern conservative Christian who votes a “straight” Republican ticket. In this case, since the Populists were trying to get whites to vote across racial lines, the Powers That Be’d took to raising the specter of “Negro Rule,” framing it with a set of lines that are oddly reminiscent of the “Liberal Media” arguments one hears today – right down to the snarky sarcasm and the outrageous hyperbole.
Here are a pair of dueling Election Handbooks from North Carolina’s 1898 elections, one from the Populists, the other from the Democrats. The Republicans, which in the South had been the party of ex-slaves, were increasingly marginalized by Jim Crow laws and fear tactics like mob lynchings, and as the 20th century approached, found their last shot in Fusion arrangements with the Populists – a situation that put them much too close to “the Negro” not be exploited by the 1890s Dems:
The Progress of the Rule of the Negro.
When the Democratic Party went out of power it was rare that a negro office-holder could be found in the State; and when one was found, it was in a position and under circumstances which did not make him obnoxious to the white people, and which did not create within him a desire to rule over and dominate the white man.
In the four years of Republican Fusion legislation, and in the year and a half of the Republican-Populist Fusion administration, wonderful strides have been made in conferring office upon the negro, and in setting him up to rule over white men.
Elsewhere in this Book we have told in detail how the town of Greenville was turned over to the negroes; and we have also spoken in a general way of the domination of the negro in Wilmington and Newbern, both of which cities are now under his control, or under the control of white men dominated by the negro.
This progress has been made under Republican administration of affairs, with the aid of the Populists; and it is safe to conclude that if the Republican Party is continued in power, this progress of the negro as an office-holder will continue to go on.
The white people who have aided in bringing about these things were once much opposed to negro rule. But they have become familiar to it, and apparently do not object to it. And the longer they are familiar to it, the less they will object to it. They do not seem to object even now to negro school committeemen having supervision of white schools; in many cases there being two negroes to one white man over the schools where the sons and daughters of white men are taught. We do not see how any white man can approve of that. But by degrees the white men who have aided the Republicans in bringing all this to pass, have become habituated to it.
The Populists responded in their own Handbook, but be cautioned that they use a most revolting racial epithet in doing so:
THE “ISSUE” RAISED BY THE DEMOCRATIC MACHINE.
An elaborate and detailed review of the action and procedure of the Democratic party would be more voluminous than it is proposed to make this little document. It can be asserted, however, that for the present campaign, the Democratic manipulators, who have, through their National and State Conventions, made vociferous declarations and professions in favor of various reforms, have, as the initial movement of their campaign for 1898, completely and entirely ignored every profession heretofore made, have abandoned all discussion of every principle heretofore declared for, and have taken as a basis for their every action the old cry of “nigger.”
This party has lost all hope of ever being able to convince the intelligent citizen and virtuous voter that there is any truthfulness or honesty in it, and as a last, desperate resort and despairing effort, has undertaken to arouse the wildest prejudice and fiercest passions of men and citizens toward one another, with the hope that they may gain by lying, lawlessness and riot, what they can never attain by argument, reason, record and truth.
Given attacks like that, the Dems had no choice but to take the high road of O’Reillyan self-righteousness, cloak themselves in the flag, compare themselves to both Jefferson and Lincoln, and in the process come off sounding a lot like members of today’s Congress:
Brief Statement of Some Fundamental and General Principles
Under the American system of government the people and the people alone are the sovereigns. They are the final arbiters and judges of all public questions. This sovereignty of the people was first proclaimed to the world as the basic principle of human government on the 4th of July, 1776, by the American colonies, and upon it was constructed our American system of government.
Thomas Jefferson, the great author of this new system of government, seeing the necessity for some proper method by and through which the people could assert and make effective this sovereignty, organized the Democratic Party, laying its foundations by the side of the foundations of the Government itself; and upon this foundation he proceeded to build up a political organization in which all men who really believed in the rule and equality of the people could take part and work together for the upbuilding and perpetuation of a government by the people, of the people, and for the people.
