Interests and Enemies: Problems in the Historiography of Populism
Populism has proven to be a particularly nimble and elusive target for historians since the 1920s, when the first serious works about the movement appeared. Scholars have differed about who the Populists were, what Populism was, what the movement sought to achieve, whose interests its politics served, and what influence it came to have on subsequent American society. Indeed, scholars have more than differed -- in both identifying the Populists and interpreting their actions, historians have diverged into conceptions of America that barely resemble each other. For some, such as Richard Hofstadter, Populism was the opening volley in a half-century battle to reform American society. Its flaws, failures and shortcomings were to be ironed out by more capable reformers in the Progressive Era and the New Deal. In stark contrast, other scholars have seen Populism as the terminal point for hopes of radically rewriting the rules of American life, its demise portending an age of capitalism's unquestioned authority. Four books -- Hofstadter's celebrated and savaged The Age of Reform, Norman Pollack's The Populist Response to Industrial America, Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment, and Gerald H. Gaither's Blacks and the Populist Revolt -- employ different methodological approaches to understand who the Populists were and why they failed, encountering the greatest conceptual difficulty in determining whose interests the Populist program represented and would have served.
Appearing in 1955, The Age of Reform was the earliest of these works, but it nevertheless followed several decades of scholarly attention to Populism, most of which was favorable in its assessment. John D. Hicks's 1931 study, The Populist Revolt, was probably the most influential work on the subject until Richard Hofstadter unleashed his rather different interpretation more than twenty years later. In the interim, Hicks's notion that "hard times" on the agricultural frontier sparked the farmers' revolt ruled the historiographical roost. Hicks argued that settlers had mortgaged themselves to the hilt during the frenzy for western agricultural expansion in the 1870s and 1880s, such that the drought of 1887 brought disastrous debt to the new farmers. As capital dried up in the west and crop prices fell, disaffected farmers moved toward political action. Populism, then, was a rational response of people to their economic problems. Professor Hicks also pointed out that, although their movement failed miserably "for a season," many of its proposals met with success in the twentieth century. Many historians have echoed this observation in times since.
Richard Hofstadter entered this congenial climate with an assessment of the causes and motivations of Populism that startled some. The Age of Reform shifted the focus from economic hardships of the period's farmers to their changing social position in an increasingly urban, industrial America. Hofstadter argued that the farmer had fallen from his exalted position in the early, rural society of the United States, and that a sense of declining status partly drove agrarian radicalism. "The farmer was beginning to realize acutely not merely that the best of the world's goods were to be had in the cities and that the urban middle and upper classes had much more of them than he did," Hofstadter wrote, "but also that he was losing status and respect as compared with them." The farmer's "status anxiety" led him not only to political action but to a paranoid worldview in which insidious forces, headquartered in remote places like New York and London, manipulated the money supply and kept agrarians poor by conspiracy.
Professor Hofstadter still located the Populists' motivation in economic conditions, but he emphasized the farmer's position to relative to others in the economy rather than a declining place relative to his own previous position. Times were not so much hard as changing, and farmers did not know how to cope. However, Hofstadter's assessment of the Populists' economic grievances was mixed -- one might say confused -- in a way that may have prompted the attacks of critics who claimed he belittled the agrarians' plight. "Improving his economic position was always possible, though this was often done too little and too late," Hofstadter said, then noting that comparably little could be done to reverse the farmer's declining social status. Although the author did not specify how the farmers would have improved their lot, his statement implied that they had few genuine grievances. Later in the text, Hofstadter assured readers that he did not mean to suggest that the farmers' complaints were unfounded, citing "the high cost of credit, inequitable tax burdens, discriminatory railroad rates," and other injustices.
