False Equivalencies Equal Bad History and Bad Politics:
Populism vs. Nativism/Sanders vs. Trump.
The current election cycle has featured two candidates for President, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who were outsiders within the Democratic and Republican Parties, respectively. Both succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, seemingly even theirs. Sanders came close to winning the Democratic nomination, and Trump actually won the Republican nomination. Pundits and politicians have been grasping for months for an explanation of these candidates’ success.
A frequent explanation given by observers is that both candidates are “populists,” and that both are channeling the motives and emotions that were represented by the Populists of the late nineteenth century. In turn, the challenges that Sanders and Trump have made to their parties’ establishments have been considered by the pundits to be equivalent. It is, however, neither historically nor politically accurate to label them both as populists, and it does a disservice to political discourse to propagate the idea that their challenges are equivalent.
Populism/populism. Populism (with a capital “P”) was a late nineteenth-century political movement that hoped to sustain the viability of small farmers and small factories in this country through cooperative programs that would give them the economies of scale of big businesses and big farms (cooperative purchasing and selling agreements, sharing expensive equipment, working collectively on various tasks), and through government regulations that would keep big businesses and big banks from trampling on the little guys (limits on railroad rates, storage fees, bank loans, and price gouging).
Contrary to much present-day popular belief, Populists did not naively promote wild-eyed programs that had no chance of implementation or success. Many Populist proposals were adopted at the state level, and they worked. Some were enacted at the federal level, and they worked, too. There is, in fact, no good reason why we have to have giant corporate farms or giant corporate businesses in most things. Small can be beautiful, and can work.
The United States Supreme Court, however, was controlled in the late nineteenth century by a group of Justices who literally believed that laissez-faire was written into the Constitution, and they overturned most Populist legislation on Constitutional grounds. This did not mean that Populists were unrealistic. New Dealers faced a similar obstacle with a conservative Supreme Court during the 1930’s. They were eventually able to overcome that hurdle. Populist ideas were widely popular. Given some changes in circumstances, Populism could conceivably have become the conventional wisdom of the country, and Populist policies might have resulted in a very different and possibly better America.
William Jennings Bryan is one of the reasons Populism failed. He is often labeled a Populist, but he was not a Populist. He ran his 1896 campaign as essentially a Silverite. The Silverites believed that if the federal government backed its currency with silver and not merely gold, all would be well with small farmers and businesses. Populists supported the coining of silver money, but did not see it as a cure-all. Rather than promoting Populism, Bryan’s campaign for President, with its single-minded focus on a silver bullet solution, helped to kill it. He is responsible in large part for the Populists’ reputation as being unrealistic.
Populist programs were revived during the New Deal by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace through the Department of Agriculture. He promoted the TVA (there were going to be five such projects), cooperative farm programs, cooperative small factories, and Greenbelt cities. And all of these programs worked. Wallace’s programs died as a result of the conservative political backlash of the late 1930’s, and so did Populism.
Populism was a big and broad movement. As such, it included many different factions and tendencies. Populism had a racist and xenophobic element at its fringes. So did the Socialist movement, the Progressive movement, and the labor movement at that time. In fact, the taint of racism and xenophobia has attached itself to almost every movement in American history. But they were not major themes in Populism and they have not been major elements in Leftwing movements generally, as they have been in Rightwing movements to the present day.
Populism (with a capital “P”) was a producers’ movement that focused on the ways and means of producing things, with a goal of sustaining smallish scale production. The populism (with a small “p”) that survives to the present day is a consumers’ movement that focuses on getting better wages, working and living conditions, and social services for ordinary people and people who are hard up. The Bernie Sanders campaign was part of that movement. And his campaign began with some very sensible proposals about what could be done now at the state level (single payer healthcare, higher minimum wage, environmental protections and many other populist programs can be adopted at the state level) and at the federal level (executive orders can do a lot). As success went to his head, Sanders’ claims became progressively less realistic, but that does not mean that his campaign was based on naivete and wild-eyed proposals.
Nativism. Nativism is not populism. It is the Rightwing response to populism. Nativism is the use of fear of racial and ethnic minorities as a means of promoting the social status quo and protecting the social position of those in control of a society. Nativism, along with its components racism and xenophobia, have typically risen in this country in times of populist upheaval and social reform. Nativism is an attempt to squelch social change through fear and hatred. Its mantra is that change will help only Them and will hurt Us.
Contrary to popular opinion among pundits, George Wallace was not a populist. He was a racist nativist. Donald Trump is not a populist. He is a racist and xenophobic nativist. Nativism, racism and xenophobia are founded on the status anxiety of people with a little something, who are willing to support those who have the best and most of everything, in order to fend off and stay above those who have little or nothing. Racism is the answer to the question of why Southern white small farmers supported with their lives a system of slavery that well served a few rich planters, but hurt them in every way other than in their ability to feel themselves above the black slaves. Racism is the answer to the question of why so many whites today are so opposed to Obamacare.
Populism is a positive program of reform based on hope. Nativism is a negative program of hate based on fear. Populists and nativists are appealing to some of the same constituencies, but there is no equivalency in the appeals.
Consequences. In turn, I would predict that there will be little equivalency in the consequences of the Sanders and Trump campaigns. Assuming that Trump loses, his has been a campaign based on the lies that immigrants are taking American jobs, committing lots of crimes, and living on the dole paid for by good white American taxpayers. His base has been old white people. The lies will out and the old people will die out. That could and should be the end of his influence. Sanders’ campaign was based on truths about healthcare and wages, and his base has been young people. His truths and his base will likely only grow so that even if he is personally done, his movement could and should live on. Of course, if Trump wins, then all bets are off and God help us.
 See, for example, the recent article by John Judis in The New Republic. “All the Rage.” Sept. 19, 2016.