San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
Email Email | Print Print --

May 17th, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: Meet real populism, not the phony Tea Party kind

Freethought San Marcos: A column

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. Hankins

Email Email | Print Print


19 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Meet real populism, not the phony Tea Party kind

  1. The Fed printed over a trillion out of thin air making our current and future wages worth less or possible worthless. Audit the Fed, All incumbents out, No more bailouts ever ! How is this abolishing all government ?

  2. Lamar, explain why the tea party movement is phony populism?

    Does anyone else think it’s ironic that a socialist/statist/progressive (whatever you wanna call Lamar) is quoting Thomas Paine?

    Here’s a Paine quote for ya’ll:

    “…a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense

  3. To greg v (whoever that is):

    If you don’t think that I explained why the Tea Parties are phony populists, perhaps you need to re-read the column.

    I not only quote Thomas Paine, but I read what he has written. When I do quote him, I do so in context or I explain that the context may be different. I don’t quote tidbits out of all context, however.

    If you need to call me something, populist satisfies more than most labels, and it is accurate. Since I went to some detail to explain what a populist is, no one will have to guess what you mean if you use that label, which is not true of the labels you have chosen.

  4. Lamar, the only real problem that I have with your depiction of the Tea Party movement is your apparent lack of research (or at least, lack of divulgence) of the origins of this movement.

    And no, I’m not some fanatic talking about our Founding Fathers, while being dense enough to think the word Socialist has any bearing on current American politics.

    I took part in Tea Party rallies during the Bush Administration. At such gatherings, a point was made not to use slurs, not to be offensive, and to behave correctly. It wasn’t until the neo-conservative morons like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh tried to claim the movement as their own that this whole thing has turned ugly.

    It initially started as a libertarian movement, not “conservative”. The central tenet of libertarianism is that each individual has the right to any action as long as it does not impede on another individual’s rights.

    As such, the roots of the Tea Party movement are irrefutably buried in populism.

    Of course, that having been said, I don’t know why I bother with this. Since Faux News has stolen it, it has become just another haven for ignorant, hateful people with no real room for political thought.

  5. Lamar (whoever that is),

    Nice try, pal. But you did not explain why the tea party is not a populist movement. In fact, you (probably unknowingly) did an excellent job at explain why the tea party IS a populist party. Ever example you give for the “real populist” movements can be found as reasoning behind the tea party. You are just so ill-informed on the movement that you can’t see it. A more in-depth approach to your research should fix that.

    Eric is correct. The tea party has been hijacked. The movement, for the most part, are libertarians that fit into the mold of YOUR real populist movement. They are not the talking heads at FoxNews or talk radio. They are not a wing of the Republican party. They are people that distrust and detest both parties. They are small government, individual liberty embracing, fiscally conservative people who see the whole system as rigged to favor special interest groups, corporations, central government globalists. Thus, they are the true populist movement by YOUR definition.

  6. Thank you Lamar, well written. Also, Hightower is “high” up on my list of people to listen to.

    I would say that Tea Party members appear to have more in common with the Republican party of today in that they put more emphasis on what they are against than what they are for. It seems they are sometimes against any form of government yet they contradict this when it comes to supporting Social Security or Medicare for example.

    They have taken stands AGAINST Healthcare Reform that would have strongly empowered the People instead of Corporations, Campaign Finance Reform, Corporate spending limits on campaigns, Immigration legislation (unless it includes open racism like in Arizona), removing the open discrimination against gays and lesbians by getting rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies in the military, anything President Obama or the Democratic Party is for, expanded public education, rigorous scientific inquiry, and women having a right to decide what happens to their bodies (Would they be FOR men having their penises and testicles removed? As radical as it may seem it will also prevent unwanted pregnancies and decrease abortions).

