My Latest “Gold Mine:” The Populist Moment
September 12, 2015
Just a few days short of my birthday, I have “discovered” a wonderfully insightful book on the Populists, entitled “The Populist Moment,” by Lawrence Goodwyn. I am going to quote two paragraphs from the introduction, offered as an incentive to get you to read this book.
“For a number of reasons, all of them rather fundamental to historical analysis, the Populist movement has proved very difficult to Americans to understand….
“There are three principal areas of interpretive confusion that bear directly on the Populist experience. First, very little understanding exists as to just what mass democratic movements are, and how they happen. Second, there are serious problems embedded in the very language of description modern Americans routinely employ to characterize political events. These problems particularly affect commonly held presumptions about how certain ‘classes’ of people are supposed to ‘act’ on the stage of history. Third, and by all odds most importantly, our greatest problem in understanding protest is grounded in contemporary American culture. In addition to being central, this cultural difficulty is also the most resistant to clear explanation: we are not only culturally confused, our confusion makes it difficult for us even to imagine our confusion.” [p. ix, added]
Goodwyn goes on to point out that “the reigning American presumption about the American experience is grounded in the idea of progress.” Hence, in the face of “sundry movements of protest,” explanations are needed that are consistent with the idea of progress. Commonly, it is said that people protest when there is “a temporary malfunction of the economic order,” when “times are hard.” When things return to normal, people no longer protest, and, of course, “progress is resumed.” [pp. ix-x]
It is then the idea of progress, that is, the presumption of progress as a fact, which makes protests appear as responses to intermittent economic “malfunctions.” However, to understand the Populists in this way is to make them and their movement disappear. Moreover, this understanding of American history also makes the arrangements against which the Populists were protesting disappear as well. As Goodwyn puts it: The Populist revolt “points to a deeper reality of the modern world itself: industrial societies have not only become centralized, they have devised rules of conduct that are intimidating to their populations as a whole.” Hence, because the Populists came to understand this, or at least some of them did, they were not interested in a return to “normality,” but were looking forward to “a wholesale overhauling of their society.” [p. xii]