Populism with a brain: ten old/new ideas to give power back to the people.

Author:Lynn, Barry C.
Position:Cover story

The National Review recently described Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as "two populist peas in a pod." This was not a compliment. Across the political spectrum, people stick the "populist" label on politicians they see as exploiting the worst resentments and envies of some tribe or another. The segregationist George Wallace, by this reckoning, was a populist. So, too, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Yet there is a richer tradition of populism in the United States that has new relevancy today. The term itself dates to the early 1890s, when, as the historian Michael Kazin notes, journalists used it to describe members of the newly formed People's Party. These Populists with a capital P were men and women who, like us, faced an America in which monopolists were fast tightening their grip on all realms of the economy and concentrating immense wealth and political power.

These first Populists drew upon a political philosophy with roots back to the American Revolution. Part of this tradition is familiar--a belief that government must be run by the people. Populists called for direct election of senators and led the push for referendums and initiatives to bypass corrupt legislatures. But another part is largely forgotten--that the people are sovereign over the economy and have a responsibility to structure markets to promote the common good.

This was the "democratic republicanism" of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It holds that, just like political power, economic power must be distributed as widely as possible. Thus, the Populists focused much of their energy on combating efforts to monopolize commerce and natural resources, especially land. They also closely studied how to govern large corporations, and strongly supported unionization of workers and farmers to counter the power of concentrated capital.

In almost every key respect, the Populists succeeded in their revolution. In 1896 they captured the Democratic Party and ran William Jennings Bryan for president. He lost the election, but over the next sixteen years, even as the plutocrats tightened their grip, Bryan helped keep the fires of rebellion burning.

The turning point came in 1913 when Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, guided closely by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, enacted key parts of the Populist agenda, modernizing anti-monopoly law, creating the Federal Reserve System, and reforming trade policy. It was these years that teed up the achievements of the 1930s, when the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and Populist members of Congress like Wright Patman carried anti-monopoly principles back into almost every realm of American life.

By the 1960s, the anti-monopoly movement championed by the Populists existed no more, but largely because it had become thoroughly institutionalized. In 1962, the Supreme Court upheld an antitrust case, brought by the Eisenhower administration, that prevented the merger of two shoe companies because it would have given a single distributor a 2 percent share of the national market.

It is important to understand what the Populists were not. In 1892 they did call for public ownership of railroads, but the movement generally looked askance at "socialistic" actions that might undermine wide-scale ownership of private property. Populists also parted company with those who, like Teddy Roosevelt, argued that the way to control Big Business was to regulate it with Big Government. Populists did favor using the federal government, but mainly to break up monopolies so as to make them small enough to be regulated by competition in open markets.

Some historians have judged all Populists by the actions of a racist minority. It is true that one early Populist leader, Tom Watson, later became one of the most virulent segregationists and anti-Semites in American history. And Woodrow Wilson himself segregated the U.S. government and U.S. military. But most Populists kept their focus on restructuring the economy to better promote equality and democracy. In many regions, Populists pioneered interracial organizing, often drawing the ire of established political groups. In one county in Texas, Democrats formed a "White Man's Union" specifically to combat the alliance of whites and blacks in the local People's Party.

In the late 1970s, policymakers in both parties, under the banner of "free markets" and "deregulation," began dismantling the economic regime put in place by the Populists and their followers. The concentration of wealth that resulted is now so extreme that even the Economist has chided Americans for failing to stand up to monopoly.

The Populists would certainly have supported Sanders's call for public financing of campaigns and his embrace of "Break Up the Banks." But the men and women who rose against America's oligarchs of a century ago would have been deeply dismayed that no candidate in 2016 has taken a strong stand against monopoly.

And so we ask: If a candidate for office in 2016 were truly guided by traditional American Populist principles, what would he or she aim to do?


    In the campaign of 1912, Woodrow Wilson made one of the most powerful attacks on monopoly in American history. Wilson condemned monopolists for harming not only the economy but also democracy. "If monopoly persists, monopoly will always sit at the helm of the government," Wilson said. "[W]hat we have to determine now is whether we are big enough, whether we are men enough, whether we are free enough, to take possession again of the government which is our own."

    Here is the Populist philosophy of competition at its purest. To ensure the liberty of the individual and protect democracy, citizens must force the powerful to compete. Adam Smith's economics plays a role. But it is the stark realism of Jefferson and Madison, with their intense distrust of concentrated power, that governs. The fundamental aim of government is to extend the system of checks and balances to the political economy, and to break or neutralize all big concentrations of private power.

    As Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, put it, "It is the right of every man to work, labor, and produce in any lawful vocation and to transport his production on equal terms and conditions and under like circumstances. This is industrial liberty, and lies at the foundation of the equality of all rights and privileges."

    In this tradition, breaking up monopoly has little to do with promoting efficiency or better deals for consumers, and everything to do with protecting political equality, self-government, and democratic institutions. As Brandeis explained, "The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted ... not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power." The way to "save the people from autocracy," he said, is precisely by building "friction" into the system.

    Over the following decades, these principles guided how Americans distributed economic power and protected industrial liberty. Despite wave after wave of technological change, concentration declined in almost every realm of the economy.

    But in the 1970s, a small group of intellectuals--some, like Alfred Kahn, with roots in mainstream liberalism; and others, like Robert Bork, with roots in conservative Chicago school economics--systematically targeted the achievements of the Populist tradition. While antimonopoly laws remained on the books, they were reinterpreted in ways that defeated their historical purpose. No longer would the aim be to promote economic and political liberty. Instead, according to guidelines enacted in 1982 by Ronald Reagan's Justice Department, big corporations would be allowed to get bigger so long as they did not immediately hike prices to the "consumer."

    In retrospect, the evidence is close to irrefutable that adoption of this philosophy of "efficiency" unleashed a process of concentration that over the last generation has remade almost the entire U.S. economy, and is now...

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