Nell Painter: Interviewed by Bill Moyers about the real meaning of populism

Historians in the News

BILL MOYERS: Populism grew up in America. During the first gilded age - back at the turn of the 19th century huge discrepancies in income and power separated a minority of very rich people who ran the country and everyone else. Then the disparities led to strikes, riots, labor unions, and government regulation of big business.

And today -- Well, that's what I want to put to Nell painter, one of our country's distinguished historians. Her grassroots history of the populist and progressive era in American life - STANDING AT ARMAGEDDON -- will soon be out in a second edition. It's a sweeping account of America's shift from a rural and agrarian society to an urban and industrial one, when regular people had to fight for their place in the new order. Nell Painter has retired from Princeton University where she was long one of the most popular teachers, but she's active on many fronts, and serves as President of the Organization of American Historians.

Welcome to THE JOURNAL.

NELL PAINTER: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Everybody's throwing around the word populism. Do you think they know what they're talking about?

NELL PAINTER: It sounds as if people who are throwing it around are throwing it around as a dirty word. And if it is a dirty word, they don't know what they're talking about.

BILL MOYERS: Why do they think it's a dirty word?

NELL PAINTER: I think they think it's a dirty word, because it pits Americans against each other, as if we would all be hand in hand if it weren't for populist agitators.

BILL MOYERS: What are Hillary Clinton and Obama saying that makes people invoke the word populism?

NELL PAINTER: They're probably talking in very veiled terms about class issues. Class is the dirty little secret in the United States. We're so much happier talking about race. Black people are this. And white people are that. The unspoken is that white people are middle class and black people are poor. So, black people are kind of the proxy for poor people in much of our dialogue. So, when politicians get past that, and they talk about what's interesting or needed for working people, or heaven for bid, poor people even, remember working people, or heaven forbid, poor people are probably about three-quarters of our population, at least. But when you talk about that group of Americans as having interest that are different from the people who have a lot of money, then for many who are critics of populism, that's a bad thing to point out.

BILL MOYERS: Actually, you know, when John Edwards was still in the race, he was using talk that also calls the money class, the financial interest would describe him as a populist--


BILL MOYERS: --and his message is populism--

NELL PAINTER: Yes. And they--

BILL MOYERS: --and they kept--

NELL PAINTER: --they said he was so angry.



BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?

NELL PAINTER: I thought that his line was right on target. However I keep thinking back to the late 19th century when, in slightly different terms, the political rhetoric pitted identity of interest, in which all Americans found their place in an order, and some smart, rich people decided what to do and the rest of people went along with it, the workers and so forth.

That was one way of talking about the American polity, the American citizenry. But another way which came out of the People's Party, out of the Farmers' Alliances and the Grange and the Green-backers, all of these groups were saying, "Our interests are not the same. And the money power-- money power or later in the early 20th century, the plutocracy; that those people were acting in their own interests, not in ours."

And you see it even in what topics are considered interesting and important. So, on one side at the current moment, we have discussions of war, and terrorism and security. That is America's place in the world. And on the other side, you have discussions of hard times, of expenses, of getting from day to day, of putting food on the table and so forth. Those are much more domestic issues. And in a very general way, those ideas, those strands, those issues go back 100 years.

BILL MOYERS: You quote in the forward of the new edition of your book from William Jennings Bryan, who said, I may not get it exactly right, he said, in 1899-- "America can be a democracy-

NELL PAINTER: "A democracy-- --or an--

NELL PAINTER: --an empire." Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And he didn't quite answer that. How would you answer it today?

NELL PAINTER: Well, we have become an empire. That came in the 20th century. What's between us and the populist is the 20th century: the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the two Iraq wars, to name a few. Those are all the wars that made us an empire in various, different ways.

But along with that, we still had what people face day to day. And what people face day to day, except for when they have a child, or a husband, or a spouse, or a mother and father actually in the war zone, what they face day to day is a different set of issues that have to do with health care, that have to do with wages, that have to do with that kind of issues. Which is much closer to life.

BILL MOYERS: So, what do you think we should know about the original populist, the movement that grew up in the 1890's, 1880's and 1890's? What should we know today that's relevant about them for us?

NELL PAINTER: How much time do you have?

BILL MOYERS: This is television.


BILL MOYERS: It's like a classroom.


BILL MOYERS: You know? You have a fixed time--

NELL PAINTER: One thing-- one thing I would definitely like us to remember is that the ideas that the populists put forward in the 1890's were considered harebrained.

BILL MOYERS: Harebrained?

NELL PAINTER: Harebrained. Crank ideas. But by the early 20th century, they were the ideas that came into, even our U.S. Constitution. Because we had to have amendments to make it possible to have an income tax, or the direct election of senators. The whole regulatory state of the mid-20th century grows out of roots in the 90's with populism.

BILL MOYERS: They wanted--


BILL MOYERS: --they-- they wanted the monopoly's control, right? They wanted government to step in and balance the power of the industrial giants--

NELL PAINTER: That's the very fundamental point that in a moment of what we call laissez-faire, that is to say that the government was not very involved, and certainly was not involved with every day people, that the populists were saying, "People control the government. And people should have the benefit of the power of the government." All of those were populist ideas saying that the power of the people through the government should serve the people, not just the corporations or the very wealthy.

BILL MOYERS: What do you see happening to ordinary people today?

People are waking up to what has happened to our country, not just in the last eight years, but probably almost since the end of the Cold War, maybe even before. That our interest as a security state, and as an empire are not necessarily our interest as citizens. We have become what my colleague Elizabeth Cohen calls, "A consumer republic." The populists talked about a producers republic. And our interest as consumers and our interest as citizens may be different. So I live in New Jersey, where the state of our infrastructure is very much in the forefront of our politics. Are we going to pay for infrastructure?

Pay for bridges, pay for roads and for intellectual infrastructure, pay for education, pay for colleges. These are not the kinds of things that Americans are going to go buy as consumers. But we need them as citizens of a polity. So many of the people who make the decisions, and finally, so many of us who vote those people in or out of office, so many of the people who are making the decisions don't need those services in the way many of us ordinary people need them. We need political leadership. And we voters need to vote for people who will provide that leadership. What I'm saying is that we need the engagement of citizens, of voters of ordinary people to push; to push back against the tremendous amount of money that goes into electing our representatives. It's not an accident that there's so much money in politics. And that politics tend to serves the needs of those who can pay....

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