Vox Populi: The State of American Populism, Then and Now


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November 04, 2014 12:36 EDT

The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement can be seen as contemporary examples of a long-standing American tradition of populist politics.

Americans will head to the polls this week to cast votes for their chosen champions, as the long-awaited midterm elections finally arrive. In the run-up to the election, Democrats and Republicans alike have traded barbs as American political discourse continues its descent into incivility. Much of the blame for this departure from decency can be directed towards the fringes of both parties where parochial politicians and their equally staunch allies have resorted to mudslinging and fear-mongering to fire up their bases in hope of cobbling together enough votes to capture Washington in the coming months.

Republican politicians, in particular, have been driven increasingly towards extreme positions as they are forced to accommodate the Tea Party and their hardline conservative positions. However, the Tea Party’s aggressive tactics and fiery rhetoric are nothing new. In a sense, the Tea Party is a send-up to another type of American politicking, populism, which has had a long, colorful existence throughout the history of American political life.

A People’s Party

Over the course of his life William Jennings Bryan stood for president three times as the Democratic Party’s candidate. He never won. The closest he came to victory was in 1896, when his popularity among rural voters was at its height and, at 36, he carried 22 of 45 states as the youngest presidential nominee of a major party in American history. Nicknamed “The Great Commoner” for his support of the working classes, Bryan became one of America’s first celebrity politicians.

As the people’s champion, Bryan, took his message of civic empowerment on the road, traveling town to town by rail in order to speak directly to the people who would decide the future of the country. They awed at “Silver Tongue’s” famed oratorical skills wherever he went, and he went far and wide, giving over 500 speeches in 27 states in 1896 alone. But his rhetorical gifts were never enough. The Democrats under Grover Cleveland had been at the helm in 1893 when a financial crisis stuck, and the ensuing economic turmoil was enough to sink Bryan and the Democrats’ chances in 1896.

It was this economic turmoil and the growing pains of post-Bellum industrialization that led to the emergence of a new political force in American politics at which William Jennings Bryan came to the fore: populism.

Populism arose out of the wheat fields and farms of the Great Plains in response to the ongoing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration that were dramatically changing the face of the country at the time, disenfranchising the farmers, producers, and laborers who had heretofore been the backbone of America – a Jeffersonian yeoman ideal.

Populism was the result of direct political action by dissatisfied groups of Americans suffering from the economic hardships caused by modernization and also by what Richard Hofstadter referred to as “status anxiety” – the fear of increasing marginalization in a modern economy. The growing prominence of machinery, the reduced value of labor, cost of credit, high railroad rates, taxes, and the crop-lien system all contributed to the turbulent climate that allowed populism to flourish.

What populism does do is bring focus onto perennial issues in American politics, namely who should rule and how power should be distributed. Behind blustery rhetoric and populist anger are often hard truths about the state of the union.


The People’s Party, also commonly referred to as the Populist Party, was formed by Southern and Middle American agricultural elements – farmers and landowners. Populism arose as an ascendant force in the 1890s through the founding of the People’s Party in order to challenge capitalist domination and attempt to change the tide of history and return the power to the people from those with vested interests in the new status quo – banks, railroads, trusts, and elites who had prospered during the Gilded Age.

Of course, the party had its own interests: higher prices for crops, free silver to allow for a flexible currency, governmental control over key industries, and favorable lending terms. Ideally the people in the People’s Party would be all encompassing, but the eponymous people who constituted the third party challenge were generally white, protestant, and rural.

Making its first appearance in the Kansas state legislative races in 1890, the Populist Party – a successor of the Southern Farmer’s Alliance and National Agricultural Wheel, in collaboration with the Knights of Labor – sought to pave a third way between the Republicans and Democrats who it saw as being collared by moneyed interests. The People’s Party adopted a party platform in 1892 in order to challenge incumbents for offices. One of the party’s key demands was the direct election of senators in order to avoid the backroom deal-making that dominated Washington until the Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913. This would allow the people’s elected advocates to bypass corrupt politicians and powerful businesspeople to speak directly on their constituents’ behalf.

