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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Populism is a winning strategy to bring urban/rural together


Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

Wait, what? you say.  You may be thinking that “populism” is the racist and xenophobic philosophy behind Donald Trump’s success.  Since liberal and progressive pundits say this all the time, it’s understandable that you might believe it.  But it’s not true. At all.


Populism actually has a history of uniting masses of people all across this country, against the big corporations and their lapdogs in politics, and for a more just, multi-racial society.  And the sooner Americans grasp this lesson and get to fanning the flames of a new populism, the sooner we can build the power to fix our country.


I recently read a great book by Thomas Frank (What’s The Matter With Kansas) called The People, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (2020).  Today I’ll touch on the key lessons from this book for progressives.  I’ll also talk about an issue that’s under the radar right now, but that could help create a real coalition for change across urban/rural and regional lines. 


Lessons from Thomas Frank about populism


The short answer as to why there is such a strong theme of anti-populism coming from the mainstream media:  Corporate America and its friends in elite circles, including academia, media, and today’s Democratic Party, have always considered populism a threat to their continued dominance.  In their view, allowing the “deplorables” on the lower level of society, who don’t understand how things work, to gain political power would lead to disaster.    Frank cites a 2017 headline in the Boston Globe that warned, “If the elites go down, we’re all in trouble.”


These elites reacted with horror on the three occasions when we had real populist movements in this country, and united to crush them.  I invite you to read the book for much more detail on these movements and what happened.


The three occasions were: in the 1880’s and 90’s, when the People’s Party, aka the Populists, was a mass movement that challenged corporate monopolies; in the 1930’s, when mass unrest led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enact the New Deal; and in the 1960’s, during the civil rights movement.  I’ll share a little about each movement, to give you a sense of who they were.


The Nineteenth Century: The People’s Party


Frank calls the People's Party, aka Populists, “the first movement in American politics that demanded far-reaching intervention in the economy in order to benefit working people.” 

It had several elements.  The Farmers Alliance brought together Southern farmers who were kept in poverty by predatory banks, and Western farmers at the mercy of railroad monopolies and far-off commodity speculators.  They included a Colored Farmer’s Alliance.  The People’s Party won support from the emerging labor movement too, and in some places was largely a labor party.  They had electoral success, including electing governors in Western states.


In 1893 there was a sharp recession, and banks failed all over the country, fueling the Populist revolt. The movement concentrated on economic issues, avoiding divisive “culture wars” of the day, like Prohibition. 


A key economic issue was the “gold standard,” too complex to get into here, but it led to constant deflation.  This meant that debtors, like the farmers, had to pay back their debts with dollars that cost a lot more than when they took out their loans.  They could never get out from under.  In 1895, a Populist, William Jennings Bryan, won the Democratic nomination for President on the madly popular “Free Silver” (anti-gold standard) platform. 


The 1930’s:  The New Deal


During the Depression, farmers and workers came together again to fight the forces of capital.  Unions launched a wave of strikes, facing violence, but also fighting back.  Frank says that the big difference between 1892 and 1932 was that FDR, “who brought farmers and workers together against Wall Street,” became President, and served as president for 20 years. 

FDR didn’t call himself a Populist, but he clearly shared the Populists’ belief system, and he didn’t just talk: he delivered.  He bailed out farmers and homeowners, he put people to work, he protected unions, he smashed oligopolies, and more.  When he was inaugurated, he said, “The money changers have fled from the high seats in the temple of our civilization,” and later, that he “welcomed their hatred.”   Popular culture, too, celebrated the “common man,” and “social realism” became the hot new genre.


At this time, there was also a “nightmare flip side of the era’s populist hopes.”  There were those who used the language of anti-elitism for “gross personal advancement and for shocking anti-democratic ends.”  Huey Long from Louisiana and Father Coughlin from Detroit were a couple of these.  So this idea of “bad populism” is not totally imaginary, yet this was the “fake” populism, not the real thing.


The 1950’s: Anti-Populism Grows


Earlier, the anti-populist crowd was primarily made up of business interests.  But now, a liberal elite led by people at top universities took up the fight.  Frank says the “highly educated learned to deplore working-class movements for their bigotry, their refusal of modernity, and their borderline madness.  The word they use for this is ‘populism.’ ”  And this idea has only spread and hardened from the 50’s until the present day.


The 60's: The Civil Rights Movement


The civil rights movement began as a movement of African Americans seeking freedom and justice for their people.  As it grew, so did its ambition.  Bayard Rustin, the leading movement political strategist, was steeped in class analysis.  He believed in working through “the ballot, the union card, and coalition politics.”  He had a master plan called the “Freedom Budget.”  He planned to win political power for a redistribution of wealth by “building a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority,” a coalition of “Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.” 


