Democrats, Populism and Insurgent Populists (a response)

Michael Moore’s latest film and Alan Grayson’s “die quickly” speech in the House have revived interest in an old question: What is populism, and why is the Democratic Party so afraid of it?

Populism is politics which opposes wealth and power in the name of the common folk. It takes both left wing and right wing forms and sometimes degenerates into bigotry and attacks on minorities. Populism can be faked, and that is being done right now – e.g., Limbaugh and Beck. Populist appeals can be made by spokesmen for special interests who have no intention of fulfilling their democratic promises, but who are just opportunistically faking populism as part of an attack on some enemy. (As I never get tired of saying: Republican populism is fake, but Democratic elitism is real).

Since the Fifties the Democratic Party, whose populist wing was critically important during the New Deal, has avoided and repressed populism. Individual populists such as Paul Wellstone have occasionally been elected, often in defiance of the party machine, but they have never had much influence in the party. The Democratic strategy has been cooperation with big business, and their slogan has been “a rising tide lifts all boats” — “win-win” solutions where everyone wins and nobody loses. This worked pretty well until about 1970, when business started to pull away from the deal, and since that time it’s been mostly downhill for the Democrats, for labor, and for the average American.

When they made their deal with big business, the Democrats became a wonky party of technocrats and expert administrators who balanced all the various interests and came up with the answer which was best for everyone, and they distanced themselves from their earlier party-of-the-common-man pretensions. Rather than to represent the majority of the electorate, they increasingly defined their constituency as a hodgepodge of special interest. Political parties inevitably do represent plural interests, as the Democrats certainly had done ever since the Civil War, but the post-Fifties Democrats made a fractionated constituency a deliberate goal and did everything they could to avoid majoritarian appeals and to marginalize majoritarianism within the party.

As part of this transformation of the party, the Democrats needed to misrepresent populism. Since then there’s been an almost unmixed stream of slanders coming from both parties, until by now anyone counts as a populist as long as they’re abusive, ignorant, racist, and dishonest. (The Nazi David Duke sometimes calls himself a Populist, and he was allowed to get away with it). Almost everyone comes out of Pol Sci 100 knowing that the Populists were bad guys, and the Pol Sci 101 attitude is pervasive among party leaders, wonk staffers, and a big chunk of the Democratic electorate.

However, during most of the period since the Civil War, however, progressive energy in this country has mostly come from movements of the Populist typeworking outside the parties or against the party leadership: Greenbackers, Progressives (three kinds), Socialists, Farmer-Laborites, Nonpartisan-Leaguers, and independents — to say nothing of unions, farm organizations, and civil rights groups. (Martin Luther King’s movement was essentially populism, albeit minority populism).

Below I will sketch the history of the Democratic Party in its relations with the Populist Party, small-p populism, and the various sorts of progressivism during the period from about 1890 to the middle of the 1950s, and suggest that many of the problems the Democrats have now can be traced back to the redefinition of the Democratic Party that took place at the end of this period.



The Populist Party was a national party only from 1890 to 1896; when they endorsed the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, in return for very small concessions – this basically destroyed the party. At that time both the Democratic and the Republican parties were dominated by big business, so that the workers and small farmers who made up 70%+ of the population were effectively unrepresented. (Democratic President Grover Cleveland was perhaps the most anti-labor President of the era). The Populists were strongest among farmers and in the South and West, but they were affiliated with the Knights of Labor, and in 1894 the Populist Frank McBride was elected President of the AFL (Gompers’ only defeat).

Altogether the Populists elected ten governors, six Senators, and about forty Congressmen. In 1892 the Populist candidate got 8.5% of the vote for President and carried four states and parts of two others; Cleveland’s margin of victory in that election was only 3%, so the Populists were a real factor. In 1896 the dissident Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who had some Populist sympathies, got the Democratic nomination. The Populists supported him, but he lost worth 45.8% of the vote and a smaller percentage of the electoral vote, all from the South and West. Bryan ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat two more times, but the Populists never were a factor in a Presidential election again.