Men may cry out against government by party; but the fact remains that it is the only means yet devised by which the people can effectively work together in the enforcement of their sovereign will. It is but natural that in a Government like ours, in which every man is a sovereign, different men should have different opinions as to certain questions of governmental policy. It was so in the very beginning of our national existence, is so to-day, and has been all along throughout our wonderful history. Jefferson recognized this, and when he organized the Democratic Party, he sought to unite with him, in that great work, only those, who like himself, believed in the equality and sovereignty of the people, and who favored making them strong and powerful and independent. The Democratic Party therefore soon became the party of the people, clinging to the American system of government, teaching the individuality, equality and sovereignty of all men, guarding and protecting the rights and opportunities of all, and seeking, by every proper means, to build up a great and powerful people.
The thing to remember is, this was only one of the regional fights in which the nascent People’s Party was engaged. Though the West – where silver was far more plentiful than slow-moving gold, and credit was hard to come by – was solidly behind them, the Populists never made many inroads among the traditional Democrats of the urban East, and as for the Republicans…well, the undeserving inheritors of Lincoln’s legacy were already similar enough to today’s pachyderms that they wanted nothing to do with progressive ideals or making life a bit easier on the little guy.
Change a Few Proper Nouns and…Voila!
Marcus Alonzo Hanna might be described as being a little like a combination of Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff, or perhaps Dick Cheney before the full-on Vaderfication, but maybe these are a little too harsh. He certainly ascribed to the Social Darwinist views then (and still) popular among the wealthy, and he was no friend of organized labor…
The Secretary of the Cleveland Central Labor Union wrote that Mr. Hanna had wrecked the Seaman’s union of the lower lake regions, that he had smashed the union of his street railway employees, and refuses to allow them to organize. Further, Mr. Hanna had assisted in destroying the mineworker’s unions of Pennsylvania, and had tried to break up the carpenter’s unions of Cleveland by employing non-union men on his mansion at a critical time last Spring, when the eight-hour law was being put into effect.”
New York Times, 7 September, 1896, via vassar.edu
…but there are persistent rumors that he had something akin to an open-door policy, allowing employees to petition him directly – though he admonished them to never organize in the spirit of antagonism. Hanna had made his fortune in iron and coal, and sought to foist the fruits of his self-perceived economic brilliance upon a depression-weary American public through the good offices of his friend and fellow Ohioan, William McKinley, an affable veteran of the Civil War with a long tenure in the House.
Historiorant: Nowadays, of course, it would be George W. Bush who would be cast in the role of McKinley, but there are important differences between the two. These include McKinley’s war record (which demonstrates real, verifiable, uniformed service to our nation) and his actual understanding of the issues with which he was confronted. They do have some similarities, though – both proved notoriously willing to enact disastrous economic policies (q/v the 1890 tariff and to launch aggressive wars of conquest resulting in long, blood-soaked occupations (see Philippine Insurrection).
Weird Historio-Political Parallel: Speaking of disastrous economic policies, Hanna was an early proponent of one that Ronald Reagan would later resuscitate: “trickle-down” theory. Hanna said the dinner pails were full when business flourished; his detractors noted that it wasn’t very different from feeding the horses in order to feed the sparrows.
Though it was his first foray in national politics, Hanna (or, more specifically, Hanna’s cash) shepherded McKinley to the nomination of the first vote at the Republican Convention in St. Louis in June, 1896. In those days – i.e., back when party conventions were something more democratic than dog-and-pony-laden coronations – a first-vote nomination was something to brag about; it showed a party unity that the Democrats (and the Populists who were crashing their gates) were not able to come close to matching. Despite their candidate having a voting record that was rather silver-friendly, the Republican platform managed to side-step the money question, and instead direct the discussion toward lavishing praise on high protective tariffs.
The Downward Slope from the High Water Mark
President Cleveland’s bungling and bridge-burning led to a Chicago convention hall filled with antagonistic Populists, and the traditional power-brokers quickly lost control of the narrative. Calling Cleveland “the Stuffed Prophet” (and much, much worse), the convention voted 564 to 357 to refuse to endorse the sitting administration, then went on debating who would now lead them.
