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Populists vs. Conservatives: Then and Now

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Over at The Daily Beast, arch-cuckservative Matt Lewis is bemoaning the rise of rightwing populism:

“When it comes to politics, in 2015 we witnessed nothing less than a paradigm shift. The old rules are out the window. Technology and changing mores have conspired to lower barriers of entry—and acceptability. Gatekeepers no longer exist. What we have right now is closer to direct democracy than we’ve ever seen, and our civilization is regressing as a result.

One party (the Democrats) already represents the liberal half of the nation. The other half seems to consist of modern, Buckleyite conservatives, but also an increasingly large horde populist, nationalist, individualistic Americans—who now have a megaphone and a vessel in the form of Donald Trump.

Times change, and political parties adapt or are replaced. And make no mistake; if the Party of Lincoln becomes the Party of Trump, it would essentially redefine what it means to be a Republican. Conservatism, a coherent political philosophy, looks as if it’s being replaced by messy right-wing populism. …”

None of this makes any sense.

The term “Populist” is being casually thrown around a lot these days by mainstream conservative pundits like Matt Lewis who don’t seem to understand what it means. Historically speaking, the Populists had some very specific grievances and a political platform which violently clashed with the “Bourbons” of their day. The Populist Revolt of the 1890s was both a rebellion against identity politics in the South and a sectional revolt of the South and West against the Eastern establishment.

The primary enemies of the Populists were the Bourbons who were the mainstream conservatives of their time. The Bourbons were advocates of the New South gospel of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism. They were the local cuckservative echo of the Northeastern financial, banking, and industrial interests.

Let’s take a look at the Populist platform of 1896 which was the first comprehensive, multipronged attack on the “Money Power” and its ideology of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism:

“FIRST. We demand a national money, safe and sound, issued by the General Government only, without the intervention of banks of issue, to be a full legal tender for all debts, public and private; a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution direct to the people and through the lawful disbursements of the Government.

The first demand was the destruction of the Eastern-controlled national banking system which had been established by Lincoln during the War Between the States. This was a root cause of the sharecropping system based on the crop lien because the National Banking Acts of 1863, 1864, and 1865 had set an extremely stringent minimum capital requirement to charter banks and placed a 10 percent tax on banknotes issues by state banks.

As a result of this, there was only one bank to every 16,000 Americans in 1893, and in the Cotton States outside of Texas, there was only one bank to every 58,130 people. In 1894, there were 123 counties in Georgia which didn’t have a single bank, whether it was local, state or national. Because of the extreme scarcity of credit in the postwar South, the average sharecropper paid an average interest rate of 59 percent on credit to the furnishing merchant. The furnishing merchant in turn paid outrageous rates of interest to the factors and the factors answered to their masters, the Eastern banks.

It was a system that reduced the Southern farmer, black and White, to perpetual debt peonage to furnishing merchants who were often Jews. It was slavery on a much larger scale, but without any of the advantages of antebellum slavery.

SECOND. We demand the free and unrestricted coinage of silver and gold at the present ratio of 16 to 1, without waiting for the consent of foreign nations.

The second demand was the end to the “Crime of ’73” which demonetized silver. By taking silver out of circulation, this deflationary monetary policy further contracted the money supply and favored Eastern creditors over Southern and Western debtors. When the Confederacy collapsed, the Confederate banking and financial system fell with it. Confederate currency was now worthless in the South.

As a result of this, there was a severe currency shortage in the postwar South. In 1869, Massachusetts had five times the national banknote circulation of the entire South. Bridgeport, Connecticut alone had more than Texas, Alabama, and North Carolina and South Carolina combined. After the war, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, boasted that Northerners were welcome in Florida because “about all the money circulating in the State comes from Northern immigrants and visitors.”

THIRD. We demand the volume of circulating medium be speedily increased to an amount sufficient to meet the demands of the business and population and to restore the just level of prices of labor and production.

