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Let's Reclaim Populism


After we celebrated what was a very good election overall, our Central Committee met for an excellent discussion of the road ahead. The challenge is all too clear. Clay County has become a textbook example of the rural/urban divide that so profoundly shapes the geography of partisanship today. Rob Kupec and Heather Keeler won their races because the voters in the city of Moorhead chose them by a large margin, while John Hest and Jill Abahsain were defeated in districts that are overwhelmingly rural.

How do we begin to rebuild the strength of the Democratic party among rural voters? A number of good points were raised at our meeting, but I want to suggest as an overall theme that Democrats should reclaim the mantle of Populism. The populist label gets thrown around frequently these days, usually in reference to demagogues who rally support by appealing to resentment of so-called “elites.” The historian in me has never liked the way the term gets used because it associates populism with the debased, dying form of the original Populist movement.

So here’s a brief history lesson. The Populist movement grew in the late nineteenth

century out of the Farmer’s Alliance movement, which was an organized and fairly radical effort to take back control of the agricultural economy. The main target initially was the massive railroad corporations that controlled farmers’ access to markets, but it developed a broader critique of the concentrations of economic wealth and power had come to dominate them. The Alliance movement turned to politics in an effort to fight back.

The Populist movement had some successes – a good example is the Nonpartisan League’s success in forming the State Bank and North Dakota Mill and Elevator – but it was unable to capture any lasting political power. Its decline left a residue of bitterness that often morphed into bigotry. In a sense, the last act of the original Populist movement was the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan after World War I.

There is nothing new about equating populism with that lingering combination of anti-elitism and intolerance toward immigrants and people of color, but to my mind it is a pseudo-populism. It is a false populism because it fails utterly to challenge the corporate dominance and economic inequality that are at least as great today as they were in the Gilded Age. Those are the forces that are hollowing out rural America. It is evident in the massive agribusinesses that control 75 percent of the world’s grain trade and 85 percent of beef production. It is evident in the soaring price of land, driven up in part by wealthy investors. It is evident in the decline of small businesses that can’t compete with WalMart. It is everywhere you look.

Maybe this time the pseudo-populism of the MAGA movement can be the first act of a new Populist movement. Populism lost out once before because it was unable to bridge the rural/urban divide of its day. Democrats cannot afford to make that mistake again. City folk and rural folk alike are hurt by extreme concentrations of wealth and power. Together we can make a better world for us all.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Paul Harris

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