I wish the media would quit saying “populist anger” is fueling the Tea Bagger movement. It’s giving the real Populists a bad name.
The Tea Baggers are on the side of millionaires. The Populists of the 1890s weren’t.
I teach history, but I used to be a reporter. Good reporters dig deep when they write stories. They even read history books.
Granted, there are some similarities between Tea Baggers and Populists. Tea Baggers are anti-government. So were Populists. Most Tea Baggers aren’t rich. Neither were most Populists.
But the Tea Bagger movement and Populism are fundamentally different.
Tea Baggers want government to step aside and let the “free market” prevail. Millionaires love it.
Most Populists were poor farmers and laborers victimized by America’s new industrial order. They wanted government to step in and safeguard ordinary citizens against the union-busting millionaires who, thanks to the “free market,” had gotten rich by impoverishing those who toiled in mines and mills or tilled the soil.
The Populists called millionaires “Robber Barons.” Tea Baggers would probably call Populists “socialists.” “Socialist” is, of course, the Tea Baggers’ big-time slam.
A lot of Populists didn’t consider “socialist” a slur. Many of them became socialists after their movement died.
Populists roundly denounced millionaires like John D. Rockefeller and the politicians – Republicans and Democrats – they paid handsomely to keep unions and government regulations off the back of big business.
In 1892, the Populists got so mad that they started their own party, officially the People’s Party. They didn’t pull punches in the preamble to their party constitution: “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
The Tea Baggers, like millionaires, rail against “big government.” At their rallies Tea Baggers wave signs urging the “SOCIALIST OBAMA” to “LET THE FREE MARKET WORK,” demanding that “LEFTIST PARASITES” carry their “OWN WEIGHT!!!” and mourning the death of “CAPITOLISM [sic].”
A lot of Republicans love the Tea Baggers, too. The GOP, many millionaires, and Tea Baggers have made common cause against health care reform.
The Tea Baggers have bought into Social Darwinism, the 19th century gospel of the rich and powerful that extolled the “free market” as almost divinely inspired. “God gave me my money,” Rockefeller said.
Social Darwinists said if you’re poor and powerless, it’s your own fault. Some Tea Baggers feel that way about health care. “YOUR HEALTH YOUR PROBLEM,” said another sign at a Tea Bagger rally.
Rockefeller hated the Populists. So would the Tea Baggers.
“We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teaching of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land,” the Populist platform also said.
“We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them.”
No doubt, Rockefeller and the other high rollers of the 1890s would have helped bankroll the Tea Bagger movement as some millionaires are doing today.
Of course, the Robber Barons wouldn’t have invited the “impeach Obama and his socialist comrades in Congress” crowd to dinner or a round of golf at the country club. I doubt many big bucks backers of the Tea Bagger movement hobnob with actual Tea Baggers.
Anyway, the Robber Barons would have found the Tea Baggers useful working-class foils for the Populists. The millionaires and well-heeled Democratic and Republican pols were scared the Populists, who were strongest in the Southern and Western farm states, would somehow unite all poor people of all races at the ballot box.
The Populist Party collapsed about the time of the Spanish-American War of 1898. “…Where a threatening mass movement developed, the two-party system stood ready to send out one of its columns to surround that movement and drain it of vitality,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States. “And always, as a way of drowning class resentment in a flood of slogans for national unity, there was patriotism.”
At the same time, white supremacist Dixie Democrats split the Populist’s powerful Southern wing by playing the race card. Democratic legislatures in the old Confederate states passed laws making African Americans second class citizens by denying them the vote and segregating them from whites.
Not coincidentally, not to me anyway, almost every Tea Bagger is white. Pointedly racist signs are not uncommon at their rallies.
But the powers-that-be have always been good at dividing working folks against each other. When Yankee railroad tycoon Jay Gould employed strikebreakers – unions call them “scabs” — he boasted, “I can hire half of the working class to kill the other half.” (I read that one blogger called the Tea Baggers “corporate scabs and the enemy of the working class.”)
Anyway, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka knows history. “For corporate America, dividing workers wasn’t simply a tactic; it was fundamental to its success,” he said.
Meanwhile, some people – “liberal elitists” to the Tea Baggers and their Republican friends — see a ton of irony in the Tea Bagger movement. Joseph Palermo does.
He teaches history at California State University-Sacramento. Last spring, the prof turned Huffington Post reporter surfaced at a Tea Bagger rally in Sacramento.
Palermo wrote that he heard speakers bash unions and the Employee Free Choice Act, even though “most of the people in the crowd were clearly working class.”
His article, republished on the LA Progressive, concluded: “…Therein lies the beauty of the whole Tea Bag movement. Affluent people like [ultra-conservative commentator, blogger and writer] Michelle Malkin and [far-right-wing economist] Grover Norquist and the army of radio ‘personalities’ convince working people, most of whom have a relative or are themselves on Medicare or Social Security, to denounce taxes on affluent people. Many of the people at the rally were from the eastern foothill communities that are pretty impoverished and would benefit from Obama’s health care, economic, and education policies. The foreclosure rate alone east of Sacramento would lead one to think that far more people in this region could use some government help.”
Anyway, John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould would have been crazy about the Tea Baggers, too.
Berry Craig is a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 6101, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 31 years and their teenage son