Long established Share Our Wealth clubs all over the country and was to the left of the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Due to the clarity of his message, Long was a far greater threat to the powerful than Roosevelt. He had a record of using public works and education to help the poor and working classes and he advanced universal beliefs of economic rights without the racism almost always associated with Southern populism. He was compromised by charges of corruption and his national effort, tied to his persona, collapsed after he was murdered in 1935.
There are other examples of politicians who pushed populist themes. The late George Wallace's campaign for president contained populist elements. But like Bryan, this was tied to an overarching theme of racism. Arguably, Wallace's rhetoric was incorporated into Nixon's Southern strategy but with the presence of corporate insiders at the top of the ticket.
Where is Today's Populist Movement?
It's not likely that there will be one, although politicians and parties will take advantage of the suffering of citizens by co-opting the populist message without offering a real program. It is nearly impossible to have a sustained political movement without a a strong ideological foundation.
On a national scale, true populists don't exist. The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley was attributed to Brown's self portrayal as a "regular guy." Hotline commented, "he's nailed the populist-style retail politicking."
That's fine for election time but Brown is already on record for supporting big banks maintaining tax cuts for the very rich, and minimal interventions for the majority of citizens to deal with the economic crisis. Ironically, there is a strong case that Brown's election was due to a populist-like protest against the bailouts the Democrats have bestowed on big banks.
The Democrats have had brief moments of populist expression. When his bill to help with soaring foreclosure rates failed, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) exclaimed, the banks, "frankly, " they own this place." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said recently, "The truth is -- let me break the bad news to the American people -- big money interests control the United States Congress."
Each Senator returned to the fold after their statements. Durbin continued as Senate Whip, gathering votes for a middle of the road corporatist agenda. After he criticized of big money interests, Sanders supported the big-money-friendly Senate health reform bill. No Senator and few members of Congress have adopted redistribution of wealth the centerpiece of their agenda.
A sustained populist movement requires a central statement on the current distribution and future redistribution of wealth. Adopting that position is a deal killer when it comes to campaign fund raising, the ticket into modern electoral politics.
One consistent national voice for universal social justice, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, (D-OH), has been consistently maligned and marginalized with the result that his message is buried.
There have been political movements based on social justice, a reasonable distribution of wealth, services, and opportunities.The Socialist Party of America presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs', stated a strong case for the wisdom of the people and the need to end politics as usual:
In the Republican and Democratic parties you of the common herd are not expected to think. That is not only unnecessary but might lead you astray. That is what the "intellectual" leaders are for. They do the thinking and you do the voting. They ride in carriages at the front where the band plays and you tramp in the mud, bringing up the rear with great enthusiasm. E.V. Debs, June 16, 1918
The Debs campaign ended shortly after this speech when the administration of President Woodrow Wilson charged and convicted Debs under the Espionage Act based on his opposition to the World War I draft in the same speech. He was jailed and his public career was finished.
That lesson may have inspired the current politics of don't ask, don't tell. Don't ask too often about the distorted national priorities and don't tell the people what they already know; that the distribution of wealth has captured the vast majority in a never ending game of catch up that cannot be won under the current political and economic system.
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