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Grad-school notes on Populism and Progressivism

Agrarian populism

In The Populist Vision, Charles Postel argues persuasively that Populism, the greatest popular movement in American history, should not be called (as it sometimes is) anti-modern, ‘traditional,’ anti-industrial, anti-progress, even anti-capitalist in a strict sense. What it opposed was not ‘modernity’ or industrial progress or technological efficiency or the market but a particular kind of corporate capitalism. It wanted to modernize the farmer’s way of life in a manner that benefited him, that enabled him to get out from under the thumb of banks, merchants, railroads, etc. Populism was decidedly in favor of progress -- which meant public education for millions in the South and West, scientific agriculture, cooperation between farmers and the land-grant universities conducting agricultural research and training, the development of savvy business practices among millions of isolated farmers deep in debt, extensive government intervention in the economy, the beginnings of a state welfare system, an income tax, progress in women’s rights (women were a large part of the movement), centralized bureaucracies at the service of monopolistic cooperative business, the exploitation of economies of scale through large-scale cooperative enterprise, etc. In many respects, Populists were far ahead of their time. In some ways, of course, they were conservative -- for instance in their racism. But on the whole it seems that they were even less conservative than the Knights of Labor.

Nor was Populism by any means a total failure, even in its immediate objectives. It was an oppositional moment in the history of the farmer’s encounter with corporate capitalism, but in part this opposition manifested itself through the development of more sophisticated business structures that have lasted in some form to the present day. The semi-monopolistic agricultural cooperatives in California and other states are the best examples. Far from being ultimately opposed to capitalism, these structures were integrated into it and became indispensable. It’s the old story of a capitalist society rejecting the rigidly oppositional elements of a radical movement but gradually incorporating other elements that allow for the partial ‘defusing’ of dangerous discontent, the achievement of greater ‘flexibility’ and responsiveness-to-the-people in economic and political spheres, in fact the greater efficiency and effectiveness of the economy. The same thing happened after the movements of the 1960s. Radical movements sometimes end up stabilizing -- by effectively ‘modernizing’ -- the old order.

Richard Hofstadter (in The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R): “Populism was the first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government has some responsibility for the common weal; indeed, it was the first such movement to attack seriously the problems created by industrialism.” In Europe at around the same time, such movements were having much success; in the U.S., it failed. Until the New Deal. The damn race question got in the way, as did ethnic divisions and the sheer size of the country.

More Hofstadter: “The Populist movement, despite its defeat, activated a stream of agrarian organization and protest that subsequently carried point after point.... Populism was the expression of a transitional stage in the development of our agrarian politics: while it reasserted for the last time some old ways of thought, it was also a harbinger of the new....” Hofstadter, being a liberal Consensus historian of the 1950s who didn’t like mass movements, emphasizes the dark, conservative side of Populism, but he’s surprisingly evenhanded.

He doesn’t remark on this, but some impulses of Progressivism were similar to future impulses of fascism. First of all, as you know, Progressivism was mostly a movement of the middle classes [but see this post] -- professionals like lawyers, doctors and academics, and the American version of the gentry. They were upset by their loss of status and power relative to the new plutocracy, and the modern bourgeois civilization that was arising around them they found appalling in its decadence, filth, corruption, selfishness, materialism, moral and aesthetic ugliness. It was becoming a very un-heroic, un-individualistic, vulgar, chaotic society; many of the educated therefore sought a partial return, by ‘modern’ means, to a purer past. Like future fascist leaders, most of them almost equally hated the plutocracy and the contemptible masses, and they sought a middle road between ultraconservatism and socialism. Unlike fascists, they tended to favor genuine democratic reforms and to be concerned with the well-being of workers and even immigrants. Progressivism was in part a phase in the beginnings of modern statism, with its increases in bureaucracy and the power of government. So, like fascism, it was basically a middle-class reaction to the confusions, polarities and uglinesses of modern industrial capitalism, a movement that necessarily took statist forms (because the state was the only structure strong enough to have an impact on the war between capital and labor, and on the behavioral tendencies of millions of people in all walks of life). And it even included a eugenics movement, and in general was interwoven with strong strands of racism, nationalism, nativism, and Social Darwinism -- which were related to its ‘perception of social chaos’-induced preoccupation with mastery and self-mastery, manliness and virility, achieving a moral, ordered, ‘healthy’ society[1] that exhibited ‘self-control’ among the masses, even the ideal of spreading American civilization to inferior races around the world. (It was the age of imperialism, after all.) Nevertheless, the differences between the two movements -- such as Progressivism’s amorphousness, its individualism, and its preeminently moral animus[2] (‘Reform! Reform!’) -- may well outweigh the similarities. It would have been very hard for a true and massive fascist movement to develop in the U.S., in light of the enormous immigrant population and the country’s tremendous size and fragmented character.

Theodore Roosevelt represents the fascist side of Progressivism, Jane Addams the moral, compassionate side.


The Imperial Wizard and Emperor of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s wrote a statement that, with a few alterations, could have been written by a contemporary Tea Partier [or, in most cases, a Trump supporter]:

Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable and finally deeply distressed. There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing.... Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.
Along with this went economic distress. The assurance for the future of our children dwindled. We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us. Shortly they came to dominate our government....
We are a movement of the plain people, very weak in the matter of culture, intellectual support, and trained leadership. We are demanding....a return of power into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizen of the old stock. Our members and leaders are all of this class -- the opposition of the intellectuals and liberals who held the leadership, betrayed almost automatic....

