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Monday, February 09, 2004

Populism in context  

Spengler, in July of 2002:
During the 19th century the problem was transmission not so much of information, but people and freight. Cheap freight offered by competitive rail lines brought millions of farmers to the American heartland, many to marginal land. Like today's telecom companies, the American railroads went bankrupt, some two or three times over, as the pioneer dream overreached and collapsed.

By the 1890s, historians pronounced the frontier dead. E H Harriman and J P Morgan bought up the bankrupt railroads and established profitable monopolies, and in the process ruined millions of marginal farmers. This begot a populist movement, the myth of the evil monopolist, and a whole literature about rural tragedy.
The other Friday I watched Bill Moyer's Now on PBS - always useful to know what the far left is thinking - and was struck by a claim in an interview with Southern historian Dan Carter that George Wallace radically inverted populism to channel anger against the government, rather than against powerful economic interests (I'm paraphrasing). This seemed willfully obtuse - they'd just been talking about how the federal courts in the 50s and Congress in the 60s had utterly upended Southern society through civil rights activism - but I wasn't sure why. Of course, today's Progressives always understate the traditionalist and overtly racist elements of agrarian Populism, in part because they want to claim it.

Spengler's nifty precis reminds me that Populism was always a desperate, rear-guard action, devoted to restoring a lost status quo ante - in a word, reactionary. For southerners like Tom Watson, ante Reconstruction; for William Jennings Bryan, ante Wall Street monopolists; for Wallace, ante Brown v Board of Education. It was only the shared enemies de jour of anti-capitalist labor and anti-railroad farmers (and of nativist agrarians and the anti-immigrant temperance movement) over a century ago that brought Populists and Progressives together in the first place, attempting to overthrow the post-war GOP hegemony. The fragile coalition only took power when the GOP split in 1912 between Taft's Old Guard and TR's Bull Moosers.

The bond was never strong. It fractured after Wilson (1916 re-election slogan: He kept us out of the war) turned his attention overseas; FDR was able to reforge it, but the fissures were visible again by 1948 when Thurmond and Wallace (Henry, that is) split off from the then-Democratic mainstream. By '68, it was gone for good.

So, why do Progressives want to make common cause with reactionaries again? (In principle, if not in actual practice. Or, as reliable voters, but without a real seat at the table.) Because Progressives, too, find themselves looking wistfully backward, to the center-left consensus that dominated the country from the New Deal to the Great Society - and still does among the knowledge class, though the rest of the country has been moving steadily away from it. Because they'll take any allies available who can help prevent a potential center-right consensus from coalescing. To Progressives, the real enemy is still the rich, the real solution always more government, and maybe the Populists are finally over their silly obsession with centralized government power - or can be persuaded to overlook it with enough harping on Enron and Halliburton. And, because Progressivism is and always has been a fundamentally elitist enterprise, and Populist rhetoric tends to distract people from noticing that man behind the curtain.

posted by Kelly | 3:40 PM link
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