Where are the Populists?

Where are the Populists?

Michael Collins

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.William Jennings Bryan, 1896

Populism is broadly defined as “political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes.” The majority are deliberately held down by the financial elite. Removal of the financial elite is the vehicle to realize the “people’s needs and wishes.” (Graph)

The statement from William Jennings Bryan is pure populism. It becomes less pure as he proceeded with his speech. He used a metaphor of burning down the nation’s big cities since they were, he claimed, the stronghold of the financial elite and support for the gold standard for currency.

In practice, populism almost always entails anger and resentment.

A combination of factors has the United States ripe for populist sentiments. The financial collapse which surfaced fully at the end of the Bush administration resulted in help to both the major financial firms and the people. The financial firms got $14 trillion dollars worth of bailouts. The people got $1.8 trillion in President Obama’s stimulus package, much of which consisted of tax cuts for political favorites.

On a more basic level, the disparity in wealth shows that the top just 5% of the population controls 59% of the nations wealth. Include the next 5% and you find that 10% of the population controls 71% of the wealth. The parties and the media can trot out all the diversions they want, people know this and they’re increasingly upset as the recession/depression bears down on the vast majority of citizens.

Major Populist Efforts in the Past

Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech of 1896 expressed agrarian populism at a time when large portion of the people lived and worked in rural areas. It was at the expense of working class people in cities, thus denying a unified movement of those at the bottom of the financial ladder.

Bryan is a good model of how populist politicians operate. They divide the the working class and poor by race or locality and then enunciate the message of class exploitation tailored to the target subgroup, in this case rural citizens.

Georgia’s populist governor, Thomas E. Watson, a contemporary of Bryan, went so far as to establish the Populist Party (People’s Party). This met with some success but, like Bryan, Watson retreated to race baiting since his cause was ultimately his own political aggrandizement.

One of the few populists who might have been competitive in a national campaign was Huey Long, the Governor then Senator from Depression era Louisiana. His populist message was clear and he spoke to all citizens without geographic or racial division:

“According to the tables which we have assembled, it is our estimate that four percent of the American people own eighty five percent of the wealth of America, and that over 70 percent of the people of America don’t own enough to pay for the debts that they owe.

“How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what’s intended for 9/10th of the people to eat? The only way to be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub that he ain’t got no business with!” Huey P. Long, Dec. 11, 1934

Long established Share Our Wealth clubs all over the country and was to the left of the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Due to the clarity of his message, Long was a far greater threat to the powerful than Roosevelt. He had a record of using public works and education to help the poor and working classes and he advanced universal beliefs of economic rights without the racism almost always associated with Southern populism. He was compromised by charges of corruption and his national effort, tied to his persona, collapsed after he was murdered in 1935.

There are other examples of politicians who pushed populist themes. The late George Wallace’s campaign for president contained populist elements. But like Bryan, this was tied to an overarching theme of racism. Arguably, Wallace’s rhetoric was incorporated into Nixon’s Southern strategy but with the presence of corporate insiders at the top of the ticket.

Where is Today’s Populist Movement?

It’s not likely that there will be one, although politicians and parties will take advantage of the suffering of citizens by co-opting the populist message without offering a real program. It is nearly impossible to have a sustained political movement without a a strong ideological foundation.

On a national scale, true populists don’t exist. The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley was attributed to Brown’s self portrayal as a ”œregular guy.” Hotline commented, ”œhe’s nailed the populist-style retail politicking.”

That’s fine for election time but Brown is already on record for supporting big banks maintaining tax cuts for the very rich, and minimal interventions for the majority of citizens to deal with the economic crisis. Ironically, there is a strong case that Brown’s election was due to a populist-like protest against the bailouts the Democrats have bestowed on big banks.

The Democrats have had brief moments of populist expression. When his bill to help with soaring foreclosure rates failed, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) exclaimed, the banks, ”œfrankly, … they own this place.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said recently, ”œThe truth is — let me break the bad news to the American people — big money interests control the United States Congress.”

Each Senator returned to the fold after their statements. Durbin continued as Senate Whip, gathering votes for a middle of the road corporatist agenda. After he criticized of big money interests, Sanders supported the big-money-friendly Senate health reform bill. No Senator and few members of Congress have adopted redistribution of wealth the centerpiece of their agenda.