Hofstadter's twist on the notion of "hard times" was partly an attempt to disrupt historians' orthodox assumptions about Populism. Hofstadter believed that intellectuals' usually liberal politics led them to lionize the Populists and to situate them on a direct line flowing from the People's party to trust-busting and social security. Hofstadter clearly appreciated the relationship between these reform movements -- his own subtitle suggests a trajectory "From Bryan to F.D.R." -- but he thought that this mental schema allowed historians to miss the paranoid and illiberal tendencies of the Populists. Robert M. Collins has suggested in an essay on the bitter controversy surrounding The Age of Reform that Hofstadter had intended to stir historians from complacency with "the traditional economic interpretation of Populism" toward questions of political culture. By provoking scholars with a more critical reassessment of the Populists, he felt he could contribute to "historiographical balance."
Of the provoked, Norman Pollack distinguished himself both by the ferocity of his attacks on Hofstadter's work and the distinctly ideological and oppositional character of his own work. Whereas Hofstadter had expressed reluctance to discuss Populism as an ideology, wishing not to impose on their views "a formality and coherence that in reality they clearly lacked," Pollack set out to do prove that the Populists had, in fact, formed a coherent critique of capitalism. He defined The Populist Response to Industrial America as "an intellectual history of midwestern Populism," and he sought to uncover the philosophy underlying the movement by analyzing letters by ordinary farmers, editorials in Populist newspapers, and speeches from political leaders. Pollack confined his direct attacks on Richard Hofstadter to journal articles, but Hofstadter's presence is everywhere in Populist Response. The text is strewn with sidelong jabs at The Age of Reform heresies, as when Pollack dismisses the view of Populists as "opportunists, crackpots, and anti-Semites" or refutes certain unnamed historians who had undermined the idea that economic injustice underlay Populism.
At issue was whether the Populists were a progressive or regressive political force. Hofstadter had argued that "the utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future." He pointed to an American tradition he called the "the agrarian myth," which praised the independent yeoman farmer as the ideal member of a democracy. Farmers in the late nineteenth century, socially marginal and economically faltering, looked back with longing to a fictional, halycon period when they dominated American society. Norman Pollack, on the other hand, argued that the Populists had not rejected the new world of industrial capitalism; rather, they offered forward-looking assessments of the problems of industrialization and urbanization. For instance, Pollack turned up editorialists in Populist newspapers who accepted the existence of technology but argued that it should be used to reduce the hours of labor rather than to cut workers.
Much was at stake here, for Pollack and others of the New Left felt that The Age of Reform threatened to distort America's radical past. As he surveyed the field in 1967, Irwin Unger observed that the young radicals who had stormed the profession in recent years sought a "usable past," a perspective that could "domesticate radicalism in America." Populism represented a particularly desirable model for a distinctively American leftism, since it enjoyed a large base of support at its height of popularity and lacked the European taint of an imported ideology like socialism. If Richard Hofstadter could turn the Populists into bourgeois farmers preoccupied with their social status, then the onus was upon scholars like Norman Pollack to certify their radical credentials.
The Populist Response to Industrial America represents a spirited effort to do just that, but Pollack's quest for ideological coherence led him to some questionable conclusions. One might be surprised to learn that Populism addressed such sophisticated concepts as technological unemployment, alienation, surplus value, and underconsumption, thus becoming a kind of homespun Marxism. Pollack had to stretch a good deal of the evidence to make it line up with Marxist tenets. For example, when a Populist said "The corporation had absorbed the community," he treated this as the equivalent of Karl Marx's statement in The German Ideology that "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas." Sometimes the quotations do match up well, as when Pollack's Populists lamented the power of machinery to dehumanize men and estrange them from both their product and each other. However, one wonders how representative these voices were and whether the comments were taken out of context. Pollack relied heavily on a few newspapers for his evidence, particularly the Topeka Advocate, and on the thought of Henry Demarest Lloyd. The Populist Response gives the peculiar impression that Populist writers spent far more time thinking about the conditions of industrial labor than the problems of farmers. Moreover, one would expect that doing an intellectual history of a social movement, particularly one without a central text or even a broadly recognized spokesman, could be hazardous. Pollack did demonstrate that Populists were thinking about capitalism in systematic terms and offered radical criticism, but his effort to find Marxism in Nebraska feels more than a little forced.