Into the breach stepped a 36-year-old Nebraskan named William Jennings Bryan, who was already known as the “Boy Orator of the Platte” for such exploits as mopping the floor with Republicans foolish enough to debate him. In 1890, he ran for a House seat against a GOPer who’d carried the district by 3500 votes two years prior – Bryan won by 6700 after a few public debates allowed him to showcase his oratorical skills.
Those debates in Nebraska were small potatoes compared to where he was now, only six years later, but William Jennings Bryan was not one to squander an opportunity. Like Obama in Boston, Bryan burst on to the national scene with a come-to-
Jesus silver speech that had the crowd surging and emoting like only an exultant, fired-up crowd of progressive world-changers can. Today it’s known as the “Cross of Gold” Speech, and he ended it with a heaping helping of progressive red meat:
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them: you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!
Full text, as well as 1921 Bryan-recorded audio of the Cross of Gold Speech, available at historymatters.gmu
The speech took the Dems from hopelessly fractured to tenuously unified overnight (literally: Bryan won the nomination on the 5th ballot the day after the speech). That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t any dissatisfied parties: both the center/right and far left found the whole arrangement highly distasteful, though for different reasons. The left might have secured the long-sought plank demanding the coinage of silver at a rate of 16 silver dollars to one gold, but significant rifts developed in the Democratic Party they’d usurped, and not all flocked willingly to Bryan’s banner. In fact, some flockers never flocked at all.
The establishment Dems – the DLCers of the time were termed “Gold Bugs” – took an entirely Liebermanesque approach toward the will of the party majority, and in Indianapolis that September nominated as candidates of the freshly-minted National Democratic Partya pair of Kentuckians who had served on opposite sides in the Civil War: 79-year-old John Palmer for president, and the improbably-named Simon Bolivar Buckner (who had once been forced to turn over a fort to “Unconditional Surrender” Grant) as running mate. On September 4, the Raleigh News and Observer summed up the defiant hopelessness of the Gold Bug cause:
SENATOR PALMER AND GOV. BUCKNER
Chosen to Lead the Yellow Bellies to Certain Defeat on the Ides of Next November.
It wasn’t a whole lot better on the far left end of the spectrum, where folks were feeling that the Populist message had been co-opted and assimilated by the Democrats in a most Borg-like fashion. So it was that the very planks of the “Chicago Platform” – the words were spat out by Gold Democrats and spoken reverently by Populists and Silver Dems – alienated both the party’s biggest contributors and its most activist factions, even as it resulted in Bryan being attended by a pair of running mates. The more traditional-minded Dems nominated a Maine shipbuilder (and fabulously wealthy labor-hater) named Arthur Sewall, but his long record of dirtbaggery against working men led the Populist Convention in St. Louis to endorse Bryan for president – making him the candidate of 2 parties – but to nominate Georgian (and old-school Populist organizer and future bigoted racist) Tom Watson as his “other” running mate.
When neither stepped down in favor of the other, Watson denounced Bryan and said he’d been deceived, as he had long suspected (probably correctly) that Fusionism was a plot to destroy the third party threat represented by the Populists. Claiming that “fusion means the Populist party will play Jonah, and (the Democrats) will play the whale,” Watson spent much of the rest of the campaign running damage control for what he hoped would be a revived Populist Party in the next election cycle, while other progressive “mid-roaders” and those to their left thought long and hard about the consequences of the fusion and the fighting:
The burning question of today is, shall we fuse with the democrats? Shall all the reform elements of this country drop every other reform issue, except free coinage of gold and silver, join hands with the free silver democrats and fight the common enemy–plutocratic republicanism?
If the democrats would do half of the “fusing,” I for one would say yes. But do the democrats offer the reformers one single concession? I fail to see it as yet.
…We forced them into making free coinage the issue; shall we then drop all other reform issues and run to meet them with open arms? Shall the outraged girl, who forces her seducer to marry her at the point of a revolver, drop her mother, sisters and brothers at his command, in order to make the marriage perfect and happy? … No, my brother; the democratic party can not swallow me down unless it swallows all the populist reform issues. There are too many horrors fresh in my memory–too many scenes of poverty and want, at which a democratic administration turned a deaf ear.
