With the Trump presidency now well underway, an inescapable historical irony deserves to be noted. If there was a time in our history—and there was—when progressivism bested populism, this is a moment when populism has returned the favor. To be sure, the populism of today is not exactly the same version of populism that the original progressives initially defeated, but it is a version of populism nonetheless.
In the late nineteenth century, agrarian populists swept through the Midwest and the south. Led by Minnesota’s Ignatius Donnelly and Georgia’s Tom Watson, among others, it was largely a grassroots movement that threatened to break through as a permanent addition to the Democrat vs. Republican narrative. It also promised to save the country from an impending apocalypse, as Donnelly signaled in his preamble to the 1892 People’s party platform, which began with these words: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box and touches even the ermine of the bench.”
But it all ended very quickly. First, the People’s party merged with William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats in 1896. Then along came the progressives to steal the populists’ thunder and much of their agenda. The wave of the future—or for at least the next century or so—was progressivism, whose first face was Theodore Roosevelt—and whose most recent face has been that of Barack Obama.
There would be no populist moment, much less any national populist triumph or dominance. In truth, while a fellow by the name of Andy Jackson might object, there has never been anything close to a national populist success story—until now. Of course, it is a somewhat different form of populism that has come to the fore today. Ignatius Donnelly, meet Donald Trump. Better yet, left-wing populist, meet your right-wing counterpart. The first paved the way for an incipient progressivism; the second has triumphed over the excesses of progressivism—and in good measure because of those excesses. In any case, these two versions of populism constitute as unlikely a pair of bookends to our long-reigning progressivism as could be imagined.
The same might be said of their leaders. A Philadelphia native, Donnelly came to Minnesota in the 1850s to make his fortune. Failing to achieve that, he went into politics, first as a Radical Republican and ultimately as a (largely unsuccessful) candidate of various third parties, one of which was a Donnelly-organized Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota, which to this day has a Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. The youngest lieutenant governor in the state’s history and a three-term Republican congressman during and right after the Civil War, Donnelly could have been found running for elective office at almost any point over the course of nearly forty years. He could have also been found nursing defeat far more often than celebrating victory.
Over roughly that same span of years, Donald Trump has been content to build his fortune and advance his celebrity-hood. Only once has he chosen to run for elective office. And look what happened. At first blush it would seem that these two men have little in common, aside from their east coast roots and their dual role as an incongruous pair of political bookends. But then let’s look at what they book-ended—and at the irony of it all. That would be progressivism. More specifically, it would be the elitism inherent in progressivism.
To be sure, Donnelly’s first war was against the economic elitists of the late-nineteenth century. They would be the railroad, steel, milling, oil, banking, and shipping barons, otherwise known as the oft-maligned robber barons. The progressives had a similar set of enemies. But they soon proved to be very much elitists themselves. As the inimitable H. L. Mencken put it, Theodore Roosevelt “didn’t believe in democracy; he believed in government.”
Wait a minute. Didn’t the progressives open up the system with reforms such as the primary election, the direct election of senators, not to mention initiative, referendum and recall? True enough. But at the heart of progressivism has always been a belief in the beneficence of government, especially a federal government armed with experts of various sorts, not to mention an unquestioned belief in their own ruling authority and superiority. Government by expert was certainly to be preferred to government by the common man. Once again let Theodore Roosevelt clinch the point: “I don’t care what the American people think; my only concern is convincing them to think what they ought to think.”
It is that very mentality that just got progressivism dethroned—and by a version of populism more than somewhat, but not entirely, different from that espoused by the populists of better than a century ago. Then as now, a grassroots movement triggered the whole thing. Remember the Tea Party? But unlike then, this movement set in motion the reaction that produced the Trump candidacy and the White House victory. In some respects, Donald Trump is the epitome of the robber barons that the original populists and progressives opposed. He may well be an elitist of sorts, but his appeal is highly un-Rooseveltian. As a Trump supporter put it during the fall campaign, “he says what we’re thinking.”
What do today’s populists think about government? Their late-nineteenth century counterparts called upon the federal government to solve many of their problems. Included on their list of demands were such then radical measures as a graduated federal income tax and a nationalized railroad system. Today’s populists want government to retreat. Or do they? On the one hand, let’s repeal Obamacare and generally drain the bureaucratic swamp. The administrative state was always a progressive, but never a populist, dream. On the other hand, let’s do what must be done to save American jobs. A reborn Ignatius Donnelly could be excused for being a bit confused.
Today’s stunned progressives might be confused as well. If so, maybe it is time for them to rethink the whole idea of progress. The first question might be this: Is there such a thing? If the answer is “yes,” then there really must be a set of standards by which to judge it. But that presents a problem for progressives, since progressivism has always lacked any such standards, not to mention any limiting principle.
That original progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, favored eugenics. Is that progressive? Hardly. Would Roosevelt approve of today’s progressive social agenda, including same-sex marriage, unfettered abortion, and the latest version of transgenderism? Hardly.
True progress cannot be an open-ended thing. Nor should it be a top-down thing. Now that progressivism has hit a brick wall, thanks to a resurgent populism, maybe progressives will come to realize as much. Or maybe they will head further leftward and reprise a new version of left-wing populism, thereby adding a further note of irony to the story: Having failed to defeat the original robber barons, leftist populists are revived (and possibly restored to power) by their opposition to a populist robber baron.
At the very least, today’s progressives would be well-advised not to do what Theodore Roosevelt once did when he cavalierly dismissed his populist enemies as nothing more than the “lunatic fringe.” At least he did not call them deplorable.
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