Presidential third parties seldom come close to winning, and the populists are no exception. Furthermore, as often as not the third party doesn’t survive the election, and that was essentially the case with the Populists. But the Populists had enormous significance — by bringing poor farmers and labor, and their issues, into the electoral equation for the first time, by stealing voters from some of the Democratic and Republican constituencies, and above all, by disrupting the other two parties’ strategies.

The parties’ response was savage and multifaceted. The Eastern Democrats ran their own candidate in 1896 and boycotted Bryan every time other time he ran. The Spanish American War was fought in part to distract the voters from domestic issues and weaken the Populists, and this distraction was quite effective. And last and worst, because Populists in the South sometimes went into coalition with the Republicans, forcing the Democrats to campaign for the black vote and also threatening the Democratic Solid South, the two established parties made a back-room agreement to disenfranchise Southern blacks. During this period the two parties were in collusion, with very similar principles and goals, and if the South had been thrown into contention the resulting confusion would have threatened both the Republican and the Democratic bosses. (The willingness of the Republicans to sacrifice their own Southern supporters is one of the remarkable facts of American history).


After the collapse of the Populist Party the attitude of the Democratic Party toward small-p populism was ambiguous. Many of the Populist issues were kept alive by progressives working mostly at the state level — the national campaign organizations in 1912 and 1924 were ad hoc and short-lived. The Democratic leadership was as stodgy and business-dominated as ever, but) if they ever wanted to win they still needed to get as many votes as possible from ex-Populists and their Progressive successors. They mostly resolved this dilemma by not winning, but in 1912 Woodrow Wilson — like Cleveland an honest, independent Democrat who was able to work with the machine — was elected President with the semi-Populist Bryan as his running mate. Wilson had been pretty conservative before his election, but in his first term he signed many populist / progressive bills and paid at least lip service to Bryan’s anti-war principles.

By 1932 the Populist Party itself was a distant memory, but between 1932 and 1938 (Roosevelt’s most progressive period) Roosevelt and the Democrats relied heavily on support from populist / progressive Senators and Representatives – some from third parties, and some from dissident factions of the two major parties. The progressive-populist faction pushed Roosevelt steadily to the left in domestic policy, though it had to contend with stubborn resistance from the much more conservative machine Democrats and Southern Bourbons (and also, of course, orthodox Republicans).

In 1938, however, the approaching war broke up the progressive / Democrat coalition, and many of the progressives, who were often isolationists, deserted Roosevelt. From this point on Roosevelt increasingly governed with regular Democratic support, which he was able to do because the Democratic majorities were huge, and progress on domestic policy slowed (thought the Keynesian effects of war spending had a positive effect). Winning the war became the primary goal, and the Democratic Party became a technocratic / machine party.


By 1945 American society had been transformed by the war effort, and the Democratic Party was dominated by its technocratic wing, Because of the religious appeals, moralism, and majoritarianism of the Populists (and many Progressives), from WWI on the technocratic New Republic liberals held Populists and Progressives in very low regard despite their many valid proposals, and liberal-technocratic social engineers played a role in the New Deal right from the start. Furthermore, after WWII, America’s future course in foreign policy was uncertain, with options ranging from war against the USSR to peaceful coexistence, and the technocrats favored a policy of Realpolitik which was abhorrent both to right and left populists. The Cold War compromise solution pleased no one, since it involved switching from a holy war against Fascism (allied to Communism) to a holy war against Communism allied to the surviving Fascists.

In 1948 the Democrats purged its left, much of which had populist roots, and the right populists mostly ended in the Republican Party. Truman’s purge wasn’t thorough enough for the right, and an anti-elitist McCarthyism strain emerged which survives to this day, (for example with the teabaggers). Meanwhile, Democratic intellectuals, partly following the leftist German refugee Adorno, developed a theory holding that all populism is ultimately totalitarian, either Fascist or Communist.

The liberals described McCarthy as a populist and hinted that he was a Fascist. This was actually a very peculiar move. First, while McCarthy was anti-elitist and demagogic and appealed to the common man, he also was a fairly standard conservative Republican whose support did not come mostly from populists or progressives. Second, calling McCarthy a populist did not hurt him with anyone who had not read Adorno and who still admired the Populists. And finally, by the time these criticisms of McCarthy came out, McCarthy had been censured and had died in disgrace.

