Where are the Populists?

Where are the Populists?

Michael Collins

"There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.William Jennings Bryan, 1896

Populism is broadly defined as "political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people's needs and wishes." The majority are  deliberately held down by the financial elite.  Removal of the financial elite is the vehicle to realize the "people's needs and wishes." (Graph)

The statement from William Jennings Bryan is pure populism. It becomes less pure as he proceeded with his speech. He used a metaphor of burning down the nation's big cities since they were, he claimed, the stronghold of the financial elite and support for the gold standard for currency.

In practice, populism almost always entails anger and resentment.

A combination of factors has the United States ripe for populist sentiments. The financial collapse which surfaced fully at the end of the Bush administration resulted in help to both the major financial firms and the people. The financial firms got $14  trillion dollars worth of bailouts. The people got $1.8 trillion in President Obama's stimulus package, much of which consisted of tax cuts for political favorites.

On a more basic level, the disparity in wealth shows that the top just 5% of the population controls 59% of the nations wealth. Include the next 5% and you find that 10% of the population controls 71% of the wealth. The parties and the media can trot out all the diversions they want, people know this and they're increasingly upset as the recession/depression bears down on the vast majority of citizens.

Major Populist Efforts in the Past

Bryan's Cross of Gold speech of 1896 expressed agrarian populism at a time when large portion of the people lived and worked  in rural areas. It was at the expense of working class people in cities, thus denying a unified movement of those at the bottom of the financial ladder.

Bryan is a good model of how populist politicians operate. They divide the the working class and poor by race or locality  and then enunciate the message of class exploitation tailored to the target subgroup, in this case rural citizens.

Georgia's populist governor, Thomas E. Watson, a contemporary of Bryan, went so far as to establish the Populist Party (People's Party).   This met with some success but, like Bryan, Watson retreated to race baiting since his cause was ultimately his own political aggrandizement.

One of the few populists who might have been competitive in a national campaign was Huey Long, the Governor then Senator from Depression era Louisiana. His populist message was clear and he spoke to all citizens without geographic or racial division:

"According to the tables which we have assembled, it is our estimate that four percent of the American people own eighty five percent of the wealth of America, and that over 70 percent of the people of America don't own enough to pay for the debts that they owe.

"How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what's intended for 9/10th of the people to eat? The only way to be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub that he ain't got no business with!" Huey P. Long, Dec. 11, 1934

Long established Share Our Wealth clubs all over the country and was to the left of the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Due to the clarity of his message, Long was a far greater threat to the powerful than Roosevelt. He had a record of using public works and education to help the poor and working classes and he advanced universal beliefs of economic rights without the racism almost always associated with Southern populism. He was compromised by charges of corruption and his national effort, tied to his persona, collapsed after he was murdered in 1935.

There are other examples of politicians who pushed populist themes. The late George Wallace's campaign for president contained populist elements. But like Bryan, this was tied to an overarching theme of racism. Arguably, Wallace's rhetoric was incorporated into Nixon's Southern strategy but with the presence of corporate insiders at the top of the ticket.

Where is Today's Populist Movement?

It's not likely that there will be one, although politicians and parties will take advantage of the suffering of citizens by co-opting the populist message without offering a real program. It is nearly impossible to have a sustained political movement without a a strong  ideological foundation.

On a national scale, true populists don't exist. The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley was attributed to Brown's self portrayal as a “regular guy.” Hotline commented, “he's nailed the populist-style retail politicking.”

That's fine for election time but Brown is already on record for supporting big banks maintaining tax cuts for the very rich, and minimal interventions for the majority of citizens to deal with the economic crisis.  Ironically, there is  a strong case that Brown's election was due to a populist-like protest against the bailouts the Democrats have bestowed on big banks.

The Democrats have had brief  moments of populist expression. When his bill to help with soaring foreclosure rates failed, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) exclaimed, the banks, “frankly, … they own this place.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said recently,  “The truth is -- let me break the bad news to the American people -- big money interests control the United States Congress.”

Each Senator returned to the fold after their statements. Durbin continued as Senate Whip, gathering votes for a middle of the road corporatist agenda. After he criticized of big money interests, Sanders supported the big-money-friendly Senate health reform bill.   No Senator and few members of Congress have adopted redistribution of wealth the centerpiece of their agenda.

A sustained populist movement requires a central statement on the current distribution and future redistribution of wealth.  Adopting that position is a deal killer when it comes to campaign fund raising, the ticket into modern electoral politics.

One consistent national voice for universal social justice, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, (D-OH), has been consistently maligned and marginalized with the result that his message is buried.

