American Populism: Class, Economy, and Radical Democracy
In recent decades, populism in the U.S. has most visibly been a right-wing phenomenon—from Pat Buchanan to the Tea Party to Trump—often overlapping politically with plutocracy and white nationalism. However, the largest populist movement in American history, the People’s Party of the 1890s, arose on the left, and is arguably one of the most radically democratic political formations in the nation’s history. From its beginnings as an agrarian revolt against growing corporate and financial control of the national economy following the Civil War, the movement for a “cooperative commonwealth” boldly endeavored to unite hard-pressed farmers with industrial labor across daunting ethnic, regional, and racial divides in order to use the power of the federal government for a broad-based materialist agenda. After its striking emergence in the late 1880s, the movement flamed out just as suddenly after its co-optation by the Democratic Party and urban progressives. If spoken about today, it is usually as a cautionary tale of the fate of third parties in national politics. Yet in recent years there has been a resurgence of populist ideas on the American left, building upon the work of an older generation of New Left historians. These scholars are asking: might the Populist movement, rather than the last gasp of a backward-looking agrarianism, still serve as a model for radical democracy, cooperative economics, and leftist uses of state power that speaks in the symbols and idioms of the American radical tradition?
In this course, we will investigate the economic and political causes that inspired organizers across the South and Midwest to build the Farmers’ Alliance, developing both a specific policy agenda and a movement culture that educated and incorporated isolated farmers, sharecroppers, and laborers from disparate states and regions into a national political force. We will also examine efforts to overcome the often fraught divisions between white, immigrant, and black workers and to forge a broader coalition with industrial labor in the Knights of Labor and Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union. Other questions we will consider include: what lessons can be learned from the failed electoral fortunes of Populism about third-party movements, race-baiting the American working class, and robust anti-capitalism as a national politics? Is there any connection between the disillusioned right-wing populism of the last century and the rise of corporate liberalism on an imperialist basis in the aftermath of the Populist movement? What do later proponents and theorists, including Wendell Berry, Chantal Mouffe, or Aziz Rana and Jedediah Purdy, have to teach us about the possibilities for an ecologically inflected left-wing populism in the present? Readings will be drawn from the rich literature on Populism, including Rana and Purdy, Lawrence Goodwyn, Richard White, and Richard Hofstadter as well as primary and theoretical writings by William Faulkner, Luna Kellie, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Lasch, Berry, and Mouffe.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 13 — August 03, 2021