Search This Blog

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Wall Street Protests 2: Populism, Progressives, and Liberals

A reprint from January... a reprint whose time has come. This is the time to re-discover the real meaning of Liberalism, and divest ourselves of the diseased notions of crank radio Republicanism.

 William V. Allen, US Senator from Nebraska, 1893-1899

In the present age, we know nothing and see nothing save what is on cable 24/7. All that has gone before is blown away like chaff. How little we suspect that the precious wheat has been blown away in the wind, too. Yesterday we spoke of William Jennings Bryan and our jejune understanding of him. What do we know of Liberals? Or of Progressives and Populists? What do we know of a country one hundred years ago and its response to some of the very same problems which we face today?

On the simplest level, let us examine the farmer: was he a conservative force in the country? I find very little evidence that the farmer has been a reactionary force in the country. Conservative, yes, but not reactionary and conservative to the point of a blind resistance to innovation.
In 1948 the farmers of the Midwest were the decisive factor in the re-election of Harry Truman in that memorable election when H.V. Kaltenborn and the newspapers predicted that Dewey had won. On through the 1960's farmers elected representatives in government that were liberal by any definition of liberalism.

As Frederick Jackson Turner said of the farmer in the pioneer settlement: "He was forced to make old tools serve new uses; to shape former habits, institutions, and ideas to changed conditions; and to find new means when the old proved inapplicable. He was building a new society as well as breaking new soil; he had the ideal of nonconformity and of change. He rebelled against the conventional."

That was the farmer, whether gentleman or not, that founded the USA: conservative in tradition and revolutionary in application. After the farmer had pushed westward and opened new lands, soon the frontier closed behind him and upon him as the suffocating conformity of an imperfect society of inequity and slavery encircled him.

By 1890, Mary Ellen Lease was traveling the country, orating and telling the audience that the farmers had best raise less corn and more hell! There was a new People's Party which defeated both Republican and Democrat organizations. Populist farmers' group formed alliances with Democrats in certain localities. In 1892 a coalition of Populist farmers and urban Democrats elected Democratic Governor John Altgeld, who was eventually a decisive influence in securing the Democratic nomination for William Jennings Bryan for the 1896 presidential election.

William V. Allen, elected as a Populist by the Nebraska legislature to the office of US Senator (this was before senators were elected by popular vote) in 1893, wrote in an essay about the West and East of the US in a spirit that is fully recognizable today,
The East is wedded to an abnormally high tariff for a distinctly protective purpose; that is, for the purpose of enabling one class of citizens, through the means of high-priced articles... to transfer much of the earnings of all other classes to their own pockets.
(North American Review)

Populism was government by all the people, not just an elite. As such, the Populist were in favor of some degree of governmental regulation to enable the people to be free from the dictates of the East and Big Business. Government, being of all the people, was not seen as inimical to the people, rather it was an instrument of the people. As Turner again wrote about Senator Allen himself: "As a boy, he saw the buffalo driven out by the settlers; he saw the Indian retreat as the pioneer advanced. His training was that of the Old West, in its frontier days. And now the frontier opportunities are gone. Discontent is demanding an extension of governmental activity in its behalf."

And much of this notion of "opportunities" in the West were enmeshed with freedom from the wealthy who sought to grow richer at the expense of all others.

Populism was not a hayseed Know-Nothingism, such as is the Anti-Governmental populism of the Tea Party in evidence today; Populism laid the groundwork for some of the most significant social experiments in our history. The LaFollette Progressives built upon the foundation of the Populists, and they built a partnership of farmers, workers, and university intellectuals in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Idea still attracts fertile minds. In neighboring Minnesota, there was the Farmer-Labor Party; all of this was well before Frankling Roosevelt came on the scene.

It is time to lose our ignorance and become a part of one of the noblest continuums within our History. It is time to take back the public forum from the Know-Nothings and their Radio brothers and sisters. It is time to be proud.

Frederick Jackson Turner, Historian


No comments: