The way we were: American populism—the people and their enemies

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
October 13, 2016
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In the early 1850s immigration to the United States rose dramatically. Most were Catholics from Ireland and Germany. A movement of nativist reaction called “Know Nothings” had considerable electoral success. It was hostile to wealth, elites and expertise, and deeply suspicious of outsiders. An 1855 editorial in a Texas newspaper railed: “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.”

The left-wing US People’s Party founded in 1891 drew support from discontented farmers in the west and south. It was highly critical of capitalism, especially banks and railroads, and the gold standard. It merged with the Democratic Party in 1896, supporting William Jennings Bryan as its presidential candidate. In 1895 one of its manifestoes declared: “A conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America... For nearly 30 years these conspirators have kept the people quarrelling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose... Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.”

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt failed to gain the Republican presidential nomination. He established the Progressive Party and ran as a third-party candidate. His aim: “To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day. This country belongs to the people. Its resources, its business, its laws, its institutions, should be utilised, maintained, or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest. [The Democrat candidate Woodrow] Wilson must know that every monopoly in the US opposes the Progressive Party.”

In 1951 Joseph McCarthy addressed the Senate: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men... What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.”

In 1964, Barry Goldwater became the Republican presidential nominee. A few months later the historian Richard Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

In 1968, George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, ran for president as an independent segregationist. Radical journalist Jack Newfield described the effect of this third-party bid: “I cannot recall either [Lyndon B] Johnson in 1964 or [Hubert] Humphrey in 1968 campaigning on any positive ideas that might excite the almost-poor workers, whose votes they took for granted. In contrast, Wallace has been sounding like William Jennings Bryan as he attacked concentrated wealth in his speeches... “From 1960 to 1968 liberal Democrats governed the country. But nothing basic got done to make life decisively better for the white working man. When he bitched about street crime, he was called a Goldwaterite by liberals who felt secure in the suburbs behind high fences and expensive locks. When he complained about his daughter being bussed [across town to racially integrated schools], he was called a racist by liberals who could afford to send their own children to private schools… Liberal hypocrisy created a lot of Wallace votes.”

In 2000, the “paleoconservative” Pat Buchanan ran as the Reform Party’s presidential candidate. Addressing unemployed steelworkers in West Virginia he said: “One day US workers will wake up and realise that their jobs [and] factory towns have been sacrificed—to save the bacon of the ‘investment community.’ When they do, the day of reckoning will be at hand.”