Today we discussed the Populists in my compressed video class.
I always enjoy talking about the Populists, because they have a certain zip to them and because you can have fun with them. We go through the basic history, and then I always stop and ask my students, “Do you want an easy way to remember the Populists?” And of course they always say yes, because there is nothing a student likes better than an easy way to do anything that they think will be on the exam soon.
And when they say yes, I tell them a story. It’s a fun story, though it is not one I came up with originally – I got it from a professor back when I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, and where he got it from he couldn’t remember. It goes back a ways. But it’s still fun, and as a mnemonic it really does help you remember the Populists.
This is the story, more or less as it was told to me.
For those of you who don’t know your late-19th-century US political history, the Populists were a rural, agrarian protest movement that arose in the 1880s and 1890s as a response to the farm crisis of the 1880s.
Times were good for farmers in the 1870s. Crop yields were good, prices were high, and farmers scrambled to cash in on the good times while they lasted. Often this meant buying new machinery, land and equipment to maximize their yields, and this in turn often meant mortgaging their farmhouses. Most of these mortgages were held by banks in the big eastern cities, since that was where the money was.
But in the 1880s, the bottom fell out of agriculture in the midwest and south. A series of droughts and insect infestations devastated farmers there, even as farmers in other areas had record yields – so even if midwestern and southern farmers could grow anything, they didn’t get much money for it. Combined with a few other things, this left the farmers deeply in debt – to the point where their farmhouses were often repossessed by the eastern bankers who held the mortgages.
The farmers sought relief through the political process, but this was the Gilded Age – the brief period when Laissez-Faire ruled unchallenged in American politics, and it was assumed that failure in the marketplace was always deserved and that it was certainly not the role of government to step in to correct that. Both Republicans and Democrats refused to help the farmers. So the farmers organized their own political party.
It started out small, with Farmers’ Alliances sponsoring farmer-friendly candidates for office. By 1890, these Alliances were scoring fairly broad successes, and in 1892 they organized into a formal political party – the People’s Party. Nobody ever really called them that. Everyone just called them the Populists.
The Populist platform called for a great many things, all of which amounted to a rejection of Laissez-Faire and a call for the return of an active, Hamiltonian federal government that would step in to guide American society and solve its problems. For those of you who think that active government is an invention of the New Deal, think again – it goes back to the roots of the federal government in the 1790s. It is something that many (not all) Founding Fathers sought. It is Laissez-Faire that is the brute exception, the outlier in American political history, not active government.
The Populists also called for the US to abandon the gold standard – where every dollar in circulation is based on a certain amount of gold sitting in a Treasury vault – and replace it with the silver standard, which is the same thing only with silver instead of gold. There’s more silver than gold, so you can have more dollars out there in circulation. This causes inflation, which makes debts easier to pay. Farmers liked this. Others – notably the industrial workers of the cities (who got paid by the hour and didn’t want inflation) and the eastern bankers (who wanted their loans repaid in uninflated dollars) – did not.
The election of 1896 killed the Populists, in large part because the silver standard had taken over their platform and the issue was then stolen by the Democrats. The Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, made it a centerpiece of his campaign. This left the Populists with a choice. They could either go with Bryan – and lose their identity as a party – or they could run their own candidate on the same platform, split the vote, and lose for certain. In the end they gambled on Bryan, and lost. William McKinley, the Republican nominee who ran on all of the usual Gilded Age policies that both parties had agreed to since 1877 (including the gold standard) defeated Bryan, and the Populists faded back to the midwest.
And if you want to remember all that, you need only consider The Wizard of Oz, which was written in 1900 at least in part as political satire.
Dorothy is the Populists. Who is she? She is a farm girl from Kansas, from the midwest.
Oz is the never-never land of American politics, where nothing is ever quite what it seems. And how does Dorothy get into Oz? How do the Populists get into national politics? Bad weather.
The first person Dorothy meets in Oz is the Wicked Witch of the East, whom she kills. The Wicked Witch of the East is the eastern bankers, the ones who have been repossessing all those farmhouses when the farmers can’t pay their mortgages. It is therefore fitting that she dies by having a farmhouse dropped on her.
The munchkins are the politicians – small, petty little creatures mindlessly repeating the same phrase over and over again: “Follow the yellow brick road! Follow the yellow brick road! Follow the yellow brick road!” And what are the yellow bricks? Gold! Follow the gold standard!
In the book Dorothy’s slippers are not ruby – ruby just showed up better on film. In the book they’re silver. And Dorothy rides those silver slippers all the way to the capital, the Emerald City, just as the Populists ride the silver standard all the way to Washington DC.
Along the way she meets the Scarecrow, who is the farmers, who have no brains. If they had any brains they’d be doing something else.
She meets the Tin Woodsman, who is the industrial workers, who have no heart. If they had any heart they’d be supporting the Populists.
And she meets the Cowardly Lion – William Jennings Bryan. All talk, no action, and no good will possibly come from relying on him.
She is opposed by the Wicked Witch of the West, who is the drought. How does she die? Just add water.
The Wicked Witch of the West also has her minions, the flying monkeys – the locusts and other agricultural pests who took such a toll on midwestern and southern crops.
But in the end Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and goes triumphantly back to the Emerald City where she meets the Wizard: William McKinley. Who is a fraud.
And realizing that there is nothing for them in the capital city, Dorothy (and the Populists) clicks her silver heels three times and goes back to the midwest, where she belongs.
No, I don’t know who Toto is supposed to be. We never covered that.