Populism, Progressives, And the New Deal

Populism, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal

Populism has a strong tradition in American political culture, especially since the late nineteenth century. An expert on the subject, Michael Kazin, offers the following definition for this political impulse: the use of "a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter." (1) There are two main types of populism in America, economic and cultural, which depend on the definition of "the elite" for the People's Party (or Populist Party), the Progressives, and FDR's New Dealers, the elite was typically defined as the corporate economic interests, and the people were alternately small producers and wage laborers. In this essay, we will track the progression of ideas between the three movements, discuss their similarities, and decide whether or not the New Deal was the culmination of the two previous movements. Some of the key trends we will be following include the importance of evangelical Protestantism to the various movements, the primacy of producers vs. workers, the democratizing of the political system, and the rhetoric of economic populism.

The idea of populism as an organized political movement began in the late nineteenth century in the agrarian South and Midwest. It was largely a reaction to the growing strength of large commercial and industrial interests in the United States and the feeling that they were gaining complete control over the economy and the government at the expense of the common man. The People's Party, or Populist Party as it is also known, grew out of the various Farmers Alliances in the 1870s and 80s that had been established to organize against "railroads, lenders, grain-elevator operators and others with whom farmers did business." (Edwards) the work of these Alliances helped stimulate passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, as the first regulatory agency in U.S. history, and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. (Horowitz and Carroll, 7) the idea of using the power of the government to regulate the excesses of the capitalist system was a key component of all three reform movements.

In 1892, the People's Party was formed out of these various alliances, as well as disenchanted members of the two main political parties. The main issue that drove the party was the use of silver to back up U.S. currency. The farmers and laborers argued that "the supply of currency is purposely [limited] to fatten [creditors].... A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized" in order to create two classes of "tramps and millionaires." (Populist Party Platform) the People's Party demanded a change in the existing order of a nation which was on the "verge of moral, political, and material ruin." (Populist Party Platform) in seeking to return the power of the government back to the hands of the "plain people," the Populists made the following demands in their platform: a graduated income tax, government run savings banks, free secret ballots in all elections, direct election of U.S. Senators, the right of labor to organize, and the use of the initiative and referendum. All of these measures were meant to expand "the power of government, in other words, of the people... To the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land."(Populist Party Platform) the agenda of the party was geared toward breaking the concentrated power of business elites and powerful interests in order to level the playing field for ordinary citizens. To do this, they preached a gospel of a return to morality, more direct access to political power, and economic democracy. They felt that only a more responsive and powerful government could make these changes in American society.

The People's Party never took control of the Congress of the White House, but the ideals they espoused continued to have a strong influence on national politics. As the Populists faded after 1896, the Progressives took their place in calling for breaking the hold of the economic elites over American life. The Progressives initially were spread between the two parties and they sought to bring social responsibility and justice to a broken system. Their goal was to serve the "public interest," by creating an educated citizenry and efficient, effective, and responsive government. (Horowitz and Carroll, 58) Their movement was past moral rejuvenation of the nation, as in their drive to prohibit alcohol and their work in the slums, and part government and economic reform. In state governments across the country in the first decade of the twentieth century, Progressives introduced the direct primary, the referendum and voter initiative process, fulfilling some of the goals of the Populists. At the national level, under Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, the federal government brought far greater regulatory oversight to corporate America, instituted labor reforms, created the Food and Drug Administration, and eventually in 1913, created a federal income tax and direct election of U.S. Senators.

Teddy Roosevelt was considered a Progressive leader, and in his 1910 speech outlining a "New Nationalism," had argued that the executive branch must be the steward of public welfare and must aggressively regulate the corporate sector to protect the "national interest." (Horowitz and Carroll, 72) He declared that "our country means nothing unless it means the triumph of real democracy." (New Nationalism Speech) in his run for the Presidency in 1912 with the Progressive Party, their platform called for more federal regulation of industry, prohibition of child labor, the 8-hour workday, and women's suffrage. Like the Populists before them, the Progressives felt that unchecked power in the hands of big business was unhealthy for the republic, and again like the Populists, they did not use the language of class warfare. Instead, they talked about social justice, fairness, popular democracy, and the common good.

The 1920s saw a backlash against progressive politics as the decade was marked by a conservative shift in politics and society. Business once again reigned supreme and was held in better esteem than meddling government. There was also a nativist backlash against immigrants, mainly those from Southern and Eastern Europe, as native born Anglo-Saxon Protestants used the language of Social Darwinism to argue their superiority and the need to keep the masses of unskilled, un-American newcomers at bay. The Stock Market Crash in 1929 and subsequent Great Depression once again made Americans question the laissez-faire economic model; citizens felt they needed the federal government to protect them against the monied interests and "economic royalists." Elected in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt promised voters a New Deal for the "forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." (Horowitz and Carroll, 163.) He also promised that the New Deal would promote a "changed concept of the duty and responsibility of government toward economic life." (Horowitz and Carroll, 163)

This changed duty was a much larger and more active role for the government in shouldering the burden of economic recovery and growth, priming the pump, as it was sometimes called. Unlike laissez-faire economists and business leaders who argued that unfettered capitalism was the best engine of economic growth and social progress, Roosevelt and the New Dealers wanted to use public action to create jobs, regulate business, and put public money directly into peoples' hands. Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration created jobs in public works, and the Federal Employment Relief Administration put cash stipends into the pocketbooks of struggling citizens. Roosevelt also supported Senator Robert Wagner's drive to expand labor rights by protecting their right to bargain collectively, thus increasing their power vis a vis management. This was one of the most important measures toward bringing about economic democracy by spreading power and responsibility throughout the economic system.

One of the most important measures passed during the New Deal was the Social Security Act which formed the foundation for the limited American welfare state. By providing a security net for the elderly with monthly pensions, and also creating the nation's first unemployment insurance plan, the New Dealers rejected the conservative notion that government power should be strictly limited in favor of business interests. The New Deal philosophy was based on the idea that the nation was best served when everyone had an equal opportunity at success. Roosevelt was able to build his New Deal coalition by leaving behind the nativist and Social Darwinist rhetoric of the 1920s and instead focusing on the common problems of most Americans. The Democrats under FDR embraced African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, and unskilled laborers in an attempt to bring more people into the life of the nation. Where the People's Party was driven by farmers, and the Progressives were largely middle and upper class reformers, the New Deal coalition was stocked by not only liberal elites like Roosevelt, but also the common working man. This coalition would dominate American politics until the late 1960s.

Although there were some differences between these political…