Harnessing popular fervor against the concentration of power in urban centers, the cozy relationship between businessmen and Washington, and the displacement caused by structural changes in the economy, the People’s Party proved a major challenge to the dominance of the bipartisan system. James Weaver fared well as a third-party candidate in the presidential contest in 1892, but came nowhere near threatening the reigning political duopoly.

Nevertheless, populists scored a number of local victories across the country as figures like James “Cyclone” Davis and Jim Hogg rose to prominence. They eventually found their champion in Congressman Bryan, who coincidently also happened to be nominated by the Democratic Party for president in 1896, controversially leading to the fusion of the two parties. Not long after his defeat, the People’s Party dissipated after failing to find common ground with urban laborers and prevalent nativist and racist tendencies and regional factionalization. The People’s Party disintegrated almost as quickly as it had risen, but its influence on populist anger directed against reigning economic and political classes would leave an enduring legacy.

Share Our Wealth

Bryan, “The Boy Orator of the Platte,” might have lost to William McKinley twice, in both 1896 and 1900, and also to Teddy Roosevelt’s anointed successor, William Howard Taft in 1908, but many of the social reforms he championed, such as the direct election of senators or a graduated income tax, eventually made their way into law. Populists may not have won the country’s top job during the Progressive Era, but they were loud and active enough to make sure their message was heard. Perhaps if enough people heard of the plight of the workingman, they would empathize and demand action from elected representatives.

Populism can inspire change but it rarely leads, and if it does, it never lasts long. Since it is built on indignation, either the indignation is remedied and the challenge recedes or it is co-opted by larger political movements as occurred with the People’s Party adoption into the larger, more mainstream Democratic Party in 1896. In most cases, conflicting interests, regionalization, and other disagreements lead to the sort of splintering and factionalization James Madison warned about in “The Federalist Papers.” Populism is built for a mass appeal, but when a mission is so stringently deployed on behalf of a specific group, it loses much of its wide-reaching national appeal. This is why populists have fared so much better locally, where their message rings true within a particular setting.

What populism does do is bring focus onto perennial issues in American politics, namely who should rule and how power should be distributed. Behind blustery rhetoric and populist anger are often hard truths about the state of the union. For populists, grievances do not tend to spring from thin air: Very real wrongs, whether subjective or objective, need to exist for people to find common bonds and rise up to challenge the system together. What can be hoped is that beneath the vitriol and calculated mass appeals are reasonable antidotes for some of the countries ills exist.

Over the course of the 20th century,the framing of society into “haves” and “have-nots” became a powerful tool politicians employed to bolster support for their causes and their own personalities.

Politicians like “Fighting Bob” LaFolette and George Norris, as well as social reformers like Father Coughlin, employed populist rhetoric to appeal to mass audiences in their respective fights for their progressive causes. To populists, the people, even if they are moderately well off, need to stand up against vested interests, institutional or economic, to preserve the sanctity of the Republic and their place within it. This appeal to the masses often employs existential fear and stressed differences (us vs. them) in values, economic status, or lifestyles to build popular support.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was couched in populist anti-elite rhetoric. He railed against the financial profligacy that led to the Great Depression and the desire of ordinary Americans to be in charge of their own destinies. He spoke directly to the people as one of the people during his “fireside chat” radio addresses and helped oversee some of the most far-reaching social reforms and redistribution of wealth that the United States had hitherto seen.


Jacksonian democracy was a populist reaction by newly enfranchised white men against a long-standing plutocratic establishment that had ruled the country since the revolution – something these men sought to defend as changes swept through the country in the 20th century.


For all his efforts on behalf of the American people, FDR still had his critics. One of the most vocal was the populist Huey Long. “The Kingfish” was elected to the governorship of Louisiana in 1928 on the back of the state’s working class. He responded to their support by enacting a series of public works programs to better the lives of the working people of Louisiana. Long was a harsh critic of concentrated wealth and corporate greed and those like the patrician FDR or other cozily entrenched government elements, which abetted them. Like other populist figures before him, Long was a strong advocate of the working class, himself a poor boy from the pines of deep Louisiana who ended up as a lawyer without ever having earned a degree.