A sustained populist movement requires a central statement on the current distribution and future redistribution of wealth. Adopting that position is a deal killer when it comes to campaign fund raising, the ticket into modern electoral politics.

One consistent national voice for universal social justice, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, (D-OH), has been consistently maligned and marginalized with the result that his message is buried.

There have been political movements based on social justice, a reasonable distribution of wealth, services, and opportunities. The Socialist Party of America presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs’, stated a strong case for the wisdom of the people and the need to end politics as usual:

In the Republican and Democratic parties you of the common herd are not expected to think. That is not only unnecessary but might lead you astray. That is what the “intellectual” leaders are for. They do the thinking and you do the voting. They ride in carriages at the front where the band plays and you tramp in the mud, bringing up the rear with great enthusiasm. E.V. Debs, June 16, 1918

The Debs campaign ended shortly after this speech when the administration of President Woodrow Wilson charged and convicted Debs under the Espionage Act based on his opposition to the World War I draft in the same speech. He was jailed and his public career was finished.

That lesson may have inspired the current politics of don’t ask, don’t tell. Don’t ask too often about the distorted national priorities and don’t tell the people what they already know; that the distribution of wealth has captured the vast majority in a never ending game of catch up that cannot be won under the current political and economic system.


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Eugene V. Debs, The Canton Ohio Speech, June 16, 1918

Kucinich Electrifies Convention Arena, August 26, 2008

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Michael Collins

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  • even around this place. I was all fired up to mention Dennis Kucinich when I saw his name mentioned. Mike Gravel got an even chillier reception than he.

    Populists need not be left leaning. Ron Paul also fits the bill to a degree even though he is a free market ideologue. Why? Because he advocates tearing down government bureaucracies and removing rights from predatory corporate entities.

    We need a monopoly buster. What we have are monopoly builders and apologists.

    I did inhale.

  • I’ll quote you in the future.

    The lack of an alternative system is the obvious fault. It makes it easy to pull out the populist theme to use at the moment without any intent of following through.

    Populism without a program is the refuge of the insincere and intellectually lazy.

  • That goes to distribution of wealth, artificially maintained. It’s easy to win and win big when you set the rules and then have the right to break even those whenever it suits you. “The level playing field” is a field of dreams.

    Kucinich has been subject of the media beat down since he was mayor of Cleveland. They spotted him early. Gravel got the ‘you don’t exist’ treatment as soon as he turned. Gravel beat Ernest Gruening, a brave man and Republican, on the issue that Gruening didn’t support Viet Nam. I respect his turn around a great deal. But you see where it gets you.

    We’re teetering and it’s hard to see how this ends well.

  • Yegads I feel like this graf I just posted on another thread is relevant. I am gonna take a walk outside and get away from Internets. However the hoarding of the wealth is directly related to the hoarding of technology, which when distributed, rarely fails to generate more wealth among a wider base of people, also lowering ‘initial capital’ for everything from water heaters on up!

    The whole racket in this country is two sided: 1) availability of credit arbitraged thru Federal Reserve System so banks can skim off the %age between the discount window and their usury. 2) the control of technology hoarded and arbitraged by the military-industrial complex, who developed a ton of fancy energy tech with taxpayer dollars. They should have to pay the US Treasury an unfathomably huge sum to hang onto this tech in a carbon-regulated era, or else give it to free back to the US taxpayers. Lookup EEStor, that’s a great example.

    lol to Tonsure Wimple re Sunstein! 🙂


  • Your mention of Long brings up my angst about who and what truly lies behind these populist movements. Long was sponsoring Share Our Wealth clubs by day, and by night inviting Frank Costello’s slot machines – run out of New York by prosecutor Dewey – in exchange for 10% of the take. Was his long term goal to take from the wealthy and redistribute it to the workers so he could profit from their fleecing at the multitude of illegal casinos operating out in the open in his state? Or was it all just schmaltz to get enough fools to vote him into office so he could be in power when opportunities Like Costello’s slot machines came along?

    Another example: The working man’s union pension funds financed the first generation of hotel/casinos in Las Vegas, and years later we find out that the folks whose names were on those loans were in almost every case fronts for the Mob, the whole deal done just so those gangsters could skim the uncounted take. Was the whole point of all those years of struggle to form a nationwide union with tens of thousands of members to lift up the working class, or to create a vast slush fund to finance the whims of organized crime?

