The populist and progressive movements need each other, both historically and now, in order to present a real political alternative to the interlocking system of militarism, religious fundamentalism, and corporations.
The presidential election of 1896 was considered the most dramatic in American history up to that point. It was a realignment of political positions as well as a strong showing of third party activity. The Republican candidate William McKinley forged a coalition in which businessmen, professionals, skilled factory workers, and prosperous farmers were heavily represented. This made up the character of the Republican party well into the 20th century. In contrast, William Jennings Bryan was the nominee of the Democrats, the Populists, and the Silver Republicans. Economic issues were the most important in this election. The issues included the tariff, the metal backing of the currency, and how to deal with the severe economic recession of 1893. The question over using gold or silver to back the currency caused severe splits in the two major parties. The Democrats who supported gold actually left the party even though the incumbent president Grover Cleveland supported the gold standard. Some Republicans who supported silver left their party and supported Bryan.
The immediate cause of McKinley’s win was the realignment of political beliefs as well as other factors. His campaign manager invented many modern campaign techniques helped by a $3.5 million budget. He outspent Bryan by a factor of five. McKinley also became an ally of big business who exerted a huge amount of power and who did not want the great change that Bryan possibly represented. While McKinley gained the most votes from the East and North, Bryan was strongest in the Midwest and West. On the Democrat side, Cleveland had established a policy of non-interference with business. With Bryan’s campaign, the Democrats repudiated this pro-business wing and allowed sixteen years of Republican control of the White House in the short-term. However, although Bryan lost the election and his support by the Populists caused that third party to dissipate, the new political grouping emerged as the forefront in the Democratic Party well into the progressive movement and into the New Deal era. In other words, the election of 1896 was the official split between party politics of the 19th and 20th century. It was only after World War II that the overall similarity between the Democrats and Republicans became truly apparent and obvious. This tendency had actually started just after the Civil War, but the election of 1896 and the influence of the Bryan campaign alongside the Populist Party had delayed the realization that both major parties would maintain the status quo in the long-term. The weakening of the Populist Party had prevented the real ideological disparities from being amplified to such a point that new political structures could emerge. The political realignment that did occur was limited to the two-party system which resulted in a structural reproduction rather than the creation of something new on the political stage. Those who wanted change were confined to the Democrat structure.
Even though populism as a political party was in decline after 1896, it did not mean that the populist movement disappeared completely. In official history, there is the appearance that the populism of the 1890’s gave way to the progressive movement of the first twenty years of the 1900’s. What actually occurred was an interaction that distinctly defined left and right progressivism. The populists exerted an invisible influence on the leftwing progressives, and would have created the new phenomenon of the populist-progressive in the American political field if World War I did not provide an obstacle at that time. The outbreak of war caused liberals who were limited by the Democratic Party to support the Wilson administration in a way that paralleled many socialists who supported their respective countries in Europe. On the other side of the coin, rightwing progressives were also nationalists in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt was a nationalist. Reform for rightwing progressives at that time meant using the courts to break up monopolies or passing basic regulatory laws, but only to the extent of preserving capitalism and avoiding any possible communist revolution in the United States. Rightwing progressives, in terms of foreign policy, were not progressive in the regular sense of that term. In the later part of the 1900’s the term populism was reused in a more conservative way as a venue for limited reform. This conservative populism believed that there were specific individuals who were in the system of government who were taking power away from citizens, but the system overall still worked. Once these individuals were removed the system would be considered functional, and this conservative populism proposed that there were no intrinsic structural problems. This conservative populism would then feed into a nationalism and constructed patriotism. Both the rightwing version of the populist and progressive movements were contained by the existing political and economic system. Any possibility of change would always be redirected to particular reforms that served to perpetuate the system in the long-term.
Populism and progressivism need each other in an interdependent way. Populism is a methodology while progressivism is a perspective on political change. The methodology promotes decentralization, subsidiarity, and direct democracy. In this case, subsidiarity can be defined as the ability of those who are affected by some thing or act to have the power to decide upon that thing or act. Subsidiarity works in conjunction with a decentralized structure and a democratic process. On the other hand, the progressive vision is one that seeks to change the deep political, cultural, and economic structures for the benefit of people. The progressive vision without populism can easily become a source of centralized control and a bureaucratic hierarchy, as hinted at by Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. The populist method without a progressive long-term perspective can also degenerate into a fear of change and the scapegoating of supposed “elitists” solely within the cultural sphere.
The Green Party in this respect can be the point of intersection of populism and progressivism within a political party organization. As the Green Party can be said to be the children of the 1960’s, it can also be considered to be the grandchildren of the Populist Party. There is a rich heritage that has resulted in the emergence of a populist-progressive movement within late capitalism. The intersection of populism and progressivism is a bulwark against the appropriation by conservatives and liberals of either populism or progressivism alone. The populist-progressive is a new political identity that reaches toward the past for a new future. The populist-progressive is completely outside of the old liberal and conservative spectrum. The Green Party, as a party of populist-progressives, can remake the political landscape in a way that empowers individuals and communities.