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Populism, what does it mean?
Texas populism and LBJ

8 November 2009 at 2:04:39 PM

I've just finished reading " The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America,  by Lawrence Goodwyn.  Goodwyn, a retired professor at Duke, concludes the book by suggesting 'progressive' and 'populist' views are incompatible.    Generally, populist and progressive agendas are thought to be parallel, but Goodwyn spends a lot of time showing how the Democratic party populists and progressives fought a titanic battle in 1896.  The progressives won, and the "People's party" collapsed.

I'm not sure I understand the argument, but the 'progressive' agenda promises future happiness if we give corporations a break, today.  In other words, corporate welfare will bring us technological breakthroughs that will eventual provide everyone a comfortable life.  This was directly opposed to agrarian populist sensibility which emerges from the rhythms of the seasons and the land itself.  Utopia is an academic exercise for city folks, probably not something with much attraction for many farmers.

The book traces American populism from its Texas roots.  It all started here in Central Texas.  Key founding events were in Lampasas (1876), the Cleburne Demands (1886), Colored Farmers Alliance (Houston, 1886) and Texas People's Party (Dallas, 1891).  

To bring this a bit closer to current events, there is a tight link between LBJ and populism:

"Both of Lyndon's parents had been teachers. Both were smitten by the economic populism that sprouted in their region. They spent one of their first dates listening William Jennings Bryan address the Texas legislature. Johnson's father Sam, as a state legislator, favored regulation of railroads, increased state funding to rural schools, relief for farmers affected by droughts, and women's suffrage. He broke with many of his fellow populists in his opposition to prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. He also defended the rights of German-Americans against Nativists during World War I.

...Johnson took his stand knowing that it would work to his party's detriment in his native region. Yet he forged on, partly because he saw a chance to end a great injustice and partly because he recognized how it might transform the American south. "If you can convince the lowest white man that he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket," Johnson said. By the time he left office, candidates would be competing for votes on different terms than before."


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1 - humanbeing   8 Nov 2009 @ 5:08:57 PM 

I haven't read the book and frankly am ignornant of the battle between Populists and Progressives in the late 19th century. However, Progressives oppose the influence of corporations that lead to increased power and abuse. I don't understand how the author could believe Progressives support corporate welfare.

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2 - OldBridge   8 Nov 2009 @ 9:00:58 PM 


> I don't understand how the author could believe Progressives support corporate welfare.

As the 1896 election approached, the People's party advocated an expansion of the money supply, federal warehouses for small farmers to store excess harvest, and  public ownership of rail, telegraph and telephone systems.  Further, the People's party had ties to black farmer alliances across the south.  The party won 4 states in 1892, and thought it could absorb the Democratic party in 1896.  Half the people in the US lived on farms.   In short, the People's party terrified the corporate establishment.  

The Republican party put on what might be called the first modern media campaign, raising huge amounts of money from businesses and corporations.  The media of 1896, other than small farmer newspapers, took the money and swamped America with what we now call a negative campaign..  

The populists had no wealthy backers, relying on $1 donations from their rank and file, itinerant lecturers and the spirit of cooperation.  

The Democratic party was losing members to the People's party, the Prohibition party and Socialist Labor.  According to Goodwyn, the Democratic party survived by accepting corporate campaign contributions, going along with a minor adjustment to the gold standard (mint silver coins), and joining the modern campaign system: collecting corporate dollars, promising 'progress' and playing upon various fears. Fear of socialism, alcohol, and racial mixing became primary campaign issues since these issues would frighten the average voter into going with the established system.  In 1896, 'progress' was the sugar on this delightful method of informing the electorate.

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3 - humanbeing   8 Nov 2009 @ 11:32:02 PM 

Well, Oldbridge, thank you for bringing some history. We can't know anything really about who we are until we know where we came from. The point is, the whole system is bought. Frankly, I think the two-party system is quite obsolete and cannot answer our needs.

I also don't care for those who today are calling themselves 'Populists' (the Tea-party people). I'm not impressed with their refusal to take responsibility for the problems that they helped create nor do I believe they are seeking realistic solutions. I'd be willing to wager the original Populists were fighting the corporate takeover of America that we are experiencing tIn my opinion, those who call themselves Populists today are the very citizens who have not bothered to think critically and have not made intelligent choices (eight years of GW Bush).

We're going to have to redesign everything. Patching up this and that won't cut it anymore.

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4 - salon   9 Nov 2009 @ 2:10:35 PM 

Blarg. I consider myself a populist but not a teapartyer-those people are nutso. I agree with the definition of populist (and populism) from the dictionary. From the Cultural Dictionary

populism -The belief that greater popular participation in government and business is necessary to protect individuals from exploitation by inflexible bureaucracy and financial conglomerates. “Power to the people” is a famous populist slogan.

AND definitions 2, 3 and 4 (1 is the most formal, referring to the Party called Populist)

Pop⋅u⋅lism[pop-yuh-liz-uhm] Show IPA

1.the political philosophy of the People's party.
2.(lowercase) any of various, often antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.
3.(lowercase) grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.
4.(lowercase) representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.: populism in the arts.

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