American Populism, from its beginnings to the present moment, is an expression of hostility to state power and those who exercise it or seek to exercise it…
In “Populism” we are confronted with a term that raises so many different connotations in different minds that we well may wonder if the term is usable at all. It is not quite as bad, in this respect, as democracy—a word so abused that no honest thinker employs it any more. Every regime in the world has been declared democratic, with the possible exception of the Vatican and the Sultanate of Muscat.
“Populism” implies “The People.” Thus it is, in most quarters, a favorable sign or symbol, a sought-after asset in the public forum. Its fate is similar to that of “liberalism,” a favorable term that has come in the twentieth century to cover a very-different set of phenomena than it did in the nineteenth, to the point that its use can be extremely misleading. A few years on the hustings can destroy any political label. Consider the straightforward old Anglo-Saxon term Whig. Even at its clearest point of meaning, Edmund Burke had to appeal from the Old Whigs to the New. And it meant something different in America than it did in England; and something different in eighteenth century America than it came to mean in nineteenth century America.
Populism has suffered similar abuse, and my paper will be in large part an extended essay in definition and precise description. I am a historian, not a political theorist, and I am an Americanist. I do not profess to know enough about Europe to know which movements are “populist.” For instance, I do not have the slightest idea whether, in the Spanish Civil War, one side had “populist” tendencies and the other did not; or whether both or neither did. Just possibly my freedom from European assumptions and theoretical baggage will be an asset here in focusing on what American Populism is, or has been.
My impression of European history is that since the seventeenth century there has been a struggle between various interests and ideologies to control the central state, and that the central state has been a given. But as I understand American Populism, from its beginnings to the present moment, it is an expression of hostility to state power and those who exercise it or seek to exercise it. It is no surprise then that most Populists have looked to Thomas Jefferson, the great original American critic of consolidated power, as their patron saint, and that the history of true Populism is closely connected to the concept of the American Constitution as a restraint on power rather than a grant of power. Populists regard state power as always corrupt and corrupting, which is an inheritance, I believe of the English “Country ideology” or opposition value system which the Americans absorbed deeply in the colonial period and which underlay the American War of Independence.
Populism in the strictest historical sense refers to the People’s Party which flourished in the later nineteenth century, in certain regions of the American Union. Which brings us to another part of my definition of Populism. It has always been, in this country, a regional and not a class phenomenon. I take this idea, as well as my title “Up at the Fork of the Creek,” from an early essay of the late M.E. Bradford.
The People’s Party is often spoken of as a Midwestern phenomenon. Midwestern is actually a vague term. “Heartland” is a little better perhaps. But Populism was not a phenomenon of the “Heartland.” It was a phenomenon of the far western fringes of the Heartland, and equally or more so of the rural South. (And also of the mining regions of the Far West, which gave it the peculiar counter-productive tangent of the Free Silver movement.) There were no Populists in Ohio and they were a minority in Iowa. In the Heartland one has to go west of the Mississippi to find a Populist and even all the way to the Missouri to find very many.
And in the South, contrary to what Left historians have assumed or claimed, we do not find Populists in the impoverished “poor white” regions. We find them chiefly in the upcountry plantation belt among the small planters and larger yeomen—the same regions, exactly, that had been most in favor of secession in 1861. The Georgia Populist leader Tom Watson was tutored in politics by the Confederate statesmen Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens. I call to witness Leonidas Lafayette Polk of North Carolina, who was national president of the Farmers Alliance and was thought by many to be the frontrunner for the Populist presidential nomination in 1892, when he died suddenly. In earlier life Polk had been sergeant-major of the 26th North Carolina Regiment, Confederate States Army, famous for its two charges at Gettysburg. In both cases, he had the same enemy. (And it may be relevant to add that Senator Jesse Helms was born and raised in the county directly adjacent to the one from which Polk came.)
As Robert McMath has shown in his fine recent book, American Populism: A Social History, the People’s Party flourished chiefly in market agricultural regions of grain, cotton, and tobacco, which were undergoing severe economic and social dislocation. And which were undergoing enough “modernization” to bring forth forms of organization that had not been seen among American agriculturalists before.