There have been political movements based on social justice, a reasonable distribution of wealth, services, and opportunities.  The  Socialist Party of America  presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs', stated a strong case for the wisdom of the people and the need to end politics as usual:

In the Republican and Democratic parties you of the common herd are not expected to think. That is not only unnecessary but might lead you astray. That is what the "intellectual" leaders are for. They do the thinking and you do the voting. They ride in carriages at the front where the band plays and you tramp in the mud, bringing up the rear with great enthusiasm.  E.V. Debs, June 16, 1918

The Debs campaign ended shortly after this speech when the administration of President Woodrow Wilson charged and convicted Debs under the Espionage Act based on his opposition to the World War I draft in the same speech.  He was jailed and his public career was finished.

That lesson may have inspired the current politics of don't ask, don't tell.   Don't ask too often about the distorted national priorities and don't tell the people what they already know; that the distribution of wealth has captured the vast majority in a never ending game of catch up that cannot be won under the current political and economic system.


This article may be reproduced in whole or in part with attribution of authorship and a link to this article.

Eugene V. Debs, The Canton Ohio Speech, June 16, 1918

Kucinich Electrifies Convention Arena, August 26, 2008



perfect post for this site!

One of the reasons I co-opted the name is to redefine the term. I believe today's Populism are the sane policies that are for the national interest and working America, on the economic front.

But this is a long overdue post because I don't think too many know the political U.S. history of the term.

Thanks and good work.

Glad you like it

I was just going to post a disclaimer that the critique part of the piece wasn't a snark at this site but then it occurred to me, you folks know your're not William Jennings Bryan or Huey P. Long;)

I totally agree on freeing the term populist for the benefit of the people. Here's a very funny response to this article on The Agonist:


Populists think the system is fine, but that the people at the top are swine.

Sunnstein is the new Godwin

Tonsure Wimple February 12, 2010 - 3:22pm
If it's just resentment based, then any pol can co-opt and misuse the term.  If populism, as the accurate assessment of the political equation, is matched with the fundamental principals of social justice or simply "the greatest good," then it's a strong vehicle --  the people prevail over the powerful for the common good -- that's what I'm trying to get at.  Does that fit in with what you're saying? I think so but I'm trying not to be presumptuous.. 


maybe a nice poll

Yes I think the will of the people needs to override these politicians and more importantly these globalist financial international multinational corporate "entities".... especially the money, the economy....

Working America or Americans is the common good....restated, the national economic interest.

The site is also trying to get more people aware of, learn about, self-teach, all things $$ (econ) because currently the masses (esp. bloggers with graduate degrees) get brain fuzz fog when anything appears with numbers in it...and while Joe Q. Public is in a coma, after being hypnotized with graphs and numbers.....the big theft occurs.

Ya know like Hank Paulson and Ben....the money markets went negative....so OMG there is a CRISIS, so we must have $800 billion dollars right now with NO STRINGS ATTACHED....

there were some crisis things happening but the Fed by guaranteeing the money market funds to me stopped quite a bit right there....

and that didn't entail getting $800 billion dollars with no strings attached from Congress.

Yet, since then it has been proclaimed over and over again TARP was necessary. Really? To me, all that has happened is banks just went back to gambling with U.S. taxpayer money and the entire real estate crisis was kicked down the road and onto the Fed's balance sheet from private financial institutions, but that "crisis" sure looks alive and kicking, simply moved to different locations.

Maybe a site poll on

what does populist mean to you?

1. both parties are screwed

2. i'm made as hell and am not going to take it anymore

3. the globe is run by criminals

or maybe

People pay attention to the facts, politicians pay attention to the money

I'll do a poll if people want one.

Outstanding post, Mr. Collins

Although I disagree somewhat with your stats as I believe when one drills down further, as in the ownership of banks who own those mortgages, etc., it is more akin to the top 1% actually owning 90% of the assets and real wealth in America, but why quibble?

This made me remember a friend from long ago in the military, who's old boyhood chum was researching and tracking the ownership of all the businesses in his town of 50,000 population as his master's thesis in business admin.

This fellow, a hardcore capitalist, was really shocked to find that at the very end of his research, one family ended up owning, by way of the banks, holding companies, and other financial configurations, all the businesses in his town. Boy, was his Ayn Randian existence turned upside down!

Eugene Debs, now there was a Real American!

Thanks again.


I like your approach better. I suspect that you're right on the 90%. If I can support that, I'll use it. I'll gladly take any pointers now or later. The 71$ is bad enough and it's getting worse.

