This condensed version of Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise, the highly- acclaimed study on American Populism which the Civil. Lawrence Goodwyn, sitting on the floor, during interviews for Duke’s oral (An abridged version, “The Populist Moment: A Short History of the. Economic populism is the new flavor in politics, but it won’t be Wall Street (read Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment to learn the full.

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Po;ulist book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself. Finally it is about why Americans have far less democracy than they like to think and what would have to happen to alter that situation.

The passionate events that are the subject of this book had their origins in the social circumstances of a hundred years ago when the American population contained huge masses of farmers. A large number of people in the United States discovered that the economic premises of their society were working against them.

These premises were reputed to be democratic — America after all was a democratic society in the eyes koment most of its own citizens and in the eyes of the world — but farmers by the millions found that this claim was not tthe by the goodywn governing their lives. When this failed to change things millions of families migrated goodsyn in an effort goodwhn enlist nature’s help. They were driven by the thought that through sheer physical labor they might wring more production from the new virgin lands of the West than they had been able to do in their native states of Ohio and Virginia and Alabama.

But, though railroad land agents created beguiling stories of Western prosperity, the men and women who listened, and went, found that the laws of commerce worked against them just as much in Kansas and Texas as they had back home on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. So in the ‘s, the farmers increasingly talked to each other about their troubles and read books on economics in an effort to discover what had gone wrong.

Some of them formed organizations of economic self-help like the Grange and others assisted in pioneering new institutions of political self-help like the Greenback Party.

But as the hard times of the ‘s turned into the even harder times of populisg ‘s, it was clear that these efforts were not really going anywhere.

The Populist Moment | The D&S Blog

Indeed, by it was evident that things were worse than they had been in or More and more momsnt saw their farm mortgages foreclosed. As everyone in rural America knew, this statistic inexorably yielded another, more gokdwyn one: Meanwhile, millions of small landowners hung on grimly, their unpaid debts thrusting them dangerously close to the brink of tenantry and peonage.

Hard work availed nothing. Everywhere populiist explanation of events was the same: Then gradually, in certain specific ways and for certain specific reasons, American farmers developed new methods that enabled them to try to regain a measure of control over their own lives.

Their efforts, halting and disjointed at first, gathered form and force until they grew into a coordinated mass movement that stretched across the American continent from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. Millions of people came to believe fervently that a wholesale overhauling of their society was going to happen in their lifetimes. This whirlwind of effort, and thee massive upsurge of democratic hopes that accompanied it, has come to be known as the Populist Revolt.

This book is about that moment of historical time. It seeks to trace the planting, growth, and death of the mass democratic movement known as Populism. For a number of reasons, all of them rather fundamental to historical analysis, lawrencd Populist moment has proved very difficult for Americans to understand. Under the circumstances, it is probably just as well to take these reasons up one at a time at the very outset in an effort to clear away as much underbrush as possible before turning our attention to the protesting farmers of the ‘s.

There are three principal areas of interpretive confusion that bear directly on the Populist experience. First, very little understanding exists as to just what popylist democratic movements are, and how they happen. Second, there are serious problems embedded in the very language of description modern Americans routinely employ to characterize political events.

Finally, and by all odds most importantly, our greatest problem in giodwyn protest is grounded in contemporary American culture. In addition to being central, this cultural difficulty is also the most resistant to clear explanation: Obviously, it is prudent, then, to mojent here.

This reassuring belief rests securely on statistical charts and tables certifying the steady upward tilt in economic production. Admittedly, social problems have persisted — inequities of income and opportunity have plagued the society — but these, too, have steadily been addressed through the sheer growth of oppulist economy.


For all of its shortcomings, the system works. This is a powerful assumption. It may be tested by reflecting upon the fact that, despite American progress, the society has been forced to endure sundry movements of protest.

In our effort to address the inconvenient topic of protest, our need to be intellectually consistent — while thinking within the framework of continuous progress — has produced a number of explanations about the nature of dissent in America. Closely followed, these arguments are not really explanations at all, but rather the assertion of more presumptions that have the effect of defending the basic intuition about progress itself.

The most common of these explanations rests upon what is perceived to be a temporary malfunction of the economic order: Unfortunately, history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitive arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency.

This apparent absence of popular vigor is traceable, however, not to apathy but to the very raw materials of history — that complex of rules, manners, power relationships, and memories that collectively comprise what is called culture.

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

They have, instead, been instructed in deference. Needless to say, this is the kind of social circumstance that is not readily apparent to the millions who live within it.

The lack of visible mass godwyn activity on the part of modern industrial populations is a function of how these societies have been shaped by the various economic or political elites who fashioned them. In fundamental ways, this shaping process which is now quite mature in America bears directly not only upon our ability to grasp the meaning of American Populism, but our ability to understand protest generally and, most important of all, on our ability to comprehend the prerequisites for democracy itself.

This shaping mmoment, therefore, merits some attention. Though a strong central police or army has sometimes proved essential to this stabilizing process, revolutionaries, like other humans, do lawrdnce yearn to spend their lives fighting down counterrevolutions. A far more permanent and thus far more desirable solution to the task of achieving domestic tranquillity is cultural — the creation of mass modes of thought pophlist literally make the need for major additional social changes popuoist for the mass of the population to imagine.

When and if achieved, these conforming modes of thought and conduct constitute the new culture itself. The ultimate victory is nailed into place, therefore, only when the population has been persuaded to define all conceivable political activity within the limits of existing custom. It is one of the purposes of this book to trace how this happened.

