A Historical Tour of Populism

Don't Let the 'Big Men' Win
Dorothea Lange traveled around rural America during the late 1930s, creating indelible images of the Great Depression. One day, she stopped outside a gas station and snapped a picture of a large sign. It read: THIS IS YOUR COUNTRY. DON'T LET THE BIG MEN TAKE IT AWAY FROM YOU. Seventy years later, citizens irate at the huge bonuses AIG paid out to top executives know just how that feels.

As Congress and President Obama rush to balance solidarity with a new wave of populist anger alongside the need for smart policy during a crisis, they might reflect on how well previous politicians fared at the task. History does not repeat itself. But sometimes it does hum a familiar tune.

When the original populists emerged from small towns and mining centers in the late 19th century, they targeted the same group that Americans today think is responsible for the value of their portfolios and the loss of many jobs: economic tycoons who betrayed the public interest. Thomas Watson, a leader of the populist movement, denounced an entire roster of villains that included "boodlers, monopolists, gamblers, gigantic corporations, bondholders [and] bankers." Believing both the Democrats and Republicans were complicit with this "money power," the populists launched their own political party in 1892. It didn't survive for long, but it threw a terrific scare into the establishment, spurring reforms—like the progressive income tax and an eight-hour day—that forced the wealthy to act more responsibly toward society at large.

Again in the 1930s, populist movements challenged elected officials to serve the hardworking majority instead of the "plutocrats." Unemployed veterans demanded immediate payment of a bonus for their wartime service. Thousands of industrial wage earners went on strike and occupied their factories; millions signed up with new unions, some of which were led by communists and socialists. On the radio, Father Charles Coughlin urged his audience to "attack and overpower the enemy of financial slavery." Huey Long promised to make "every man a king" by confiscating large fortunes and using the windfall to double the median family income. The liberal humorist Will Rogers—the Jon Stewart of his day—put the populist argument in words people raised on farms could appreciate: "All the feed is going into one manger, and the stock on the other side of the stall ain't getting a thing … We got it, but we don't know how to split it up."

All this worried the helmsmen of the New Deal. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes wrote in his diary, "The country is much more radical than the administration." In 1935, one poll found that Huey Long would draw 11 percent of the vote if he ran a third-party campaign for president the following year. "I am fighting communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism," President Franklin Roosevelt told a reporter. Although many of the "isms" he listed were not on speaking terms with each other, it was not clear who would win.

Of course, FDR did triumph: winning reelection by a landslide in 1936 and crafting a liberal coalition that remained intact for the next three decades. He did so with a deft combination of populist rhetoric and programs that convinced most discontented Americans that the government was truly on their side. Running for a second term, Roosevelt bashed "the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties" who "reached out for control over government itself."

At the same time, FDR and his big Democratic majority in Congress enacted legislation that helped dry up support for his populist opponents. Some of these bills remain the bedrock of our limited welfare state: Social Security abated the misery of the elderly and the unemployed, the Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage and prohibited the hiring of children on most jobs, and the National Labor Relations Act made it illegal to fire a worker for trying to organize a union. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, more of the feed was making its way into the stall where most Americans lived.

Barack Obama has Rooseveltian ambitions of his own, and the widespread disgust with AIG executives and other bailout miscreants gives him a better opportunity to reshape the nation's politics than any Democrat has enjoyed in decades. "I'm angry," the president said last week. "What I want us to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way." But that may require confronting the same close relationship between big business and mainstream politics that stimulated the original Populists into action. Over the past two decades, AIG has donated more than $9 million to congressional candidates; Obama's own campaign war chest was stuffed with checks from a variety of corporate figures, as well as smaller amounts from middle- and working-class people. When less than 5 percent of Americans say they have "a great deal of confidence" in Wall Street, it may be perilous to retain a Treasury secretary who has spent a good deal of his career around the same financial industry that now needs severe regulation.

At its core, populism in the United States remains what it has always been: a protest by ordinary people who want the system to live up to its stated ideals—fair and honest treatment in the marketplace and a government tilted in favor of the unwealthy masses. The best way for big men, and big women, to respond to such protests is to try to do what is moral, as well as popular—and treat Americans as partners in the grand enterprise of governance.