The currency shortage and credit scarcity of the postwar South was the root cause of the sharecropping and farm tenancy system and numerous other evils. Today, we are accustomed to thinking of inflation as the force that robs the common man of the value of his labor, but the Long Depression of 1873-79 and 1893-96 and the Great Depression of the 1930s were deflationary spirals. From 1873 to 1894, the average price of a bale of cotton fell from 14.1 cents to 4.6 cents a pound, below the cost of production.

FOURTH. We denounce the sale of bonds and the increase of the public interest-bearing debt made by the present Administration as unnecessary and without authority of law, and demand that no more bonds be issued except by specific act of Congress.

Then as now, the Populists resented the growth of the national debt and the Eastern leisured capitalist class which lived off public-interest bearing bonds.

FIFTH. We demand such legislation as will prevent the demonetization of the lawful money of the United States by private contract.

The Populists opposed the demonetization of silver and the adoption of the gold standard which favored Eastern creditors and large capitalists at the expense of poor farmers.

SIXTH. We demand that the Government, in payment of its obligations, shall use its option as to the kind of lawful money in which they are to be paid, and we denounce the present and preceding Administrations for surrendering this option to the holders of Government obligations.

The Populists believed the government should have the option to pay down the national debt in silver or greenbacks rather than taking further gold backed currency out of circulation to pay foreign bondholders.

SEVENTH. We demand a graduated income tax to the end that aggregated wealth shall bear its just proportion of taxation, and we regard the recent decision of the Supreme Court relative to the Income Tax law as a misinterpretation of the Constitution and an invasion of the rightful powers of Congress over the subject of taxation.

This was a radical proposal at the time: funding the government by levying an income tax on the Eastern plutocracy rather than through regressive taxes on consumers.

EIGHTH. We demand that postal savings banks be established by the Government for the safe deposit of the savings of the people and to facilitate exchange.

The Populists wanted postal savings banks to bring banking to small farm communities thereby cutting out the furnishing merchant and his 59 percent interest rate on farm credit. The idea was that the government-managed US Post Office should provide banking services by accepting and insuring deposits, provide interest on these accounts, and offer small loans to cut out the Eastern commercial bankers.

FIRST. Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the Government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people and on a non-partisan basis, to the end that all may be accorded the same treatment in transportation and that the tyranny and political power now exercised by the great railroad corporations, which result in the impairment if not the destruction of the political rights and personal liberties of the citizen, may be destroyed. Such ownership is to be accomplished gradually, in a manner consistent with sound public policy.

In 1887, the Interstate Commerce Commission was established to regulate the railroads – the first opening shot in regulation of private industry in American history – to ensure fair rates and end rate discrimination, but it proved to be woefully ineffective due to railroad lobbyists and Supreme Court decisions.

During the Long Depression of the 1890s, the entire Southern railroad network fell under the control of J.P. Morgan. The creation of railroad associations and pools led to the division of the United States into regional territories: Official Territory, which was Yankeedom north of the Ohio and Potomac and east of the Mississippi; Southern Territory, which was the South east of the Misssippi; and Southwestern Territory, which comprised Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and part of New Mexico.

The Eastern stranglehold on the railroad network led to differences in freight and passenger rates between regions. Shippers of classified goods had to pay rates which were 39 percent higher in the Southern Territory and 75 percent higher in the Southwestern Territory than shippers in the favored Official Territory paid for the same services. The Eastern-owned railroads used differentials in freight rates as an internal protective tariff to strangle competition from Southern producers in industries like iron and steel and to monopolize the big markets for their own shippers. The freight rates for raw materials entering Official Territory were set low to subsidize Northern industry while freight rates for finished goods entering Southern Territory were set lower to give Northern manufacturers a comparative advantage. This was classic mercantilism with the East playing the role of the Mother Country and the South and West the role of the colonies.

SECOND. The interest of the United States in the public highways built with public moneys and the proceeds of extensive grants of land to the Pacific Railroads should never be alienated, mortgaged, or sold, but guarded and protected for the general welfare as provided by the laws organizing such railroads. The foreclosure of existing liens of the United States on these roads should at once follow default in the payment thereof by the debtor companies; and at the foreclosure sales of said roads the Government shall purchase the same if it becomes necessary to protect its interests therein, or if they can be purchased at a reasonable price; and the Government shall operate said railroads as public highways for the benefit of the whole people and not in the interest of the few under suitable provisions for protection of life and property, giving to all transportation interests equal privileges and equal rates for fares and freights.

