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Oct 19, 2011

Always Wrong, Completely Wrong, Every Single Time, Without Fail

Jill Lepore in the New York Times, wrong as always:

"Lately, Mr. Cain has risen in the polls, buoyed by Tea Party populism, which is curious because when the word 'populism' was coined, in 1890, it meant opposition to a monopoly on wealth held by businessmen and bankers."

No, no, no, no, no, and wrong on both ends. A Harvard historian and the editors of the New York Times op-ed pages don't know any history between them? The Populists weren't simply opposed to wealth, or to a monopoly on wealth, or to businessmen, or to bankers. You can read the Omaha Platform yourself. You have to read all the way to the second sentence of the preamble for this: "Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench." Weird that people who just hated rich people used their first formal political statement to talk about political corruption, yeah? It's almost like they were angry at the government, which, you know, hold on a minute, I'm sensing the presence of a theme that I've heard somewhere else.

The Populists didn't simply hate wealth; they hated their (accurate) sense that the fix was in, that private wealth was derived from, and served by, public corruption. They hated crony capitalism. Agrarian populism wasn't proletarian -- it was substantially a movement of the rural petit bourgeoisie, smallholders who wanted to thrive as profit-seeking property owners. Here's the last sentence of the first paragraph of the preamble: "From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires."

The Populists were concerned with "governmental injustice" and the wealth it produced, not with wealth itself. Keep going through the Omaha Platform (emphasis added):

"The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bondholders; a vast public debt payable in legal tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people....the supply of currency is purposely abridged to fatten usurers, bankrupt enterprise, and enslave industry....We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, every issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires."

And so on. The Populists liked industry and enterprise -- see the statement above about the enslavement of those positive things. They hated dishonest enterprise, industry that made money as clients of state power. They hated the way that a "vast public debt" served the interests of private wealth. This should all be sounding familiar, and please do notice what organization's logo appears on the website where you log in to manage your foodstamp benefits. All your base are belong to us -- more poverty makes more wealth for Wall Street.

Going back to the Omaha Platform, move past the preamble and look at the platform: "Second.—Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” The interests of rural and civic labor are the same; their enemies are identical."

So here we have people who thought that "wealth belongs to him who creates it," and who were horrified by the enslavement of industry and enterprise. And Jill Lepore tells you that "populism" meant "opposition to a monopoly on wealth held by businessmen." No it didn't, and in many ways, the Tea Party expresses the populist sentiment of the actual Populists.

This is most certainly not to say that the Tea Party are the Populists reborn. Again, from the preamble to the Omaha Platform: "We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land."

That's not Tea party politics. But the Tea Party's sense that the fix is in, that dirty government serves private wealth, is entirely comparable to Populist views of the relationship between corrupt political parties and private wealth. It's not even slightly "curious" to use the term "populist" to describe people who oppose government bailouts of private corporations.

The reductive coding of political movements as "left" or "right" overdetermines our conclusions about them. Try to notice what people are saying, then analyze it on its own terms, without the weight of a facile label.

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