The greatest barrier to a proper understanding of American Populism lies in the confusion that has been spread, wittingly and unwittingly, by Liberal historians. Those who have professed to like Populism have been guilty of more distortion than those who dislike it. The Liberal establishment is always in search of respectable ancestors. This is why Arthur Schlesinger and Robert Remini have written their historical fantasies about Jacksonian democracy, portraying it as something that it clearly was not in order to make precedents for New Deal liberalism. Historical interpretation very often, of course, has to do with the manipulation of symbols for their influence on present concerns.
Those who dislike Jacksonian Democracy—or Populism—have actually pictured it more accurately, if critically, than those who have claimed to favor it. A New York intellectual like Richard Hofstadter, allowing for his value system, was more honest in picturing the Populists as rural bigots than others have been in treating them as forerunners of various Left movements of later times. Of course one man’s rural bigot is another man’s chosen of God.
The pre-Hofstadter generation of Liberal historians who wrote about Populism were Progressives and largely small-town Midwesterners, though not from the Populist regions. They saw Populism and the historical phenomenon of Progressivism, which followed closely on its heels, as part of the same liberalizing, reformist era of American history. This confusion still largely reigns. Were not both of these movements reactions to political corruption, poverty, and the oppressions of capital? Did not both seek to restore democracy to the people and correct the abuses of the “Gilded Age”? Did not Progressivism rise to the fore just as Populism was declining?
In order to understand the conflicts and tendencies in American society from that time to the present moment, I think we need to clearly grasp the differences between Populism and Progressivism.
Populism was weighted toward the South and West, a product of the culturally most conservative parts of American society. It was backward looking, even reactionary, like most normal societies throughout history. New forces had brought new conditions which seemed unsettling and unjust—according to old dispensations. Populism was, and is, a defensive attempt to correct these new forces.
Progressivism was weighted toward the North and East. It was a phenomenon of the most educated, modern parts of American society—a philosophy of the urban professional. Far from rejecting modernism, Progressives embraced it as an opportunity. Its evils could be brought under control by Progressives—by planning, expertise, organization. Such planning, of course, translated into wealth and power for the Progressives, what became the Liberal Establishment. The longterm result has been an endless series of expensive, unproductive social plans, like the “war on poverty.” Expensive and unproductive, except to their managers. Morality has almost come to be defined as holding the proper attitude toward Progressive programs, and it is bad form to point out the interestedness of their proponents.
Populism is not an agenda, but a reluctant impulse of self-defense. Seldom have real Populist leaders sought to make themselves into a new elite. What they have sought to do is to protect their people from oppressive officials. This certainly characterizes the American Revolution, and the history of political assertion that preceded it. It characterizes the much-discussed phenomenon of the Christian Right currently. According to alarmed Liberals, bigoted fundamentalists are out to construct a police state and break down bedroom doors to impose their morality on more enlightened thinkers.
But, of course, what has actually happened, is that millions of decent, sincere, often simple, Christians have been provoked into action by militant obscenity, blasphemy, and atheism (not to mention wholesale child murder) invading the public sphere and officially sanctioned by the ruling elite. They are quite right. Separation of church and state in American tradition has not meant banishing of all Christian values to the closet. All that is really desired is to restore the status quo ante.
Where the People’s Party put forward specific measures they were corrective—the direct election of Senators, cooperatives, free silver, regulation of railroads and banks in the interest of producers and consumers, income tax on great wealth—they were not forwarding a socialist society but reacting to abuses of state capitalism. The Republican party did not and never had favored an open economy. By free enterprise it meant private ownership with government support and subsidy. This is the only kind of free enterprise the Republican party has ever favored. And by charges of socialism leveled at the Populists, Republicans meant government acknowledgment of the complaints of agriculture and labor, which is the only kind of “socialism” the Republican Party has ever opposed.
To the extent Populism was ideological it rested not upon an agenda of the future but upon a vision of a past golden Jeffersonian age of widespread private property and limited government. It was simply old-fashioned American republicanism. Now it may be that this kind of thinking is merely nostalgic and sentimental and idealistic, as some of my socialist friends think and tell me. Sin we have always with us, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. But I do not think it is only nostalgic to believe that there was a time when America had a more honorable class of leaders and a higher sense of public ethics than we do now.
John Taylor of Caroline formulated the philosophy. It was not simply an idealization of agriculture, though that was part of it. And what is wrong with idealizing in favor of a healthier and more independent life for the mass of citizens? Taylor embodied the persistent and recurrent themes of American Populism as I define it. He represented both a conservative allegiance to local community and inherited ways and a radical-populist suspicion of capitalism (in the sense of abstract finance), “progress,” government manipulations, and routine log-rolling.
