The ComingrnCampaignrnby Clyde WilsonrnAmerican Populism: A Social Historyrnby Robert C. McMath, ]r.rnNew York: Hill and Wang;rn245 pp., $19.95rn^^ Tjopulist” is a term so fraught withrnJ. distortion and so apt to raise misleadingrnconnotations that we probablyrnshould find another word to use. It isrnworse in this respect than even “Whig”rnor “liberal.” Taken precisely, it refers torna political movement that swept somernagricultural regions of the further Midwestrnand South in the late 19th century.rnAmerican historians have generallytreatedrnPopulism in one of two ways:rnthey have either confused it with thernProgressivism that followed shortly onrnits heels, as a forerunner of the New Dealrnand modern liberalism; or, in a slightlyrnmore sophisticated and honest version,rnthey have dismissed it as misguided ruralrnbigotry irrelevant to the goals of enlightenedrnurbanites.rnThe first interpretation is clearlyrnwrong. It is true that there was somernslight coincidence of political goals, inrnterms of federal legislation, arising fromrnthe Populists’ search for specific remedies.rnBut Populists were basically ruralrnJeffersonians who mistrusted the remoternand concentrated power of the Easternrnelites who were the most obviously observablerncause of their own distresses.rnMost of the Progressives, at least in thernEast, were self-consciously modern.rnThey believed in the rule of elite urbanrnexperts (themselves) to solve all social illsrnby the application of science and systematizationrn(regimentation). Theyrnwere hired hands of the ruling class despisedrnby the Populists, and still are. NornProgressive that I know of was an enthusiastrnfor free silver, and Progressives fromrneast of the Mississippi almost all joinedrnthe homefront clamor for the War tornEnd All Wars. Populists did not, and inrnfact provided the greatest core of patrioticrnopposition.rnThe first school of historians wantedrnto find honorary ancestors for the 20thcenturyrnpolitical movements they favoredrnand over-emphasized the elementrnof Populism that suggested a strongerrncentral control of the economy. The latterrnschool was a later generation of IvyrnLeague liberals who wanted to distancernthemselves from the at-times messy andrnuncontrollable tendencies that were likelyrnto develop if American yahoos fromrnthe boondocks were turned loose. Thus,rnthey emphasized the bigoted and eccentricrnaspects of the Populists that werernmore likely to lead to Joe McCarthy thanrnto George McGovern.rnMost certainly the Populists were ethnocentric,rnand some of them were eccentricrnas well. But there is not the leastrnevidence that the Populists were anyrnmore ethnocentric or eccentric than anyrnother Americans of their time, includingrnthe conservatives and the Progressives.rnAs American historians have tended overrnand over to do, these writers built theirrninterpretations of our multivarious andrnmagnificent past on small fragments ofrnmovements rather than the whole.rn(Thev have done this with the Revolution,rnJacksonian democracy. Reconstruction,rnand much else.) That is, theyrnalways emphasize the bits of evidencernthat support whatever interpretation thernNortheastern intelligentsia finds fashionablernat any particular moment and ignorernthe substantial evidence that conflicts.rnThus, Arthur Schlesinger uses arnfew Boston intellectuals to interpret Jacksonianrndemocracy, and Populist historiansrnhave used a few crazy Kansans torncharacterize a much larger and differentrnmovement.rnWe now have for the first time a careful,rnaccurate, full, and well-synthesizedrnsurvey of Populism in the work of McMath,rnan economic historian. McMathrnunderstands the social and religious fabric,rnthe mores, and the inheritance ofrnpolitical ideas out of which Populismrnarose. lie understands the ecology andrneconomy of the grain, cotton, tobacco,rnand mining regions where the movementrnflourished.rnHe gives a clear and succinct accountrnof the origins of Populism, its impulses,rnits social fabric, its political history (nationally,rnregionally, and state-by-state),rnand its relation to other phenomenarnsuch as the cooperative, labor, and freesilverrnmovements. More importantly,rnhe understands the basic political inheritance,rnwhich was not socialist or Progressivernbut which rested on pious allegiancernto Jeffersonian democracy andrnthe defense of the liberties of the commonrndecent people who labored in thernearth and produced real goods, as opposedrnto the slick operators who did notrndelve and span but grew rich on therngovernment. (The bank and railroadrncorporations that the Populists attackedrnwere, after all, not paragons of private enterprisernbut rather privileged collaboratorsrnof the political elite.) The authorrnalso understands that these instincts arernas much or more “conservative” thanrn”liberal,” although he clearly prefers thernlatter.rnNo, Populists were not the kind ofrnpeople who wanted to confiscate yourrnincome, unless you were particularly richrnand arrogant. They were not the kind ofrnpeople who would make you wear yourrnseat belt and forbid you to light up arnstogie, for your own good, or send yourrnchildren across town to achieve some abstractrnbalance of school population andrnthe Marines halfway round the world tornsave democracy in some place wherernthey don’t know democracy from cornflakes.rnWe ought to give the glory ofrnfathering (or rather mothering) thoserngreat accomplishments to the Progressives.rnA Populist, on the other hand, isrnsomeone who thinks those bast—ds inrnWashington have too much power. Hernvotes for George Wallace, Ross Perot, orrnPat Buchanan, not for George McGovern,rnGeorge Bush, or Bill Glinton.rnPonder this wonderful reactionary andrntimely passage from Ignatius Donnelly’srnoration at a Populist National Convention:rnWe meet in the midst of a nationrnbrought to the verge of moral, political,rnand material ruin. Corruptionrndominates the ballot box, thernlegislatures, the Congress, andrntouches even the ermine of thernbench. .. . The newspapers arernsubsidized or muzzled; publicrnopinion silenced; business prostrated,rnour homes covered withrnmortgages, labor impoverished,rnand the land concentrated in thernhands of capitalists. . . the fruitsrnof the toil of millions are boldlyrnstolen to build up colossal fortunes,rnunprecedented in the historyrnof the wodd, while their possessorsrndespise the republic andrnendanger liberty…. We chargernthat the controlling influencesrndominating the old political partiesrnhave allowed the existingrndreadful conditions to developrnwithout serious effort to restrainrnOCTOBER 1994/39rnrnrn