It's 1992 -- and 1892!

Irvin Weintraub

November 17, 1992|By Irvin Weintraub

SINCE a great war several decades ago, the country has undergone wrenching economic, technological and demographic changes. Immigration, urban questions, a widening gap in the distribution of money and power -- all are issues that engage and disturb the electorate. A new political force emerges, propelled by dissatisfaction with both of the major political parties, a force that could well be a factor in the '96 presidential election, the last of the century.

It's 1992 in America -- and 1892!

What was this third force which claimed to champion the cause off the victimized and the disenfranchised? It was the Populist Party, an outgrowth of the radical and reformist agitation that had arisen in response to the phenomenal industrialization the nation had undergone since the end of the Civil War.

Populists included trade unionists and monetary reformers, but they were essentially farmers from the South and West who felt they were not getting their fair share of a growing economic pie. To them, laborers and farmers were the true wealth creators; yet all of the rewards seemed to go to the money lenders, the railroad barons and the commercial and industrial trusts.

The views of the Populists are best expressed in their famous presidential platform of 1892. Their overall aim was "to restore the government of the republic to the hands of the 'plain people' with which class it originated . . . to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall eventually cease in the land."

Specifically, they urged the nationalization of the railroads and the telephone and telegraph systems, the creation of a flexible currency, a graduated income tax, the introduction of the initiative and referendum and a reduction in the work day.

There were some nasty elements also. In an attempt to show support for domestic labor, the Populists condemned current immigration policy "which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners." (Does this sound familiar, as President-elect Clinton prepares to open the doors to Haitian refugees?) For decades now, there has been a spirited debate in historical circles as to whether the populists were true progressives or whether they were part of the parochial, anti-intellectual elements of our heritage.

From one point of view, history has not been kind to the Populists, for their essential dreams have only been dimly realized. Power has not flowed back to the people. Direct democracy, a broad distribution of wealth and influence, government as the promoter of the general welfare instead of government as the tool of the selfish and the cynical -- all of these have eluded us in spite of a century of soaring rhetoric.

But then, if we eschew the utopian for politics as the art of the possible, we note that many of the better elements of the Populist message have become part of the American mainstream -- quite an achievement for a movement that disappeared as a national force less than a decade after it emerged.

The Populist example must thus provide some encouragement for those of us who are mired in the frustrations of the present. The historical record does show responsiveness and resilience in the American two-party system.

The seekers of change should not give up hope.

Irvin Weintraub is associate professor of economics at Towson State University.

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