The Populist Vision
University Press 2007
Ever wonder where the term “populist” came from? It came from “Populism,” a nineteenth/early twentieth-century American political movement. Of course the Populists weren’t really the “Populists,” they were the “People’s Party.” But even that isn’t a very good description. It would be better to call them the “Farmers’ Party,” because most of them were farmers. Most, but not all. A lot of them were urban types, and particularly union members. All this and more I learned from Charles Postel and his award-winning book The Populist Vision (Oxford, 2007). The Populists have a bad name (as does Populism, for that matter). It seems that historians erroneously branded them “backward-looking” because most of them were, well, farmers, and farmers are always “backward-looking” don’t you know. Charles does a terrific job of correcting this libel. The Populists were the farthest thing from “backward-looking.” By almost any contemporary measure, they were forward-looking. They favored market rationalization, labor organization, welfare, education, and even the emancipation of women. They also hated the Gold Standard, which is progressive in my book. There were some warts–the Populists generally favored racial segregation, which they viewed as progressive (so did a lot of other folks at the time). But they look pretty good in hindsight. Maybe we need a new People’s Party?
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