In many ways Taylor was a more authentic and representative Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself. Taylor’s opposition to federal power, judicial oligarchy, paper money, stock jobbing, taxation, and expenditure was based upon the belief—the essence of populism and the country ideology—that the world is divided between producers and parasites. The producers are decent folk, of whatever economic class, who labor for their daily bread and produce everything of real economic and moral value in society. They are subject, in the nature of the world, to endless depredations by people whose main occupation is manipulating the government for artificial advantages for themselves. The problem for the statesman was that these manipulators are eternal and come in many guises. They always appear plausible and public-spirited—whether it is Alexander Hamilton seeking national prosperity or the Great Society bureaucracy seeking an “end to poverty.”
We have here the essence of populism. Taylor defines its instincts and its political program. It is still a deeply embedded folk attitude among the American people. In the simplest terms, populism is the community defending itself against oppressive or inadequate agents of the state. “People” here is not a Marxist or even a particularly democratic term. It is a distinction between the body of the community and the wielders of state power and their beneficiaries.
In understanding the distinction between Populism and Progressivism, consider the difference between two third party presidential candidates of recent history. George Wallace came from the Black Belt of Alabama, laid the evils of American society personally at the doors of the establishment, and was supported by small town people, disaffected workers, and small businessmen. John Anderson came from the most rockribbed Republican and abolitionist district of Illinois and was supported by well educated upper middle class people who thought American problems were to be solved by turning over power to such clear-minded and honorably motivated persons as themselves. George Wallace is a Populist. John Anderson is a Progressive.
To bring it even closer to the present day—the campaign of 1992. Who was a Populist? Jerry Brown certainly enunciated certain populist themes. Yet, in the final analysis, it seems to me, he and his supporters are homeless progressives, who think if they get in power they can do better—that is, the social problems are solvable by the right sentiments and policies. Pat Buchanan also enunciated, even more clearly, certain Populist themes—which were successful as far as they went. But he suffered from a residual identification with the Republican party establishment which he was not willing to break—and thus fell short of thoroughgoing Populism.
And what of Ross Perot? Perot, I suggest, articulated various confused and undigested elements of both Populism and Progressivism—on the one hand, national direct referendum, on the other technology and management. Thus it was never clear whether he wanted to be a Populist or a Progressive. This mess perhaps explains why we all found Perot, in the end, somehow incomplete and unsatisfactory, even those of us who were disposed to be sympathetic.
The instincts of Populism are powerful enough in the American people still for there to have evolved on the part of the government-vested interests, the “court party” in terms of the country ideology, two distinct types of pseudo-populism to gull the people.
In the election of 1840, the Whig campaign managers of General William Henry Harrison put on a very “populistic” campaign, with torchlight parades, log cabins, coonskin hats, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” and no platform. Was this populism? No, merely demagoguery. Here began the real vulgarization and degradation of the American political process which has proceeded apace ever since. Here, on the part of conservative politicians whose main objective, to recharter the national bank, was hardly mentioned in the election. Here, and not, contrary to most historians, in the election in 1828 of the aristocratic Andrew Jackson.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln, an ex-Whig and corporation lawyer fronting for manufacturing and banking interests, campaigned, insofar as his ambiguous and oracular statements can be made to cohere, against an imaginary “slave power” of the South that was conspiring to enslave the Northern working man. He also went under the slogan, “Vote Yourself a Farm,” referring to the contemplated Homestead Act. Was this Populism? No, just demagoguery. Even the museum-specimen Progressive-conservative Herbert Hoover promised “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” And a presidential candidate named Bush, from a notorious investment banking family, was compelled to blather on insincerely about “no new taxes” and “family values.”
The other common form of pseudo-populism practiced is that of modern bureaucratic Liberalism, which seems to address the concerns of the people but really uses them as an opportunity to push another agenda. The New Deal certainly drew much of its support from populist impulses. But it became the expression, under the great opportunist Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “Brain Trusters,” of welfare state and managerial state elites.
Consider what happened to the crime bill in the last session of Congress. The people clearly think criminals are a problem and that they should be locked up faster, more often, more surely, and longer. In Clintonian pseudo-populism this was subtly transformed into “crime” (a disembodied abstraction), being a problem. Therefore we need to spend more money on playgrounds in the inner city to keep the boys from going astray.
