Where Historians Disagree - Populism

American history offers few examples of successful popular movements operating outside the two major parties. Perhaps that is why Populism, which in its brief, meteoric life became one of the few such phenomena to gain real national influence, has attracted particular attention from historians. It has also produced deep disagreements among them. Scholars have differed in many ways in their interpretations of Populism, but at the heart of most such disagreements have been disparate views of the value of popular, insurgent politics. Some historians have harbored a basic mistrust of such mass uprisings and have therefore viewed the Populists with suspicion and hostility. Others have viewed such insurgency approvingly, as evidence of a healthy resistance to oppression and exploitation; and to them, the Populists have appeared as essentially admirable, democratic activists.

This latter view was the basis of the first, and for many years the only, general history of Populism: John D. Hicks's The Populist Revolt (1931). Rejecting the then-prevailing view of the Populists as misguided and unruly radicals, Hicks described them as people reacting rationally and progressively to economic misfortune. Hicks was writing in an era in which the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner were dominating historical studies, and he brought to his analysis of Populism a strong emphasis on regionalism. Populists, he argued, were part of the democratic West, resisting pressures from the more aristocratic East. (He explained southern Populism by describing the South as an "economic frontier" region—not newly settled like the West, but prey to many of the same pressures and misfortunes.) The Populists, Hicks suggested, were aware of the harsh, even brutal, impact of eastern industrial growth on rural society. They were proposing reforms that would limit the oppressive power of the new financial titans and restore a measure of control to the farmers. Populism was, he wrote, "the last phase of a long and perhaps a losing struggle—the struggle to save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America." A losing struggle, perhaps, but not a vain one; for many of the reforms the Populists advocated, Hicks implied, became the basis of later progressive legislation.

This generally approving view of Populism prevailed among historians for more than two decades, amplified in particular by C. Vann Woodward, whose Origins of the New South (1951) and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) portrayed southern Populism as a challenge to the stifling power of old elites and even, at times, to at least some elements of white supremacy. But Woodward was not typical of most scholars viewing Populism in the early 1950s. For others, the memory of European fascism and uneasiness about contemporary communism combined to create a general hostility toward mass popular politics; and a harsh new view of the Populist movement appeared in a work by one of the nation's leading historians. Richard Hofstadter, in The Age of Reform (1955), admitted that Populism embraced some progressive ideas and advocated some sensible reforms. But the bulk of his effort was devoted to exposing both the "soft" and the "dark" sides of the movement.

Populism was "soft," Hofstadter claimed, because it rested on a nostalgic and unrealistic myth, because it romanticized the nation's agrarian past and refused to confront the realities of modern life. Farmers, he argued, were themselves fully committed to the values of the capitalist system they claimed to abhor. And Populism was "dark," he argued, because it was permeated with bigotry and ignorance. Populists, he claimed, revealed anti- Semitic tendencies, and they displayed animosity toward intellectuals, easterners, and urbanites as well.

Almost immediately, historians more favorably disposed toward mass politics in general, and Populism in particular, began to challenge what became known as the "Hofstadter thesis." Norman Pollack argued in a 1962 study, The Populist Response to Industrial America, and in a number of articles that the agrarian revolt had rested not on nostalgic, romantic concepts but on a sophisticated, far- sighted, and even radical vision of reform—one that recognized, and even welcomed, the realities of an industrial economy, but that sought to make that economy more equitable and democratic by challenging many of the premises of capitalism. Walter T. K. Nugent, in Tolerant Populists (1963), argued that the Populists in Kansas were far from bigoted, that they not only tolerated but welcomed Jews and other minorities into their party, and that they offered a practical, sensible program.

Lawrence Goodwyn, in Democratic Promise (1976), described the Populists as members of a "coop- erative crusade," battling against the "coercive potential of the emerging corporate state." Populists were more than the nostalgic bigots Hofstadter described, more even than the progressive reformers portrayed by Hicks. They offered a vision of truly radical change, widely disseminated through what Goodwyn called a "movement culture." They advocated an intelligent, and above all a democratic, alternative to the inequities of modern capitalism.

At the same time that historians were debating the question of what Populism meant, they were also arguing over who the Populists were. Hicks, Hofstadter, and Goodwyn disagreed on many things, but they shared a general view of the Populists as victims of economic distress—usually one-crop farmers in economically marginal agricultural regions victimized by drought and debt. Other scholars, however, suggested that the problem of identifying the Populists is more complex. Sheldon Hackney, in Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (1969), argued that the Populists were not only economically troubled but also socially rootless, "only tenuously connected to society by economic function, by personal relationships, by stable community membership, by political participation, or by psychological identification with the South's distinctive myths."

Peter Argersinger, Stanley Parsons, James Turner, and others have similarly suggested that Populists were characterized by a form of social and even geographical isolation. Steven Hahn's 1983 study The Roots of Southern Populism identified poor white farmers in the "upcountry" as the core of Populist activity in Georgia; and he argued that they were reacting not simply to the psychic distress of being "left behind," but also to a real economic threat to their way of life—to the encroachments of a new commercial order of which they had never been and could never be a part.

Finally, there has been a continuing debate over the legacy of Populism.

In Roots of Reform (1999), Elizabeth Sanders refutes the notion that Populism died as a movement after the 1896 election. On the contrary, she argues, the Populists succeeded in dominating much of the Democratic Party in the following decades and turning it into a vehicle for advancing the interests of farmers and the broader reform causes for which Populists had fought.

Michael Kazin, in The Populist Persuasion (1994), is one of a number of scholars who have argued that a Populist tradition has survived throughout much of American history, and into our own time, influencing movements as disparate as those led by Huey Long in the 1930s, both the New Left and George Wallace in the 1960s, and Ross Perot in the 1990s. Others have maintained that the term "populism" has been used (and misused) so widely as to have become virtually meaningless, that its only real value is in reference to the agrarian insurgents of the 1890s, who first gave meaning to the word in America.



http://history.missouristate.edu/wrmiller/Populism/texts/historiography.htm - "A Centennial Historiography of American Populism," Worth Robert Miller

http://www.h-net.org/~shgape/bibessays/populism.html - "Recent Literature on American Populism," Rebecca Edwards


After examining these two historiographies above, summarize the conclusions of Worth Robert Miller's overview of the populism literature. What have been the major disagreements among historians of populism, and why do you think the issue of populism has continued to be so contentious in the academy?

http://edweb.tusd.k12.az.us/uhs/APUSH/2nd%20Sem/Articles%20Semester%202/1%20Hofstadter.htm - "The Farmer and the Realities," Richard Hofstadter

As the textbook notes, the "Hofstadter thesis" has been among the most controversial (and influential) interpretations of populism. Read this excerpt by Richard Hofstadter and summarize its argument. What does Hofstadter mean by "the agrarian myth," and what is its role in the formation of populism?

http://www.amphigory.com/oz.htm - "The Wizard of Oz, Parable on Populism," Henry Littlefield

http://www.halcyon.com/piglet/Populism.htm - "The Rise and Fall of The Wizard of Oz as a 'Parable on Populism'," David Parker


Read these two articles and trace the role, rise, and fall of The Wizard of Oz in populist historiography. What arguments does Littlefield make to suggest that the book is a Populist tract? What, according to Parker, accounted for its ready acceptance as such by the historical community? How was this interpretation ultimately disproved?