I like the story about your friend. That's what I call real world research.

Debs had it going but Woodrow Wilson's AG Palmer got him. Ironically, Harding let Debs out of jail early then invited him to the White House and treated him well on the visit. Go figure.

Who is working America

I always see this and I have my hazy picture of working America but who is working America?

Is only someone doing physical labor a working American?
Is the car salesman a working American?
Is the admin assistant a working American?
How about the doctor, the nurse?
The insurance salesman, the book keeper, the guitar player on stage?

Outside of the people that are born into the Trust baby class such as a Rockefeller, a Kennedy and others, are we, the people that get up each morning and toil at their given profession, are we not all the working American?

The problem I see with a populist view is that those with the view have their defined view of a working American. Often I get the feeling that their view of the working American is just a synonym for Union worker which, may very well be the antithesis of the broader view of The American Worker.

I know people that have businesses that some years(they can have multiple years in a row) they make crap money, they almost live hand to mouth. Then they get the good year, the year they need to save and store for the lean years. In the good year, the time of storage, a populist may want to take a greater share of taxation. A populist wouldn't consider the individual business cycle, the populist could / would take too much from what is needed for the savings for the lean years. This is true for people that sell to a niche market , a large equipment sales person, etc.

If person A makes $60,000 a year he will pay 30% a year in taxes. In 5 years they make $300,000 or $90,000 in taxes. If person B makes that big sale in one year, the $250,000 sale, the one that must last through the lean years, why should the populist take 45%? They would pay $112,500 in taxes in one year. Person B might only make $300,000 in total over 5 years but he would pay more out in taxes.

There are plenty of people that have large swings in their income cycle. Why would a populist want to take a bigger share just because they have large swings in income?

I would imagine a lot of people working in Hollywood have large swings. Heck there are some that make one hit wonders and then never appear again. They make that $500,000 that must last a lifetime because they never again get a job in Hollywood. Why should the government take half of their money in taxes? Hm? I'm not a fan of Hollywood but ya get the example.

These are just some of the problems I have with the populist label. I didn't get much sleep last night so I hope I made clear in print what is in my head.

Now I'm going back to listen to my new CD of Neil Young's Greatest Hits. Where's my guitar?

defining working America

I would claim it's all U.S. citizens, additional LPR (green cards or legal permanent residents), from the janitor who might be a union member, to the factory worker who also might be a union member to public services (fire, police, teacher) who probably are union members to techies, who probably are not union members to middle management who most assuredly are not union members because the laws do not allow them to join (which is a huge problem).

So, one might also put it to mean the economic range from the working poor to the $250k+ salary people and most assuredly small business owners.

Everybody who isn't in the "executive class" or "uber rich" is working America.

You could also define it from the BLS population survey of the U.S. labor force numbers.

That's critical

That is the case. It's "us" - all 299,999,900 - up against what's left, 100,000 or so maybe. That approach is the only way to real change.

You're clear

Those are good questions and points. I was happy to see RobardOak answer it so well but this is useful information and the Robert's answer is correct and politically pragmatic as well.

I was listening to an interview of someone who was protesting

at an Obama rally during the campaign. This gentleman said he was against higher taxes and the interviewer asked if socio-economic status. The guy said he wasn't rich but he may be some day. WRONG.

If that guy doesn't win the lottery, hit big in Vegas or discover a great invention he will never be 'rich'. The greatest myth that still exists is that people work hard they can climb the economic ladder. That notion died a long time ago - the link between wages and productivity was severed in the 1980's. But yet, people still believe in this myth.

Economic mobility for a good portion of Americans is non-existent. Wake up people.

RebelCapitalist.com - Financial Information for the Rest of Us.

Collins Article

There still are opportunities for charlatan money manipulators to get rich. The 90 - 99% of the rest of us will continue to struggle and hope the market recovers to some degree so that our various accounts ensure a modest life and/or retirement.

Populism Was Replaced by the 'My Babys Daddy' Generation

When those thoughts were evolving there was no welfare check in the mail, no food stamp card, no section 8, no medicaid, etc etc.

The government placated the very poor to create a dependent class of society that does nothing but feed off the middle class workers who pay a higher tax rate than the ultra wealthy. I for instance cannot afford to hide money in the Caymans that I need to pay the mortgage.

Central Falls, RI (for instance) a community made up of nearly 100% Columbians ) a fact that was highlighted by the national media when huge cocaine busts were being made by the feds there) has an average household income of $22,000 a year. The state here picks up 100% of their ongoing school costs and 97% of their building maintenance and new building costs. Other communities pay about 50% of the ongoing costs and 100% of the building costs. This entire community is in effect on welfare. 50% of all Central Falls HS students are failing 100% of their classes. The average teacher salary at that HS is over $72,000 a year in contrast to the population they serve. They are babysitters.