He spearheaded the “Share Our Wealth” campaign in the 1930’s in his bid to challenge FDR’s presidency as a third-party candidate. His slogan was “Everyman a King, But No One Wears a Crown,” taken from a speech by that other great American populist, William Jennings Bryan. In Huey’s world, it would be national tragedy if good citizens were allowed to be poor and a crime if someone became too wealthy. His program advocated redistribution of wealth through higher taxes on the wealthy, and he believed that the federal government should ensure the minimum conveniences in life and a minimum income of $5,000 for every American. Before he could challenge FDR in the polls, a bullet fired by the son-in-law of a political rival cut Long’s life short in 1935.

Resisting Change

Equality is another paradoxical tenant of populism, for it is often limited to a specific group with grievances and can come at the expense of others. Therefore, government intervention, even if the people are against the government, should be used to make the necessary reforms in order to reorder society and ensure economic injustice. Jacksonian democracy was a populist reaction by newly enfranchised white men against a long-standing plutocratic establishment that had ruled the country since the revolution – something these men sought to defend as changes swept through the country in the 20th century.

Like the farmers who saw their traditional roles dislodged in the 1890s, so too did many working class whites as they were confronted with desegregation in the 1960s. Enter George Wallace, the four-time governor of Alabama, who led the charge against the Civil Rights Movement to maintain segregation and the prominence of whites in the Old South.

When Wallace was elected governor for the first time in 1963 he bluntly said: “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace fought tooth and nail against the establishment in Washington, most notably the power of the federal government, which was drastically changing the Southern way of life through desegregation.

President John F. Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard more than once to stop Wallace’s use of force to prevent blacks from voting, using desegregated public transportation, or from entering federally mandated integrated public schools. Much of Wallace’s support was found in sympathetic working class whites who saw their meager position diminishing in a re-ordered, post-Civil Rights era. Unlike Long, Wallace survived an assassination attempt when he was the recipient of five bullet shots in 1972. He eventually renounced segregation, but remained forevermore an unrepentant Southern populist.

Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade to preserve America from socialistic influences drew on the idea of a unified Christian, democratic, and capitalist nation in the face of an existential socialist threat. He used fear mongering to drum up support for his crusade against “reds” within the government. The Christian anti-communist John Birch Society followed his efforts by attacking the Kennedy administration for its failure to adequately protect the American people from the threat of Communism. The Moral Majority and the New Christian right of the 1980s expressed their views of the declining social landscape of country by raising awareness of these issues. The Minutemen Project of the 2000s focused their antipathy against illegal immigration in a nativist plea for the preservation of the country.

To any casual observer of American history, it is easy to see how populist appeals drew support throughout the 20th century as the country transformed and people adapted or reacted to those changes. Similar themes arose while responses differed, but anger against the institutions and figures that dominate the country has remained a constant to this day.

Let’s Have a Tea Party

On February 19, 2009 during a broadcast from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CNBC anchor Rick Santelli vented his anger against the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan to the raucous cheers of traders around him. He facetiously suggested holding a “tea party” where good capitalists like himself could dump derivative securities into the Chicago River.

He believed governmental intervention promoted bad behavior by subsidizing “the losers’” mortgages. Overnight, major news outlets picked up Santelli’s message and a movement was born. In the following weeks, “tea party” demonstrations sprang up around the country protesting governmental spending and an activist government.

The Tea Party emerged in response to the financial crisis that struck in 2007, the ever-rising budget deficit, an entrenched and expanded federal government exemplified by The Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare), and liberal reforms like the legalization of same-sex marriage. The largest base of the Tea Party is white, southern and Protestant, but it is by no means limited by race or religion. Shared beliefs and values are the only criteria for membership, not occupation or affiliation.

Like the original populists, Tea Partiers, are a squeezed middle class faction, what sociologist Donald Warren called the “radical center” half a century ago, fighting for their place in the country. The Tea Partiers see themselves as the moral foundation of modern America, the people who made and continue to make the country great and are being abused and taken advantage of. Many of them are small business owners or tradesmen – those who constitute America’s “Main Street,” who feel their existence threatened by increased taxes or organized labor. Together, with other like-minded citizens they are organizing at the grassroots level in collaboration with national organizations to fight back against Obama’s Washington and preserve the union before it is corrupted beyond recognition.