“A Man Without a Soul,” The Coming Nation, June 27, 1896, via vasser.edu
One detects a slight air of bemusement emanating from some of the foreign press as it reported on the proceedings. Here’s a handy little election guide from the Mexico City Mexican Herald, 27 August 1896:
Soon the United States will have as many political parties as Spain and will be split up into innumerable factions and groups. The nomination of Bryan has served to accentuate the tendency to break up the old and badly fossilized parties which had no more vitality than a desiccated codfish. The following table of the rearranged parties is given: (1) The gold Republican party. (2) The free-silver Democrats, among whom are (a) those who want Populist support and (b) those who don’t want Populist support. (3) The free-silver Republicans. (4) The gold Democrats, among whom are (a) those who will support McKinley and (b) those who will nominate a ticket of their own. (5) The Prohibitionists. (6) The bolting Prohibitionists. (7) The Bryan Populists, among whom are (a) those who favor Bryan and Sewall and (b) those who are for Bryan and Watson. (8) The anti-Bryan Populists. (9) The voters who are on the fence. (10) The voters who have taken to the woods.
Distracted Dems are the Devil’s Workshop
Bryan’s 1896 campaign broke with longstanding tradition in a couple of ways. First, he was present at the nominating convention that voted for him (up to that point, candidates had coyly waited elsewhere to receive word that they’d been tapped), then he took off on the mother of all whirlwind speaking tours. He traveled over 18,000 miles and 27 states, giving more than 600 speeches (36 in a single day) in an effort to provide progressivism’s famed circular firing squad with naught but a moving target. To the delight of the Party of Misogyny, Bryan even paid attention to the half of adults who weren’t allowed to vote for him. The Republican stand on gender issues was predictably patronizing:
What have women to do with political economy? it may be asked. They are at the bottom of all economy…. Without women there would be no economy. It is the desire for woman that makes us live…. It is for them that men lay up treasure. Woman has everything to do with everything, with political economy especially, and with the conscientious aspect of economy more especially. Women are the savers…. The money a woman wants–and the Lord knows she needs more than she gets, usually–is the best money that can be had. The best is the cheapest with her–always.
The best money is gold. The free silverites confess this when they admit that their fetish metal is measurable, after all, in the yellow metal.
Excerpted in The Currency Question at Vassar.edu
To progressive women, long tired of this worldview and having been pushing for suffrage since at least 1848, Bryan’s attention must have resulted in many a “conversation” with wavering husbands:
SPEAKS TO WOMEN.
Bryan Appears at the Minneapolis Lyceum Before 2,000.
WOMEN SHOUTED LIKE MEN
When Mr. Bryan arrived about 1 o’clock the ladies arose en masse, waved their handkerchiefs and flags, clapped their hands and called his name–in fact did everything men might have done except give three cheers and a tiger. Mr. Bryan in opening said:
… I believe this is the first political meeting where a candidate has addressed his remarks to ladies entirely in the discussion of an economic question, and I offer no apology. On the contrary, I deem it not only a great privilege but a great honor. My experience teaches me that the mother and the wife are important parts of the family. (Applause.) In fact, I would rather have the wife on my side in the beginning of a campaign than the husband, if I could only have one. (Applause.) And I will tell you why. Because, if I have the wife I am almost sure to have the husband before the campaign is over and if I only have the husband I am never sure of him. (Laughter and applause.)
And then, of course, there was the sober, middle-of-the-road pragmatism of the “concerned” pundit:
Bryan made a speech at Minneapolis the other day “to women only,” and last Sunday he addressed the Detroit newsboys. For a man so sadly in need of votes, he is wasting a good deal of time and energy on non-voters.
–Chicago Record, 20 October 1896; ibid.
McKinley, meanwhile, waged a traditionally laconic front-porch campaign, content to let Mark Hanna – who had wrangled himself the position of Chairman of the Republican National Committee – organize the propaganda, intimidation, and war chest that was to propel him to the presidency.