THIRD. We denounce the present infamous schemes for refuding these debts, and demand that the laws now applicable thereto be executed and administered according to their interest and spirit.

Here’s another radical idea: the government should operate railroads as public highways for the benefit of the whole people rather than J.P. Morgan. The United States is the only Western country which didn’t nationalize its railroad system.

The telegraphic, like the Post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the Government in the interest of the people.

The Populists advocated the nationalization of the telecommunications system and converting it to a public utility.

FIRST. True policy demands that the National and State legislation shall be such as will ultimately enable every prudent and industrious citizen to secure a home, and, therefore, the land should not be monopolized for speculative purposes. All lands now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs, should by lawful means be reclaimed by the Government and held for natural settlers only, and private land monopoly as well as alien ownership should be prohibited.

The Populists wanted to ban the foreign land syndicates which carved up the South and West and strip the Eastern-owned railroads of the millions of acres of public land which they were granted but never used.

SECOND. We condemn the frauds by which the land grant Pacific Railroad Companies have, through the connivance of the Interior Department, robbed multitudes of actual bona fide settlers of their homes and miners of their claims, and we demand legislation by Congress which will enforce the exception of mineral land from such grants after as well as before the patent.

The Populists wanted to redistribute public lands rich in minerals to actual settlers rather than to the Eastern-owned railroads.

THIRD. We demand that bona fide settlers on all public lands be granted free homes, as provided in the National Homestead law, and that no exception be made in the case of Indian reservations when opened for settlement, and that all lands not now patented come under this demand.

Oklahoma was opened to White settlement. The “sooners” were settlers who arrived before Oklahoma was officially opened to White settlement.

We favor a system of direct legislation, through the initiative and referendum, under proper constitutional safeguards.

The Populists favored direct democracy to cut out the railroad lobbyists who corrupted state and federal government.

FIRST. We demand the election of President, Vice-President, and United States Senators by a direct vote of the people.

This proposal ultimately became the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.

SECOND. We tender to the patriotic people of the country our deepest sympathies in their heroic struggle for political freedom and independence, and we believe the time has come when the United States, the great Republic of the world, should recognize that Cuba is and of right ought to be a free and independent State.

The Spanish-American War was only two years away.

THIRD. We favor home rule in the Territories and the District of Columbia, and the early admission of the Territories as States.

Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico were later admitted as states to the Union.

FOURTH. All public salaries should be made to correspond to the price of labor and its products.

This would give politicians an incentive to support the labor movement.

FIFTH. In times of great industrial depression idle labor should be employed on public works as far as practicable.

New Deal programs like the WPA and CCC implemented this idea during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

SEVENTH. We favor just pensions for our disabled Union soldiers.

This was already the status quo.

EIGHTH. Believing that the elective franchise and an untrammelled ballot are essential to government of, for, and by the people, the People’s party condemn the wholesale system of disfrachisement adopted in some of the States as unrepublican and undemocratic, and we declare it to be the duty of the several State Legislatures to take such action as will secure a full, free and fair ballot and honest count.

The poll tax and literacy test would later be used to disenfranchise around 25 percent of the White population of Alabama alone.

NINTH. While the foregoing propositions constitute the platform upon which our party stands, and for the vindication of which its organization will be maintained, we recognize that the great and pressing issue of the pending campaign, upon which the present election will turn, is the financial question, and upon this great and specific issue between the parties we cordially invite the aid and co-operation of all organizations and citizens agreeing with us upon this vital question.

In 1896, the Populists abandoned their own platform to endorse William Jennings Bryan after he ran on a free silver platform. The Populists were cucked by the Democratic Party, but many of their ideas – direct election of senators, the income tax, government ownership of roads, regulation of the industries, soft money – dominated the early 20th century and were implemented by the Second World War.


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