Populism, Then and Now: Virtual Reality in the Tea Party Era

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

— William Faulkner

On my desk I keep an early Ambrotype photograph of my great-great grandparents, Needom Gunn and Margaret Lemon. The young couple look out at the camera on the occasion of their marriage, in central Illinois, just four months after Lincoln’s assassination, and not 50 miles from his burial site.

Maybe Margaret, or her parents, had attended the Lincoln-Douglas debate in nearby Quincy, in 1858.  Needom came from a Union family in neighboring Missouri, a Border South state in which sectional loyalties had been fiercely contested since before the Missouri Compromise, in 1820. At the outset of the Civil War, his father had been murdered on his 42nd birthday, the family farmhouse had been burned to the ground, and his mother Eliza had fled with her children the eleven miles to the town of Harrisonville in the middle of the night.

They were among the first Republicans.

Well, Needom was, at least. While their daughters would live into the age of women’s suffrage, Margaret, who died in 1904, was ever denied the vote.

At the time of its founding, the Republican Party didn’t quite embrace abolitionism, which had the taint of radicalism. But they at least opposed the spread of slavery to new territories, stood against the anti-immigrant policies of the Know-Nothings, and retained some of the late Henry Clay’s Whig Party support for public spending. Republicans today like to mask their malevolent agenda by reminding us that they are “The Party of Lincoln.” One even hears of the nonsensical “Party of Lincoln and Reagan.” They assume, of course, and not unreasonably, a baseline of historical ignorance in a public that is the product of both the U.S. “education” system and an estimated 360,000 TV commercials by the age of 18.

But in fact, the Republican Party in its original form never really much survived Lincoln himself, in terms of any humanitarian legacy. As the exigencies of the war gave rise to government support for large industrial (especially military) manufacturers and financial institutions, along with the powerful railroad corporations so essential to the Union victory, these relationships combined by the post-Reconstruction era to quickly displace the party’s more liberal antecedents. By the late 1870s, the party had abandoned its tentative commitment to the former slaves through the Freedmen’s Bureau, acquiescing to northern racism, and instead mobilized its supporters for electoral purposes with the more reliable tactic of “waving the bloody shirt,” appealing to lingering sectional hostility in the war’s aftermath.

Populism: the Rise and Fall

Needom and Margaret, present at the Party’s creation, before long joined the westward migration to Texas, where Republicans were then as scarce as Democrats or abortion clinics are today. In the South, and out West to the Texas Hill Country where my ancestors settled, the war’s devastation had led to a crisis in farm ownership, which was quickly exploited by the emergent financial powers engendered by the war. (Which, if nothing else, at least gives us a sense of historical continuity).

Farmers faced extortionate railroad and grain storage corporations, along with eastern banks, which imposed impossible added costs at the intermediate stages of marketing, while protectionist tariffs exposed them to still further vulnerability.

Formerly prosperous landowners descended into tenant status through the crop-lien system, as they became dependent on high-interest loans for seeds and harvest equipment, which could not be repaid as successive years of declining commodity prices depressed farm incomes. The lenders then took the land itself as repayment.

In the decades following the war, the white farmers of the Confederacy, and to an even greater extent the black former slaves, had largely descended into a state of penury and servitude little removed from slavery itself. It was this condition that gave rise to the Populist Movement of the late 19th century. This was the greatest—and last—large-scale popular movement in our history that challenged not just control by the moneyed interests, but even the very premises of Capitalism itself.

The Populists were the first to challenge the laissez-faire, Social Darwinist doctrines of the time, demanding that the government act on behalf of ordinary people. They made a noble attempt at a collectively managed credit system, bypassing the large banking interests. But in the end, they were undone—by a counterattack from outside capitalists, and by their own unwillingness to break with the Democratic Party, symbol of the Lost Cause, and historical guardian of White Supremacy.

In the watershed election of 1896, the Populists were lured away from a Third Party effort, corralled by the charismatic William Jennings Bryan into the Democratic Party, taken to a remote location and drowned. Their most powerful, radical economic demands were reduced to the trivial “free coinage of silver” price-inflation panacea, and Bryan then went down to defeat by his Republican challenger William McKinley. McKinley’s own Karl Rove prototype, campaign manager Mark Hanna, had pioneered the kind of scorched-earth campaign that was the political equivalent of Sherman’s march to the sea, and would set the standard for the 20th Century: massive corporate and wealthy-donor fundraising, and a stupendous output of propaganda that would misinform, overwhelm, and suffocate the opposition. Corporate Republican domination was cemented for most of the next two generations. Modern democracy was born.

Our own time surely bears the scars of that distant defeat. Today, of course, both major parties are overwhelmingly dominated by corporate money, and over the last generation it’s been the Democrats who’ve often pushed a regressive agenda that Republicans wouldn’t have dared attempt—think NAFTA, WTO, the end of welfare, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the 1994 Crime Bill, the militarization of local police forces, the mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos in the privatized prison gulag, the Defense of Marriage Act, repeal of Glass-Steagall. And that’s just the Clintons.

The Democrats haven’t just stood by, they’ve actively colluded in the disastrous fall of the lower class, and the near destruction of the middle class, which had risen over the long postwar era of government spending and relatively strong labor unions. For thirty years, working families have watched wages fall and jobs disappear as factories moved overseas, while wealth grew exponentially in the financial sectors.