It can be said, in advance of the evidence, that this condition of social constraint is by no means solely an American one; it is worldwide and traceable to a common source: Over the last eight generations, increasingly sophisticated systems of economic organization have developed throughout the western world, spawning factories and factory towns and new forms of corporate centralization and corporate politics.

Through these generations of the modern era, millions have been levered off the land and into cities to provide the human components of the age of machinery. Meanwhile, ownership of both industrial and agricultural land has been increasingly centralized. Yet, though these events have caused massive dislocations of family, habitat, and work, creating mass suffering in many societies and anxiety in all of them, mass movements of protest have rarely materialized.

This historical constant points to a deeper reality of the modern world: These stigmas which in earlier times were also visited upon Irish, Jewish, Italian, and other immigrants to America generate fears; people are driven to undergo considerable indignity to earn sufficient status to avoid them. Though life clearly contains far more options in America than in Russia, the persistence of these varying modes of mass deference in both countries illuminate the social limits of democratic forms in modern industrial societies generally.

It is appropriate to attempt to pursue the matter — for problems inherent in defining democracy underscore the cultural crisis of modern life around the globe.

In America, an important juncture in the political consolidation of the industrial culture came some four generations ago, at the culmination of the Populist moment in the ‘s. Because the decline in popular democratic aspiration since then has involved an absence of something rather than a visible presence, it has materialized in ways that are largely unseen.

Politically, the form exists today primarily as a mass folkway of resignation, one that has become increasingly visible since the end of World War II. Nothing illustrates the general truth of this phenomenon more than the most recent exception to it, namely the conduct of the student radicals of the ‘s. Today, political life in America has once more returned to normal levels of resignation.


Again, the folkway is scarcely an American monopoly. In diverse forms, popular resignation is visible from Illinois to the Ukraine.

It does more than measure a sense of impotence among masses of people; it has engendered escapist modes of private conduct that focus upon material acquisition. Public life is much lower on the scale of priorities.

Indeed, the disappearance of a visible public ethic and sense of commonweal has become the subject of handwringing editorials in publications as diverse as the Chicago Tribune in the United States and Izvestia in the Soviet Union.

The retreat of the Russian populace represents a simple acknowledgment of ruthless state power. Deference is an essential ingredient of personal survival. In America, on the other hand, mass resignation represents a public manifestation of a private loss, a decline in what people think ths have a political right to aspire to — in essence, a decline of individual political self-respect on the part of millions of people.

The principal hazard to a clear understanding of the meaning of American Populism exists in this central anomaly of contemporary American culture. Reform movements such as Populism necessarily call into question the underlying values of the larger momenh. Accordingly, in the case of the Populists, the mainstream presumption is both simple and largely unconscious: The condescension toward the past that is implicit in the idea of progress merely reinforces such complacent premises.

In a society in which sophisticated deference masks private resignation, the democratic dreams of the Populists have been difficult for twentieth-century people to imagine. Contemporary American culture itself therefore operates popjlist obscure the Populist experience.

Needless to say, many psychological, social, and economic ingredients are embedded in concepts of class, and, when handled with care, they can, indeed, bring considerable clarity to historical events of great complexity. The power of this theoretical assumption can scarcely be understated.

It permits the political efforts of millions of human beings to be dismissed with the casual flourish of tye abstract category of interpretation.

One can only assert the conviction that a thoroughgoing history of, for example, the Socialist Party of the United States, including the history of the recruitment of its agrarian following in early twentieth-century America, will not be fully pieced together until this category of political analysis is successfully transcended. The Populist experience in any case puts this proposition to a direct and precise test, for the agrarian movement was created by landed and landless people.

The platform of the movement argued in behalf of the landless because that platform was seen as being progressive for small landowners, too. In consequence, neither the human experiences within the mass institutions generated by the agrarian revolt nor the ideology of Populism itself can be expected to become readily discernible to anyone, capitalist or Marxist, who is easily consoled by the presumed analytical clarity of categories of class.

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn

The interior life of the agrarian revolt makes this clear enough. The sober fact is that movements of mass democratic protest — that is to say, kawrence insurgent actions by hundreds of thousands or millions of people — represent a political, an organizational, and above all, a cultural achievement of the first magnitude. Beyond this, mass protest requires a high order not only of cultural education and tactical achievement, it requires a high order of sequential achievement.

These evolving stages of achievement are essential if large numbers of intimidated people are to generate both the psychological autonomy and the practical means to challenge culturally sanctioned goodwym. A failure at any stage of the sequential process aborts or at the very least sharply limits the growth of the popular movement.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming nature of the impediments to these stages of sequential achievement are rarely taken into account. The simple fact of the matter is that so difficult has the process of movement-building proven to be since the onset of industrialization in the western world that all democratic protest movements have been aborted or limited in this manner prior to the recruitment of their full natural constituency.

Lawrende underlying social reality is, therefore, one that is not generally kept firmly in mind as an operative dynamic of modern society — namely, that mass democratic movements are overarchingly difficult for human beings to generate.

The Populist revolt — the most elaborate example of mass insurgency we have in American history — provides an abundance of evidence that can be applied in answering this question. The sequential process of democratic movement-building will be seen to involve four stages: Imposing cultural roadblocks stand in the way of a democratic movement at every stage of this sequential process, causing losses in the potential constituencies that are to be incorporated into the movement.