In focusing attention on Populism's critique of capitalism, Norman Pollack badly oversimplified the political complexity of the time period. Since both farmers and workers were relatively impoverished, Pollack assumed that they had one class interest. "Farmers felt at one with workers," he wrote, "not through an ideology of producer values but a conviction that both groups had been reduced to the same economic position." Throughout, the author accepted uncritically the pronouncements of Populists who insisted that the interests of farmers and labor were one, while dismissing the claims of socialists and labor activists to the contrary. Samuel Gompers refused in 1892 to ally his American Federation of Labor with the People's party on the grounds that the agrarians were "employing farmers," but Pollack regarded this argument as a ruse to mask Gompers's fear of agrarian radicalism. Whatever the labor leader's motivations may have been, his criticism had more substantive implications than Pollack would allow: if farmers did employ labor on their land, were they not "management" in some sense? Why would farmers and industrial workers necessarily have the same political interests?
The clear failure of the agrarian and labor movements to line up in proper opposition to capitalism forced Norman Pollack to blame the workers. "Labor had a life-and-death power over Populism," Pollack asserted, and he spread the blame to both labor's conservative and radical factions. Aside from Gompers's craven evasions, Pollack pointed to the Socialist Labor Party as fatefully misunderstanding Populism. The socialists could not overcome their fixed conception of the farmers' movement as "the last gasp of the agrarian middle class." Like Gompers, they did not believe that farmers belonged to the same class as factory workers, nor did they accept that "farmers" even represented a single class interest. "The conflicting material class interests represented by the different factions in the People's party will cause the final destruction of that party," one socialist predicted. Pollack interpreted such statements as contradicting the claim that Populism represented strictly middle class interests, as a casualty of the "blindly doctrinaire" character of most socialist criticism. He would not be the first or the last to level such a charge at the American socialist movement, but their commentary still merited closer consideration than Pollack gave it. The author faulted the socialists for not thinking critically about their own assumption that the Populists were bourgeois, but he did not treat Populist claims about common class interests with such skepticism. Ignatius Donnelly said of labor, "Their interests are therefore our interests, and their enemies are our enemies," and that made it so. Norman Pollack was determined to demonstrate that the Populists gave us a consistent, radical critique of capitalism; since the enemy was clearly marked from the outset, the interests Donnelly spoke of could only fall into their appropriate place.
Pollack was not alone in conceptualizing Populism as a response to capitalism. Richard Hofstadter may have regarded the search for a systematic Populist ideology a fool's errand, but he still broadly conceived of the movement as a reaction to the destabilizing effects of industrialization and urbanization. Lawrence Goodwyn concurred with Pollack in seeing Populism as a viable and forward-looking challenge to capitalism. His 1978 study The Populist Moment was the first comprehensive treatment of Populism on a national scale since John D. Hicks wrote in 1933, and Goodwyn offered a strikingly different take on the movement than his predecessors. Compared with Hofstadter, Pollack, and Gerald H. Gaither, Lawrence Goodwyn devoted far more attention to Populism's push for reform of the financial system, as well as contributing a unique conceptual approach to the development of social movements.
Goodwyn situated his Populists within a radical economic tradition that sought to democratize society by reforming the financial system. He saw Populism as evolving from the greenback doctrines of earlier reformers who argued for a flexible money supply based on paper currency, rather than hard specie like gold or silver. Since the Civil War, these activists had worked through marginal movements like the Greenback and Union Labor parties, but their ideas gained new life when agrarian radicals like Charles Macune and William Lamb embraced greenbackism in the late 1880s. The radicals who initiated the Farmer's Alliance in southeastern Texas pursued a program of economic reform, Goodwyn argued, which could reverse the disempowering influence of capitalism and generate real democracy, political and economic. Greenback currency could free farmers from the oppressive weight of past debts, which loomed larger and larger as the economy grew but the supply of money (gold) remained fixed. Economic cooperation would allow farmers to circumvent middlemen and market their crops collectively for a better price, while also buying supplies for more reasonable rates than prevailed under the crop-lien system and other arrangements then common.
