I was inspired by Michael Collins' wonderful article, Where are the Populists? to make this contribution. I have been spending much time this winter peering through the kaleidoscope of American history at what happened in the early 1900s, when progressives were able to ride a rapidly rising wave of populism to political power, and institute some major reforms that still redound to our advantage today. These progressive populists were able to achieve a number of specific goals, such as direct primaries (to break the rule of state and city political bosses), direct popular election of U.S. Senators (to break the stranglehold large business and financial interests had acquired over the selection process in state legislatures), and some reforms within the U.S. Congress that curtailed the power of entrenched interests by curbing some of the administrative power of House Speaker Joseph Cannon.
The most dazzling success of these progressive populists came in the rural state of North Dakota, where the organizing genius of Arthur C. Townley created the Non-Partisan League in 1916. In an amazingly brief span of less than two years, the Non-Partisan League signed up nearly 40,000 members - in a state with a population of just 600,000 - and seized complete political control of the state from the railroad, grain trade, and financial interests centered in St. Paul, Chicago, and New York.
Once in power, legislators and state officers backed by the Non-Partisan League created a number of state-owned enterprises, such as grain terminals and elevators, designed to end the monopoly power of these out-of-state interests that had been looting North Dakota farmers of an estimated $55.9 million a year ($1.04 billion in today's dollars). One professor at the state university determined that these interests bought grain from North Dakota's farmers at $1.10 a bushel, and sold it back to the farmers as boxed cereal at over $25.00 a bushel.
Interestingly, one of these institutions, the Bank of North Dakota - the nation's only state-owned bank - was the subject of an excellent article on Huntington Post today. North Dakota is one of the few states not suffering a budget crisis; probably due to some extent because these state enterprises still shield the state's economy from the full weight of the usury, speculation, and rent-seeking behavior of Wall Street, the futures markets in Chicago, and the City of London.
The Non-Partisan League also achieved power in a number of surrounding states, most notably Minnesota, where Republican Congressman Charles A. Lindbergh Sr. (father of the famed aviator), ran for governor as a NPL candidate. Though he lost, Lindbergh's and the League's efforts in Minnesota created the geometry from which emerged the Farmer-Labor Party, which comes down to us as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party today.
It was Lindbergh who in 1912 forced Congress to conduct a special Investigation of Financial and Monetary Conditions in the United States Under House Resolutions Nos. 429 and 504 : 1912-1913. It became known as the Pujo Committee, after Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, Arsene P. Pujo.
Its purpose was to investigate the "money trust," a small group of Wall Street bankers that exerted powerful control over the nation's finances. The committee's majority report concluded that a group of financial leaders had abused the public trust to consolidate control over many industries.
Here is the one part of the study that focuses on the interlocking directorships through which J.P. Morgan, National City Bank, Chase National Bank, and a handful of other institutions controlled the "trusts" of railroads, industrial companies, insurance companies, and other financial institutions.
Here is Part 3 of a summary of the findings of the Pujo Committee by famed muck-raker Ida Tarbell, in American magazine: The Hunt for a Money Trust, III. The Clearing House. (So far as I can tell, the previous two Tarbell articles are not available online.)
To try and stop the creation of the Federal Reserve along the lines channeled by Wall Street through its puppets in Congress like Senators Nelson Aldrich and Carter Glass (yes, he of Glass-Steagal), Lindbergh in 1913 self-published Banking and Currency and the Money Trust (available entirely online and well worth at least a day or two poring over).
Lindbergh was a Republican, but his fight against the Aldrich plan for a Federal Reserve that would be entirely under control by Wall Street created a number of powerful enemies in his own party. Here's part of a speech Lindbergh gave on the House floor in July 1916,
During my service as a Member of this House I have been a close observer of events during three different presidential administrations. I have seen the progressive tendencies of legislation under a Roosevelt, inspired by the logic, eloquence, and candor of La Follette, strangled by the stand-pat proclivities of a Taft, and the power of a great party, which had controlled the country for 16 years, dwindle until it was able to carry only the electoral votes of two of the smallest States in the Union. I have seen another great party ride into power on the strength of roseate promises to the people, and I expect to see it go out of power, because it has been abundantly proved that those promises were merely statements to catch votes. The plain truth is that neither of these great parties, as at present led and manipulated by an invisible government, is fit to manage the destinies of a great people, and this fact is well understood by all who have had the time and have used it to investigate.
I just started reading Robert L. Morlan's 1955 book, Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922, which was reprinted by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1985. The Introduction to the reprint notes that
Since the book was first published in 1955, many readers have come to it to learn about political insurgency and political organizing. By no accident the book is cited by contemporary "people’s organizations, such as the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN), as part of the American political tradition worth emulating.
Of course, the Establishment of the time was extremely anxious to stop the influence of the Non-Partisan League and its leaders. The New York Times and other major city newspapers began referring to Lindbergh as a "bolsheveki." When the Non-Partisan League refused to fully back U.S. entry into World War One, a major campaign began to label the NPL as seditious and unpatriotic, and a number of NPL leaders were actually imprisoned. Any of this sound familiar?
I will have more to share in the future. For now, I would like to offer these definitions of populist, progressive, liberal which I have found very useful.
Populism is an appeal to the romantic rhetoric of the basic good of the people, and to the idea that government should reflect the will of the people. Populism is emotionalist in its terms, relies on focusing the public's attention on a single individual or case to produce sympathy and sentiment. The opposite of populism is oligarchy, and to a lesser extent, elitism.
Progressivism is fundamentally a belief in three quantities: that a free people, when organized into an effective, uncorrupted groups, can make their lives and the world better with sharp concerted action. Progressivism reflects populism. The difference between a pure populist, and a progressive populist is simple. A pure populist will see social evils, where they exist, as an by product of the local grassroots culture, and not to be tampered with. It was regressive populists that made that argument against civil rights, or that make the argument that discrimination based on sexual orientation is legitimate. The opposite of progressivism is traditionalism, or regressive forces that see the past as better than the present.
Liberalism is the most misunderstood of the three. Liberalism is the belief that we can comprehend the systematic nature of human activity, and shape it, not just by concerted action, but by shaping how people act. It is more subtle, and therefore easier to mischaracterize. But liberalism's fundamental idea is that society has a shape and a structure that is more complicated tha simple maxims. One can't govern out of the book of proverbs, or on autopilot, says the liberal. One has to face the world, as it is, and do what needs to be done, even if it sometimes goes against the grain.
Finally, I would be remiss not to note one very unpleasant possible answer to Michael Collins' queastion, Where are the Populists? Right now, the teabaggers are riding a rising tide of populist anger. There is enormous damage being inflicted right now on communities and families - damage that most of the Washington / New York elites simply do not experience, undertstand, or even care about. The Atlantic editor Don Peck details the social, emotional, and physical damage laid on a population by economic hard times in an extremely important article, How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America. The Democratic Party, being the party in power, is going to get blamed, especially since it has signally failed to shield people from the pain. For example, the dismal failures to stop home foreclosures, credit card rate hikes, and health insurance rate hikes.
In this interview, Chris Hedges discusses the nature of inverted totalitarianism in a corporatist state, the end of the American empire, Obama as a brand, and the coming wrong-wing backlash.