Hanna pioneered some of the tricks that have since become standard fare in Republican election-rigging circles. He shook down his wealthy industrialist friends and the trusts they controlled, and when their donations were combined with the cash from the more usual state-and-local suspects, he had raised the largest sum of money ever generated for a campaign up to that point – $16 million, as compared to the Democrats’ $1 million. How’s that for ironic ratios?
It was Mark Hanna who plotted the Orwell-anticipating “campaign of education” designed to “inform” voters of the Swiftboat-anticipating “Stop Bryan, Save America” groundswell he kept insisting existed; Hanna who orchestrated attacks on Bryan that included the words “fanatic,” “madman,” “traitor,” and “murderer.” He even brought in the biggest oratorical guns the right could muster (Teddy Roosevelt was one of his hired anti-Bryan lecturers) and got a clergyman to declare “That platform was made in Hell” – but of all his nefarious triumphs, it was the ones surrounding his buddies’ intimidation of their own workers that really takes the prize.
Though the Populist platform called for silver to be coined at a rate of 16 ounces of silver to 1 of gold, the ratio reflected more hoary, sacred-cow demand than it did contemporary economic reality: by 1896, silver dollars were worth about half that amount. So it was that Mark Hanna’s pals were able to tell their workers that if Bryan won the election, they’d be paid in 50-cent pieces rather than dollars. They also told workers not to bother coming in to work on Wednesday morning if Bryan were the victor, that plants would be shut down and everybody everywhere was going to be fired simultaneously.
Time was Bryan’s enemy – every day before Election Day was an opportunity for Hanna to smear his character, distort his words, and advance a narrative that made the Democrats look like a threat to national security. He might’ve gained a bit of support from the Western Republicans who’d walked out on the St. Louis convention to form the National Silver Party, but in the end, he couldn’t overcome the fact that there were significant swaths of the country where almost no one voted for him. He didn’t win a single county in New England, for example. The electoral map tells the grim tale:
The popular vote was close – 47% for Bryan, 51% for
Hanna McKinley – but the electoral went against the progressives 271 to 176. Over in England, where the metals debate had been watched nervously by the ancient, gold-hoarding aristocracy, the bluebloods sighed in relief. As the London Standard noted in its Rupert Murdoch-anticipating, fair-n’-balanced way,
The hopelessly ignorant and savagely covetous waifs and strays of American civilization voted for Bryan, but the bulk of the solid sense, business integrity, and social stability sided with McKinley. The nation is to be heartily congratulated.
The Thrill of Near-Victory and the Legacy of Defeat
As far as turning-point elections go, 1896 ranks up there with 1860 and 1828 as the century’s most critical. Like the elections of Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, the results heralded a sea change in American politics – among other things, Bryan’s loss represented the last real attempt to win the White House with primarily rural votes. Now, only 100 years after Jefferson envisioned a society of politically active farmers and town hall democracy, the power had shifted to the cities, big business, and conservative economic policy – and the Republicans would hold the White House for the next 16 consecutive years (and all but 8 of the next 36).
Main Street had gone up against Wall Street and, owing only in part to Republican money and shenanigans, lost. Though spun as a publicly mandated repudiation of free silver, however, differences over economic policy were just one facet of the story of the progressive defeat; another was their flawless execution of the famed Circular Firing Squad of the Left maneuver. The purists couldn’t work with the fusionists, labor couldn’t come to policy terms with farmers, and the state of race and gender politics were abysmal – and all the while, the Republicans locked-stepped and spent their way to power under the now-familiar blend of Horatio Alger pipe-dreams and fear-based derision of their reckless liberal foe.
If anyone could have herded the cats of the left to presidential victory, it probably would’ve been Bryan; recognizing this, disillusioned progressives drifted away from the People’s Party in droves after the heartbreaking loss. Within a decade after the free-silver election, the party was a pale shadow of its former glory, Tom Watson had given up the progressive mantle for the hood and robe of the Klan, and even the issues that had so inflamed the masses were relics of a bygone age. Pushes for civil service reform had become debates over industrial regulation, the money question faded from view with the discovery of new gold fields in Alaska, the Klondike, South Africa, and Australia, and McKinley’s adventures in Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines (among others) compelled the urgent gathering of many former Populists into the Anti-Imperialist League.