Racism was deadly for such a coalition, because it undermined solidarity.  Liberal anti-populism was a problem too, because liberals couldn’t see themselves on the same side as white working class people who supported the war in Vietnam and such.  Ultimately the coalition did not hold, the Freedom Budget never happened, and the Democratic Party was taken over by anti-populist technocrats.


And here we are.  While at the moment we have a resurgent and militant labor movement, and young organizers who embrace anti-capitalist ideas, and a resurgent movement of Blacks and Latinos – we don’t have a populist movement of all of them together.  We have some people who get it.  But the Democratic Party and liberals in general are still coddling big business and largely anti-populist, anti-rural and anti-working class. 

We are still short of the big coalition that could allow us to contest for real economic power.  In fact, we’re kind of hanging on by our fingernails, as the right wing gets passionate support for their “populist” branding, even though their leaders and their policies are pure elite.


But what about that issue under the radar, that could help get the band back together?


The under-the-radar issue: mining


The NPR talk show On Point recently spent an entire week on a special report called Elements of Energy: Mining For A Green Future.  It set off my spidey senses of political opportunity.  I recommend listening to the whole show if you want to learn more.  I refer below to some facts I learned on the show.


Making the transition to green energy will require using a lot more of several key elements:  lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper.  The elements are used heavily in producing batteries.


These elements are used in many of the electronic products we all use like cell phones and laptops, as well as heavy-duty batteries used in electric cars and other machines currently powered by fossil fuels.  They are produced around the world.  Several US states are also sources of these minerals. 


Mining, of course, can create tremendous environmental damage, especially to water systems, as well as health problems among mineworkers and the surrounding population.  Historically it’s been hard for people to fight back against mining companies and their allies in government.   


I see this moment as an opportunity for Americans to come together across regions, urban and rural areas, climate activists, unions and blue-collar workers, to fight for the lives of miners, their communities and environment, and for a more just green energy transition.


Battle lines around mining


The Biden administration wants to see these minerals sourced as much as possible in the United States. They say “sustainability throughout the supply chain is paramount…. We are committed to engaging communities—ensuring we provide secure, resilient and environmentally-friendly ways to source critical minerals and raw materials.”   The government will have particular power over mining on federal land. 


Tribal communities will have a lot to say about what happens with mining. According to MSCI, an investment consultant company, “among these key energy-transition metals, 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt reserves and resources in the U.S. are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations.”   Tribal activists in Nevada have been fighting a lithium mine there.  Also, according to Politico, Montana Democrats just launched a million-dollar voting initiative Monday that will work to turn out Montana’s tribal voters for Jon Tester in a key race for Democrats in the Senate this year.  Tester is a farmer, the only one in the Senate.


Native American voters have been helping the Democratic senator since he first won his seat in 2006. Tribal members make up nearly seven percent of Montana’s population.


Water resources are especially contested in the West as drought intensifies.  Many people get their water from wells, which makes mining’s water contamination particularly contentious.


All these issues have the potential to bring together rural homeowners, climate activists, mine workers and their unions, and Native Americans.


The government is early in the process of developing new rules for this whole process, and it’s sure to be a pitched battle between communities and mining interests.   Can people come together across political and urban/rural divides to protect their communities from destructive mining?


Western states’ history - and future?



One of the things that jumps out of the political map is how much red you see in the West.   Progressives and Democrats will never gain real power in Congress without being able to elect more people there.  So it behooves us to think about why they are so red now, and how that might begin to change.


As Colin Woodard describes in American Nations, the Far West (not including the West Coast) is the only nation where environmental factors trumped ethnic ones.  Once settlers got out there, they learned that the land was high, dry, and remote.  Most people in those days grew their own food, but Western land couldn’t be farmed.  It was hard to live there at all.  One thing that drove settlers out there was the California Gold Rush in 1848, and mining quickly spread around the region.


The West couldn’t be settled without vast industrial resources being brought in.  So its development was directed by large corporations or the federal government, which still owns much of the land. The West was treated as an internal colony, exploited and despoiled for the benefit of the coastal nations. Life in the West has sometimes been defined by the boom-and-bust nature of the mining industry. 


The Western political class, historically Republican, tends to revile the federal government, even though it is very dependent on them.  But they don’t revile their corporate masters, who have a shocking amount of control.


Could the West shift more to Democrats and progressives?


These are some of the Western states (there are others around the country) currently or planning to mine one or more of the key minerals at issue.  They’re a combination of deep-red and purple states.


-       Utah

-       Idaho

-       Montana

-       Colorado

-       New Mexico

-       Arizona

-       Nevada


Three of these states (UT, ID, MT) have GOP trifectas.  The next four states have been trending more Democratic in recent years:  AZ and NV now have divided state government.  CO (which has a lot of mining) and NM now have Democratic trifectas.  This second group are all Presidential swing states as well.


Let’s hope coalitions in Western states can organize around this mining issue as it gains importance.




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