Economic cooperation lay near to the heart of Lawrence Goodwyn's argument, for he believed that the forms of organization he equated with Populism would have far-reaching impact on political culture. In The Populist Moment, it was not the People's party but the Alliance's movement for cooperative buying and selling represented the true form of Populism. Professor Goodwyn used a theory about the development of social movements to explain the relationship between "the cooperative crusade" and the Populist movement at large. "Mass protest requires a high order not only of cultural education and tactical achievement, it requires a high order of sequential achievement," Goodwyn said. "These evolving stages of achievement are essential if large numbers of intimidated people are to generate both the psychological autonomy and the practical means to challenge culturally sanctioned authority." Successful movements need an autonomous institution that can incubate dissenting viewpoints, effective tactics for recruiting supporters, a means for educating actual and potential members, and, finally, a organizational outlet for political action. Goodwyn identified the Farmer's Alliance as the initiating institution, the Alliance's system of traveling lecturers as the recruitment strategy, and the People's party as the eventual political outlet. Most importantly, Goodwyn argued, farmers' experience with the cooperative markets and stores "educated" them about the structural injustice of the American economic system and pushed them toward political action.
Inherent in this movement building process was a psychological transformation. By working together and daring to imagine alternatives to the status quo, people began to have a sense of their own power and gained, in Goodwyn's words, "self-respect." While the financial program advocated by Alliancemen like Charles Macune would promote greater economic equality, the Populist movement also threatened a cultural revolution that would create a more democratic and participatory society. For Goodwyn, the failure of the people's attempt to seize power led to a political culture in twentieth century America marked by conformity, deference to authority and unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. In a fit of self-respect, the people tried to take matters into their own hands, to see and pursue their own interests; when the established powers ultimately prevailed, the range of political possibilities subsequently narrowed.
Lawrence Goodwyn's conclusion about why Populism failed is two-pronged, and reveals much about the shortcomings of his analysis. First, he argued that the "shadow movement" for free silver derailed the movement from pursuing its much broader goals for reforming society, leading to the People's party's dissolution into the Democratic Party of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. "Free silver" was a panacea cleverly marketed as a solution to the farmers' woes by silver mining interests represented by groups like the American Bimetallic League. Goodwyn insisted -- along with Populist leaders like Tom Watson -- that silver would cause only temporary inflation and would do nothing to address the crop-lien system, discriminatory railroad rates, and other forms of economic injustice. Nevertheless, the silver fad won favor among the People's party leadership, which was made up of opportunistic "office-seekers" like Herman E. Taubeneck who had not participated in the long developmental process of Populism.
Goodwyn, then, attributed the undermining of Populism to a series of outsiders who were not "real" Populists. The free silver movement emerged from western states like Nevada, where miners made up much of the support base for Populism. "The Western mutation yielded a variety of 'reformer' who proved difficult to distinguish from more familiar types calling themselves Democrats and Republicans," Goodwyn wrote. "Indeed, in places like Nevada a mention of the Omaha Platform was likely to extract little more than blank stares." Taubeneck, William V. Allen and other higher-ups in the Party sold Populism out because they had never really been Populists in the first place; they joined the movement long after the crucial formative experiences of the cooperative crusade in the South, and were thus susceptible to attractive political formulas that promised short-term success. According to Goodwyn, the rank-and-file of true Populists refused to let go of the Omaha Platform in favor of political fusion.
Goodwyn's tendency to sort out the Populists in this manner was not completely unique, but he carried it too far. Richard Hofstadter, too, regarded the Populism of the mountain states to be "simply silverism." For Goodwyn, it was not only Nevada or Wyoming that generated a facile sort of "single-shot Populism." Nebraska too lacked an authentic movement. The state's Alliance had never developed as fully as the Alliances in Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere, serving instead "as a sort of revolving door to some unspecified kind of insurgent political activity." Eventually, Professor Goodwyn wrote off all states of the West and the upper Midwest as marginally Populist. He based his conclusion, of course, on his theory of social movements; since many of these states had not gone through the successive stages of organization, education, and cooperative enterprise, a truly viable political base for Populism never developed. To confine Populism to early strongholds like Texas is probably too limiting.
