From the Left



Hey, Democrats: Find the Party's Future in Its Populist Past

Jim Hightower on

A farmer friend of mine once bemoaned the fact that the Democrat we'd both supported for president, Bill Clinton, was hugging up Wall Street and stiffing family farmers. "I don't mind losing when we lose," my friend said, "but I hate losing when we win."

Agreed. Yet, losing in politics is sometimes a prelude to winning, calling not for despair, but a doubling down on principle and organizing. Take the revolutionary presidential platform put forth by the upstart, unabashedly progressive People's Party in 1892. It was stunning in its little-d democratic boldness, directly challenging corporate power. The populists became the first to support an eight-hour day and minimum wage for labor, women's suffrage, graduated income taxes, government farm loans to bypass bank monopolies, veterans' pensions, direct lawmaking by citizen initiatives, etc.

Wall Street and the two-party duopoly soon conspired to crush the People's Party. But they could not stop its ideas, which grew in popular support and were largely enacted by state and national governments. This democratic reformation occurred because (1) the populists were unabashedly bold, (2) their ideas were solid, benefitting the common good, and (3) their political heirs were organized and persistent.

That same rebellious spirit remains at the heart and soul of today's people's politics. For example, while 2011's Occupy Wall Street uprising was autocratically crushed, resurgent labor progressives are now carrying its ideals forward -- and winning! Likewise, America's scrappy democratic soul is being expressed every day by grassroots groups of rural poor people battling corporate polluters, child care workers struggling for decent pay, local people standing up to Silicon Valley arrogance and Wall Street greed, etc.

Americans are on the move against plutocratic and autocratic rule. They need a party to move with them.


Woody Guthrie's prescription for inequality in America was straightforward: "Rich folks got your money with politics. You can get it back with politics."


For Guthrie, "politics" meant more than voting, since both parties routinely cough-up candidates who meekly accept the business-as-usual system of letting bosses and bankers control America's wealth and power. It's useless, he said, to expect change to come from a "choice" between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber. Instead, common folks must organize into a progressive movement with their own bold change agenda, become their own candidates and create a politics worth voting for.

Pie in the sky? No! Periodic eruptions of progressive grassroots insurgencies have literally defined America, beginning with that big one in 1776. Indeed, we could take a lesson today from another transformative moment of democratic populism that surged more than a century ago, culminating in "The Omaha Platform of 1892." This was in the depths of the Gilded Age, a sordid period much like ours, characterized by both ostentatious greed and widespread poverty, domination by monopolies, rising xenophobia, institutional racism -- and government that ranged from aloof to insane.

But lo -- from that darkness, a new People's Party arose, created by the populist movement of farm and factory mad-as-hellers. They streamed into Omaha on July 4 to hammer out the most progressive platform in U.S. history, specifically rejecting corporate supremacy and demanding direct democracy.

That platform reshaped America's political agenda, making the sweeping reforms of the Progressive Era and New Deal possible. As one senator said of the Omaha rebellion, it was the start of robber baron wealth flowing "to all the people, from whom it was originally taken." And that's what Woody Guthrie meant by "politics."

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