    Or does this all just illustrate even further that the majority are held down by the financial elite, both the corporate interests who make no bones about their opposition to populism via the excuse of fiduciary responsibility to shareholder interest while they loot the company from within via salary and bonus beyond even Midas’ dreams, and the con men and gangsters who work hand in hand at pretending to lift up the working class just so they can loot them more efficiently?

    There is a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein quality to all these movements once enough time elapses for the behind-the-scenes actions of all the players to come to light.

  • “Resistance will be reduced to small, often imperceptible acts of defiance”

    my main takeaway from Hedges terrific article linked above.

    I also found his metaphor, built around the idea of medieval monastic networks compelling in that it incorporates something utterly devoid in contemporary liberalism’s technocratic (progressive)world view; a humanistic mission.

  • ..predominantly at the expense of the bottom 80% – just the nature of a zero-sum beast when there’s expansion and the top is pulling away (share of total income is always zero-sum). Simulate a contraction of the income pool and the reverse will end up being true.

    There are some rounding oddities in the chart that mask part of the change (whoever put it together didn’t think about the effects of rounding and precision on additive sums and which of the CBO figures are most precise). By my calculations the relevant figures should be:


    Bottom 80% – 57.6
    Rest of the top fifth – 34.9
    Top 1% – 7.5


    Bottom 80% – 47.9
    Rest of the top fifth – 35.8
    Top 1% – 16.3

    Over the period of observation the share of the total income pie accounted for by each quintile changed as follows:

    Lowest quintile: -30.9%
    Second quintile: -22.8%
    Third quintile: -13.3%
    Fourth quintile: -9.0%
    Rest of fifth quintile: +2.6%
    Top 1%: +117.3%

    CBO data on which the chart appears to be based can be found here: xls.

    There were real increases in after-tax income for all groups so all groups are theoretically “better off”, however quite apart from current equity concerns, this is sowing major wealth challenges. The real action, MHO, is less income distribution currently than what might be happening on the estate tax front (don’t know your tax code) as folks seek to keep what they amassed and effectively lock in distribution inequity.

    “The absence of any US-Iran bilateral channel…may have the perverse effect of reinforcing Iranian interest in progressing in the nuclear realm so that the US will be forced to take it seriously and engage it directly.” ~ Richard Haass

  • I’ll remember that. Thanks. This is very useful. Here’s my inadequate representation of the 1979 to 2006 quintiles in graph form. I’m struggling with open office

    justplainDave’s #’s

  • THey buy everything because they have almost all of the money and they control the rest. The wealth figures, 71% for the top 10%-29% for the rest doesn’t reflect control of the economy and political system. The top 1% control 34% of the wealth. That’s enough to control the legal and regulatory functions and behavior of wealth creation through banking and investment firms.

    When a movement starts, it may be independent and ideologically driven but it won’t stay that way. You example of Long and the union pension funds illustrate that. “All this can be yours” is the offer and the heroes of the people turn into chumps over and over.

    Populism is a tactic used by the right and left. “Change Washington” – how lame is that. It never changes. If anyone was serious about uniting the people with the means of governance, they’d start with federal funding for all federal electoins. But that’s not even broached. The broader issue about skewed income doesn’t even get approached because the people who would approach it are all spawn of the money driven electoral process. It’s like an operating system that crashes and degrades substantially every time you upgrade it (except for the vendor).

    That doesn’t mean that there are not sincere, honest, and incorruptible people out there. But the likelihood of them gaining any significant power is just about nil. However, the fundamental decency and intelligence of the vast majority who don’t pull the strings of control is validated by the fact that we have a fairly civil society domestically. Our foreign policy is a horror show however. We’re stuck in loop of diminishing returns.

  • In fact, the PTB should just surrender now because they’ve lost and there’s no reversing their position. No exit for them.

    Why? Because of the phenomena Hedges describes and the fact that the system, here, and elsewhere, is simply broken, done for. There’s great anger now but soon there will be a parallel commentary by the people – ridicule. When that happens, it’s a “Toto” moment – the vast majority will have looked behind the curtain and observed “The Wizard” in all his diminished absurdity.

