The Agrarian Revolt that almost led to a real American Democracy III

Posted on August 25th, 2012 in Culture,General,History,Politics by Robert Miller
L. L. Polk from the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina

L. L. Polk from the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina

Perils for the agrarian revolt. Like a bridge too far, the Populist movement or the agrarian revolt and its emergence as the People’s Party in the late nineteenth century was hobbled by the fact that some who identified with the movement, did so without understanding its revolutionary nature, or defending it in the manner that members of the Farmers Alliance had learned to do; the level of commitment to the movement varied on a state by state basis, but also in the degree to which the Farmers Alliance lecturers had reached the local communities. Texas and Kansas were at the top of the list, while Nebraska and the Northwestern Farmers Alliance were at the bottom; many of them were opposed to the formation of the People’s Party and their actions at the 1896 People’s Party convention virtually destroyed the movement, which many of them later regretted. Leadership counted for a lot, but more important was the penetration of the lecturer system and the degree to which the message penetrated into their regional assignments. And, like any educational system, some lecturers were more inspiring than others. The major hurdle was always the sub-treasury system when it was finally laid out in detail by Charles Macune in the summer of 1892 (earlier versions emphasized the Greenback concept of a new currency).

A second problematic issue for the populists was that they had spent a large part of their capital on educating farmers through the lecturing system and had invested less effort in developing nationally visible candidates. Yet a third problem was one with which every farmer could identify—the problem of sectionalism: when it came time to vote, the sectional lines that determined how they voted in the South and North and East and West would determine how they would always vote, meaning that the Alliance needed to develop an identity that would break out of the barriers of sectionalism created by the Civil War. As a Republican you could get elected without significant violations of sectionalism and the same applied if you were a Democrat. But a Populist candidate needed to not only break the sectional boundaries, he needed to smash them and that was a formidable task, which no one had yet achieved. What the Populists attempted to do, though few of them realized it during the early organization of the People’s Party, was to reorganize the voting behavior of the nation. In the South, the party of the “fathers” held sway since the first days of the Republic and the Civil War had further intensified their loyalty to the Democratic party. It was, after all, the “party of Lincoln (Republicans) that started the Civil War.” Thus, the Alliance needed to overcome the sectionalism generated by the Civil War and they knew this would be one of their greatest challenges. One of the best agrarian candidates for bridging  the issue of sectionalism was L.L. Polk from North Carolina, who could have maintained a vigorous, full-throated campaign, with rhetorical competition against any candidate from any party. He had been politically active in North Carolina and started the Progressive Farmer, a publication that reached 12,000 farmers in North Carolina and throughout the South (this publication is still active today). Polk was elected national President of the Alliance in 1890 and in that year, the Fourth of July was designated as “Alliance Day.” Polk went to Kansas on Alliance Day to persuade Kansans that his vision of “trans-sectionalism” (not to be confused with trans-sexualism) could be achieved. Speaking on Alliance Day in Kansas, Polk remarked,

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The Agrarian Revolt that almost led to a new American Democracy, Part II

Posted on August 21st, 2012 in Culture,Economy,General,History,Politics by Robert Miller

Political Circular Election of 1896

Why should we be interested in the agrarian revolt that took place more than a century ago? The Populist movement that brought about the People’s Party tried to capture the Presidency and initiate a new democratic agenda for America; it was the last such movement in our history until the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement emerged last year and began talking about the same issues that were raised by the Populist’s in the elections of 1892 and 1896; both movements primarily centered on the corrosive influence of big corporations and Wall Street. The Populist’s demands were far better articulated than the convoluted language developed at the time by either the Republican or Democratic Party and you can stretch that rhetorical wasteland forward into the modern era. But the agrarian revolt wanted, indeed needed to speak truth to power—their movement depended on it. Today, the degradation of the quality of our culture is starkly evident in our newspapers, the messages relayed through our television sets and the trivial distractions to our lives conveyed over the internet—through the social media, or other means by which American life is trivialized.

