An interview with Professor William Chafe about the particular context in which Populism was born. Conveying ideals of unity through race and against oppression, Populism back then had little to do with today’s one. American historian William Chafe, whose research focuses on racial equality, clarifies these points.
William Chafe interviewed by Anouk Chambaz
How did populism emerge?
Populism emerged in the 1880s, with its strongest constituency in the South. The Southern Farmers' Alliance (constituted of white supporters) had a membership of over 2 million in 11 different states. The Colored Farmers Alliance (with black skin members) had a membership of 1-1.25 million. The most important fact is that both groups consisted overwhelmingly of sharecroppers and tenant farmers. In the aftermath of slavery, plantation owners took to hiring laborers to farm their land. Sharecroppers received a percentage of the income from the crops they raised. Tenant farmers rented the land from the landlords. In both cases, the basic problem was that plantation owners decided at the end how much sharecroppers and tenant farmers received in the way of income. In most instances, sharecroppers and tenant farmers did not have savings or capital to buy equipment or supplies. Those were supplied by the landlords, usually at exorbitant prices, so that when the crops were harvested, sharecroppers and tenant farmers always ended up in the red, owing their landlords money. Rarely could they earn enough to be able to buy their own land. In effect, sharecroppers and tenant farmers became completely dependent on the planters. Even though they were not "slaves" under the law, they lacked freedom to pursue their own lives.
The Populist movement became the political manifestation of the Farmers' Alliances. Although the two alliances were racially separate, they often met in the same cities and at the same times to determine what they should do in the face of planter oppression. By the end of the 1880s, they had a common platform: a federally funded "sub-treasury" plan, whereby the federal government would buy their crops and store them until the market price was good and they could sell at a profit; government assistance to buy equipment, etc. The plan was much like what later became the Agricultural Adjustment Act under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, with the federal government guaranteeing farmers a chance to prosper.
The Populists formed a bi-racial alliance in politics, and in states throughout the South became a powerful presence, even winning control of state politics in places like North Carolina with its Fusion movement. In response, conservative planters raised the flag of racism, accusing blacks of being corrupt and imploring poor white farmers to stand by the wealthy white brothers against the blacks. These whites were upper-class, and used race to divide those whites and blacks from the working class who were trying to unite. Mississippi started out in 1890 by banning all blacks from voting. The same thing happened in most other Southern states, and even in North Carolina, where rich whites accused blacks of seeking to rape white women, and instigated the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 which removed the Populists from power. By 1901, every Southern state had disenfranchised black voters. Eventually, the same limitations - a poll tax, literacy tests, etc. - also ended up disenfranchising poor whites. The same states passed laws creating segregation of the races, mandating separate schools for blacks and whites, and prohibiting black people from eating at the same restaurants or going to the same theaters or schools as whites. So, Populism - a bi-racial working-class movement of poor people - was stifled and suppressed by applying racist ideologies and laws. The Populism of the late 19th century represented one of the most progressive movements in American politics. Only with the civil rights movement was there a resurgence of a bi-racial political movement like Populism.
Why is the “Us vs. Them” narrative used in the construction of populism?
Populism used the “Us vs. Them" argument because it portrayed accurately the class division in the country, especially in the South.
Nowadays, what is the link between populism and demagogy?
Populism became more related to demagoguery because both engaged parties use rhetoric highly dramatic, incendiary and full of emotion. Over time, Populism has become more of a term that reflects cultural divisions in the society as opposed to class and economic divisions based on economic realities.
How do you explain the presence of populism in both the right and left sphere of politics?
Both people on the left and those on the right fall victim to these cultural divisions. That is one of the reasons that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump often appealed to some of the same voters. But the "populism" that is talked about today has little if anything to do with the Populism of the late 19th century.
In your opinion, how does populism today differ from the days of its foundation?
The populism we hear about today has little to do with the realities of politics in the 1890s. Only when the country returns to an understanding that the basic issues facing us involve economic inequalities, I think then there will be a chance to recover from the injuries being perpetrated today by what is called “populism”.