When power begins to solidify, economically or institutionally, populism will reappear in a new guise. The real role of populism is to remind those in power that they are beholden to the people and that injustices do exist. 


Upon its creation, the Tea Party quickly became the purist – or extremist, depending on whom you ask – arm of the Republican party with figures like Michelle Bachmann, Marco Rubio, Steve King, Ted Cruz and groups like Freedom Works and the Club for Growth leading the charge. This has led to a nascent civil war within the GOP as Tea Partiers challenge Republican stalwarts in primaries and party leadership on the Republican agenda. Oftentimes they see the Republican leadership as just as entrenched in Washington as others in a “DC ruling class.”

The Tea Party is characterized by personal vitriol against President Obama and a Washington that is aligned with other liberal power centers in the media, academia, and often, even Wall Street. Ironically, today’s Tea Party populists rile against what they see as a government-media-academia complex controlling the country. It is an anti-governmental movement often supported by the same sort of corporations that the original populist movement was founded in opposition to – an inverse of the demands of populists of a century ago.

We Are the 99%

Another aspect of populism is the struggle often being framed as one between those who work for their living and those who profit from the labor of others, or anti-elitism. This same theme was used to frame the protests that erupted in the wake of the Great Recession.

Like the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement burst onto the national scene as protestors from around the country converged on Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011 to begin a sit-in in order to express their outrage over economic inequalities and the privileged status corporations hold in America today. Demonstrations spread rapidly as people took to the streets around the world to protest the sort of excessive greed that has crippled the global economy.

These protestors had very real objections to the wealthiest 1% who had survived and, in some cases, even profited from the financial crisis. The refrain “We are the 99%” was the rallying cry broadcast globally. The Occupy Wall Street movement emerged as much to protest corporate greed and economic inequality, but also as a progressive response to Democratic centrism and close ties to Wall Street and big business.

Eventually the protestors around Zucotti Square were removed by police force and the movement dissipated over the following months. But the message lived on. Barack Obama has co-opted much of Occupy Wall Street’s messaging taping into latent anger against corporations and the financial services around America. His message this in the spring of 2013 at Knox College was filled with anti-establishment rhetoric and championed everyday Americans and the struggling middle class who are affected by growing inequality. Progressive politicians like Bill de Blasio, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders have emerged to challenge the status quo in the fight for working Americans and move the Democratic Party away from the comfortable Clintonian center back to the left.

More or Less Governmental Action?

Do these two movements, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, qualify as exemplars of 21st-century populism? They certainly have populist characteristics and legitimate concerns about the state of modern America. Both groups feel neglected and besieged by powerful forces beyond their control and are disenchanted with the current state of affairs. They both emerged in response to the financial crisis, subsequent bailout, and the deteriorating circumstances of regular Americans. Where they differ is the enemy: Big government or Big business; the direction the country should be going: What is in the public good?; or the necessary response: more or less governmental action.

Like the People’s Party in 1896, the Tea Party has become a populist subdivision within the Republican Party. The fleeting OWS movement may never have achieved its goals, but it found supporters in Washington and around the country that will carry on the fight and have made its case ahead of the upcoming election. The movement reinvigorated the campaign for liberal causes and has helped shape a budding progressive wing of the Democratic Party that will soon have its support starkly tested. What both movements have in common, which makes them populist in nature, is a determination to remedy the injustices that are threatening a particular way of life and a place in American society.

It seems almost too simplistic to point out the tendency of populism to rear its head during times of economic hardship or societal transformation, when large swathes of the country feel neglected or horrified by the changing face of the country around them, but that is often the case. When power begins to solidify, economically or institutionally, populism will reappear in a new guise. The real role of populism is to remind those in power that they are beholden to the people and that injustices do exist.

It is worth remembering, that the same could occur today, as happened after the 1890s when many populist policies were passed after the tenor of the debate had died down. Therein lies the value of populist alternatives beneath all the fear mongering and hyperbolic rhetoric: the intrepid reminder of what issues affect Americans most.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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