In addition to the fatal distraction of free silver, Lawrence Goodwyn attributed the Populists' failure to the deep instransigence of the political, economic and cultural establishment in American society. The financial industry managed to kill the Alliance's cooperative markets by withholding credit to Charles Macune and his colleagues. The Populists were then persuaded by the economic resistance they encountered to push for change in the political realm, where they were undermined internally by opportunistic politicians and externally by the overwhelming resources of Mark Hanna and William McKinley. In other words, "the system" thwarted the Populists at every turn.
In a deeper sense, however, Goodwyn found the root of Populism's demise in the cultural inertia of established society. In his view, Americans were constricted by numerous "cultural barnacles." Years of the crop-lien and its crushing poverty had instructed people in the habits of "deference," a kind of cultural conditioning that taught people to accept their lot and believe it was appropriate. To take control of their lives and act politically, Goodwyn believed that people needed "self-confidence," which they developed through experience in collective action. There is something valuable in his interpretation of social movements and political struggle. Goodwyn correctly noted that "hard times" are not sufficient for mass political action, for times have been hard for much of humanity for much of human history. Open revolts, however, have been few and far between. In this way, his concept of "deference" resembles the idea of "hegemony" popularized by Antonio Gramsci, although Goodwyn never mentions the term. The problem is that Goodwyn too often turned to these abstract concepts to justify the difficulties of Populism when other, more tangible explanations could have been available. For instance, he discussed the lack of farmer-labor cooperation in Populism in terms of cultural obstacles. "They sought to enlist the urban working class without understanding the needs, nor the barriers to autonomous political expression, that informed life in the metropolitan ghettos of the nineteenth-century factory worker," Goodwyn wrote. While a "Protestant agrarian organizer" may have had difficulty speaking effectively to "an Irish Catholic factory worker," their lack of political cooperation could have resulted from more than cultural differences alone. Moreover, while racism was surely a major factor separating white and black farmers in the South, other factors could have contributed to their political divisions as well.
Goodwyn depended on cultural factors to explain Populism's limited appeal for much the same reason that Norman Pollack misunderstood workers' reluctance to join the movement. Both historians believed that Populism's platform represented broad class interests. Indeed, they considered urban workers and farmers, white and black, to belong to a single, impoverished class with a common enemy -- their impoverisher, capitalism. Neither appears to have considered that the urban worker may have had little interest in the Populist program itself, or may have even actively opposed parts of it. To his credit, Goodwyn did highlight the fact that specific Populist goals would have benefited the working class. Of the 1884 Cleburne Demands, Goodwyn pointed out, five points dealt with labor issues while six dealt with agriculture. For instance, the farmers had called for the recognition of trade unions and spoken against the leasing of convicts to private corporations. Still, Goodwyn was prone to making blanket statements about the desirability of Populist reform without exploring how various groups would benefit. He suggested that viewing people as members of different classes, particularly in the countryside, obstructs one's understanding of Populism: "While classes in agricultural societies contain various shadings of 'property consciousness' on the part of rich landowners, smallholders, and landless laborers ("gentry," "farmers," and "tenants," in American terminology), these distinctions create more problems than they solve when applied to the agrarian revolt." Viewing people through such lenses can, indeed, create problems, but those are the very problems that many historians have neglected in their analysis of Populism.
