Populism: Democratic Promise or Rehearsal for Totalitarianism?

The Populist movement’s farmers and laborers, primarily represented by the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s party, strove to create an alternative version of capitalism. Although largely a reaction to the societal changes of the Gilded Age (urbanization, industrialization, mass immigration, and the creation of corporations, international finance, a new class of mega-rich), the Populists were not a conservative movement that wanted to to return to Jeffersonian values. On the contrary, the Populists were a forward-thinking mass political movement that imagined an activist state at the center of a new, modern America.

In his book The Populist Vision, historian Charles Postel[1] argues the movement embraced modernity in its many forms: large scale organizational principles, progress through science, global commerce, and new expressions of spiritualism. However, in my opinion, it is questionable if the Populists ever had a coherent ideology. On one hand, the Populists were an unstable political coalition, robust in numbers but lacking durability due to the diversity of conflicting regional and economic interests. Unlike the major parties, there was no “big tent” platform to hold all of the disparate parts together. On the other hand, I would argue Populism was simply an opposition movement that had strong consensus around the national problems it wished to address, but could never work through the unworkable diversity of policy solutions advocated by wings of its membership. However, I think when it comes to the Populists the matter of who was far more important than the matter of what: This was a political movement of the middle class, particularly an emerging middle class of farmers (emigrating to take advantage of cheap land) and industrial laborers (both urban and rural),[4] reacting to the political power held by large scale corporations and trusts, banks, and the mega-rich. In this sense, Populism was a bottom-up movement of activists and policy entrepreneurs sharing a consistent but general ideology: using centralized government power to improve the conditions of its middle class constituency.

In the end, Populism’s political failure was due to its flirtation and alliances with the Democrats and Republicans, leading to those parties coopting major elements of the movement’s platform. The defeat of William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 Presidential Election signifies the end of Populism[2] and the beginning of the Progressive Era. However, recent historiographies have tried to lump the Populists in with the Progressives. In Rebecca Edwards’ formulation of “the Long Progressive Era,”[3] the Populists merely represented “the Early Progressive Era” given the many policy consistencies between the Populists and the Democrat and Republican Progressives that followed them. Postel takes issue with this and I tend to agree with his point of view. Although the Populists pioneered many Progressive policies (Federal income tax, Federal Reserve bank, farm support programs and encouragement of co-ops, greater regulation of banks and railroads), the Progressives were a qualitative departure from Populist idealism, enough of a deviation to end one movement and begin another. In contrast with the Populists, the Progressive agenda was driven by urban elites aligned to corporate and banking interests, often at the expense of the farmers and laborers who comprised the core of Populism. Again, the who was more important than the what.

As a counterfactual, had the Populists (through the People’s party) remained a viable political party as part of a 3-party system, how would they have impacted US law and policy? Obviously there are too many variables in this counterfactual to address this question specifically. However, given three party competition for votes and the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, clearly an ongoing People’s party would have been in a position to influence law and policy in the legislative process—a process which, by definition, requires compromise and deal-making. One could imagine the dynamics of coalition government where the People’s party was a key component to Progressive Democrat or Republican rule, or part of an important block to the policies of a conservatives. Holding aside the unlikely circumstance of Populist domination of state and Federal governments, an ongoing People’s party may have resulted in a portfolio of reforms very similar to the Late Progressive Period. In other words, dramatic changes such as bank and railroad nationalization were never feasible concepts in the political climate of 1890s and 1900s. It is easy to imagine Populist ideologues’ frustration and disillusionment even if the People’s party continued. The Populist vision—the alternative model of capitalism Postel describes—was all-encompassing and, in Thomas Watson’s reformulation, revolutionary.

The Populists strike me as a movement of middle class people who recognized the crony capitalism of banks, railroads, mining, and other industrial enterprises, rent seeking at all levels of government, but rather than saying, “This must stop,” the Populists asked, “Why can’t we do that too?” As a people’s movement, Populism has historical descendants in socialism, unionization, and statism. According to Postel, we can attribute today’s progressivism to Populism.[5]

From a contemporary and liberty-seeking perspective, it is hard not to recognize some troubling features of Populism—features that may have also worried justice-seeking, civil libertarian-minded contemporaries who lacked my benefit of hindsight. In short, the full realization of the Populist vision strikes me as a proto-totalitarian ethno-state catering to a white Protestant nation. The Populist movement’s goal of centralized power under a technocratic state run for a benefit of a plurality of citizens is a direct rejection of Enlightenment individualism. Although invoking Jefferson and Jackson in Populist rhetoric, individual rights and equal treatment under the law were to give way to utilitarian thinking. To the Populists, state-sponsored capitalism would be far more effective than a free market. There was a blind faith in the benefits of the command and control organizational systems of large multi-state corporations as well as Bismarck’s Germany. Rather than leave an economy to the whims of supply and demand, a group of experts working for the good of a plurality of the people could design a far more rational method achieving better results: bureaus full of officials would determine what people needed, how much to supply, and at what prices to charge. Clear strains of utopian thinking come out in other areas as well. Populist enthusiasm for progress borders on scientism. Social Darwinism appears to be universally embraced by the Populists. Many key figures in the movement were early adherents in the eugenics movement. Although racist and nativist predilections apply broadly to the politics of 19th century America, t Populist he movement is particularly interlaced with Protestant zeal, both anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, and supportive of maintaining white racial superiority over blacks and indigenous peoples.

Notwithstanding Mary Elizabeth Lease’s fever dreams of South American conquest, one redeeming quality of the Populists was a lack of enthusiasm for the colonialism of the European powers—a feature soon to be introduced in American politics during the Late Progressive Era and the brawny foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt. However, it would not be hard to imagine the Populists gaining enthusiasm for empire had the movement had success at the ballot box. The Populist electorate were largely products of Manifest Destiny given every Populist state was a former American Indian land and/or former Mexican or Spanish possession. While the line from Populism to the idea of Lebensraum is certainly not a direct one, it is not hard to imagine the statist America envisioned by the Populists being one that needed to continue to expand at all costs.



[1] Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[2] Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision, 269-271.

[3] Edwards, Rebecca. “Politics, Social Movements, and the Periodization of U.S. History,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 9 (October 2009): 461-473.

[4] Postel quibbles with Robert Johnson’s thesis, but his disagreement appears based more on semantics (the definitions of “middle class” and “industrial orders”). Class definition is a relative concept, based on the structure of a society, its cultural norms, and the time period. In essence, farmers were small capitalists (often landlords to tenant farmers) and skilled laborers were equivalent to the bourgeoisie tradesmen, now simply drawing a paycheck from a corporation. See Postel, The Populist Vision, 223-225. Furthermore because class definition is subject to the beliefs of the predominant culture, certain in-groups are deemed “legitimate” members of the middle class with “others” relegated to lower tiers. The general support of segregationist and Chinese exclusion policies and the exclusion of Catholic and recent immigrants from segments of the movement affirms Populism’s middle class focus.

[5] Postel, Charles. “If Trump and Sanders Are Both Populists, What Does Populist Mean?”, The American Historian, February 2016.

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