In the 1890's Populists fought against the power and influence of big wealth - the robber barons- and supported political reforms to supplement their economic programs e.g. silver parity, to better their lives. These Populists were primarily from the rural parts of the nation with strength in the mid-west and the South.
At the turn of the 20th century there arose in the northern and urban areas of the country a Progressive movement that espoused political reforms (initiative, referendum, nomination by primary, direct election of Senators) They also supported the federal government as the most powerful political force in the nation supervising and furthering competition among the large corporations that were monopolizing most of the industries of the nation through trusts and holding companies. (oil, tobacco, steel).
Today there is a modern incarnation of Populism - the Tea Party movement. (I’m not talking about the TeaPartyExpress the front for a California Republican consulting firm that has made the Tea Party as envisioned by Dick Armey and his operation a dominant force in the national Republican party ) I’m referring to the grass roots movement of people who are genuinely concerned about government spending, huge deficits and what they see as government intrusion in their lives.
On the left there are grass roots organizations like Move On. Org and NetRoots who also object to too much government in personal lives and too a huge national deficit that threatens this nations solvency down the road.
The right and left grass roots may disagree on where to cut the spending and which personal life decisions should be exempt from government interference, or need government sanction or protections, but the basic philosophy can be reconciled. The problem seems to be the left is most concerned about government intrusion in the bedroom while the right is focused on government having its hand in the pocket book.
The moneyed interests that control our national and state governments keep these groups apart and fighting over deeply divisive cultural and social issues. Abortion, gay rights, immigration, fear of Muslim-Americans; all these have become wedge issues that the 2% who rule America use to keep the 98% divided. In the 1890’s as the Populists made inroads in the one party South the Democratic Bourbons (term for moneyed interests) pushed Jim Crow laws and were successful in keeping poor blacks (mostly tenant framers) separated from poor whites (mostly small farmers and mill hands). At times when Southern politicians like Huey Long could put black and white voters together they overthrew these controlling interests and briefly installed governments that supported such radical ideas as public school education (albeit segregated) and New Deal programs.
Liberals can learn much from the Tea Partiers. We can Reclaim the rhetoric of Populism which until the Tea Party movement was always associated with Liberals. We can Reclaim the government reform issues of the Progressive movement. Instead of fearing referendums we should embrace them and work to win them on the issues that mean much to us. Most of all we should Reclaim our belief and support of Liberty. After all it was Liberals who first insisted that government (state or federal) derived its powers from the consent of the governed. It is Liberals who support the right of all citizens to serve their country regardless of their life style choices. It is Liberals who believe that all children and adults in America have a right to access to quality education and quality health care. And it is Liberals who believe that women be allowed to make their own decisions regarding reproduction.
Liberals need to be more aggressive in appealing to those Americans who didn’t finish college (or for that matter High School). We can’t allow the right wing in this country to paint all Liberals as elitist intellectuals from New England colleges. Liberals need to “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land”. Perhaps we should adopt the Liberty Bell as our symbol.
Liberals whether under the name of Democratic-Republicans in the 1790’s, or Young America in the 1840’s or Populists in the 1890’s or Progressives in the 1910’s have stood for the right of every citizen” to work with dignity, live with dignity, and walk this earth with dignity”.