    There are two broad outcomes as I see it. First, we’ll flame out as a species in some Dr. Strangelove event. These people are idiots. There have been any number of near nuclear confrontations or accidents, some known, some not. The availability of bio-agents is just mind blowing. And then there are the mainstays of environmental pollution and irreversible climate change. The PTB’s solution to climate change – geoengineering. OMG! Can you imagine?

    The other outcome is that the survival instinct of the species kicks in and people begin alternative forms of governance and civil organization. This would include regional and international projects to deal with specific problems something like the ongoing Linux project, which has been extraordinarily successful.

    The third option, ongoing maintenance of power by the long term incumbents controlling capital will end just one way — we’re all dead, including them (a fact that they don’t seem to grasp).

  • I agree with everything you said about politics and governance, about the ability of the top percentile to control the legislation that enables the further concentration of wealth. I just think you’re being optimistic when you say, “that doesn’t mean there are not sincere, honest, and incorruptible people out there”. I believe there is a small fraction of people who may enter the fray with something other than feeding at the trough in mind. But they’re rapidly disillusioned and go away before they get past City Council, or they’re corrupted, and quickly see that the only path to the kind of power it would take to change even their small corner of concern is to play along to get along.

    But I think, in large part, the fundamental decency and intelligence of the vast majority that you referred to has more to do with a mass delusion that we are, on the whole, a fundamentally decent and intelligent people. It’s easy for us to be civil to each other. We live in the richest and most prosperous country on earth. Granted, not for much longer. But it was ever thus; no empire lasts forever.

    I contend that it is the very nature of that horror show we euphemistically call our foreign policy that allows us the luxury of pretending we are a fundamentally decent and intelligent people. Our society is so rich because our foreign policy is so bluntly all about looting the planet and bringing home the plunder. Our nation’s history is littered with dozens of examples. Yet we talk about what we do in the world as if it was something apart from ourselves.

    Consider this; historically, we have always seen the Brits as a fundamentally decent and intelligent people, even when the British Empire was being propped up by the opium trade, wherein they destroyed farmlands that fed whole peoples to plant more opium to sell to the Chinese, and even fought a war for the right to continue to addict the Chinese when their government tried to outlaw it. We feel much the same about the French, even when, in more recent history, they were oppressing the masses in Algiers. And it’s clear that in both cases they saw themselves as civilized, decent and intelligent, and I’m sure if the actions of their governments intruded on their thoughts or day-to-day lives, they saw those actions as something quite apart from themselves, as well.

    The delusion is all about not asking why our standard of living is so much better than the rest of the world. The vast majority of Americans just tsk, tsk and shake their head at the few reports of third world troubles that slip by and make it into our media, without once ever wondering about the history behind how those societies came to have so little while we enjoy so much.

    Just in my lifetime the fundamentally decent people of the United States have watched on their evening news, circa 1968, a South Vietnamese general, whose gun and bullets and uniform and salary their tax dollars paid for, blow a shackled prisoner’s brains out on a public street, and followed it up a few years later with a photo in one of their most conservative magazines of a little girl running naked down a dirt road (February 1972), her napalmed skin peeling off as she ran. They were so upset by all of this that they re-elected Nixon, the man most responsible for the escalation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the preceding years, giving him a whopping 520 electoral votes to his opponent’s 18, even though the Watergate scandal was already brewing on the pages of the Washington Post and even though the New York Times had printed several excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, detailing the government’s deceptions about Vietnam in their own internal reports.

    The reason I wrote in the first place was the prominence of Huey’s photo and the representation of him as a friend of the people. I feel that to talk about Long as an example of a man who tried to balance the scales of wealth in this country without talking about the rest of his resume – that he opened up his state to rampant and unregulated gambling interests run by the Mafia, that in turn changed the Marcello crew from backwater Cajun thugs to a preeminent American crime family who became deeply embroiled in everything from buying governance at home to buying countries, like Cuba, abroad – is to feed that delusion that we are other than who we are. It allows people to believe that if we just had a few more good politicians like Old Huey we’d be all set. When the truth is He Was A Crook, and if you scratch any politician long enough and hard enough, you’ll find the same thing, whether they’re working for the Mob or for Corporations.

    When has it ever been any different in any society in any time?

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