    Those are just a few items they are AGAINST but what are they FOR? In Texas, the Tea Party members I have talked to are FOR Secession from the United States of America. I find this unbelievably idiotic and therefore consistent with Gov. Perry’s beliefs, building a huge wall around the Texas-Mexican border and believe shooting illegals is acceptable and a few have stated it is necessary to enforce illegal immigration, Intelligent Design, and Privatizing Education.

    The few times we have gone to rallies where large groups of Tea Party members are also gathered, we have seen them carring racist or Jim Crowe type signs of Obama caricatures, signs with the confederate flag somewhere on it, shouted derogatory remarks as to our sexual orientation or ethnic heritage, or insulted us with childish name calling. Not exactly a reinvention of the Populist movement of the 1890’s.

    That Populist movement stood for more powerful and reformed government, the end of the Wall Street and elites stranglehold, and many Populists were for empowering all people through education and modern methods and included Blacks and Women as equals in the political processes they fought to improve and implement. The image of the Tea Party does not hold up against this.

    The backlash against the Populist movement was the beginning of the next worst times in American history – the widespread use of Jim Crowe laws. The Populist movement of the 1890’s was destroyed when it merged with the Democratic Party. The Populist movement of the 2000’s will do well to avoid any association with another party especially The Tea Party.

  7. @ The Moores

    It’s news to me that the tea party movement supports Soc. Security and Medicare. Can you support that with any facts or sources?

    Did I read that correctly that healthcare reform will empower the people? How exactly does that work?

    Do you have any evidence of these racist signs? Surely you had a camera with you – perhaps a cell phone with a camera. This has been a wide spread Democratic talking point yet little evidence supports this so I am keenly interested to see yours.

    @ Lamer

    As for the populist movement – if the movement takes away any of my individual rights, it’s more of the same. Ordinary people taking away my individual rights is every bit as bad as corporations or government thugs taking away my rights. All these movements are b.s. anyway. Follow the Constitution, and leave me the hell alone.

  8. I am FOR ending the Fed, ending the income tax for a consuption tax , ending social security, medicare and all the other non constitutional nanny state ponzi schemes that have been created under the guise of compassion.

    I am only 33 and I am disgusted with these entitlement debt bombs being thrown at my generation.

    I pay over 12,000 a year in taxes and have been working for 10 years. I could have started my own buisness with that kind of money. Instead I am a slave to a corportation which of course you want to demonize and destroy along with my ability to make a decent living and live the way I choose.

    I am FOR being left alone to choose my own path in life, not the one you think is best for me.

    I FOR telling you to go to hades when you try to choose what I eat, what I drive, what temp my ac is set, telling me how much money is enough for me to be allowed to make.

  9. Does anyone actually take Jim Hightower seriously? I listen to Pacifica Radio out of Houston (KPFT) on the internet — a wacko leftist station flag-shipped by Amy Goodman’s seditious mouthpiece for authoritarian Communism, the Orwellian titled “DemocracyNow!”.

    Pacifica plays Hightower’s infantile “commentaries” between the left-wing “FreeSpeech Radio News”, and Comrade Goodman’s
    show. He talks like Dr. Phil, spouting folksy-sounding phrases with a southern accent (such as the oh-so-clever title of his book “Swim against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow”) … in the hopes that his nonsensical rants will come off as “common sense” when coupled with the a southern drawl, a cowboy hat and the occasional Dr.Phil-esque catchphrase.

    He’s sort of a male version of Molly Ivins, without the likability. He’s a first-rate lunatic, and a self-aggrandizing know-it-all couched in folksy Texan rhetoric.

    Who care’s what this clown says?

  10. Are those in the tea party claiming to be populists? It seems the tea party has a lot more in common with libertarians, who have almost nothing in common with populists. There is some natural cross-over, such as the tea party and populist support for financial reform, but overall they are distinct movements — one nearly dead and one apparently capable of winning a US Senate seat. I think Lamar is inadvertently complimenting the tea partiers with this piece.

  11. QUESTION : If you put up a sign in your store that said No white people allowed in store, are you constitutionally protected by the first amendment ? Do you have the right to destroy your own business because you don’t want certain people in your store ?
    Can you put a sign like this outside your house ?