The rebellions in both parties in 2016 have their roots in these experiences, just as the humiliations of 19th Century farmers gave rise to the Agrarian Revolt, and the exploitation of urban workers drove them into the burgeoning labor movement.

Great inequality is certainly nothing new in the United States. Yet, it takes real effort to mentally embrace the reality behind the statistics of our age.   The heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have more wealth than 40% of the U.S. population. More than one-quarter of Americans have zero savings in the bank. 72% have zero retirement savings. Ten million lack even a bank account, and 38 million households live paycheck-to-paycheck. Almost half of Americans would be unable to meet an unexpected expense of $100.

This is not a situation that’s conducive to political stability, and this seems to be the year that things are coming apart. On the Republican side, all the “mainstream” candidates have been driven from the race after failing to climb out of the single digits. (I’m assuming Kasich “suspends” soon, though there’s no certain accounting of those with the “fever,” once bitten). That leaves only Trump and Cruz. These were the two considered by party elites as so extreme that they would have to be stopped at all hazards. Instead, they were the two most popular, and precisely because of the party establishment’s hostility. Of course, the party can only blame itself for these two nitwits, having cultivated a voter base inoculated against Reason by thirty years of hate-radio, Creation Science, and Koch-financed politics that demonized everything leftward of Jesse Helms and made intelligence a felony in twenty-five states.

Plainly, voters were going to support these two. Cruz is out to demolish the party, which he sees as beyond hope, its leadership having sold out through compromise with the libertine socialist Kenyan homosexuals. Trump is somebody they know from reality TV. Which nowadays is about as good as reality gets for a lot of folks. Trump is also the raging White Id, unmoored from social convention, careening from one lunatic opinion to the other, becoming more popular with each new inanity.

Trump and Cruz are winning elections because they both represent, to their followers, a wrecking ball to the party that has screwed their class for as long as they can remember. In Trump’s case, his appeal is also decidedly populist, in his insistence that the game is rigged for the wealthy. He is seen, accurately enough, as someone who can crash the party because he has independent resources, and who tells the truth about the way money shapes the political process. People understand the validity of these claims, and are rewarding him for finally bringing them into the daylight.

And on the other side, the populist message of Sanders’ candidacy has caught fire as nobody, especially Sanders, thought it would.   Here was someone with a national stage, saying that the whole system stinks to high heaven, that our Democracy has been stolen by the billionaire class. Not since McGovern’s 1972 candidacy has someone with any left-leaning views made so credible a run. Habituated to terminal defeat, resigned in a Zoloft-induced delirium to the inevitable return of the dreadful Clintons, suddenly, the Left has stirred to life. Suddenly, there is something to do besides trying to memorize everyone’s personal pronouns before the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts.

Yes, Bernie is deeply imperfect from the standpoint of old Lefties like me. He has been godawful on Palestine, joining all 100 Senators in support of the 2014 destruction in Gaza. But I give him his due in his recent refusal to attend the AIPAC conference (at which Hillary debased herself anew) instead speaking about Palestinian rights. When has any presidential candidate done this? He hasn’t challenged the military budget, which must be faced if any of his programs could be implemented. But one senses this is a tactical, not ideological calculation.

I began this election year with my usual self-protective cynicism about Bernie, not wanting to fall for another Obama (not that I did). But I’ve changed my mind. I saw Sanders speak 30 years ago, in Los Angeles, to an audience of 200. I saw him again last week address more than 20,000 in a Seattle stadium, where the crowd waited up to five hours to hear him. You have to credit the man with one thing, and that’s consistency. He’s been telling the same truth for a long time, whether anyone was listening or not. (Mostly not.)

They’re listening now, not because he’s changed the message, but because so many have fallen into desperation, and because they see that the political order is so incapable of a response.  The young see their futures mortgaged to student loans, and a looming climate crisis that their elders will not address but that they will inherit.  We’ve reached the Populist moment, where great numbers are willing to challenge, defy, and even abandon the old order.

Ironies abound: a 75-year old man is a rock star to a newly mobilized youth generation. Blacks and Latinos are delivering the nomination to Clinton, despite her husband’s abysmal racial legacy. And—most interesting of all—campaign fundraising by Hillary, the corporate money magnet par excellence, is being roundly outpaced by Sanders donors, whose contributions are averaging just $27. There is a lesson here for the future, to be sure.

But the nearly 500 “super-delegates” are doing just what they were designed to do: prevent an insurgent candidate from claiming the nomination. By all appearances they’ll succeed, although even this is still in question in this suddenly unpredictable year. At the very least, their legitimacy is now widely called into question, and Clinton may even have to rely on this very un-democratic device against Sanders’ growing popular victories. (Investment tip: put your money on the Republicans checking into the super-delegate idea before 2020.)

There are tantalizing possibilities for Third Party efforts that could shatter the corporate duopoly. But the most likely scenario at this point is that Clinton, and either Trump or Cruz (brrrrr!) will face off in the general election. Thus, both parties will field a candidate with overwhelmingly, historically negative polling numbers, opposed—even loathed—by vast segments of their own parties.   I’d say all bets are off.

I wonder what Needom and Margaret would think.