Taxpayers have left that community and taxpayers are leaving RI to avoid paying for the 'my babys daddy' and 'my babys mommas' that are an increasingly larger part of the population. RI is just a view of what will happen to the country as a whole.

We used to tax the wealthy at 90%+ but now 35% is too much even though they pay less than the AMT.

We cannot have our cake and eat it too.

Either we raise taxes considerably and or we cut back on the benefit programs that are part of the mandated spending that is not frozen by Obama's paygo fantasy.

I could point you to big web sites that

think they can have their cake and eat it.

There are many, many, many people living in the USA that feel their needs must be met by the government.

The two major parties have their own way of garnering power over the population. The dependent class has yet, maybe never will, figure out the welfare mentality trap. Plus you have a lot of people telling them they don't even need to entertain the thought that it may be a trap.

The other side uses corporate welfare to keep their power structure.

At least the corporate welfare side does have the ability to be a producer. The individual welfare side only produces more babies.

Will we ever, ever vote out the scoundrels that promote all taxpayer give-a-ways. I fear that the answer is no.

now, now

I recall you posted quite a bit of bogus data on health care out of political philosophy. This is the problem, bogus data or assuming one cure if it involves "the government" is evil or bad, such as one which involved Macro economic theory must be "evil or bad" or involves the markets must be "evil or bad".

Now, the point of EP should be to examine the facts, objective facts and remove the political spin or philosophies.

That's why this site is an economics site. It's clearly very easy for people to argue over political philosophies and very hard for them to bother to study down into what a credit default swap is and how exactly it caused the threat of contagion resulting in the biggest corporate welfare gift we've seen in the history of the U.S.

That's yet another reason one had better do their home work and validate their facts and data and why it's a huge no no to take some corporate lobbyists "white paper" and claim it's true on this site.

Not only do you have to have your facts straight, but you had better find out if your sources are spinning and presenting biased data too....and the only way to figure that one out is to educate/improve your critical reading and analysis skills.

By arguing without the real facts or by philosophies, we have what we have...a CORPORATE written health care bill that's not going to pass and doesn't reduce costs, reduce the monopoly power of health insurance companies instead of a well cited, well reasoned system which works and would be cheaper.

If people would get over their philosophies there might be a prayer's chance to do some very simple, common sense things. Like who here believes drug companies would be allowed to run TV ads? Marketing is the most of their costs, it's not R&D, so doesn't it make sense to force drug companies to limit their marketing budgets if you want to bring down costs?

So, once again, EP is supposed to be about facts, not beliefs or philosophies and why it's an econ/finance site.

Corporate welfare is a good thing????

At least the corporate welfare side does have the ability to be a producer. The individual welfare side only produces more babies.

A producer??? Negative, that's why it's called "corporate welfare." The layer upon layer of financialization, producing nothing, sucking the guts out of any viable economy, ends up producing people who can never be bothered with anything so trivial as THE FACTS!

You've got to be kidding me, right? With Wall Street spending endless amount of time, and wasting and stealing endless amounts of recources in coming up with ever more financial (scams) engineering schemes to peddle their debt, which they then transfer to the rest of us, while keeping their profits and assets acquired by said peddling of debt, is simply criminal.

Even the most simple-minded should be able to comprehend that, dude!

holy shit

I missed that comment. Right ok, now this is something, all political spin machines, all flavors, we want OFF of this site, inane rhetoric and beliefs not based in fact.

Jesus, we're talking trillions of dollars in corporate welfare and someone is taking some crap trying to blame welfare mothers for our economic woes...

(doesn't help that the entire system, including massive discrimination against single mothers, almost guarantees they are going to have to turn to social services for help to survive)

Oops, reminds me, there is a study out that says 53% of all "immigrant" families get social services. I haven't read it to see if it's spin or what and I esp. am not impressed with "immigrants" being lumped in together on that one (trust me, this study ain't making it to this site unless I can personally verify every single data point because the title is odious alone!) but I found that quite a shocking headline.

I'm Against ANY Type of Welfare

I see the comments here only address someone who commented on what I wrote rather than what I wrote.

Cities like Central Falls, RI will get bigger and bigger and taxpayers who do pay taxes will be unable to carry the burden sooner or later of the hordes of illiterate invaders suffocating our society. BTW everything I wrote about that 'place' is an easily looked up fact.

