Three years into the Trump era, the “p-word” is seemingly everywhere. No, not the word Trump infamously invoked when bragging about where he liked to grab women. But a word deemed by many political commentators to be just as vulgar: populism.
Trump, of course, is not the only politician to proudly wear that label. Nationalists such as Viktor Orban of Hungary, Marine Le Pen of France and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil also have been branded populists. Although leftists are occasionally deemed populists (see Hugo Chávez and Bernie Sanders), the word today is usually used to identify the right-wing authoritarian leader who cynically appeals to the fears and prejudices of the masses to gain and hold political power.
Yet populism is really more a style of political rhetoric than an ideology, one that pits ordinary people against a self-serving elite, playing to a sense that the political establishment has grown corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary people. As such, populism need not be a pejorative term. In fact, the roots of populism trace not to past authoritarians, but to Texas, where populism began as an egalitarian philosophy that looked nothing like what we see on the right today. The true heirs of this populist legacy, rather, are actually liberals like Elizabeth Warren.
Populism got its name in the 1890s, when the People’s Party burst onto the American political scene. Immediately dubbed “Populists,” the insurgent party’s adherents mounted the most serious third-party movement since the Republican Party a half-century earlier. Texas was one of the birthplaces of the party, a state that would become home to more Populists than any other.
This movement certainly believed that the “interests” — notably the mammoth corporations of the new industrial age — were aligned against the common people. With virtually all of the nation’s major industries effectively monopolized, with no protections for the worker, the consumer or the farmer who fed both, the Populists’ concerns were valid. With the two major parties both effectively bought and paid for by those same corporations, there were swamps aplenty that needed draining.
Farmers were particularly hard-hit, as crop prices declined year after year while prices for land, food, seed, implements and shipping steadily rose. In Texas, farmers demanded, and got, a state railroad commission to regulate railroad rates, only to see it rendered ineffective by the Democrats who ran the state.
Burned by that experience, they embraced the “subtreasury plan,” which called for the federal government to establish a nationwide network of warehouses where farmers could deposit their crops and receive low-interest government loans, paid in paper money, which would effectively take the country off the gold standard and ease the severe credit crunch that impoverished so many farmers.
This plan embodied many features that would become staples of American farm policy in the 20th century, and modern economists have noted its sophistication and efficacy. But it also meant a dramatic expansion of federal authority and the need for higher taxes. The rejection of the subtreasury plan by the major parties precipitated the creation of the People’s Party.
The party made common cause with organized labor, demanding protection for unions, a progressive income tax, public ownership of utilities (including the railroads) and regulation of trusts and other monopolies. It called for a public school system and criminal justice reform. All of these proposals were highly progressive in the late 19th century.
The populists were also inclusive: In Texas, they reached out to African Americans, appealing to them in terms of shared economic grievance. Three African Americans served on the Populist state executive committee. One of them, John B. Rayner, earned statewide fame as an orator and organizer, speaking to racially mixed audiences in spite of frequent threats of violence. One white Populist confided to another that “he is the ablest speaker for the service I have ever heard. . . . I tell you I have seen and heard him destroy all the effect of a strong Republican [or] Democratic speech in a single sentence, and turn over not only colored Republicans but white Democrats.”
Displaying their inclusive ethos, in a few East Texas counties, coalitions of black and white Populists elected Populist sheriffs who protected the lives, property and voting rights of black constituents. The party also included women in its councils and conventions.
So liberal was the Populist program that their formidable opposition was quick to accuse them of socialism. Texas populists like Charles Jenkins, however, dismissed such scaremongering. “I have never been frightened by that scarecrow, strong government.” Instead Jenkins was simply seeking “a government strong enough to protect the lives, liberty and property of its citizens.” The Texas party’s most revered leader, Thomas L. Nugent, was even willing to live with the socialist label if the Populists’ reforms made life better for common people. To Nugent, “Such socialism is so near akin to genuine Christianity that we can well afford to welcome it.”
And while Populists spoke in terms strikingly similar to Trump and his movement today, denouncing major-party elites and rallying the “people” against the plutocrats, they avoided the demagoguery that characterizes Trump’s bromides. Nugent was a soft-spoken, scholarly judge who followed the religious teachings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. The Dallas Morning News, although hostile to Populism, commented that Nugent’s nomination for governor in 1892 was “calculated to impart peculiar features of controversial dignity and moral elevation to the campaign.”
After Nugent’s death, party leadership fell to a charismatic Dallas lawyer, Jerome Kearby. Although Kearby could make an impassioned speech, he too never indulged in the sort of demagoguery that we so often associate with populism today. On the final night of the momentous 1896 gubernatorial campaign, Kearby faced a crowd of thousands in downtown Dallas, denounced lynching, and praised “the men that I see before me here to-night — white and black,” as “patriots.” In an era when Democrats in the South rarely missed an opportunity to stoke racial divisions, his words sounded more Obama-like than Trumpian.
Populists were not saints, and in their later careers, after the collapse of their movement, a few of them took out their frustration on convenient scapegoats, sounding more like the right-wing populists who antagonize the left today.
But most of the original Populists would be appalled to see the p-word applied to right-wing demagogues, autocrats and con-men. They would be heartened, however, to hear some of the rhetoric coming from progressives like Warren. Plans to curb the power of the large banks, big pharma, the oil companies and the increasingly monopolistic tech companies would resonate with Nugent, Rayner and Kearby. These proposals point to how liberals can, with a proper understanding of history, reclaim the mantle of the first Populists and restore the label — and the ideas that accompanied it — to the position of honor that it deserves.