    Rand Paul stepped in it quick didn’t he.

  12. What Dems Don’t Want Mentioned in the Rand Paul/Civil Rights Debate

    Obviously, I agree with all of today’s criticism of Rand Paul about his extremist position on the Civil Rights Act. However, let’s be very clear here: Many Democrats (and, of course, most Republicans) support our system of laws that lets employers and private businesses discriminate against employees and customers for all sorts of other, non-racial reasons.
    Let’s stick for a moment to employment, as just the best example. Today, there is only one state in the nation that is not technically an “at-will employment” state (Montana). But everywhere else, unless you have a private party or union contract that says otherwise, you are an “at-will” employee, which means that your employer can fire you at will for any reason not explicitly protected under state law or in the Civil Rights Act (the federal protected classes are listed here).

    So yes, as outrageous as it sounds, it’s true: right now, many if not most Americans can be fired if their employer doesn’t like the sports team they root for. Or if their boss doesn’t like their choice of tie on a given day. Or if their boss hates their new glasses. Or, in many states without non-discrimination statutes, if their boss doesn’t like their sexual orientation. You get the point.

    Obviously, I don’t think this reality is a good thing at all — but I am saying that Paul’s position*, while offensive and extreme, is merely an extrapolated position of many “mainstream” so-called “pro-business” Democrats and Republicans in Congress who would call “just cause” legislation (ie. mandating that an employer have a “just cause” for firing you) “radical.” As just one example, here in Colorado, leading Democrats in 2008 lined up to oppose a “just cause” ballot initiative.

    Considering they haven’t used their congressional majorities to expand the Civil Rights Act, Democrats have basically decided to draw the line in the sand on protected classes at the status quo (race, gender, age and religion — all of which, let me reiterate, should and must remain protected classes). And that’s certainly more than you can say for Rand Paul and the libertarian movement he represents. But when you start really looking at employment/discrimination law, you find that by omission, those same Democrats expressing outrage at Paul’s position are perfectly fine with a largely deregulated labor market that lets employers fire and discriminate against you for all sorts of preposterous reasons.

    This is the unspeakable taboo in the whole discussion about Rand Paul in the Democratic-aligned “progressive” media — taboo because to acknowledge it is to admit just how owned by corporate interests “mainstream” Democrats and Republicans really are. Again, Paul is extreme and offensive in his extremism, but he’s just degrees more extreme than so many “centrist”/”pro-business” lawmakers of both parties.

    * Oddly enough, while Paul’s libertarianism led him to such extreme criticism of the Civil Rights Act, he also said “we did some very important things in the ’60s that I’m all in favor of and that was desegregating the schools.” This could be construed to be an interventionist position that some Democrats still don’t fully embrace, because when they hear language like that, many of them hear “busing.” Now, it’s true: we can’t know whether Paul’s reference to “desegregating schools” meant specifically cross-geographical busing. But it is weird to hear him take such an extreme position on the Civil Rights Act, but also using language that raises the prospect of busing.

  13. Ah, plenty of people get away with no whitey signs and/or attitudes because of affirmative action.

    As for having what you make or can do dictated to you, corporates are actually among the worst for wanting to privatize everything (including the rain that falls and the air we breathe) while charging everyone for what nature provides and letting others pay the cost.

  14. It’s all the damned media’s fault for reporting what he said.

    Wait a minute, that’s the media’s job. Never mind.

  15. While Democrats fight Republicans and Republicans fight Democrats and Tea Partiers do whatever they do… the real threat to the average working class American in the corporations controlling everything. What we see, hear, touch, eat, and drink, all controlled by corporations. Our Government is no longer of the people by the people… it has long since passed into the hands of the corporations. How do we get it back…b/c as of now every single person in this country that is not independently wealthy or a seperatist living off the grid somewhere has there lives controlled by corporations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *