Discover the forgotten meaning of populism: A story of grassroots struggle, democracy, and the fight for social justice.
As we look at the global political landscape, we see a resurgence of movements labeled as populist. Propelled by rapid social and technological changes, economic upheavals, and complex migration patterns, people around the world are in search of simple solutions to increasingly complex problems. This week’s guest on the WhoWhatWhy podcast, Steve Babson, argues that this represents a serious misinterpretation of the concept of populism.
Steve Babson, Ph.D., a labor educator, union activist, and historian, has dedicated his career to documenting the struggles and victories of the American working class. His latest book, Forgotten Populists: When Farmers Turned Left to Save Democracy, delves into the populist movement of the 1890s — a period when beleaguered farmers and workers united against corporate monopolies and economic depression.
Babson contends that the term “populism” has been hijacked in contemporary political discourse. He uncovers a rich history of advocacy for democracy, economic cooperatives, and social justice, challenging the prevalent association of populism with right-wing authoritarianism. Instead, he offers a narrative in which historical populists emerge as advocates of progressive change.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. As we cast our gaze across the global landscape today, we find ourselves amidst a resurgence of what’s being called populist movements. Driven by rapid social and technological change, economic upheavals, and complex migration patterns, people everywhere are searching for straightforward solutions to increasingly intricate challenges.
In such times, populism, or what’s often called populism, emerges as a compelling answer, offering clear narratives in a world brimming with ambiguity. Yet, this appeal is to a populism that is different from days gone by. Today, this appeal to populism is not without its pitfalls. It can drive deep wedges within societies, polarizing us further, while all too frequently casting minorities and the vulnerable as scapegoats, thereby eroding the very fabric of our communal bonds and imperiling individual rights and liberties.
Today, we examine the fabric of this American political movement, zooming in on the forces of populism that have shaped and continued to shape the nation’s political landscape. Joining me in this journey is Steve Babson, a longtime activist in the realm of labor education, and a prolific author whose research brings to light the nuanced complexities of populist movements throughout the annals of history.
Steve’s latest endeavor is Forgotten Populists: When Farmers Turned Left to Save Democracy. And in it, he takes us back to the 1890s. His exploration of the term populism shows how it’s often co-opted in today’s political discourse. He reveals a rich history of advocacy for democracy, economic cooperatives, and social justice. He challenges the notion that populism is synonymous with authoritarianism and instead presents a narrative where historical populists are seen as champions of progressive change, who remind us of our collective capacity to shape the contours of democracy.
Steve Babson holds a PhD in US History from Wayne State University. He’s the author of six books that traverse the intersections of labor, civil rights, and the quest for social justice. And his latest work is Forgotten Populists: When Farmers Turned Left to Save Democracy. It is my pleasure to welcome Steve Babson here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Steve, thanks so much for joining us.
Steve Babson: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. I suppose the place to begin this conversation is to explain to our listeners what is populism. How do you define populism for the purposes of this conversation and for the purposes of what you write about?
Steve: Well, I actually see it very differently from the way a lot of the pundits today indiscriminately use it to describe people on the left, right, in between, and whatever. I see populism as part of a long history of American progressivism. And it goes back to the 1890s when farmers and railroad workers, coal miners, and a wide range of reformers launched a new movement that would change the political terrain of this country.
Its official name was The People’s Party, but they called themselves Populists as a shorthand. And what they were angry about was the way in which both the Democrats and the Republicans favored the rising class of corporate robber barons who’d come to power after the Civil War, after 1865. In the following decades, people like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, these were the mega-rich of that era who were using violence and bribery and monopoly power to crush opponents of big business.
And so, populism was a progressive movement that wanted to address this emerging new industrial circumstance, this new industrial economy in which these corporate mega-companies were entirely unregulated and were operating really as the own little private fiefdoms, dominating local governments, dominating the federal government, and having their way with both consumers and workers and farmers.
And so, in that context, by the way, and looking back on populism as a positive and progressive effort to broaden democracy at a time when, by the way, women couldn’t vote, Populists favored giving the vote to women, African-Americans in the South were denied the ballot, and a Populists wanted to protect their access to the vote. They wanted election of senators which were at that time, back in that day, were appointed by state legislatures who were bought and sold and put the wealthy and the mega-rich in further positions of power to dominate the economy.
And the Populists wanted to address that. They wanted to expand democracy and make the government representative of the people’s interests against that of an unregulated and unleashed corporate power that was ruling large parts of the economy and social circumstances at that time in America. So I think populism is a positive thing and it’s often misused. More recently, calling Trump a populist, I think, is an evasion and a historical lie that focuses on his anti-elitist rhetoric and not his real intent, which is to further enrich himself and the billionaire class. Populists from American history would’ve rejected Trump on precisely those grounds.
Jeff: This though goes beyond Trump because there are certainly these movements that we see taking place, right-wing movements mostly, taking place around the world in countries in Europe, in South and Central America that are arguing that they are populists, that they represent a populist point of view.
Steve: They never call themselves populists. It’s the pundits who call them populists. If you look at actually those movements in Europe and in Latin America, they call themselves a whole range of things, but none of them, not one of them, calls themselves populists. It’s entirely a label pushed upon them by pundits and commentators primarily in the United States who export this ideological claim that anyone who is disrupting the status quo must be dangerous, must be some kind of populist and demagogue and authoritarian.
And some of the movements that you are referencing are indeed often authoritarian, demagogic, and dangerous, but I would say they aren’t populists. I would say they’re fascist, they’re right-wing, they’re whatever you would care to call them in terms of their own terms. And I think the phrase has been misrepresented and misused now for many, many years.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about how that happened in your view. How did populism become synonymous with a kind of authoritarianism and a kind of anger that we see it representing today?
Steve: I think, when they first appeared, when the Populists first came on the scene in the 1890s, they were not welcomed by the ruling elite of that time. And that ruling elite had enormous economic leverage and power, often represented through private universities which saw a distant movement of farmers as unwelcome and unlettered and somehow dangerous.
And they saw the status quo as worth defending because they believed in this notion that somehow Jay Gould and the rest of them had risen to power because of their individual personal merit, when in fact, the Populists argued that they had gotten there through, often enough, and the record was really clear on this score, massive amounts of fraud and the exercise of extraordinary monopoly power. And so, I think, what happened is that the status quo, the folks who control the media and the ways in which history is written, defined the Populists as, at the time, anarchists.
They were dismissed as bloodthirsty anarchists who were going to reproduce the Paris Commune of 1871 and slaughter the rich in their beds and so on. And so that was initially very negative and very extraordinarily overblown rhetoric against the Populists who in fact never advocated violent methods and they were entirely devoted to reform through the ballot.
And so, that stigma stuck with the Populists as elite opinion defined anyone, therefore, who was threatening the status quo as somehow dangerous. Somehow they must be a populist, somehow they were allied with this movement that’s going to upset the status quo as they saw it and as they welcomed it.
Jeff: To what extent did populism become subsumed at a certain point by a kind of socialist message?
Steve: The Populists were actually very much advocates of expanded access to a market economy. They favor cooperatives, meaning, private initiative that takes a collective form where farmers would band together as a group to buy supplies at a discount to market their grain or cotton or whatever their crop was in a cooperative manner where they could negotiate for better prices for themselves.
But this is within a context of a market economy. They often called for nationalizing the railroads, but that’s not because they were opposed to private enterprise. They saw the railroads as monopoly operations that were actually stifling private initiative by gouging consumers with extraordinarily high and unnecessary rates. And by the way, also imperiling railroad workers. These railroads were really mismanaged back in the 1880s and the 1890s. They were often in bankruptcy. And every year, over 2,000 railroad workers were killed on the job, 20,000 injured in operations that were just really brutal, and poorly managed, poorly organized. And the Populists were saying, if you cannot submit to regulations that would charge reasonable prices for the freight service you are offering, and if you can’t respond to the fact that you were built often with public resources in the first place, subsidies and massive grants of free land to the railroads to encourage their initial construction.
Over 170,000,000 acres of free land given to the railroads. That’s equivalent to the size of Texas to actually build the railroads. And the Populist said, if you’re going to abuse that public support, you should no longer actually operate the railroads. They should be taken over by an expanded democratic government that would operate them for the benefit of farmers and workers seeking wider access to the market, not eliminating the market. And they were opposed to actually what we would later define as Marxism.
There were so many among them, however, who called themselves Christian socialists, and they saw themselves as advocates of a different kind of economy, one in which we would call for a new definition of what’s the appropriate ethics and morality for running the economy. They said, “Christ did not come to prepare men for another world, but to teach them how to rightly live in this one.”
And they defined Jesus as a commoner, a carpenter, an agrarian radical. So they had an idea of a different kind of capitalism, one based on cooperative enterprise, supported by the expanded democratic base of a government that addressed the needs of aspiring farmers and workers to a more equitable access to that market.
Jeff: And talk about how that brand of populism faded away. You’ve already talked a bit about what it represents today. Talk about how that brand of populism went away.
Steve: Well, two things happened. First of all, it didn’t entirely go away, but it took on a different form. But its initial frustration occurred in 1896. I mentioned the Democrats and the Republicans shared a sort of alliance with big business and the mega-rich of that era. But the Democrats had a reform movement within the party, and they could see that the Populists were gaining traction as a third party.
They had been forced out of both Democratic and Republican circles by the fact that there were no primary elections in that time. So you had no access to an alternative voice within either of those parties. So the Populists organized a third party because that was their only option at the time. And they actually had an enormous amount of success. [In] 1892 [and] 1894 they elected six governors. They sent 50 members to Congress.
And there were people within the Democratic Party who could see that this was a potential movement that could undermine their claim to supporting working people in the United States. And so in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat, the candidate for president under the Democratic Party, adopted part of the Populist program. And the Populists decided that they would endorse Bryan rather than risk splitting the reform vote.
And that meant that they thereafter, could no longer claim an independent voice, but thereafter, also, the Democrats, and even some Republicans, moved in the direction of regulating big business, establishing labor law reform, [and] protecting the interests of farmers. And so, over time, you saw the emergence of reform movements within both parties. In the Republican Party, they called themselves something hard to imagine today, they called themselves Liberal Republicans. [chuckles]
And in the Democratic Party, it actually took on the form of, some decades later, the New Deal. And that’s when much of the Populist program was implemented. They abolished the gold standard that had previously limited credit to small amounts of money available to banks and other lenders who controlled the supply of gold. They actually expanded voting rights for blacks and women over time. And that was a long struggle in the case of African Americans, continuing into the 1960s.
But Martin Luther King in 1965 heralded the Populist movement as one of the earliest forebearers of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, because the Populists had supported and fought for equal access to the ballot for African Americans in the South, long denied by the planter elite. Votes for women. All of these things came to pass eventually, but it took many years.
And finally, I would say the most modern form of it was the New Deal in the 1930s, which passed a whole range of reforms that the Populists had been calling for for a long time, including, by the way, a social safety net. I don’t know how many of your listeners have heard of Jacob Coxey, but he was the guy who led the first mass march on Washington. He was a Populist, and it was during the Depression with more than 20 percent unemployment, people actually facing starvation. There was no social safety net.
And he said, “Listen, we’ve got a government that has access to the taxing power to tax the rich and support the infrastructure investments this country needs. Better roads, better bridges, and that would provide employment for workers who are otherwise facing starvation.” So a whole range of these Populist initiatives and ideas came to pass. And I would regard, therefore, populism as a progressive and positive kind of thing, in contrast to the way it’s used around as a sort of slang describing a whole range of authoritarian movements that actually the original Populists, the historical Populists, would have rejected.
Jeff: In many ways, today’s progressives represent the tradition of those original Populists. Talk about the way in which populism became so synonymous with authoritarianism. What happened to cause that?
Steve: Well, it’s a complicated story, but it really comes down to what happened in the 1950s in the United States. After the New Deal reforms of the 1930s, and the real upheaval that saw the fulfillment of many of what the Populists had been calling for. After World War II, with the Cold War, and with the mounting global competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and Marxism, as it was a shorthand description of it.
There was in the United States, what we would refer to in the history profession as something akin to a Red Scare, a really anxious search for the potential spies and collaborators with the Soviet Union. And that meant that anyone left of center who had been active in the 1930s in the labor movement, in cooperative movements, and so on, now faced some risk of being charged with being somehow allied with [the Soviet Union]. And these were wild-eyed notions.
But there was a real hysteria at the time about the A-bomb, the atomic weapons that the United States had previously had the monopoly of, but now the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb, the war in Korea with mounting casualties as the US fought the Chinese communists in North Korea. There was a real hysteria around the possibility of subversion from within. And in that context, anyone who had a past link to populism was seen as potentially dangerous.
And actually, all kinds of things were said about it that historically had no standing, but they gained some credibility at that time, given the prevailing Red Scare and anxious concerns about the Cold War. And it was in that context that anyone who opposed the status quo was seen as potentially dangerous, potentially somehow an expression of the same kind of impulse that had once been seen as positive in the 1890s when the Populists first articulated these ideas of an expanded democracy.
That’s what my book is trying to establish, is what the real history of that Populist movement was, and what it represents, potentially, for the present and the future. Not that I think we need to rehabilitate the word populism, but we need to understand that that’s a progressive tradition that has a long standing in America, that it’s as American as apple pie.
And we should be proud of that historical legacy of populist and progressive reform, and the need to revitalize it today and fend off the efforts of the likes of Donald Trump, who I don’t think has anything to do with populism, as I understand it historically. Unfortunately, I think, his real danger is [that] he’s a budding fascist at this point.
Jeff: The bottom line seems to be that populism, as a word, certainly seems to not represent what it once did, and it’s been replaced today by, I guess, progressivism and progressives.
Steve: Yes, that’s my approach. I don’t need to rehabilitate the word populism, but I do think that it obscures all the history of progressive reform movements in the United States that has seen the need for an expanded democracy to counter the power of big business to dominate and otherwise control public life in this country. And so I think that’s something we need to look back on and take whatever lessons we can from that history. And that’s what led me to write this book, Forgotten Populists. And to do so, by the way, in a format that’s heavily illustrated and accessible. It’s sound history, but it’s written with an eye to getting the interest of folks who might, otherwise, set aside a longer book and one that doesn’t address these kinds of current progressive matters as we see them today.
Jeff: Talk about context, because even within the context of the Populist movement back then, what we might call progressive as well, it existed in a very different economic framework than the world today.
Steve: Sure did. Back in the 1890s, the 1890s census counted in the American population that roughly 40-45 percent of the occupied workforce were farmers or farm laborers; 40-45 percent. Today the equivalent percentage is about two percent. So, we’re looking at what is still overwhelmingly a farm economy with growing cities, of course, and particularly in the East, and a growing industrial working class. And many of the Populists want to appeal to both workers and farmers and the need to find common ground in building a better future.
But that was the context in which populism appeared. [This] was primarily being supported by what was called the Farmers’ Alliance and that was the social base of the Populist movement. But it was also popular among American railroad workers and coal miners. And there were some cities that actually had mayors elected on a Populist platform. One of them, of course, was San Francisco where Adolph Sutro, a German born Jewish engineer and philanthropist was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1894 as a Populist.
And he was elected on a platform condemning Southern Pacific Railroad’s control of the city streetcar system. By the way, California statewide, that same year, 26 percent of the statewide vote went to Populist candidates. They sent two members to Congress and a dozen or so folks to Sacramento. So, it’s a hidden history that I wanted to bring to light and put in front of folks as a different way of understanding our progressive heritage and our past that might be useful in terms of seeing how we approach the current problems of the day.
Jeff: What can progressives today learn from these early populist movements?
Steve: I think one thing they could learn is the audacity of the progressive program of that day. They had a wide ranging approach to rethinking what American capitalism should look like. And instead of an oligarchy of extraordinarily powerful corporations and super rich, they wanted a broad based mixed economy, which meant that in some cases, railroads, even public utilities, if they’re natural monopolies, they should be operated on the behalf of the public that had actually contributed the resources to build them in the first place.
So, electric power, telegraph, railroads, publicly owned, but in a mixed economy where that public ownership is on behalf of broadening access to and an equitable access to the necessities of life. And to me, that’s a very important alternative to a way in which it’s posed [that] either it’s entirely small government that can be dominated by big business or a bureaucratic public presence that also crowds out individual and private initiative. I think there should be a mix of the two, and I think that’s what the Populists were about, and I think that’s a lesson we might take very seriously today.
