Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
The weekend that gave us May Day 2010 was eventful for those of us who believe in authentic populism–not the ersatz stuff peddled by the Tea Partiers. Bill Moyers ended his PBS program reminding us that his bias has always been against plutocracy (government by the wealthy), and to help drive that point home, he concluded the three-year run of Bill Moyers Journal by offering us an interview with one of the leading modern-day populists — Jim Hightower.
The next day, Hightower was feted with an exhibition of his work and memorabilia that is now part of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, the same school that LBJ graduated from in the early days of the Great Depression. The exhibition is entitled “Swim Against the Current,” the title of Hightower’s new book, written with his long-time collaborator Susan DeMarco.
During the April 30 interview with Moyers, Hightower distinguished real populism from the Tea Party variety: “Here’s what populism is not. It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial tea party effort [was], and as most of it is still today — though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is just a determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government.
…One big difference between real populism and… the Tea Party thing is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can’t say, ‘Let’s get rid of government.’ You need to be saying, ‘Let’s take over government.'”
Hightower continued: “I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power — overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they’re the top dogs, and we’re a bunch of fire hydrants, you know?”
What is happening today is not much different from what was happening 125 years ago. The wealthy run the government for their benefit, and the financial elites have most people, including small businesses, completely controlled by the banks’ financial practices and their rules and regulations.
During what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” the Populist Movement of the 1880s and 1890s arose from the abusive practices of the corporations and their friends–the banks. The mechanization of farming began at a time when more than 40% of the US population was engaged in agriculture. Today, that figure is less than 2%. Around 1890, Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist, explained the views of that movement [from Voices of a People’s History of the United States]:
“This is a nation of inconsistencies. The Puritans fleeing from oppression became oppressors. We fought England for our liberty and put chains on four million blacks. We wiped out slavery and our tariff laws and national banks began a system of white wage slavery worse than the first. Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master. … Our laws are the output of a system which clothes the rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The parties lie to us and political speakers mislead us.”
Lease explained that when farmers followed the demands of the politicians to be more productive the bottom fell out of the farm economy. And the politicians blamed the farmers for over-production, while children were starving in the US and young girls in New York turned to prostitution to survive because their wages at decent jobs were so paltry. Then Lease continued:
“We want money, land and transportation. We want the abolition of the National banks, and we want the power to make loans direct from the Government. We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out…. We will stand by our homes and stay by our fireside by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the Government pays its debts to us. The people are at bay, [so] let the bloodhounds of money who dogged us thus far beware.”
One can hear in the pronouncements of the Tea Partiers a faint echo of Mary Elizabeth Lease’s words. But the big difference between the Tea Partiers and real populists is that Lease insists that the government fulfill its purpose by honoring its obligations to the people, not to the corporations and banks. Real populism insists that the government work for the people, but the Tea Partiers want to abolish the government or reduce its purpose to no more than maintaining a roadside park without restrooms.
As Hightower has said, populism is a rebellion against corporate power. We need the government on our side when we fight the corporate monopolies. In this fight, we need more government, not less. Anyone who argues for smaller, less powerful government in this battle is not interested in holding the power of corporations in check, and whatever they are–Tea Partiers or otherwise–they are not populists.
Real populism, according to Hightower’s history of that movement, began in Texas (of all places) in 1877 when the Texas Alliance formed in Lampasas County. It grew to 100,000 members participating in 2000 local alliances. It spread throughout the south, into all the plains states, the upper midwest and into California, joining more than a million farmers into a “cooperative commonwealth.” At its height of influence, the Alliance not only gave participants a sense of self-worth as participants in the economic life of this country (mainly through producer and marketing cooperatives), but it did such practical things as provide what Hightower has described as “a massive grassroots educational program throughout rural America, providing everything from literature networks to adult-ed classes.”
To communicate among its members and potential converts, the movement published more than a thousand populist magazines and newspapers, and hundreds of popular songs, poems, and books. The most important communication method was its Alliance Lecture Bureau, which provided 40,000 speakers on populist topics in venues across the country. It formed coalitions with labor organizations.
In 1892, the populist movement created a national populist political party known as the People’s Party of America. The year before, a Texas People’s Party was founded at a meeting in Dallas and was inclusive, welcoming blacks and women as key leaders of the movement. White farmers recognized that black farmers were “in the ditch just like we are.” Women made up one-fourth of the membership and assumed many leadership positions.
Hightower identified these accomplishments of the Populist Party: first party to call for women’s suffrage; supported an 8-hour day and wage protections; sought the “abolition of the standing army of mercenaries” used by corporations to violently suppress unions (known as the “Pinkertons”); called for the direct election of US senators, who were chosen by state legislatures until 1913; supported a graduated income tax; wanted legislation by initiative and referendum; worked for public ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs; opposed subsidies of private corporations; opposed financial speculation about and foreign ownership of public lands and natural resources; supported voting reform; called for protection of civil service workers from political reprisals; supported pensions for veterans; and called for “measures to break the corrupting power of corporate lobbyists.”
The downfall of the Populist Party and its movement was the decision of its leaders to merge into the Democratic Party. While the Populist Party was killed off by that mistake, the spirit of the populist movement is not dead. Wherever people speak and work against the corporate interests, the Wall Streeters, and the bankers, the populist spirit lives and gives hope that “we, the people” can take back the country from the robber barons and plutocrats. Maybe some of our elected leaders will hear our cries and join us in preventing the noblesse from controlling our lives, our dreams, our liberty, and our destiny. One problem, of course, is that most of our politicians either identify with or come from the American aristocracy.
The words of Thomas Paine from another conflict come to mind as we try to undo the plutocracy that this nation has become: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” But in this time of crisis we should also remember some other words written by Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
[For more about the history of Populism in the United States, see Lawrence Goodwyn’s book “Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in American History” and William Greider’s book “Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (And Redeeming Promise) of Our Country”]
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print