The target was not McCarthy at all. McCarthy had had a lot of Democratic support, including the Kennedys, but in any case he had been defeated. Tthe technocratic Cold War liberals had won – they controlled the Democratic Party and expected to win the Presidency in 1960. The real goal of these attacks was to preclude the re-emergence of a populist wing within the Democratic Party, so that the Democrats could redefine themselves as a neutral, non-majoritarian elite of experts. While in office, Democrats conduct a realistic, militaristic foreign policy while domestically dividing the goodies between the nation’s many and varied interest groups without identifying with any one of them — and above all without responding to majoritarian anti-business or anti-war popular movements.


My main conclusion is that the Democrats have crippled themselves by renouncing populist and majoritarian appeals while presenting themselves as expert administrators and effectively allowing the Republican Party to cash in on fake populism. This strategy hasn’t worked since 1968, and it has crippled the Democrats by making them incapable of counterattacking against blatantly dishonest fake-populist appeals by the Republicans. At the level of the high-level party pros and a lot of elected officials, this isn’t a problem at all – they are business Democrats on the take from the plutocratic malefactors, and they do very well for themselves even when the Democrats lose.

But the elitist strategy is disastrous in its effects at the lower levels – the sincere, wonkish party workers who have been indoctrinated with anti-populism in Pol Sci 101, and even more so the enormous contingent of Democratic voters who have also taken Pol Sci 101 and think of themselves as wonks. On the internet and elsewhere, far too often rank and file Democratic discussions of politics, rather than concentrating on the reasons why the Democratic position is the right one (in the cases when it really is), end up with wonky discussions about process, and these discussions always seem to end with a lesser-evil slide to the center. And while this is exactly what the Democratic leadership wants, this is usually not what rank and file Democrats, Democratic volunteers, and idealistic low-level workers want.

It’s noticeable that racial issues and foreign wars repeatedly derailed past populist initiatives, and this is the main problem we have to battle against. The fake populists of today (militaristic little-government goldbugs) are, in fact, the very opposite of the populists of history, and almost identical to the McKinley Republicans who defeated populism. All they share with the Populists is angry rhetoric and the racism of which the Populists have been rather unfairly accused. (Many Populists were racists, especially in the South, but it’s hard to show that the Populists were more racist than the other two parties, and considering that the Democratic Party was the segregationist party right up until 1965, this isn’t really a criticism that Democrats should so easily make).

We also have to remember that, while the Populist Party had a lot of labor support and was not exclusively agrarian, the majority of its supporters were dirt farmers, who at that time constituted 50% or so of the population. The demographics have changed enormously since then, and farmers by now are less than 5% of the population, and even factory workers are a rather small demographic. Obviously populist appeals in our time have to define the majority in some other way, without agrarian or proletarian nostalgia.

And finally, the institutional Democratic Party is not anti-populist by accident. In order to change its direction, we will have to take it over from the bottom up and bounce the present leadership. To do this will be labor-intensive, involving a lot of face to face contact and a lot of time in meetings, and it will also require money. It’s my impression that fake Republican populists, driven by a sense of religious duty, are more devoted to the cause than most liberals are; in part, this may in fact be a function of elite complacency (Republicans are stupid, uneducated, velveeta-cheese-eating trailer trash, right?)

But imagine a million (or ten million) Democrats donating $50 a year each (not really a lot) and volunteering 5 hours a week to a dissident progressive group. This would be a substantial force. With a genuine populist appeal, you could form such a group. It would steal support from the Democratic machine, and you’d also have people switching away from single-issue groups whose goals are unattainable under Republicans or conservative Democrats.

But in order to do this, you’d have to define, find and persuade an actual majority.

(This piece is part of a longer piece which mushroomed out of control. A follow-up piece will defend the Populists of the Populist Party against the criticisms from 1950s liberals, and will include an annotated bibliography.)

      Democrats, Populism and Insurgent Populists (a response)