Weird Historical Sidenote: The League, founded as the Philippine Insurrection was ramping up in 1899, listed among its members a few folks we moderns still find familiar: Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and Samuel Gompers are just a few examples. Also familiar to us is the wording of their platform – how’s this for “been there, done that?”:
We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is “criminal aggression” and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.
We deny that the obligation of all citizens to support their Government in times of grave National peril applies to the present situation. If an Administration may with impunity ignore the issues upon which it was chosen, deliberately create a condition of war anywhere on the face of the globe, debauch the civil service for spoils to promote the adventure, organize a truthsuppressing censorship and demand of all citizens a suspension of judgment and their unanimous support while it chooses to continue the fighting, representative government itself is imperiled.
But even if they were defeated at the ballot box, the Populists achieved significant gains on the battleground of ideas. True, greed-based Republican economic policy would become a sacred cow that would lead the nation into war (Bryan resigned as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State when he perceived in 1916 that the “idealistic” conservative Democratic president was setting up the pieces to justify entering the Great (European) War) and financial and societal near-ruin, but the strident voices and impassioned actions of the Populists did manage to move entire frames and discussions to the left.
McKinley’s successor, Teddy Roosevelt, though as grasping an imperialist as they came, was in domestic matters strongly influenced by progressivism, which he’d learned about while living on a ranch in North Dakota for a couple of years in the mid-1880s. William H. Taft’s trustbusting, too, had shades of 1870s railroad regulation about it, and a new class of committed-to-ethics journalists arose to challenge the slime merchants who’d turned the media into an instrument of government policy. Eventually, even some of the most fundamental changes urged by the progressives – the graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, votes for women, and prohibition (I didn’t say they were all good ideas) – were written into the Constitution itself, empowering the people in a way that Republican-backed legislation like the Gold Standard Act of 1900 just couldn’t.
Perceptions of the era shifted with time, and now, a century later, it’s become difficult to separate even artistic interpretation from the reality of how people felt about a legitimate third party challenge. L Frank Baum told a populist fable through his 14-piece Oz series (click Baum link for literature.org), though there has developed some disagreement over the particulars of what was an allegory for what – still, it’s hard to miss the progressive-era themes of the industrial worker without a heart, the farmer who needed a clue, and a lion with a bark far more imposing than his bite. More recently, Pink Floyd added (or did they?) some surreptitious (or not?) lore to the tale of the Wizard of Oz, when some pothead somewhere figured out that there’s a weird kind of synchronicity between the music on the Dark Side of the Moon album and the movie, provided ones cues the Floyd at the third roar of MGM’s lion before the start of the film.
Historiorant: Is it true? I dunno – how’s about you decide? Here’s some guy on YouTube’s rendition of “Us and Them” and “Dark Side of the Moon”:
Populism was an umbrella for a disparate group of independent-minded advocates and opponents of a dizzying array of issues; it’s no wonder that even in their time, the Republican techniques of muddying the waters through reductio ad absurdum arguments and ascribing the values of the zaniest lefties they can find to the whole group had had the effect of turning the undecideds and independents against a party that probably represented their interests to a far greater extent than either of the major ones. To a large degree, infighting in the progressive ranks – and, if you ask this historiorantologist, a failure to hold fast to a winning set of principles in favor of a misplaced pragmatism – doomed the Populist Party in 1896, but the evidence that they were the ones who were ultimately shown to be on the cutting edge of societal evolution is now codified in acts and actions ranging from cabinet-level departments to Amendments 16 thru 19, as well as the eminently (if bone-headedly obvious) democratic achievement of universal suffrage.
As the primary season approaches (gosh, is it already October of the year before an election?), and as frustration with the Flaccid Caucus in Congress grows to a never-anticipated crescendo (Mr. Udall? Mark? Where are you going, Mr. Udall?), we ought to pause and consider our progressive ancestors. They got a lot done, but the greatest of prizes always eluded them – and for reasons that we neoprogs should be highly cautious of our propensity to replicate. How, then, should we proceed – which of 19th century progressivism’s traits and passions should we update for today’s political campaigns, and which should we leave moldering in the dustbin of history?