My father, W.F. “High” Hightower, was a populist. Only, he didn’t know it. Didn’t know the word, much less the history or anything about populism’s democratic ethos. My father was not philosophical, but he had a phrase that he used to express the gist of his political beliefs: “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
Before the populists of the late 1800s gave its instinctive rebelliousness a name, it had long been established as a defining trait of our national character: The 1776 rebellion was not only against King George III’s government but against the corporate tyranny of such British monopolists as the East India Trading Company.
The establishment certainly doesn’t celebrate the populist spirit, and our educational system avoids bothering students with our vibrant, human story of constant battles, big and small, mounted by “little people” against … well, against the establishment. The Keepers of the Corporate Order take care to avoid even a suggestion that there is an important political pattern — a historic continuum — that connects Thomas Paine’s radical democracy writings in the late 1700s to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, to strikes by mill women and carpenters in the early 1800s, to Jefferson’s 1825 warning about the rising aristocracy of banks and corporations “riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman,” to the launching of the women’s suffrage movement at Seneca Falls in 1848, to the maverick Texans who outlawed banks in their 1845 state constitution, to the bloody and ultimately successful grassroots struggle for the abolition of slavery, and to the populist movement itself, plus the myriad rebellions that followed right into our present day.
WHAT POPULISM IS NOT: An empty word for lazy reporters to attach to any angry spasm of popular discontent. (And it’s darn sure not Sarah Palin and today’s clique of Koch-funded, corporate-hugging, tea party Republicans.)
WHAT IT IS: For some 238 years, it has been the chief political impulse in America’s body politick — determinedly democratic, vigilantly resistant to the oppressive power of corporations and Wall Street, committed to grassroots percolate-up economics, and firmly rooted in my old daddy’s concept of “Everybodyness,” recognizing that we’re all in this together.
Although it was organized into a formal movement for only about 25 years, Populism has had an outsized, long-term, and ongoing impact on our culture, public policies, economic structure and governing systems. Even though its name is rarely used and its history largely hidden, and neither major party will embrace it (much less become it), there are many more people today whose inherent political instincts are populist, rather than conservative or liberal.
Yet the pundits and politicos frame our choices in terms of that narrow con-lib ideological spectrum, ignoring the fact that most of us are neither, or a bit of both. Our nation’s true political spectrum is not right to left, but top to bottom. People can locate themselves along this vertical rich-to-poor spread, for this is not a theoretical positioning: It’s based on our real-world experience with money and power. This is America’s real politics.
Today’s workaday majority can plainly see that a privileged few at the top are separating their fortunes as fast as they can from the well-being of the rest of us. We’ve also seen that after the 2008 economic collapse, both major parties rushed to wipe the fevered brows of the pampered few with our tax dollars and did little about the crash in wages, income, wealth and economic power of the bottom 90 percent. Six years later, Congress continues to ignore the ongoing destruction of the middle class and the unconscionable rise in poverty — unless you count last year’s cuts to food stamp funding and jobless benefits as “doing something.”
Our system of representative government has, in a word, collapsed. Most Congress critters are not even trying anymore — not listening to the people, not even knowing any regular folks, and not representing their interests. But what we also have is a ripening political opportunity for a revitalized, 21st-century populist movement.
Every day, there are populist uprisings, both large and small, all across this country. Towns taking on Big Oil frackers, cities raising the minimum wage, fast-food workers demanding a living wage, states taking on GMO labeling, Moral Monday, Truthful Tuesday, and other movements spreading across the South to fight for social justice. These are just a few examples of the budding populist movement that is striving to make everybody do better.