From the Archives: Populism Is the Movement You're Already Part Of
With the chaos of both global and domestic events pounding us each daily, it can feel like the struggle for justice is too much to conquer. Sometimes, reminders of the work we’ve accomplished, along with a healthy dose of history lessons and perspective, are just what the doctor ordered. We thought this Lowdown issue from January 2014— ten whole years ago!—was a good place to start, in helping us understand that even when the stakes are high and spirits are low, we’re in this fight together, as we always have been. Enjoy!
Seeds of a movement: A 21st century Populist renewal is flourishing at America's grassroots
In November, I spoke to an overflow crowd gathered in Duke University's Lilly Library for Larry Goodwyn'sunusual memorial service. Unusual? Well, it was the first memorial I'd ever been to that had to have an intermission!
That was because the "honoree" himself was such an unusual character (pugnacious populist agitator, rebellious scholar, powerful writer, demanding mentor, and passionate protagonist for social justice), so a long line of folks had tales to tell. But what struck me as most unusual was that the attendees were not merely spending three hours looking back at a life well lived, but almost gleefully looking forward.
Goodwyn was the modern-day guru of American Populism. He'd been on the front lines of both progressive academics and activism for more than six decades, blending his work as a renowned scholar of the 19th century Populist movement with his own practice of populism as a strategist and foot soldier in the civil rights, labor, and other grassroots social movements of his time. In 1976, he literally rewrote the textbooks with his path-changing work, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment In American History. This penetrating volume thoroughly debunked the ivory tower historians of the establishment who had condescendingly dismissed the Populists of the late 1800s as nothing but a bumbling bunch of demagogic, racist rubes in southern backwaters.
Au contraire, as we Texans say. Professor Goodwyn showed that the populist revolt against the unbridled greed of the robber baron era was a highly sophisticated mass movement. It gave downtrodden millions a voice and an empowering sense of themselves as democratic citizens. Through the movement's cooperative structure, grassroots people--who'd been isolated from each other, were mostly impoverished, and were often illiterate--learned how to address their own conditions and created new ways to work together to achieve their aspirations. Radically progressive, the movement included both African-Americans and urban unionists in its ranks and leadership, and it aimed for major structural changes to democratize the economic and political systems. Populism surged across the country into 43 states, from California to New York.
Historian Wesley Hogan, a former student of Larry's, notes that Democratic Promise elevated the historical significance of common "farmers, steel workers, day laborers, and sharecroppers," showing how they had "found stunning new ways to act democratically." Goodwyn, she added, "made this history vivid and touchable. He encouraged us to dream democracy anew."
At Larry's memorial, optimism about the prospects of that dream was sparking across the room, prompting an un-funereal glee. The informal conversations among us Goodwynistas were about the encouraging signs we're now seeing of a Populist renewal percolating up from America's grassroots. The renewal is as yet more a series of sustained actions than a movement. But all of those people-fired actions are in rebellion against various forms of corporate imperiousness from fracking to the imposition of a poverty-wage ethic in our rich land, and all are being joined by large numbers of people who've not previously been politically active nor counted as progressive. Yes, Larry Goodwyn has died, but the democratic possibilities that were his life's work suddenly seem more within America's reach today than we could have imagined ten or even five years ago.
At the close of my remembrance of Goodwyn, I usurped an advertising slogan that a local moving company was using when I first migrated to Austin, Texas, in 1976. The company was just a little outfit consisting of one truck and two burly guys whose names, as I recall, were something like Skeeter and Booger. But their slogan expressed a big, positive, populistic outlook: "If we can get it loose," they asserted, "we can move it."
That not only fit Larry's decades-long effort to free the true meaning of American Populism from the historical dustbin, but it's also apt for the promising emergence of a new Populist moment in our history.