None of this, of course, represents any real populism. Leaders who actually believe that us yahoos should get what we want offer a real threat to the Establishment. They have to be relegated to the fringe, blitzed by the media, and, in the case of Huey Long and George Wallace, shot.
American history was for a long time written from the New England viewpoint, and many tend to think of localism and self-government, populism, in terms of the New England town meeting. This, too, leads us astray. The parts of the Heartland settled by New Englanders were least likely to support the People’s party, as I suggested earlier on in discussing its sources.
The New England town meeting did involve direct democracy, but within a very limited and closed society. It was not populist. It was always infused by a sense of religious communalism and collectivism and purposefulness in terms of social regimentation and improvement. In New England, only when you get beyond the core, up into the wilds of New Hampshire, do you begin to find real populism. At any rate, New England died, for all practical purposes, a long time ago, and offers no model for modern America.
In fact, its inheritance offers the greatest obstacle to Populism; that overwhelming impulse for respectability and conformity which Alexis de Tocqueville saw as characteristic of Americans. He looked mostly at New England and New England influenced areas. Populism is not respectable. The Bryans, the Wallaces, the Huey Longs are not middle-class respectable. This is the largest single limitation on their success, the best weapon of the vested interests in putting down genuine populism. This is why innumerable beleaguered Midwestern farmers could not bring themselves to abandon the respectable Republican McKinley for the wild man Bryan in 1896. McKinley proved more “popular,” if not more “populist,” than Bryan.
One of the unnoticed aspects of the George Wallace campaigns was an attack on the immensely wealthy foundations. The suspicion of great wealth and unevenly distributed wealth is a normal and natural sentiment. It does not relate to socialism or to enmity to private property, but simply to the ancient conception that widely distributed property makes for the health and freedom of society.
The foundations, like Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, as Wallace pointed out, enabled great fortunes to escape taxes and use their wealth to inordinately influence public policy against the wishes of the people. From the point of view of democratic philosophy his position is unfaultable, and it will make a great platform plank for a future Populist leader, if one should appear. The Liberals, who picture themselves as radical critics of privilege, have always, always, gotten along comfortably with great wealth and made use of it. Great wealth is the initial stage of the concentration of power and an essential means for the manipulation of society by safe reforms—those reforms that enhance the state and its guardians. Thus the pseudo-Populist Bill Clinton appointed a Wall Street operator as his chief economic adviser.
In America, as opposed to many countries in Europe, the question of minorities must always come up. Minorities are people and are a part of the polity. However, they are by definition, as minorities, not a part of the core people. It would be foolish to think that minorities could be enlisted on the side of populism. By their very status as vulnerable, minorities are the most pro-establishment part of the population. In the classic case of the African-Americans, they were first wards of the slaveholders; then of the Republican Party; and since the New Deal of the welfare state. As long as the status quo is reasonably good, and it has never been better for African-Americans in terms of benefits/burdens ratio, they are not likely to upset any apple carts. No group of Americans is more committed to the existing welfare state and more opposed to fundamental change.
American colonial society was the freest, most self-governing, and most minimally-governed society the modern world had seen, an inheritance that was continually reinforced by the frontier and that has remained a deep folk memory. There was never enough government force to rule against the community. Land and slaves could be acquired vastly more easily than in Europe, and skilled labor was vastly more independent and valuable.
Indeed, American colonial society was to a large extent made up of disinherited younger sons, displaced workers like the Scotch-Irish weavers, or in the case of the Washingtons a clergyman driven out of his parish by the Puritans—people unusually sensitive to abuses of power. Yet, though it had an always expanding edge, an escape valve of frontier opportunity, it was also a stable society. George Washington was the fifth generation of his family in America, as were many of his neighbors.
Indeed, the Revolution was brought on by American fear of official intent to end their de facto freedom from all government except the local: the arrival of troops, of taxes, of new courts to regulate trade, of a host of placemen fresh from Britain to fill public offices that Americans had and could fill ably, and the fear of the imposition of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. It was these signs which motivated American communities to resist, ultimately to the point of war. What they were resisting, as the list of indictments in the Declaration makes clear, was too much and too unresponsive government.
I do not want to downplay the importance of ideology. The structure of ideas in people’s heads, usually inherited except in diseased ages like our own when ideologies are taken up and put off like fashions, control their perception of events. The country ideology taught Americans to fear government, the court party, as potentially oppressive. This was populism, as I see it. The Americans were not a revolting proletariat seeking to reinvent society, but the people of a region of the British Empire seeking to defend themselves.
