Populist Momentum

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America BY Lawrence Goodwyn. Oxford University Press. . .

The cover of The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America

DOWNWARDLY MOBILE Americans had a choice between the Republicans and Democrats: two parties passionately opposed to each other, especially on issues of race and nationalism, but both dominated by a set of business interests that ensured that neither represented the working class. The year was 1875. Then as now, anger roiled rural communities, which felt their few privileges—ownership of land, financial independence—slipping away. As monetary policy drove farmers' prices down and cast many into poverty, economic suffering was compounded by humiliation. Duke historian Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978) tells the tale of the National Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party, which, toward the end of the nineteenth century, formed a short-lived multiracial political juggernaut and challenged the capitalists dominating both major parties. In the age of Trump, the only way to forestall a terrifying so-called populism on the right will be to build a real, nationwide populist movement of our own. Trump has the money, so we have to have the people, and craft a movement strong enough to take on the wealthiest interests. Goodwyn shows us how, once, it was done, and almost succeeded.

The Populist Moment reads like a road map for creating a mass movement in part because, before writing it, Goodwyn had been a political activist, building multiracial political coalitions in 1960s Texas. The questions he asked of history were urgent to him, as they still are to us now. "Mass democratic movements are overarchingly difficult for human beings to generate," he writes in his introduction. "How does mass protest happen at all, then—to the extent that it does happen?" He outlines four phases of movement building: the creation of autonomous institutions, the recruitment of masses of people, movement education, and politicization. The contours of these phases emerge from Goodwyn's careful retelling of the rural organizing that birthed the People's Party.

Fundamental to the project was the farmers' experience of themselves as having agency and self-determination. People who had been culturally conditioned to accept their place within the status quo began to see themselves differently and rejected it. How did they accomplish this? That's the process that is so exciting to watch unfold in the book, and to imagine for ourselves. Goodwyn wrote that Americans had been participating in "a mass folkway of resignation," and that idea still resonates: Many of us have little faith that our protests can change things. Goodwyn called this a "decline of individual political self-respect." Our moment demands that we uproot this insidious feeling by doing the daunting work of organizing. "Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect," writes Goodwyn. "They are not resigned; they are not intimidated."

Sarah Leonard is a senior editor at The Nation and coeditor of The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century (Metropolitan Books, 2016).