I just re-read Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. It’s strikingly relevant for movement building today. I suggest you read it. But in case you can’t, here are my top take-aways from the book, as always, in 800 words…
1. There is a formula for movement building.
Goodwyn argues there are four, sequential stages: “(1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority… ‘the movement forming’; (2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people—‘the movement recruiting’; (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis—‘the movement educating’; and (4) the creation of an institutional means by which new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way—‘the movement politicized’”.
The genius of the Populists was that the autonomous institution formed (1) and into which masses were recruited (2) was not overtly a political group or organizing group but an alternative, economic self-survival formation. Rural farmers suffering under the crop lien system (where they sold rights to their crop to get seeds and tools but then the selling value of the crop wasn’t high enough to cover the debt due to intentional deflation) were drawn en masse to farming cooperatives that collectivized costs. Practical needs got people in the door; politics were cultivated.
2. Mass political education is critical (and possible).
Once the farming cooperatives got members in the door, they weren’t just asked to write letters to Members of Congress. The Populist Movement (in the form of the Farmer’s Alliance) had 40,000 traveling lecturers educating Alliance members about the prevailing systems of economic power and privilege in America. Think about that: 40,000 traveling lecturers! And we complain that we can’t educate the masses because we don’t have our own TV station. The Populists didn’t let a lack of mass media stop them from mass education.
Goodwyn articulates political education as the primary goal of any social movement, far above particular issue demands: “Towering over all other tasks is the need to find a way to overcome deeply ingrained patterns of deference permeating the entire social order.” In the case of Populism, the movement wasn’t about farm loan policy or hard money currency or any of the issues of the day—“the meaning of the agrarian revolt was its cultural assertion as a people’s movement of mass democratic aspiration.” That’s as good a test for any to apply to our movement aspirations going forward, instead of making the central point about the particular issue or group being organized.
3. Things have become steadily worse since 1896.
Williams Jennings Bryan, representing a more accommodationist branch of the Populists that co-opted the movement, won the Populist and Democratic parties’ nomination for President in 1896, delivering a significant blow to the movement. When Bryan then lost to McKinley, it was the final knockout. “The economic, political, and moral authority that ‘concentrated capital’ was able to mobilize in 1896 generated a cultural momentum that gathered in intensity until it created new political guidelines for the entire society in twentieth-century America… They have remained substantially unquestioned since.”
Goodwyn elaborates, “The American populace was induced to accept as its enduring leadership a corporate elite whose influence was to permeate every state legislature of the land, and the national Congress as well. A new style of democratic politics had become institutionalized, and its cultural boundaries were so adequately fortified that the new forms gradually described the Democratic Party of opposition as well as the Republican party of power.” Déjà vu, anyone?
Radical populism faded into “progressivism” and eventually “liberalism”—the “sophisticated despair, grounded in the belief that hierarchical American society could, perhaps, be marginally ‘humanized’ but could not be fundamentally democratized.” Arguably, even 60s and 70s movements’ aims to add marginalized communities to the ranks of the privileged elite rather than abolish caste and elitism altogether reflects this persistent reality. This history also suggests the inverse is true; if we want to bring about radical
4. The solution is “self-generating creativity” to challenge hegemony.
Goodwyn defines the “ultimate cultural victory” in movements and politics “being not merely to win an argument but to remove the subject from the agenda of future contention.” To change the rules of the game. Goodwyn argues that the corporate elite did this effectively and, so far, indelibly in 1896. Goodwyn accuses left-leaning political thought since, especially socialism, of “dull dogmatism” that preferenced ideological rigidity over democratic authenticity (not to mention democratic values) and, thus, a “capacity for self-generating creativity”. In other words, to be both legitimate and effective at challenging the anti-democratic elite status quo, movements must embrace participatory democracy (see, e.g., “Five Lessons on Participatory Decisionmaking” http://movementvision.org/books-in-brief/particiaptory-decisionmaking/). Goodwyn argues that, in movements, people must generate their own democratic culture “in order to challenge the received hierarchical culture.”
The era of the Populist Movement is one in which corruption in the credit markets led to widespread disempowerment and disaffection, in which mass movements rose up to educate and aggregate the power of these communities, yet the consolidated power and cultural influence of corporate America closed the door on any significant prospect of change. Parts of this history feel eerily familiar today, but hopefully learning from the past, we can write a different ending this time. Just to boggle your mind again with the scale of things, in 1896 at the start of its decline the Populist Movement had over 2 million members (at a time when the 1890 Census estimated between 62-75 million Americans total). By that measure, we should have a movement of at least 8 million now — but why stop there? Many millions more feel the need for change. We just need to give them a practical and inspiring outlet.