Populists vs. Progressives: Are They Still Relevant?

Photo by Michael Dunn | CC BY 2.0

A tug-of-war is taking shape that is destabilizing the two-party system.  As globalization restructures American society, the political establishment seems to have few meaningful solutions to redress the deepening personal crises people are experiencing.  The Republican and Democratic Parties control the American political apparatus, real state power, and are being pulled at their radical extremes.

Social tensions are deepening, instability is intensifying and insurgency is spreading. Today, it’s a natural catastrophe, immigrant youth and Russia-gate; yesterday, it was a statue, abortion, transgender bathrooms, wage stagnation and lawless police killings.

The 2016 presidential campaign reflected the redrawing of the American political landscape, the first contest of battles yet to come. Donald Trump ran as a radical Republican, easily defeating his more conventional opponents; ironically, he was long identified with New York’s up-market social and political – i.e., Democratic — scene.  Hillary Clinton was the Democratic candidate, but was outfoxed by Trump and unable of address the challenges raised by Bernie Sanders, an Independent.

Trump was elected president as a closet “populist”; Sanders ran as a democratic socialist, a 21st century “progressive”.  Their political labels have become the common nomenclature, the ideological shorthand, used by the media and others to characterizes the current generation of non-centrist politicians, be they of the right or left, whether at the national or local level.

What role did the original populist and progressive movements play in the formation of America’s current, postmodern political culture?  And does the current usage of these terms only serve to confuse today’s political climate?


The populists were largely drawn from small farmers from the South and West producing cotton, wheat and corn.  Rapid post-Civil War industrialization fostered economic destabilization, depressing the value of their products and forcing many into ruinous debt with seed and other vendors, banks and mortgage companies.  The war and rapid development gave birth to the “robber barons,” moguls like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and J. P. Morgan.  The achieved wealth and power by crushing competitors, rigging markets and buying political figures.  In response, grass-roots organizing led to the formation of the People’s Party and the movement fielded third-party challengers to Republicans and Democrats in many states in 1892, 1894 and 1896.

Their principal demands included: (i) the government print paper money and monetize silver, (ii) the government run and subsidized systems of commodity credit, (ii) it should provide product storage facilities and (iii) aggressively regulate, perhaps nationalize, the railroad and telegraph networks.  In addition, populists called for the direct election of Senators and a national income tax.

The fierceness of their rhetoric is suggested by an 1895 manifesto:

As early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling 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.

The historian Adrienne Petty points out, “It’s important to remember the Farmers’ Alliance not because it preceded the Populist Party, but because it also makes so clear how the grievances that moved people to populism then, as now, are not the exclusive provenance of white men.”

She adds, “Black men and women played a vital role in the Farmers’ Alliance, and the early part of the populist movement: they founded the Colored Farmers’ Alliance – whose members numbered 1.2 million in 1891 – to promote self-help, mutual aid and improved farming techniques. They organised a cotton-picker’s strike to protest working conditions and push for more pay.”

There were both left-wing and right-wing populists, both speaking for “the people” against “the establishment”.  As Bloomberg noted, “In other words, these original Populists saw large-scale government intervention as the solution to their economic problems.”  However, despite its ostensible anti-elitism, right-wing populism was driven by a quasi-nationalism targeting those identified as threats to the better days of yesteryear, including African-Americans and Jews.

The progressive movement flourished between 1900 to 1914, reflecting the ethos not of small farmers, but an emerging – and influential – middleclass.  During the 19th century, the nation’s moral values profound shifted.  For much of early American history, poor people were pitied; however, in the decades following the Civil War, they were vilified, accused of causing their own suffering through laziness.  Industrialization, urbanization and immigration took their toll.

Progressives were social reformers who believed in moral uplift.  They invoked a mythic form of American life based on alleged free and fair competition among relative equals.  However, during the Gilded Age, corrupt party bosses and business moguls ruled, and many small producers were crushed spawning the populists.  Progressives were rooted mostly in the cities and were concerned with the betterment of urban life, whether involving regulations of the 10-hours workday for a women and children or the temperance movement effort to eliminate alcohol consumption.

