After these mid-term elections, the Tea Party populists are claiming victory. Their anger and insurgency fired up the conservative base, and the base turned out, giving Republicans control of the House and victories in state and local races across the land. Many pundits are comparing this election to the election of 1994, when anger at Bill Clinton gave Republicans control of Congress.
Like all analogies, this one isn’t perfect. But if it fits at all, it does not portend a happy ending. After roaring into power in 1994, the best the Republicans could do in 1996 was to run the aging Bob Dole for president. Clinton barely broke a sweat during that campaign.
The more apt analogy may be, not 1994, but the election of 1892, when the original “populists” rode to stunning electoral victories. The similarity is not in ideology or policy, but in how the regular parties responded to the populist insurgents.
The Populist movement of the late 19th century began in farm country, in the west and in the south, in the 1870s and ’80s. Farmers saw their livelihoods threatened by big railroads that charged too much to move their products to market, by banks that gouged them on the loans they needed to buy land and equipment, and by politicians who seemed to be in the pockets of both.
Angry and impoverished, the farmers organized. They sent speakers from small town to small town, from county to county, educating farmers about economics and developing a political agenda to address their grievances.
Those efforts culminated in Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1892, when these farmers and their friends officially launched the People’s Party, or the Populist Party as it was also called. On July 4 they ratified the “Omaha Platform” and started campaigning for offices.
The Omaha Platform was quite a radical document — though quite the opposite of the proposals of today’s Tea Party. It called for government ownership of the railroads, so farmers would pay less to transport their goods, and for the federal government to establish a network of “postal savings banks” so they would have easier access to credit.
As a brand new party in 1892, the Populists did remarkably well. Their candidate for president received more than 1 million votes. Nationwide, they elected 1,500 candidates to state and local positions including three governors, five U. S. senators and ten members of the House — a considerably more impressive showing than the Tea Party made in this election.
Energized, the Populists looked for even bigger gains in the election of 1896.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that election. The Democratic Party, seeing some of its base in the South and West leaving for the Populists, decided that the best way to beat them was to join them. The Populists, in turn, calculated that the best way of beating the Republicans was to merge with the Democrats.
In 1896 the Populists and the Democrats gambled wrong. In that election, the GOP crushed this combined Democratic/Populist party, and the Populist Party disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The Democratic Party survived, of course, but it wouldn’t occupy the White House for another 16 years.
The great historian Richard Hofstadter, writing about the Populists, described third party political movements in this country as bees: They sting one of the two major parties. Then they die.
This is where the Tea Partiers find themselves now. They hitched their wagon to the Republican Party in this election cycle, but they will have to decide whether this is a real marriage or just a one-night stand. Some Tea Partiers believe that they can take over the Republican Party. On the other hand, Karl Rove and his organization of big Republican donors believe they can control the Tea Party insurgents and use them as they want.
The Populists of the 1890s did not last long, but much of that Omaha Platform did. The Populists called for the use of secret ballots for voting (voting was then still done publicly), for the direct election of U.S. senators (still elected by state legislatures), and for the creation of a graduated income tax. All of those things became law.
Today’s populists don’t have anything like the agenda of the original Populists, but they are in the same political position. And one suspects that, having stung the Republican Party, they too will not survive.
Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
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