Not until the nineteenth century do we get thinkers who give us an abstract European view of the Declaration as a revolutionary program. This can only be done by filtering the Declaration, ahistorically, back and forth through the French Revolution and German transcendentalism. A philosophy which becomes as much a threat to the self-government and good sense of communities, as in the modern Liberal regime, as what was overthrown.
The populist instinct as I have defined it can be seen in the entire colonial period, more than a century and a half. There were, among the relative handful of Americans living on the edge of a wilderness, threatened by savages and hostile European powers, literally dozens of “rebellions” and “revolts,” so called, during the time of colonial life. No colony escaped them. A few of these were palace revolutions, factional disputes, and slave uprisings, but most of them represent exactly what I have called Populism, uprisings of the community of certain regions against official abuses. Class warfare was never raised and the legitimacy of proprietary or royal rule was never disputed. Bad officials were simply removed or thwarted by popular action.
As one historian has written:
Eighteenth-century uprisings were in some important ways different from those of today…not all eighteenth-century mobs simply defied the law; some used extralegal means to implement official demands or to enforce laws not otherwise enforceable, others in effect extended the law in urgent situations beyond its technical limits. Since leading eighteenth-century Americans had known many occasions on which mobs took on the defense of the public welfare, which was, after all, the stated purpose of government, they were less likely to deny popular upheavals all legitimacy than are modern leaders…they could still grant such incidents an established and necessary role in free societies…. These attitudes…shaped political events of the Revolutionary era.
British officials complained constantly that Americans were “accustomed to live without law or gospel,” and they sought to bring “chaos into form” and to reduce “anarchy into regular Government.” But Americans did not live without law. There was no anarchy—there was simply less obedience than English officials were accustomed to receive.
The colonial revolts used to be well-known and celebrated in American history. The fact that they are nearly forgotten tells us something perhaps about the heavy weight of authority in our own time. Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia; the revolution of 1689 in Maryland; successful resistance of Massachusetts Bay colony against attempts to revoke their charter, 1635-1638; Leisler’s rebellion in New York, 1688; Culpeper’s rebellion in North Carolina, 1677-1680; the ejection of the proprietary government from South Carolina in 1721; the colonist’s reform of the proprietary regime in Georgia in the 1740s; the revolt of the frontier Paxton boys in Pennsylvania in 1763, which led a reluctant government to adopt new Indian policies and expand the franchise: the Regulator movements in the two Carolinas just before the Revolution.
There were many more. Left historians have strained hard to find proletarian revolt, but without success. All of these actions were populist as I have defined the term, defensive uprisings of regional communities against sins of ommission or commission on the part of officials. And all of them had a degree of success.
To characterize a few of the most important: Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1675 came after the royal governor had failed to call elections for fifteen years and failed to authorize action against the Indians demanded by the settlers furthest west. Bacon organized his neighbors in the teeth of the governor’s authority and put down the Indians. When the governor declared him an outlaw, he ejected the governor from the capital. The matter ended more or less when Bacon died suddenly and his forces dispersed. This was not a proletarian social revolution but a disciplining of official abuses by the people.
Even more interesting, perhaps, is the end of proprietary rule in South Carolina. There was a serious Indian war in 1715, which the settlers themselves won without help from their Lords Proprietors. When the proprietors’ agents pushed trade restrictions, the collection of quitrents. and attempted to control for themselves the lands that had been acquired in the Yemassee War, the militia simply gathered and threw out the proprietary agents, leaving the elected part of the government completely in place. The de facto regime was quietly recognized by the Crown.
If time allowed we might speak about Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys of Vermont who forced New York, New Hampshire, and the Congress to recognize them as a separate State; the “State of Franklin” in Tennessee, which, though abortive, forced North Carolina and the Congress to confirm the land policies it had advocated.
Our times are remote from these assertions of popular power, of course, but it seems to me we need to recognize them to understand the populist instincts of the American people. Such assertions of regional popular power against bad government continued into the new Union.
Consider the Whiskey Rebellion, the outcome of the machinations of that evil genius Alexander Hamilton. Among many other measures designed to profit the rich and organized at the expense of the ordinary and unorganized, Hamilton put through a distillery tax. The tax was not really needed. Its purpose was to lay the heavy hand of the government on the most undisciplined part of the people and make them like it. It bore very unevenly, contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution, on the westward regions where, because of transportation problems, it was convenient to turn much surplus agricultural produce into whiskey for easier shipment.
