And now a word from the nineteenth century

by Eric on December 8, 2016

Dear unhappy voters of 2016:

We keep hearing you called populists and, to put it in your vernacular, you had one job and you’re doing it wrong.

Like you, we were concerned about an America on “the verge of moral, political, and material ruin” in which “corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress and … the bench.” We saw “universal intimidation and bribery” at the ballot boxes, and hateful news media that were either “largely subsidized or muzzled.” Worst of all, we had galloping inequality: “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few,” we observed, and we knew that this came from abuse of power—the “prolific womb of governmental injustice,” we called it.

Not only that, we knew we were suffering at the hands of unfettered international capitalist investment and, if we’re honest, a lot of us were upset by the immigration of millions of people who were culturally different from ourselves. Even if it didn’t actually hurt our economy, it made us feel as if our country was kind of vanishing in front of us. It had once been a nation of people who shared much the same fortunes, and our fathers had fought in a war to keep it that way. And now … well, it looked like a nation divided between two kinds: “tramps and millionaires.”1

So, here’s the thing we didn’t do: put the millionaires in charge. Because we knew that inasmuch as anyone was corrupting the republic by buying justice and electoral success, it was the rich guys.

We wanted power for ourselves, not for them. So we pushed for labor unions.

We pushed for public power over corporations, knowing that either “corporations will own the people or the people must own” the corporations—and we were not confused into thinking that corporations are people, my friend.

We wanted a genuinely progressive income tax, so the rich people would pay their share of the costs of the commonwealth.

And yes, we called for “restriction of undesirable immigration.” We know: it’s hard not to get played on issues of racial division. Honestly, it was the Democratic Party’s strong new commitment to white supremacy after we threatened their majorities that did as much as anything to break up our coalition.

But at least we didn’t get played on everything else.

Yours ever,

The People’s Party (aka the Populists) of the 1890s



1We hear your guy is a billionaire. We don’t know what to say about that.



Jake Gibson 12.08.16 at 9:00 pm

These so-called populists are billionaire wannabees. They hate those who they think are standing between themselves and “success”. Which they see as just about anyone but themselves, or people just like them.


Placeholder 12.09.16 at 12:14 am

“2. We demand that the amount of circulating medium be speedily increased to not less than $50 per capita.”

Once upon a time populists understood the money supply more than liberals do today. What are they, Japanese conservatives?


pnee 12.09.16 at 12:53 am

It seems like the “Democrats should drop concerns about minorities and focus on class” proponents could recruit a whole lot of 19th century populists. Too bad those folks are in short supply.

I’m less confident that this strategy will budge many Trump voters.


david 12.09.16 at 1:49 am

The populists of the day were also farmers, not wage labourers, which predisposes them to a familiarity with how commodity prices work – how resources can idle for lack of ‘circulating medium’. For the wage labourer, on the other hand, it’s all a bit opaque.

Recall that they regarded the urban unions of the northeast as bitter enemies regarding the silver question – hence WJB baldly threatening to burn the great cities.

When FDR formed a coalition with both farmers and unions in it, three decades later, it still had enough farmers for loose-money politics to be a winner, but not so loose that he could openly deride a strong dollar. FDR could only promise “raising commodity prices to such an extent that those who have borrowed money will, on the average, be able to repay that money in the same kind of dollar which they borrowed”.


ZM 12.09.16 at 4:27 am

Um, I don’t entirely see how one can hold up late 19th C populism as a success to emulate given the following Great Depression and World War 1? I would think it might be more useful to look at why the populism of the 1890s would prove unsuccessful.


Gareth Wilson 12.09.16 at 5:50 am

‘Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” ‘


shah8 12.09.16 at 7:43 am

Yeah, there’s a basic issue here in the sense that we call Trump a populist. But Trump isn’t a populist. Brexit wasn’t an outcome of populist forment.

Trump is what I would call a vulgar patrician. Same with Berlusconi. They engage in spectacular munificence, which isn’t actually the same as populism as we’d know it from the likes of Pitchfork Ben Tillman or William Jennings Bryan.

Erdogan is an actual populist, and Marine Le Pen–they practice majoritarian politics with a concrete policy regime for that majority.

Remember to laugh at all the first world liberal professionals who make facile Trump=Hugo Chavez comparison…That’s what made me think harder about why it’s nonsense to think of such a unpopular figure as Trump as a populist.


Joe 12.09.16 at 11:50 am

I know the USA isn’t Rome, but the division between populares and optimates looks alive and well.


Jake Gibson 12.09.16 at 7:13 pm

I have not heard of anyone saying Trump = Chavez. Trump = Hitler, yes. Trump = Mussolini, yes. or Trump = Berlusconi, but no Hugo.

Trump is not a populist anymore than any of the above. He just exploits the populist urge.