Jeff: To put it in contemporary terms, was there better messaging that went on from the Populists then than we see from progressives today?
Steve: They had a very extensive communication system. They had the Farmers’ Alliance, which as I mentioned, the social base of the Populist movement, had thousands of suballiances as they called them. Every town or burg that had any Populist presence at all, the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populists would have what they called lecturers.
Every suballiance had a lecturer who was someone, and several often enough, lecturers who were in touch with the national office that sent out periodic to, had a mailing list of about 35,000 with a message that could be addressed to the local needs of that population, of that membership, but with a common agenda, a common program for addressing the needs of farmers and workers.
And I think that kind of training and focus on articulating a clear and common program is something we should take to heart. And I’ll admit to my own particular bias, I’m a fan of Bernie Sanders and of the Democratic Socialists of America who advocate very much [for] what I was talking about earlier, the idea of a mixed economy where we protect the public interest at the same time as we make available a wider option.
A wider range of opportunities for private initiative, no longer crowded out by monopoly corporations, but protected by public policy, by policy that protects labor unions and protects the access to the vote of minorities and women. And that to me is where we should be heading.
Jeff: That today gets put under the general rubric of populism. Bernie Sanders’ populism gets put under the same banner as Donald Trump’s populism.
Steve: Which I think is outrageous. Bernie Sanders actually does come close to looking like the kind of Populist program of the 1890s transferred, of course, and transposed to the current needs of working people and farmers. But Donald Trump has nothing to do with that legacy. And it’s a misnomer and it’s a way in which the people who use it, pretty much, I think telegraph the fact that they really are opposed to any challenge to the status quo.
And so, they condemn both Trump and Bernie Sanders in the same breath. And I think what we should learn from that is that these are folks not to be trusted in terms of their analysis of what’s going on today. I would argue that Bernie Sanders, if you care to call him a populist, fine, he doesn’t call himself a populist. He calls himself a Democratic Socialist. But Trump does not call himself a populist.
And neither do these authoritarian movements in Europe or Latin America. It’s entirely a label pushed upon them by political scientists who I think often are mistaken and sometimes with malintent in their effort to basically lump the likes of Bernie Sanders together with the likes of Donald Trump.
Jeff: Talk about what you see as the malintent in that.
Steve: Well, I think the malintent would amount to basically a defense of the status quo. I’m looking at Bloomberg and the Financial Times and the media outlets that most consistently would say that not only are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the same boat, but there’s even been commentary claiming that Biden is somehow a populist. And I’m talking about the Financial Times, Bloomberg and other very clearly conservative sources of journalistic commentary [that] are actually making the argument that even Biden is somehow a populist.
And I think that through as well, [like] what sense does it make to use a term that claims that Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump are all populist? That means the term is meaningless. It has no reference point at all, except, and here’s where political scientists would dispute what I’m saying. They’re saying that populism is a rhetorical style, and one in which talks about anti-elite kind of movements and commentary.
So if you’re anti-elitist, if you’re attacking elites of any sort, and of course, in the case of Trump, he’s attacking a liberal elite or a media elite. In the case of Sanders, he’s talking about an economic elite, that if you’re doing so, that means you are somehow sharing a common discourse as “a populist.” I would argue that that’s a very thin and almost useless sort of category to be lumping so many people who are different in so many fundamental ways into some sort of common rhetorical bag.
I would argue that the key for Trump is not the rhetoric, but his intent. What does he want to do? And his record is very clear on that score. What he wants to do is cut taxes for the rich. And what he wants to do is deregulate business. What he wants to do is expand his own reach in terms of his corporate empire.
And so, in all of these matters, whether it’s deregulation, whether it’s lower taxes for the rich, whether it’s reducing voting rights, which he’s also committed himself to, whether it’s cutting back on regenerative healthcare for women, whether it’s climate change, I would argue that he has nothing to do with populism. He’s actually turning a blind eye to all of these issues that are so important to working people across the spectrum.
Jeff: Steve Babson, his book is Forgotten Populists: When Farmers Turned Left to Save Democracy. Steve, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast today.
Steve: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.