It was an enormity, a gratuitous act of power very much like busing in a later time. Nobody likes it except the ruling elite who do not participate in it. It exists simply to prove that they can do anything they want to us and we have to take it. The regions affected by the whiskey tax understood perfectly what was afoot—all classes. No one could be found to enforce and prosecute except outside appointees—something Americans not long before had conducted a successful war against.
But what is most interesting is the contrast between the official story that has dominated the accounts of establishment historians since the time, and what actually happened, which was, indeed, a populist triumph. According to the official account, a riotous revolt against just federal law broke out in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. President Washington sent out the army and dispersed the mobs and upheld the majesty of the government. According to John Marshall’s biography of Washington and other Federalist accounts, the new Union was thus saved from anarchy and impotent government.
Here is what actually happened. The people in the affected areas simply refused to pay the tax. This was true everywhere from Pennsylvania to Georgia, not just in Pennsylvania, and their public officials backed them. In western Pennsylvania a few of the tax agents were roughed up slightly, had their horses’ tails cropped or were doused with molasses, reminiscent of protests against British taxation.
There was no serious violence, but it gave Hamilton the opportunity to send armed marshals out to harass the people. The state of Pennsylvania called out the militia to defend itself from the federal gunslingers. There was an altercation in which two protesters and one federal marshal were killed. This was the pretext for Hamilton and Secretary of War Knox to send in troops—something vigorously opposed by the Virginians in the Cabinet, Jefferson and Edmund Randolph. The governor and the chief justice of Pennsylvania protested that the federal government was in violation of the Constitution, since such invasions could only be mounted at the call of the state, to suppress rebellion or repulse invasion. The state had not called and there was no rebellion and no invasion except by the federal government.
Hamilton mobilized the whole army, 13,000 men, and marched them into western Pennsylvania. They stayed a few weeks. Nothing happened. People waved politely from the fields as the soldiers marched by, the tax was paid quietly where the troops were, it still went uncollected everywhere else. The troops left and the tax ceased being paid. It was never paid again anywhere and when Jefferson and his friends got into office in 1801 it was not only repealed but refunded.
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s official errand boys got warrants issued for “treason,” against 150 citizens of western Pennsylvania, an extremely dubious constitutional proceeding. The grand jury dismissed two-thirds of the indictments immediately. Thirty-one people were brought to trial. The juries, against highhanded efforts by the federal judges to secure convictions, found not guilty in all but two cases. The two convictions were of a notorious drunk and a moron, men who obviously were not guilty of treasonable intent and who were later pardoned.
Thus ended perhaps the greatest populist triumph in American history, though it was subsequently reinterpreted to make the government oppressors look good. Whether this could happen now, given the federal establishment’s near monopoly of heavy firepower, remains to be seen. There are some similarities, but a much more sinister scenario to the recent government massacre of women and children in Waco. Suppose the authorities of Texas had declined to go along with the federal invasion? Suppose the citizens to be suppressed had been more numerous or less odd? Would there have been a different outcome? In the court proceedings the judge was clearly partisan, as in the Whiskey Rebellion, yet the juries released many of the defendants. Will American populism have to take some such course in the future against entrenched and recalcitrant power that controls the courts, the communication media, and the police? Will the holders of power and privilege yield to persuasion and sentiment and political dialogue?
Populism, as I have defined it, is still deeply engrained in the American character, though it grows more diluted perhaps with each passing decade. It is always faced with John Taylor’s dilemma, which means its successes will always be temporary and limited. If one bad agenda and establishment are defeated, there will always be others waiting plausibly in the wings to manipulate the state. This is an eternal dilemma of popular government. Such a dilemma is, of course, infinitely preferable to those presented by any other kind of government.
To be successful, populism does not need the established respectable leadership of a national political party. It needs wild men like Pat Buchanan who are ready to kick over the traces and call a spade a spade. It needs the support and assertion of at least some states, and some state authorities. The states are what we have got and the best instrument we have for checking federal power. It will take overwhelming populist sentiment, which is possible in the west and possible though less so, in the south, to begin to counter federal oppressions.
Republished with gracious permission from The Abbeville Review (November 2016).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.