Civil Disobedience and Populism: An American History

A Tale of Two "Deflationary" Booms – The Gilded Age vs. Today - by Brendan  Brown

The Gilded Age was an age of industrialization, built on the backs of the working masses.  It was a time when a handful of eager individuals rose to prominence through a cutthroat agenda of business management based on the ideals of Social Darwinism, and the inherit superiority it bestowed on them.  This supposition of natural law entitling the wealthy with evolutionary rights established the framework for a system of unprecedented exploitation that sparked a downward spiral in labor-management relations.

Though the concept wasn’t new, the start of its practice in American business can be traced to the mid-19th Century with the closing of the Civil War.  After the Union won the conflict, a number of former war profiteers sought to invest the fortunes they had accumulated during the struggle into promising up-and-coming industries, which subsequently lead to the creation of virtual industrial empires for the tycoons who worked hard to monopolize their domains.  While there are several factors that can be attributed to the vast expansion of industrial giants, at its core it was the railroads that pushed the country towards urbanization, and began sealing the fate of the agrarian existence.  Steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie made his money building bridges for the railroads; J.D. Rockefeller used Railroad Rebates to commandeer railroad support and expand his Oil Empire on a national scale; hence, it was not surprising when banker J.P. Morgan had his sights set on centralizing the railroad system under his personal control.

Looking at all this it becomes quite clear that the railroads are a pivotal component in the Industrial Revolution.  But the change did not only affect the commerce faction of American society.  As the railroad extended its tracks further west, new cities began to be founded (setting off a trend of mass urbanization), giving rise to more metropolitan jobs, which in return contributed to the production of more industrial goods.  The government itself aided in this process by giving hundreds of thousands of acres away in the form of Railroads Land Grants but otherwise refusing to implement much needed regulations on the railroads.  Thus, with not supervision, employers could administer over their corporations and workforce as ruthlessly as they pleased.  With urbanization moving steadfast over the once abundant farmland, many rural workers naturally migrated to the big cities in hope of employment, leaving the agricultural life and entering the callous existence of industrial laborers.

It would be an understatement to claim that conditions for the common workers of the Gilded Age were unfair.  From long hours, low wages, and unsanitary conditions for the city laborers, to shamelessly unethical double standards towards farmers in the fields, the efficiency of the Gilded Age was truly built on the plight of the “have-nots” of the era.  With the government maintaining its laissez-faire policy, industrial workers responded to the injustice by unionization.  Though union groups, such as the American Federation of Labor, showed great determination in their cause through several organized strikes (i.e. the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894), employer persistence (and in some cases government involvement) prevented any true success to occur through union efforts.

The farmers, on the other hand, took a different route to settle their problems.  Farm Alliances began to spring up throughout the south, in an effort to combat their exploitation by the capital elites of the nation.  They felt the economic and financial system of the country was in need of much reform.  The banks often swindled the farmers on money loans, thus preventing them from marketing their crops cooperatively.  Railroads weren’t of much help either, as the made it a policy to overprice the short haul used by the farmer, while lowering costs for the long haul used by industrialists.  Not to mention the turmoil caused by the high rates charged by the Warehouses.  As appealing to the government was pointless, these Alliances responded by setting up their own banks to grant loans to farmers, and also worked to provide alternative sources of grain.  Unfortunately, little could be done regarding the railroads.  But even with all this apparent success, the Farm Alliances were unable to form a single national organization to radically transform the corrupt system.  Despite the call for nonpartisanship, Northern farmers voted predominately Republican, and Southern farmers continued to support the Democrats.  This petty strife confirmed that change was also needed on the political settings.

Much like today, the most important issue for politicians of the Gilded Age was to get elected.  Thus, as said before, for the men seated in government positions reforming the corruptions of society was not noteworthy.  With laissez-faire being implemented wholeheartedly as the rule of the land, the government saw no need to interfere on behave of the exploited worker.  Yet, when it came to helping business, exceptions could be made.  An example being the land tax imposed on farmers, while multi-millionaire tycoons were taxed for absolutely nothing.  The policymakers were also not shy to send out troops to aide employers against disorderly workers.  Clearly, favoritism was played by the wealthy caste of politics on behave of their rich contemporaries.  Several groups saw through this and demanded change.  Alas, their cries fell on deaf ears, as all the government did was issue out token reforms that sounded radical but were never seriously implemented.  Many of the have-nots began to realize that if change were to come it would have to be from their own ranks.