The Nation offers a list of 50 of the “most influential” progressives from Eugene Debs to Michael Moore.  While many came long after the movement’s eclipse, their collective practice and thought helped fashion 20th century American life.

Richard Hofstadter notes in his influential 1955 study, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR:

One of the primary tests of the mood of a society at any given time is whether it’s comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged. In a large and striking measure, the Progressive agitations turned the human sympathies of the people downward rather than upward in the social scale.

The progressives transformed government by replacing the old-boys network of payoff and kickbacks with the normalization of the modern bureaucracy and civil service.


Trump is not the first plutocrat to run for public office, but the only one to win the presidency.  Among the others who ran were: Mitt Romney, 2012; Steve Forbes, 1996 and 2000; and Ross Perot, 1992.  Often forgotten, Henry Ford ran for the senate in 1918 from Michigan as a Democrat supporting Woodrow Wilson.  Believing his status would carry him to office, he did not actively campaign and lost in a Republican sweep.

Trump appears to have never made an explicit reference to the small-farmers’ revolt of the 1890s from which the populist movement got its name.  Yet, he ran – and won! — as an insurgent promoting a grass-roots call to arms.  He positioned himself as someone who could address one of the great laments of U.S. history: ordinary Americans are getting screwed and need a strong, independent leader to contest power.

Now, some eight months after he took office, Trump’s populist invocations are being tested by the tough reality of inside-the-Beltway politics.  In innumerable whistle-stops, including most recently Miami and Arlington, to invokes his showman’s wizardry, showing his die-hard supports that he remains the fierce champion of the average guy (and gal).

For many dwelling in heartland America, Trump is his old self.  Strutting on stage, he reclaims the erotic prowess of the never-ending stump.  Before an adoring crowd and cheers ringing in his ears, he lambasts the establishment insiders and rails against the “national security threat” of the moment.

Returning to the reality of Washington realpolitik, Trump morphs into his other self, the cut-the-deal huckster.  He is the master of 21st century business — any deal is better than no deal because good PR can turn shit into gold.  Like an old-time Mississippi River boat card-shark, one day he snuggled up to the Republican leadership, the next day dances with the Democrats.  A telling power struggle has recast his Cabinet, with the ideological “populists” (e.g., Bannon) being driven out by hardcore establishment figures representing the military-financial complex (e.g., Mattis, Tillerson and Mnuchin).

Bernie Sanders ran as a democratic socialist within the Democratic Party, giving voice to a growing insurgency taking numerous forms.  Concurrent with Sanders’ introduction of single-payer legislation in the Senate, a “Medicare-for-all” bill, the Intercept identified 24 “progressive” groups backing his campaign and might help push the bill up the legislative hill.

A more insightful analysis of the growing progressive movement is offered by Juan González in his recent study, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.  González, a former New York Daily News reporter and regular co-host of Democracy Now, champions de Blasio as mayor of the “most left-leaning government in the history of America’s greatest city.”

He claims de Blasio presided over the transfer of some $21 billions “of income and economic benefits” to the city’s poorer people in the form of “universal free pre-kindergarten and after school programs, long overdue wage increases for municipal workers, paid sick leave for all, and a virtual freezing of tenant rents.”

In addition to New York, González reviews campaigns championed by progressives in eight other cities, Richmond, VA; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; Chicago, IL; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Austin, TX; and Jackson, MS.  His study, while championing the gains promoted by local officials, reveals the inherent confrontations progressives face as they shift from local activists to governing the whole city, especially confronting the entrenched interests of the real-estate and finance sectors.

A century ago, populists and progressives sought to reshape the American political landscape – and, in important ways, they did.  But today, a century-plus later, the U.S. is once again marked by mounting public restiveness, a deepening sense that something profound is remaking the nation’s social order and ordinary people’s lives are deeply insecure.

Pick your poison, nearly every social issue can become a political contest pitting blustering politicians in sound-bite stand-offs.  Sadly, bubbling below this political stage-show, ideological tensions are getting more intense, a sign of mounting social dislocation. It is a critical important moment for social change; people are apprehensive, worried as to the state of the nation and their personal lives within it.  Whether the changes taking place move the U.S. to a more humane, secular society or regresses to a more repressive, disciplined one is to be determined.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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