Ronan(rf) 12.10.16 at 2:24 pm

Is there any good overview (book) on the gilded age ? Something equivalent to walker Howe’ s for the early 19th century ?(afaict the Oxford series hasn’t released one on the late 19th century yet, and all I’ve found is,Hal brands book which doesn’t seem to have received great reviews)


Ronan(rf) 12.10.16 at 2:29 pm

I should note I do have ERs blessed among the nations (although I’ve only read bits of it so far)


ZM 12.10.16 at 9:50 pm


There is Hobsbawm’s The Age Of Empire, the third book in his 19th C series–1914

And you could maybe complement a broad text with work on a specific locality or topic, like in an Australian social history subject I took, we looked at Graeme Davison’s The Rise And Fall Of Marvellous Melbourne

“In the 1880s, a generation after the gold rushes, Melbourne rose to become Australia’s most populous, modern and self-consciously ‘metropolitan’ city. Its offices and warehouses leapt skyward, its suburbs sprawled and the tentacles of its commerce reached across the continent. In the 1890s, the housing boom burst, depression struck and Melbourne’s population and influence declined. In this classic work of Australian social history, Graeme Davison explores the economic, political, social and cultural consequences of the meteoric rise, and calamitous fall, of the city dubbed Marvellous Melbourne’.” (Amazon)


Placeholder 12.11.16 at 12:33 am

“I have not heard of anyone saying Trump = Chavez.”

I think you mean prime-time media propaganda channel ‘Parks and Recreation’.

Trump is AN HITLER. Chavez is TRUMP. Therefore Chavez is an Hitler. Liberal erat demonstrandum


Hidari 12.11.16 at 9:47 am

Actually I think the USA pretty much is Rome. And the threat to the US is not the much vaunted ‘fall of the Roman Empire’ (as though that was a bad thing!) but the collapse in internal democracy, such as it was, which led to the Roman Republic collapsing and being replaced by the Empire. Certainly if you are looking for historical analogies, it’s the period 133 BC to 31 BC that strikes one as being relevant, not the 4th and 5th centuries AD (although, on the other hand, who really knows?).


Placeholder 12.11.16 at 2:57 pm

I’m still not over the Gracchus brothers.


nastywoman 12.11.16 at 5:21 pm

– and I why do people have this wild desire to compare contemporary people or contemporary happenings to some people or times in history?

It’s obvious that the USA never can be pretty much Rome – or F…face von Clownstick can be Hitler as Hitler is this dude who on u-tube orders a pizza or complains about his I-phone. And about Rome being just like the USA – don’t you know that in Rome they spoke a completely different language – not even talking about the fact that in Rome lived Romans and NOT American?

And so – what kind of enlightenment could a hysterical – sorry ‘historical’ comparison between Rome and US deliver?

That the Pizza with Smoked Salmon and Caviar was actually invented by Wolfgang Puck an Ex-Austrian cooking in Los Angeles and NOT by the Romans?


dn 12.11.16 at 8:46 pm

Ronan, I second ZM’s recommendation of Hobsbawm (excellent general history of the period) and would also recommend Jackson Lears’ more recent Rebirth of a Nation which I’m currently reading.

Lears’ book is a cultural/intellectual history, so has basically no numbers and a minimum of detailed chronology, but is quite brilliant at showing how Americans in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era understood their times.


dn 12.11.16 at 8:49 pm

Also Lears is highly entertaining insofar as he does not even try to hide his profound moral distaste for the era and especially for “heroes” like Teddy Roosevelt, who he skewers mercilessly throughout.


Ronan(rf) 12.12.16 at 12:12 pm

Zm,dn, thanks.
ZM that Melbourne book actually looks really good (but doesn’t seem available anywhere for less than €50!)
Dn, I’ve just bought the Jackson lears book.

I’ll give hobsbawm some thought. I’ve never actually read the age of Capital so might be a good time….


Ronan(rf) 12.12.16 at 12:12 pm

Sorry, age of empire


Mario 12.12.16 at 1:12 pm

There are ways in which Chavez and Trump are comparable.

Chavez was a loud outsider who tore into a stable and well established political system in free and fair elections. This was preceded by at least a decade of estrangement between the political class and large portions of the electorate. In the process, the media lost its grip on public opinion.

Obviously, I’m not saying that they are exactly the same.


kidneystones 12.12.16 at 1:34 pm

Amateur Hour

“the party was caught flat-footed by Trump’s victory, and there was no detailed contingency plan in the event Hillary Clinton was defeated. The widespread expectation was that President Clinton’s handpicked choice for DNC chairman would take over on January 21, a day after the inauguration. That Democrat — likely a prominent figure practiced in both fundraising and television pontificating — would be armed with a building brimming with operatives shipped down from Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters…In the words of one Democrat who remains a frequent television commentator, but who has noticed the ranks of prominent party surrogates shrinking as the number of talking points and centralized messaging memos wane, “People are afraid to go out there.”

It’s great. I’m using comparison’s between the 1.2 billion HRC flushed and Trump’s messaging to illustrate A/B testing, effective communications, and victory. It’s definitely time for the Dems clear out the dead wood.

“the party was caught flat-footed by Trump’s victory, and there was no detailed contingency plan in the event Hillary Clinton was defeated”

And people call the team who won clowns.


Bob Zannelli 12.13.16 at 1:25 am

Jake Gibson 12.08.16 at 9:00 pm
“:These so-called populists are billionaire wannabees. They hate those who they think are standing between themselves and “success”. Which they see as just about anyone but themselves, or people just like them.”

So well said. Exactly.

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