My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I must confess. I skipped to the end. Lawrence Goodwyn’s history of America’s Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century is an important contribution to our knowledge of social movements and American political theory. However, Goodwyn’s storytelling fails to live up to contemporary standards of political history from favorites like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert A. Caro, or the fast-paced accounts of recent history from Michael Lewis. That’s why after two chapters I skipped to the last one.
Goodwyn’s concluding essay “The Irony of Populism” is why this book is so important. This is where he lays out his argument for why the movement ultimately failed and why there hasn’t been a similar substantive and popular democratic reform movement since. So, what is the irony of populism? Well, in Goodwyn’s telling, it boils down to the nature of radical political change. It effectively needs an army—like the red armies of communism—which represent the vanguard of a countervailing power to the entrenched interests of existing governmental systems. These armies and the new political parties behind them necessarily need some sort of centralized committee. Thus it’s hard to construct the alternative power structure through nonhierarchical democratic means.
When you are organizing at the size of America, even in the late 1800s, this is an unwieldy project to manage through flat hierarchies and maintain communication channels across its breadth. It’s also at its core a cultural change project. And those cultures evolve and coalesce at different speeds across the movement. What made the populist movement work in the first place was a tenuous coalition of farmers from many different states who had a common background as “plain people” and a common need for self-determination in the face of economic elites building a rentier system on tenant farmers. Such a tenuous coalition is rife for capture by special interests or charismatic leaders that ultimately undermine the democratic goals of fighting the hierarchical, corporatist system of liberal capitalism and what would become “progressive” government in the early twentieth century.
Ultimately, and ironically, the populists lost because they lost. They poured the structures built for mutual aid, which first gave the plain people a sense of self-respect and dignity in the face of economic and political oppression, into the People’s Party and this third party lost in the election of 1896 even after various contortions and capture by other parties and special interests. This happened because the Republicans backing McKinley had the full weight of corporate America backing them financially but also because (ironically again) the populists didn’t have enough people. Their vision was an alliance between the farmers and the emerging class of laborers in industrial America. But labor wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be ready until the successful sit-ins of the 1930s and by then the defeated farmers were too impoverished economically, politically, and culturally to reignite an effort for radical democratic reform.
The winning movement became progressivism in the United States. Political participation waned as politics became more professionalized and hierarchies became deeper and more unequal in both industry and government. The American dream—a fable of rags to riches—was cemented by government and corporate propaganda and sold to children in public schools. The populists who had seen through this fiction in their own struggles lost the shared platform and ability to influence millions through their homespun civic education which had originally organized these poor farmers into powerful cooperatives.
Goodwyn argues that the socialists who succeeded the populists in making a case for radical democratic reform never understood the importance of developing a positive, genuinely American, cultural vision. And the success of the corporatist state on the back of liberal capitalist policies crowded out ideas of radical democracy and equality from legitimate political debate. And this is where we are at now. Where the latest populist movement again chose to side with a corporatist, charismatic leader. Goodwyn was right that the election of 1896 set the stage for everything to follow in American politics. And that’s why it’s worth reading his analysis of what happened.