Breaking down "the people" in the People's party can be problematic, as the issue of race shows. If a historian approaches the many potential supporters of Populism with the attitude that they naturally ought to have rallied together, then she will be perplexed by the fact that a great many of them simply did not do so. It becomes necessary to explain the incongruity with some extra-economic factor, such as the cultural barriers cited by Goodwyn or the Marxist dogmatism lamented by Pollack. Race is another division that helps to explain why people who shared economic interests would fail to cooperate in pursuing them. Indeed, especially with regard to southern Populism, scholars have often considered racism the principal factor that hobbled the movement. "Most historians maintain," wrote Sheldon Hackney, "that the original Populism failed in the 1890s because the conservative whites were successful in convincing poor whites that a vote for Populism was racial treason and that the fate of all Anglo-Saxons depended upon white solidarity." If for Norman Pollack the political cooperation of labor held a "life-and-death power over Populism," many other historians have argued that the movement's fate rested on two variables within the farming class: on one hand, the fortitude of black voters who had to take a risk by voting Populist, and the racial tolerance of white voters on the other.
While readily incorporating the role of racism and other sociocultural factors into his picture of Populism, Gerald H. Gaither also took a closer look at the material bases for black and white political cooperation with his 1977 work Blacks and the Populist Revolt. Neither Richard Hofstadter nor Norman Pollack discussed the role of black farmers in the movement; Hofstadter saw the Populist as primarily a bourgeois landowning farmer, of whom very were black, and Pollack dealt primarily with Populism in the Midwest, where few black people lived. Lawrence Goodwyn devoted a few pages in The Populist Moment to the Colored Farmer's Alliance, but this organization and its relationship to the larger Populist movement were Gaither's primary concerns. Gaither looked at the development of black and white political cooperation in different areas of the South and found that the Atlantic Seaboard states of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia saw greater biracial success than the states of the "Gulf Coast South." Throughout the South, however, Gaither found the relationship between Populism and the black farmer to be a delicate one: white farmers realized that political success required incorporating black people into the movement in some way, but racism, political loyalties and conflicting interests limited this cooperation. The author rejected the notion that the poor, white supporters of Populism were any more racist than the average Southerner, but he did conclude that their solicitation of black support was short-sighted and, at times, hypocritical.
For Gaither, the effort of white farmers to join politically with black agrarians was rooted in practical political considerations, rather than an equalitarian political ideology. He pointed out that support for the Farmer's Alliance and, later, the People's party was strongest in remote and heavily white areas. From early on organizers were aware of this fact, he said, necessitating a strategy to broaden their base and gather political support in the "black belt" areas that had high black populations. "The more farsighted, notably the leadership, recognized that the Negro, however distasteful his presence might be to the membership, represented a potent source of political power that must be utilized in order to achieve needed reform," Gaither wrote. Cooperation between white and black farmers first meant the formation of a parallel organization, the Colored Farmer's Alliance, which could work in concert with the whites-only Farmer's Alliance. With the advent of the People's party, white leaders had to employ political rhetoric that emphasized black political equality and economic advancement, while carefully rejecting notions of "social equality" that could lead to miscegenation and other unthinkables. Gaither argued that the political integration of black southerners into the party generally fell far short of the equalitarian rhetoric.
A practical recognition of the numerical preponderance of black farmers did overlap with a broader idea about the relationship between black and white agrarians. A People's party strategist could note the importance of getting poor black farmers behind an agrarian agenda, but a Texas Populist expressed a somewhat simpler view: "They are in the ditch just like we are." One could judge from Gerald Gaither's work that the white farmers' appeals for black support were purely cynical, but sincerity came into the picture as well. Gaither argued that Populists really believed that white and black farmers shared a plight and economic interests, and this conviction led to immense frustration when many black farmers continued to vote with the Republican or even the Democratic ticket. Populists, he said, failed to understand the motivations of black voters. Many black southerners continued to associate emancipation with the Republican party, which was the only established political institution in which they had a foothold. Moreover, even the Democratic party -- often thought to be the party of white supremacy -- could offer something to black voters. "The established Democrats had the ability to provide a stabilizing function, however repressive, on the prevailing order," Gaither wrote. "To the black man, accomodation was a viable alternative to violence." Democrats like Georgia's William J. Northen sometimes made substantive proposals that appealed to the black population, such as additional education funds and a bill against lynching. Unlike the Populists, Northen had the political means to deliver on these promises, if he chose to do so. In any case, white Populists felt betrayed by black people who went against their economic interests by supporting Republicans and Democrats.
