ONE HUNDRED years ago, on an Independence Day weekend, populists from across the Great Plains and the South met in Omaha for the first national convention of the People's Party. "We seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of 'the plain people,' with which class it originated," declared their party platform, approved on July 4, 1892.
The Omaha Platform, as it came to be known, was a capstone of the populist revolt. It's sad to think that there are no parades or rallies to mark its centennial, for in a year that is seeing renewed populist ferment there is much in this document worth celebrating.
Today's voters might be especially sympathetic with the early populists' conclusion that the Democratic and Republican parties were beyond hope. "We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them," they wrote. "Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform."
The populists called for monetary reform, government ownership of transportation and communication lines, direct election of U.S. Senators, creation of a postal savings bank, a graduated income tax, use of initiative and referendum and a shorter work week. (They supported restrictions on immigration but also made an appeal for an end to the racial resentments of the Civil War.) The party nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa to lead the ticket. Weaver's name may be long-forgotten but he drew more than a million votes -- about 8 percent of the total -- in the 1892 election, losing to Democrat Grover Cleveland. Only three third-party candidates in the last 100 years have done better: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert LaFollette in 1924 and George Wallace in 1968.
The populists' platform is instructive to us today not in its specifics but in its broad principles. It was an attempt to imagine a stronger governmental role "to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land." To the modern reader, the goals may seem lofty and naive, the language archaic. Few would now be inclined to say the capitalist class proposes "to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of mammon." Nor do we decry the demonetization of silver and worry about the gold standard.
As well, we can't help being struck by how much the world has changed in the last 100 years. Populists in 1892 lived in an agrarian society. Almost half the nation lived on farms; now it's down to about 3 percent. The 1880s had seen an explosion in the size and strength of U.S. corporations, but the rise of big government was still to come. The progressive federal income tax was still two decades in the future; the Federal Reserve had not yet been created to control the money supply; social security, usury laws and labor law reforms were yet to come; women had not gained the vote, much less launched a feminist revolution; the economy did not have room for two parents in the workforce, nor were there large numbers of single parents raising children. Populists could not yet envision the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of centralized state planning, much less its collapse.
Just the fact that there was no television is almost enough to lead us to conclude that their culture, their politics, could have little in common with our own. And yet there are those who would argue that the broad goals articulated by populists in 1892 are as current as this morning's newspaper. "My view is that we Democrats should not even have a platform committee this year," says Texas populist Jim Hightower, "we ought to just take the 1892 People's Party platform and fax that out across America."
Despite all the changes we have seen as a society, there is indeed something vital about the 1890s. When we delve into the history of the era it is like looking in a family album and finding a great-grandfather who bears a striking resemblance to someone in the current generation. When we recall the attempts by Republicans and the tabloid newspapers during Grover Cleveland's first presidential campaign to make an issue out of his alleged paternity of a child out of wedlock and to attack his failure to serve in the military, we might wonder if politics is really any worse now than it ever was.
We see in the defeat of the People's Party the same dynamics that have made it so hard through more than a century for a new party to break the duopoly of the two parties. One complicating factor, then as now, was racial division. By nominating a man who had fought on the Union side, the populists made it harder to win support in the South. Today the party that is perceived as too welcoming to racial minorities risks the same problem. ("American politics is the South's revenge for the Civil War," Garry Wills once wrote.)
Still deeper parallels are found in the economic crisis the nation faced then and the failure of the political system to address fundamental, structural ills. The Gilded Age brought great wealth to industrialists and financiers and great misery to farmers and industrial workers. In the words of the Omaha Platform, "the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few . . . . From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes -- tramps and millionaires."
By most yardsticks, the standard of living for what we now call the middle class is far above that of the average farmer or worker of the 1890s. Yet we are emerging from a decade that has seen colossal fortunes built on Wall Street and, at the same time, a widening chasm between those at the top and those at the bottom. There are those who denounce the current growing inequality, but what is striking about the populists of yesteryear is their boldness in declaiming who and what were responsible. "The populist platform of 1892 was about corporate centralization of the political process and the economic system," says historian Lawrence Goodwyn.
Goodwyn's influential work, "The Populist Moment," is an antidote to the caricature of populists as conspiratorial rubes obsessed with the silver issue. "The thing to remember about the historic connection betweeen 19th century populism and modern politics," he says, "is that populism can be understood as an attempt to create popular democracy, an attempt to enrich the popular democratic input into the American system of governance."
Goodwyn points out that the Omaha Platform and the People's Party did not spring up overnight. They were the culmination of 15 years worth of organization-building, starting with the Farmer's Alliance in Central Texas. A central concern of the alliance was educating producers about the economics that governed their lives. As the organization grew, it learned the arduous work of communicating within its ranks and recruiting new members. At one time, the Alliance had 40,000 lecturers going about the land, explaining the workings of the monetary system and the ways in which the financial system favored the economic interests of Eastern financiers, railroads and corporations over those of the farmers.
When populism is understood in historical context, it becomes clear that very little of what passes for populism today contains this vital element of bottom-up democratic participation and the concommitant belief that "the plain people" ought to have a say in determining the economic structure of the country. Is there anything left to this idea, now that so few citizens take the time to vote, much less learn the dynamics of high-finance capitalism? What would it take for the people themselves to begin to fashion again a truly democratic politics and a genuinely populist movement? Is it possible in this day and age?
The history of social movements tells us it would not come about suddenly and it would not come from above. It would not come as the result of drafting a platform and then seeking a party. The organization would have to be painstakingly built and the platform would have to grow with it. The crucial part of such a process would be building the political argument that could begin to win the day. Dave Denison is a free-lance writer in Cambridge, Mass., and a former editor of the Texas Observer.