We also cannot afford to pay for the miscues of the ultra wealthy who do not bleed overseas to protect this country, nor pay taxes on money they hide overseas. They are merely the leeches at the other end of the spectrum.

They all feed off the middle class.

There is a limit as to what a middle class can be burdened with and that point is fast coming.

None of this will end peacefully except in some economist's fantasy. People will reach a limit.


Several things

1) Central Falls is not "100% Columbian". According 2000 Census "Hispanics" made up 47.8% of population - 100% would mean a huge - huge shift in 10 years.

2) Rhode Island has property tax and other taxes and I assume there is real property in Central Falls, RI - someone is paying property taxes. And these "Columbians", unless going across state lines, are buying things and if RI has sales tax then they are paying taxes.

3) Public education is NOT welfare.

4) Don't worry, I doubt "horde of illiterate invaders" will suffocate society - we are doing a good job of that to ourselves.

Economic polices since 1980 have done more to redirect income upward and destroy middle class than any welfare program that in many cases don't exist today.

Just saying.

RebelCapitalist.com - Financial Information for the Rest of Us.

hello boys & girls, this is your friendly neighborhood EP admin

speaking. Folks, now come on, I notice we get long threads on these political slant posts and zero comments on the in depth economic EIs, analysis, policy posts.

Ya all, what is site motto? When in doubt, grab a calculator, right?

Can we put the focus back on what is really going on with the economy here and the stats?

I mean I am gravely concerned personally without any derivatives reforms we're gonna have Economic Armageddon 2 in the next 3 years so....

uh, let's focus into if that's true and what can we do about it. What kind of legislation can we scream from the rooftops is a must pass??

Come on, TV is full of this crap and oh yeah, I get so upset with the illiterate masses invading my neighborhood and taking my money.

Damn executives drove up the price of homes, get their own roads paved while others go gravel, buy the local government and drive up food prices with their damn expensive wines and gourmet cheese.

My damn neighbor is a public nuisance with his personal helicopter pad!

We really need a fence or something to keep all of those greedy uber-richies out!

Several Things Wrong

1 - Central Falls now has a 65% Hispanic make up according to ABC which got the state from CF school numbers. When the city was highlighted on 60 Minutes in the 80's regarding the cocaine trade the population was nearly 100% of Hispanic decent with a high number being Columbian. That figure was used on the 60 Minutes segment and as a nearby resident I can tell you thats still closer to the case than 65%. The 14% that claim to be black there are most likely hispanic also. The census may say otherwise but thats how people fill out the paperwork not reality, sorry to say. Many many people in CF refuse to fill out the census paperwork since they are here illegally. Thats been in the local news also.


A newspaper article that details Central Falls being the 'Cocaine capitol of New England" in the mid 80's as written about by Rolling Stone magazine and featured on 60 Minutes. The article states as much as 50% of the population at that time was Colombian.


2 - As I stated Central Falls contributes 3% through its property tax to the building upkeep and new building bonds that the State has issued for them currently at $25 million.
Central Falls contributes ZERO percent to the ongoing school system costs through their property tax, all the money, $44 million a year comes from state income taxes. At $23k median household income not much state income tax is being collected from Central Falls in fact its likely that its a net negative overall.


3 - It is 'welfare' when residents do not pay their fair share towards costs. You may call it something else but it is what it is. 96% of the population there is on state and federal aid because the kids are citizens the parents get it also. Central Falls also does not contribute to its own public pension plan. The state has yet to pick up that tab though. 75% of my property taxes go towards the local school costs in my community (a high number because we have a volunteer fire department) and a high percentage of my state income tax also. No one in Central Falls can say that.

4 - 50% of all students there are failing 100% of their classes. 52% drop out. 48% graduate, meaning all you have to do to graduate is show up. That also means that half the kids are failing phys ed. Thats an illiterate hoard waiting to become the next generation of 'my babys daddy' and my babys momma'. Teachers there say the kids come to class with no books, paper, pencils, pens etc BUT they have IPhones and IPods. They aren't buying those with welfare checks.


You know I don't disagree with you on the welfare for the wealthy but I live in this area and I know the area and I have the facts. These people have no intention of integrating with our society or contributing either. Certainly at some point the ever growing population of illiterates (you can call it whatever you like I choose to use that based on school statistics that back my use of that term) must be dealt with in a reality based way. I could be less kind and use a term like animals. This area has a huge cash flow do to the drug trade and people there are not as impoverished as statistics (which only track legal income) show.

Economics tends to ignore reality sometimes even when it stares back.