Gaither showed that black people sometimes had political priorities contrary to the goals of white Populists, but he looked to more fundamental differences for the failure of biracial cooperation. Gaither's real contribution has to do with "the ditch" where we could presumably find both black and white farmers. Blacks and the Populist Revolt takes seriously Samuel Gompers's point that many of the Populists were "employing farmers." Norman Pollack raised this issue in The Populist Response to Industrial America and swiftly dismissed it, but Gerald Gaither considered it worthy of further consideration. If many agrarian radicals were employing farmers, then who were they employing? In the South, at least, the answer would often have been black tenants and day laborers. "His emphasis was on higher wages for his labor -- a stress which was antagonistic to the small white farmer who could scarcely afford higher wages for black tenants," Gaither wrote. "By definition the goals of the respective groups were fundamentally different." The author demonstrated how profoundly white and black interests could conflict with a dramatic incident early in the history of the Colored Farmer's Alliance. In the Fall of 1891 a group of merchants and planters organized to institute wage and price controls, with the aim of suppressing the wages of largely black cotton pickers. The Colored Alliance felt compelled to respond and eventually decided to support a strike of cotton pickers across the South. The action failed thanks to low participation and poor organization, but the reaction of the white farmers' organizations was revealing. The president of the Southern Alliance, Leonidas L. Polk, said that farmers should let their crops rot in the field rather raise the pickers' wages a cent higher.
The episode of the pickers' strike suggests a greater complexity to the politics of poverty than many Populists -- and some historians of Populism -- have acknowledged. Gaither expanded his analysis of the conflict between black employees and white employers to the broader philosophical bases of Populism. As Norman Pollack showed, Populism did seek to speak to a coalition of farmers and workers, but Gaither argued that the allied forces against capitalism found plenty to disagree on in the Populist program. For instance, the Populist goal of inflation through free silver or greenback currency may not have appealed to the urban working class. "Populism sought higher prices for its products, while conversely, increases in prices meant greater costs for the urbanite," Gaither said. An industrial laborer might not think of a farmer who sought to increase his family's grocery bill as a class ally -- indeed, he may seem much more like an enemy of the worker's interest.
For all his insights, Gaither did not always clarify economic relations. For example, he asserted that black and white people differed importantly on inflation. "At bottom their positions were at odds," Gaither said. "The blacks were seeking to reduce their accumulated debts while the whites were seeking higher prices for the products of their labor." Black tenants may have been concerned primarily with debt, but the inflation sought by Populism would have helped by reducing their debt relative to current prices. Such a case seems to be a difference of interest more than a conflict. Moreover, Gaither may have treated categories of "white" and "black" too simply, as if all black farmers were tenants and all white farmers owned land. Observing finer distinctions of class and race may have enriched his portrait of Populism's failure in the South.
Reservations aside, Blacks and the Populist Revolt provides a more convincing analysis of Populism's shortcomings and obstacles than Lawrence Goodwyn or Norman Pollack gave. His take is nearer to Richard Hofstadter's idea of "entrepreneurial radicalism" from The Age of Reform. "[Agrarian radicalism] was an effort on the part of a few important segments of a highly heterogeneous capitalistic agriculture to restore profits in the face of much exploitation and under unfavorable market and price conditions," Hofstadter wrote. The key here is the "few important segments" of American agriculture; Gaither and Hofstadter agreed that Populism represented the interests of some but not all farmers, despite its avowed aim of uniting all "producers" in country and city. Some scholars have focused too much on the stated aims of Populism and too little on the real relationships between all potential Populists on the ground.
