America has a Rich History of Successful Populist Movements

Until recently, these populist movements were based on the perceived interests of ordinary people, as opposed to those of the privileged elite. But not anymore.

In the iconic 1976 film Network, the unhinged TV news-anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) urges his viewers to rail against the ills of mega-corporate control by opening their doors and windows and shouting at the top of their voices, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” The line has become pop-culture folklore that goes to the heart of the spirit of American democracy. Much to the consternation of many – especially the powerful elite – democracy gives license to ordinary people to band together to express their grievances and put pressure on those in power to address them. This phenomenon has generally been characterized as a “populist movement.”

The Boston Tea Party may have been the first of these movements and it gave spark to the American Revolution. And since then, populist movements have been an integral part in shaping American democracy. While such movements sprung from different types of perceived injustices – The Abolition Movement, The People’s Party, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights – there was a consistent thread that weaved through all these efforts. Those involved in populist movements were motivated by a desire to make changes that were in their own best interests and benefited ordinary citizens—at the expense of the elite and powerful.

For example, The People’s Party, also known as the “Populists,” was a late 19th century movement ignited by farmers who were being victimized by the railroad trusts that had the power to unfairly set the cost of transporting crops to market. While short-lived, the populist movement energized thousands of farmers and other disaffected citizens to protest the power of monopolies (trusts). This populist movement planted the seeds for the “progressive era” that led to “trust busting” and ultimately the development of a vibrant middle-class that was at the core of individual freedom and economic opportunity for the next century.

The Civil Rights movement is another example of a populist movement that started at the bottom – by oppressed ordinary citizens – that came together to put pressure on the powerful and elite of society to make changes that clearly transformed America for the betterment of all.

It is important to note that the populist movements did not seek to overthrow the government, but to make it more democratic. The movements were a counter-balance to the elite and powerful who sought to limit the opportunity and freedom of the ordinary citizen. It bears repeating that while there have been any number of issues that have united the participants in populist movements, the one thing they all had in common was the desire to redress injustices imposed by the powerful and elite, by forcing changes that would benefit their own self-interests.

The New Populists have it Ass Backwards

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the populist movements of today. For some strange reason, the Tea Party and the politically active Evangelical Christian groups (both groups generally made up of the white, middle-class) are clamoring for actions that are detrimental to their own economic self-interests. It makes not logical sense, but these groups are literally screeching for measures that further the shift of wealth and power to the powerful and the elite, while reducing their own opportunity and power.

Tea Partiers and the Evangelicals support a reduction in taxes for corporations that are making their highest profits in history and using those profits to build factories overseas and outsourcing employment. They oppose any increase in taxes on the wealthy, even though the disparity between the top 1 percent in wealth is greater now than it has ever been in history. (They support Mitt Romney, who is in the top one-tenth-of-one-percent of the wealthy, even though he is ashamed to release a history of his tax returns.) The members of the movement support the decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United, which empowers corporations and the wealthy to contribute unlimited amounts to politicians and special interest groups. How can anyone with a scintilla of logic believe this ruling benefits the average person; and does not simply make the powerful more powerful?

There are other inconsistencies as well: The movement froths at the mouth for the repeal of Obamacare; believing it to be wasteful spending and an intrusion of “government socialism” designed to limit individual freedom. At the same time, paradoxically, they don’t want other government-run programs like Social Security and Medicare reduced. Members of the movement want to eliminate regulations on corporations in the “free market,” but look to government to define and regulate marriage; and control a woman’s right of choice.

There are two reasons for these anomalies to exist between past and current populist movements:

  • People do not want to hamper the wealthy and powerful, because they believe in the promise of the “American Dream.” People desperately want to hold the belief that if they work hard enough, they too can become wealthy and powerful, so the wealthier and more powerful others become, then the more opportunity for them.
  • “Social Conservatism” has been used to divert attention away from economic actions that favor the wealthy and elite.

The core of the “American Dream” is the opportunity for upward social mobility; and it flourishes in a representative democracy. The problem is America has moved away from representative democracy and is rapidly becoming a plutocracy in which more and more wealth and power is vested in fewer and fewer. To support actions that accelerate this drift – as the current populist movement does – is detrimental to the self-interest of the average person, because it destroys the “American Dream.”

In the past, social issues such as abortion, gay rights and civil rights were distinct from economic issues. This allowed a politician to declare that they were “economic conservatives” and “liberal on social issues.” This is no longer possible today because Evangelical Christian groups have moved social issues such as abortion, gay rights and religion out of the home and churches and on to the political stage. And these thorny issues have become a litmus test for politicians to gain their support. (Something never intended by the writers of the Constitution.)

Give the Republicans credit for taking full advantage of the convergence of social and economic issues on the same platform. Republicans use the opposition to abortion, together with the fear of gays, Muslims, atheists and others who are not evangelical Christians (Mormons) to distract the members of these groups away from economic issues that are not in the best interests of the ordinary citizen.

If you don’t think this is true, just recall the actions of Tea Party favorite and Evangelical Christian, Republican Michele Bachmann who made headlines by going public with fear-mongering claims that the government has become infiltrated by Muslims with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. We can snicker at the idiocy of Bachmann and respect the courage and sensibilities of some Republicans (not running for election) such as John McCain to denounce Bachmann. But, did you see Mitt Romney come forward to criticize Bachmann? Did you read of any Evangelical Christian ministers taking to the pulpit to deplore her comments? Of course not, because Bachmann’s statements are part of the Republican strategy to divert the attention of members of the current populist movement away from economic actions that are against their own self-interests. Part of this strategy is for the Republicans to question Obama’s “Americanism” and religion; even more than his policies. (And, using his actions as “proof” that he is “not one of us.”)

Even Romney must perform a delicate balancing act in his effort to be elected president. It is no secret that Tea Party and Evangelical Christian support for Romney is lukewarm at best. The Tea Baggers don’t trust Romney as a true “fiscal conservative” and many of the evangelicals believe his Mormonism and past positions on social issues disqualifies him as a “real” Christian. In a way, this is an advantage for Romney, because it allows him to focus on his newfound conservatism on social issues, without having to be specific about his economic plans; which in reality favor the elite and wealthy. The real “advantage” for Romney is that these groups see him as the “lesser of two Devils.”

And the Moral of the Story …

Democracy is always at risk. It is always under attack from the wealthy, powerful and elite, who by nature seek to concentrate, not disperse or share their power and wealth. The most powerful tool in the fight to preserve democracy is a populist movement of ordinary citizens who come together to redress grievances and force changes that are in their own best interests. Fortunately, American has had a rich history of successful populist movements.

That is until now. The Tea Party and Christian Evangelicals recognize the power of populist movements to bring about change. But unlike such movements in the past that served as a counterweight to the wealthy, powerful and elite, members of today’s movement are demanding changes that are against their own self-interest and, in fact, will give the wealthy and elite even more power and advantage.

Populist movements should continue to play an important role in preserving American democracy, but we should not allow them to be corrupted by the very forces we seek to change. Instead we should return to the true nature of the movements as best described by Henry Wallace (Vice-President under Franklin Roosevelt) when he said, “If we put our trust in the common sense of common men and ‘with malice toward none and charity for all’ go forward on the great adventure of making political, economic and social democracy a practical reality, we shall not fail.”

One response to “America has a Rich History of Successful Populist Movements

  1. This is a wonderful article Mac….well thought out and thought provoking.

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