Whether the movement is irrational is a complicated question, but it’s certainly unintelligent. In many respects it’s definitely un-rational, and if you talk to the average Tea Partier you’ll find that he or she displays a great deal of irrationality too (self-contradictoriness).

Hofstadter argues, plausibly, that the New Deal was not so much a continuation of the Progressive impulse after the ‘hiatus’ of the 1920s as a new development in response to new conditions. Its brand of statist economic intervention was foreign to Progressivism (although the U.S. had experienced something like it during the First World War). The New Deal was not about morality, moral reformation, in the way Progressivism was; it was about economic justice and experimentation, pragmatism, not moral absolutism or residual Protestantism.[3] In these respects it differed from fascism too (aside from the ‘Protestantism’ thing). It may be too much to say that America had left its moderately semi-fascist stage behind by the 1930s and was on to practical things like making the economy work and building a labor movement; on the other hand, that statement isn’t wholly without truth. The quasi-religious, crusading, ‘morality’-regenerating, ‘purifying,’ ‘morally-appalled-at-social-disintegration-and-adulteration’ impulse common to Progressivism and fascism had largely spent itself in mainstream America by the 1930s[4] -- though it had yet to play out its final act in Europe.

“The key words of Progressivism were terms like patriotism, citizen, democracy, law, character, conscience, soul, morals, service, duty, shame, disgrace, sin, and selfishness -- terms redolent of the sturdy Protestant Anglo-Saxon moral and intellectual roots of the Progressive uprising. A search for the key words of Arnold’s books [which are representative of New Deal thinking] yields: needs, organization, humanitarian, results, technique, institution, realistic, discipline, morale, skill, expert, habits, practical, leadership -- a vocabulary revealing a very different constellation of values arising from economic emergency and the imperatives of a bureaucracy.” I think Hofstadter underestimates the role of racial, biological, imperialist, nationalist and ‘aesthetic’ thinking in Progressivism, which intersected with the old Protestant and republican thinking in complex ways. America’s Protestant and republican heritage was one of the things that saved it from fascism.[5]

(Incidentally, it’s obvious that ‘Progressivism’ had different social meanings depending on what groups you’re talking about. Working-class agitation meant something different from middle-class reformist agitation. What Hofstadter and I are referring to by ‘Progressivism’ is only a particular dominant stream of the time.

(Also, I should note that even the less obviously semi-fascist side of middle-class Progressivism, such as Jane Addams, was basically conservative, serving potentially dangerous interests. (Remember that Addams was sympathetic to eugenics.) It wanted to uphold traditional Anglo values, order, stability; reformers like Addams simply used different methods to attain ends similar to the eugenicists’.)


Hofstadter is right that so-called ‘populism’ is (or can be) dangerous. The masses can get out of hand, and they might not understand who their real enemies are or how best to improve their situation. They might become obsessed with prejudice, be misled by demagogues, blame a scapegoat for their problems. But these possibilities become far more probable when the middle class or lower-middle class is part of the movement. Movements of the working class (especially un-unionized workers) or the blatantly oppressed in any sphere -- and these are the most authentic ‘people’s’ movements, not adulterated by business support and propaganda (public-relations campaigns, which can be very effective) -- tend to be relatively rational and potentially productive of real gains to society in the forms of democracy, freedom, and economic well-being. Middle-class mass movements are more ambiguous and can go either way, to the left or the right, because this class has ‘contradictory locations’ in the economic structure, sharing some interests with business/power and others with the working class. And to the extent that unionized workers (especially whites) approach the middle class and so have incentives to be conservative, i.e. to guard their privileges relative to other groups, they too can behave in apparently irrational, unintelligent or ambiguous ways in their political activity. For example, like the middle class, they might take up causes of ‘cultural’ repression. But these sorts of conservative movements are populist only in a degraded sense. They’re in the interests of various kinds of power, not of people. And it’s rare, in any case, that the majority of people supports them.

The truest kind of populism is popular revolution, the overthrow of authoritarian power-structures. This certainly can be a violent, wild affair, which means Hofstadter wouldn’t like it, but it can be a good thing anyway. It happens because reform wasn’t working and, quite possibly, no other options were available.

[1] Hence the popular schemes to prevent the ‘feeble-minded,’ the insane, criminals, epileptics, etc. from reproducing.

[2] It’s true that this harkens to fascism’s moral absolutism and concern for moral regeneration, but in fascism’s case it was a false morality, an ‘aesthetic’ morality (of glory, heroism, the unified nation, racial purity, order), whereas many Progressives genuinely wanted to help marginalized people -- even though these properly moral considerations were mixed with an aesthetic or racial or nationalist or ‘order-driven’ morality of the Rooseveltian, semi-fascist type.

[3] I’m inclined to think that Hoftstadter underestimates the purely ‘pragmatic’ side of Progressivism (think of scientific management, for example), but broadly speaking his points are illuminating and defensible.

[4] It still existed in the 1920s, in fact even more so, but rarely took ‘Progressive’ forms then. Instead you had the KKK and other such overt manifestations of semi-fascism.

[5] Protestantism, of course, could be used in the service of something like fascism, as with the KKK. But its fostering of individualism militated against a movement in which the individual submerged himself in the mass.

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