Much of the difference between these works results from differing methodological approaches. The Age of Reform is, in a sense, as much a work of cultural history as it is political history. By focusing on the cultural milieu of Populism and the worldview of the Populists, Hofstadter was able to understand that their base of support may have been narrower than otherwise believed. The Populist, as it turns out, may not have been the poorest farmer or the unselfish agrarian, but, rather, a landowning farmer looking for a better deal. Of course, this approach also led Hofstadter to emphasize psychological motivations like "status anxiety" that obscured, if not completely denied, the real economic grievances of the farmers. As a self-described intellectual historian of Populism, Norman Pollack covered similar ground as Hofstadter but was hunting a very different quarry. He searched the Populist "mind" not for the backward bigot but instead the Marxist hayseed. In retrospect, his work seems to be most divorced from reality for several reasons. Pollack's desire to uncover the philosophical core of Populism forced him to impose an intellectual consistency on the movement that it may have lacked. He also confined his study to the Midwestern Populism of states like Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, none of which, Lawrence Goodwyn argued, had developed an authentic Populist movement. Whatever the merits of Goodwyn's analysis, these states did give little electoral support to the People's party. It is not surprising, then, that Pollack glossed over some of the complexity of Populism; his project of intellectual history necessarily operated at a level above the economic and political interactions of ordinary people, and he based his study on areas far from the epicenter of Populism.
By comparison, Lawrence Goodwyn and Gerald Gaither dealt less with questions of mentality and ideology and more with party and politics, although each historian approached Populism from an angle that affected his conclusions about the movement and its failure. Unlike Pollack, Goodwyn fixed his attention directly upon Populism's flashpoint in eastern Texas, with the unfortunate result of privileging southern radicalism over branches of Populism elsewhere in the country. Alone among these authors, Goodwyn set out to do a full history of the agrarian movement nationwide, but The Populist Moment reads like a history of southern Populism or even Texan Populism. Goodwyn hung his narrative on a novel theory of social movements that ultimately allowed him to differentiate real and fake Populism; embedded in his theory were relatively abstract categories like "deference" and "self-confidence" that defined the shortcomings of the movement through failures of cultural development. In contrast, Gerald H. Gaither attempted only to tackle the South and may have had less need for a theoretical apparatus than the more ambitious Goodwyn. The smaller scale allowed Gaither to see crucial differences that other historians have missed, such as the inherent conflicts of interest within the farmer-labor coalition espoused by Goodwyn, Pollack and the Populists themselves.
Throughout, the question of economic self-interest has proven to be a central problem for historians attempting to understand the Populists and their failure. "Self-interest always controls," Georgia Populist Tom Watson famously said, yet Watson's academic examiners have too rarely taken his words seriously. Just because the Populists said that they had a common interest with poor and working class Americans everywhere did not make it so, and the apparent failure of broad class cooperation deserves some explanation. As the works of Lawrence Goodwyn, Richard Hofstadter, Norman Pollack and Gerald H. Gaither demonstrate, historians have turned to a variety of social, economic and cultural explanations to account for this gap between rhetoric and reality. Factors such as status anxiety, deference, party loyalty, and racism should not be discounted; even Goodwyn's theory of social movements can shed some light on how dissent is organized and expressed. These cultural conditions undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of Populism, but they can obscure fundamental differences that call into question the very existence of common interests, the pursuit of which such factors are thought to have inhibited. Ignatius Donnelly, Populism's very own novelist, confidently stated that the interests of labor were the interests of the farmers, and their enemies the same. What Donnelly -- and Pollack and Goodwyn -- failed to understand is that their interests could have made them enemies just as easily.
- Collins, Robert M. "The Originality Trap: Richard Hofstadter on Populism." Journal of American History 76 (1989): 150-167.
- Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
- Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Brief History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1978.
- Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1931.
- Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
- Pollack, Norman. The Populist Response to Industrial America: Midwestern Populist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.
- Turner, James. "Understanding the Populists." Journal of American History 67 (1980): 354-373.
- Unger, Irwin. "The 'New Left' and American History: Some Recent Trends in United States Historiography." American Historical Review 72 (1967): 1237-1263.