The Populists would not recognize the “progressives” and “liberals” who followed them, as they built their party structure by educating and training their constituents, not by merely trying to elect better politicians through the entrenched party structures that we see today.  Indeed, the reason we have experienced such deterioration in our political discourse can be traced to our failure to challenge the two-party system as effectively as the People’s Party did in the late nineteenth century. Today, we have hollowed out our culture into a shell of what it might have been had we adopted more democratic structures to combat the corporatist controls that regulate our economy as well as our information and political party structure. Isn’t global climate change just another TV channel?  Hasn’t employment been trivialized by degrading the employees, who must learn how to please their masters (by crossing their legs properly and maintaining an agreeable posture during the interview, or take a “fellowship” before they get a real job and very often, that job doesn’t meet the requirements of a decent, sustainable life).

In the Populist era, the Republicans had recently matriculated into the party of business, not the party of Lincoln, and the Democratic party was becoming the party of white supremacy in the South. What the People’s Party promised, through a very specific set of demands, was a revolutionary change that favored a bottom-up democracy, including a transformation in how we dealt with our currency and loan programs and support for the “production classes of America.” In their world, farmers and laborers would be on a more level playing field with bankers and corporate masters. It was also a movement in which the Populists wanted to prevent the boundaries established by the Civil War from becoming ossified into permanent barriers that prevented broad political action in America: to succeed, their movement required trans-sectionalism, not an easy task so soon after the war.

The failure of the Populist movement to more fully engage the American electorate, meant that America lost its last chance to formulate a true democracy, such that every citizen of the country could live a decent life, one that came with self-respect and dignity. To this day, our political discourse, with a few word changes here and there, remains limited by the boundaries the Populists wanted to erase: their failure was America’s failure to grab the brass ring of democracy.  Today we have more of a caricature of a true democracy, one that increasingly trivializes the lofty ambitions we talked about in our Declaration of Independence and the hope the world had that America might truly be different. And, we are different—we are the paradise for corporatism, not democracy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in many ways, reminiscent of what the People’s Party germinated more than a hundred years ago. But instead of focusing on farmers, many of whom quit farming and went to work in the cities, they are focused on the Middle Class and the poor, as they try to educate those who will listen about the false promises and corrupt political and financial system we have in America today. Their problem is deep, because they are also trying to do battle with an American value system whose rudder is broken. That is why we should be interested in the Populist movement, to learn about what might have been and perhaps, down the road, what America might yet become, despite the seemingly uphill road it will take to get there.

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The Agrarian Revolt that almost led to a new American Democracy, Part I

Posted on August 3rd, 2012 in Culture,General,History,Politics by Robert Miller

Cartoon about the People’s Party threats to transform the Democratic Party in the election of 1896

Nineteenth century American history: was it only the Civil War? When we learned about it in high school, our instruction was primarily focused on the Civil War and not much else–at least not much that I can remember. The Civil War was framed as the defining American event of the nineteenth century—end of story. Who could argue? But was it really that way? At one level, it is understandable that such a horrific and culture-changing conflict would receive the kind of attention given to it in our coverage of history. America was transformed by the Civil War, as it ended the mind-numbing practice of slavery and destroyed the economic system of the South. And still today, we remain politically divided by the boundaries of that war when it ended, as the South evolved through Reconstruction into white supremacy and the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, which converted the South from Democratic to Republican sectionalism, something like going through a quick, permanent temperature inversion—blue to red almost overnight.  As the war drew closer to its state of inevitability, the South knew that it would be struggling for its economic survival and its way of life and fought accordingly.  As we all know,  the Civil War came with a heavy price-tag. It was the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans (latest death toll @ 750,000, in addition to all the other casualties of war, including  large numbers of surviving amputees and other injured soldiers and wounded citizens). The fact that it was fought between Americans seemed only to add to the ferocity of the conflict. But, while the Civil War broke the back and formally ended slavery, with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, it did not eliminate black enslavement in the South, which gained momentum once the Radical Republicans abandoned Reconstruction, through an agreement that emerged from the election of 1876. Based on that agreement all Federal troops were removed from Southern states, as the white Southern Democrats had gained control of state houses. Federal troop withdrawals occurred as white supremacy rose in the South and dominated that culture beyond the first half of the twentieth century.  When the Radical Republicans abandoned their interest in Reconstruction, they became the party of business and by that time their zeal for reforming the “Southern mentality” had faded. It was an unfinished job when the Republicans gave up the cause and the South was able to rebound, not with slavery, but with a vicious form of indentured servitude that, for many blacks, must have seemed identical to the system they thought had been lifted from their shoulders.

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