Charles Postel: The Real Populist Tradition in America





[Charles Postel, an assistant professor of history at San Francisco State University, won the Bancroft Prize in American history for his book “The Populist Vision.”]

When David Broder praised Sarah Palin’s speech at the National Tea Party Convention as “perfect-pitch populism,” real Populists were surely spinning in their graves.

In the 1890s, American farmers and other activists rocked corporate power in a populist revolt. Now, the Washington Post columnist has passed the populist mantle to Palin. If they could, the Populists would protest this misuse of their name....

The Populists were all about economic justice. They demanded government regulation of railroads, banks, telecommunications and insurance. And if that failed to curb corporate abuses, they wanted public ownership or at least a “public option.” They demanded a federal stimulus to get the economy out of the terrible depression of 1893-97....

Yet the populist reputation has suffered a cruel fate. In the 1950s, historian Richard Hofstadter discovered a “cranky” side of populism. “Progressive populism,” he suggested, had morphed into the conservative intolerance of McCarthyism.

It didn’t matter that this never happened. It didn’t matter how many scholars had showed that there was not a scintilla of evidence for a populism/Joe McCarthy connection. The damage was done....

If we want to make sense of the storms brewing in American politics, a little history can’t hurt. The conservatives haven’t adopted gold as their symbol by accident. They are today’s gold bugs.

They proudly follow in the footsteps of the “sound-money” enemies of Populism. Of the conservative bloc that fought Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Of the militant Republicans of the McCarthy cabal, who exposed Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower as traitors. Of the Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan wing, who promised to free America from Social Security and government slavery.

But many Americans have different concerns. They want government action to put the unemployed back to work, to stem the tide of foreclosures and evictions, to regulate the financial industry, to provide health care security and to repair schools and infrastructure.

For such people, there’s another historical tradition they need to know about: It’s called Populism.

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