With discontent brewing on all sides of the workforce, and the reluctance of both parties to make concessions to their demands, the farmer Alliances set to organize a nationwide campaign to economically and politically reform American society.  Thus, the Populist Party was born.  Strung together from the underdogs of the system (farmers, laborers, and small-businessmen), the Populists ran on an unprecedented platform to alleviate the plight of the working masses.  Demanding regulations on railroads, flexible currency, a national income tax, and a subtreasury plan, but more than anything else, they demanded that the government take a stand for the people, and actually govern.  As their battle for the have-nots appeared to gain momentum at first, the Populist Party still failed to garner significant results in the election of 1892.  Even so, the Populists continued working on the sentiment that the other parties were not answering the need of the people.  As the 1896 election approached, the Populists went into battle headfirst, nominating William Jennings Bryan to take on Republican William McKinley.  Having also secured the nomination from the Democrats, Bryan campaigned fervently, preaching a gospel of change, but in the end it proved futile as McKinley won the presidency.  The Populists quickly disappeared from the national scene.

Although they lost the election, populism itself did not fully go away.  More accurately it became absorbed into the other political parties (mostly Democrats, at first, but Republicans utilized it, too, in the latter half of the last century), and eventually the issues compromising their platform developed into the major reforms of the 20th Century, which framed the system being debated over today.

The Unspoken Flaw of Populist Rhetoric, or F–k “the People”

It doesn’t matter where you stand on the right-center-left spectrum of American politics, the fact is that, if you’re running for political office and you want to stand any chance of winning, you will laud and promote your candidacy as being aligned with the spirit of the people.  What exactly is this spirit, and who specifically constitutes being a member of such a vague and loaded category like “the people”?  None of that matters, because the phrase is meant to be a blank sheet, onto which voters can project whatever specific attributes they favor, left over from the sociopolitical legacy of the populist struggle of the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Populism is a broad term within political philosophy, but its basic ideological tenet is one of supporting the interests of the common worker and general public (frequently stylized simply as “the people” in popular speech), against the domination of the affluent elites of society.  In the United States, the populist movement began in the late 19th Century as a mostly rural (farmers, laborers, and small-businessmen) backlash against the growing monopolization of their resources into the control of a group of industrialists and venture capitalists.  Because the latter group had most (if not all) of the political and financial backing from the government, populism (even after its namesake’s fall as a major political player in the early 20th Century) became associated in the public mind with the common good of the lowly citizenry; essentially presented under the image of giving a voice to the hitherto politically voiceless.

As I already mentioned, nowadays the appeal to populist rhetoric transcends political affiliation.  Barack Obama can fail to call for the legal investigation of the individuals and enterprises (indeed, openly refuse any suggestion of it) who contributed to the high risk gambling of public and private funds that helped bring about the financial crisis of 2008 (the economic effect of which we are still feeling on a global level), and he will still promote his policies as prime examples of serving “the people” above the interests of the upper classes (well, I don’t know about you, but when I commit marketing fraud and declare bankruptcy, I don’t see the judicial system putting up its hands and saying, “Meh, shit happens, let’s just move forward.  Oh, by the way, here’s your old job back, too”).  During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney could openly say that his vision for America’s economic system is one in which the richest will be directly favored above the rest (while also privately implying that nearly half the country is made up of social parasites), and he still continued to claim how the goal of his policies is structured to actually work for the common good of “the people” (because somehow making sure that your boss is financial secure, will–without any legal imperative pressuring him to do so–guarantee that he’ll be generous enough to graciously trickle a descent sum of that money down your way, instead of the more likely scenario of him hording it away in his own private funds).  And both sides will get away with this vacuous rhetoric among their voting base, partly because most people are convinced that this is as good as it can get, and partly because they figure that (at the very least) their candidate is still making reference to them–which has got to count for something, right?

The reason people think it counts for something is the notion that somehow, by virtue of some noble force or another, the party, the candidate, the ideology that seems to most support the spirit of the people, is the less corruptible faction in the game.  It rests on the unspoken premise that “the people” are this incorruptible fortress that stands above the decadency of the power-hungry rulers, and therein lies the central flaw of populist rhetoric.  “The People” who make up the Democratic Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespass of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the Republican Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespasses of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the ranks of all political, social, ideological movements are corrupt enough to ignore the various faults in their reasoning for the sake of the greater good or the lesser evil they are convinced will benefit society more.  In other words:  I am corrupt enough to care more about my petty, pedantic disagreements with political thought, than to truly consider the possibility that a great deal of people could potentially benefit from my support of one political model over another.

This idea of the immaculate virtue of “the people” is a myth.  It was a myth when it was being promoted by my Southern farmer’s great-great-grandparents on behalf of the populist cause, and it’s a myth in its current incarnation as a bipartisan talking point during every election cycle.  After all, all corrupt individuals, in all identifiable fields of work and thought, are still people, and I’d wager that none of them consider their misdeeds as acts of corruption, as much as circumstantial/vocational necessities.  And everyone is liable to be led astray into morally questionable deeds, if s/he can convince her/himself of the virtue of the “bigger picture” involved.  You and I, no matter how humble and modest of a life we lead, are no exception.