American populism

People’s Party – American populism before Trump

President Trump has been accused of populism but there’s a long tradition of this kind of politics in the United States. Take for example the People’s Party – a prime example of American populism.

I’ve been glued to the TV and social media like the rest of you watching the torture of the 2020 American presidential election. What struck me was how so many rural and rust belt communities voted for Donald Trump. To many outside the United States – this seems inexplicable. Why would poor people vote for a TV reality chat show millionaire?

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But there’s a long history of American populism that has done surprisingly well in rural and poorer areas of the country. Take for example the late 19th century People’s Party – also referred to sneeringly as the Populists – who won four states in the 1892 presidential election.

James Weaver and James Field ran for the presidency and managed to bag the electoral college votes of Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Nevada. They got additional votes from North Dakota and Oregon. Their political platform, under the People’s Party banner, was left-leaning populism including demands for a graduated income tax, public ownership of key industries and the unlimited supply of silver coinage – sold to the government by miners of silver.

This wave of American populism brought together a number of parties and groups such as the Farmers Alliance, Greenback Party and the Knights of Labor. There was a strong influence of socialist ideas and a call for monopolies to be broken up. The influence of this strand of politics was felt in both Democrat and Republican circles – that felt obliged to acknowledge and respond to the alarming levels of support the People’s Party was achieving.

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This wave of American populism eventually died out. But as we know today, there have been successive waves of populism across the United States ever since. Normally viewed as something malign, it maybe should be seen as exposing the deficiencies and shortcomings of the two-party system. In ‘normal’ times, Democrats and Republicans get to divide up the political spoils only interrupted by the inconvenience of elections every four years.

But every so often, the voices of the dispossessed insist on being heard. And those voices may articulate a rational program of ideas or just be an inchoate howl of rage. The Trump phenomenon seems to be more of the latter. And some dark forces are undoubtedly lurking in the wings. Such is the nature of today’s American populism.

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