What do pundits really mean when they describe a politician’s rhetoric as “populist”? Does that candidate recoil from the uncertainties and anxieties caused by globalization? Stand up for the little guy against elite corporate interests? Appeal to popular and irrational impulses and therefore pose an authoritarian threat to democracy? Is populism progressive or conservative?

In the middle of this interminable electoral year, this is hardly an idle or academic question. In 2004, former Sen. John Edwards introduced “populist” rhetoric into the presidential campaign when he described “two separate and unequal Americas.” In 2008, he addressed the plight of the poor so powerfully that both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama felt obliged to embrace his language, as well as many of his policies.

book cover

The Populist Vision

By Charles Postel

Oxford University Press, 397 pages

Buy the book

Although historian Michael Kazin has rightly observed that both the left and right have used populist appeals against “elites” throughout the 20th century, there was, in fact, an actual Populist movement that took root during the infamous “gilded age” of the 1880s and 1890s.

In his new book, “The Populist Vision,” Charles Postel offers an original and riveting account of the Populist vision that jump-started 20th-century social reform movements and is still relevant to our contemporary American society.

We can easily imagine how Populists viewed their world. Our generation of Americans also feels disoriented by living in a shrinking world. In the late 19th century, writes Postel, “The traumas of technological innovation, expansion of corporate power, and commercial and cultural globalization” left many Americans reeling from the speed of change. “Corporations grew exponentionally amid traumatic spasms of global capitalist development. The rich amassed great fortunes, a prosperous section of the middle class grew more comfortable and hard times pressed on most everyone else.”

Out of this alienating and disorienting experience grew a Populism that previous historians have often simplified. Some have viewed Populists as radical visionaries who dreamed of a utopian, egalitarian American society. Still others have characterized them as nostalgic, rural reactionaries who yearned for an Edenic, agrarian past.

Postel, however, offers a far more nuanced interpretation. Armed with a wide array of sources, he convincingly argues that American Populism, for all its flaws and failures — it eventually failed to promote racial equality — was fundamentally a modern social movement that offered a “divergent” path to the creation of a modern capitalist society.

By excavating the ideas, lives and organizational activities of Populist activists, Postel demonstrates that the women and men in the Populist movement largely valued “business methods, education and technology” and embraced the ideas of modernity and progress. He vividly describes, for example, the rich intellectual debates that rippled through the movement. “Few political or social movements,” he writes, “brought so many men and women into lecture halls, classrooms, camp meetings and seminars or produced such an array of inexpensive literature.”

By scrutinizing their politics, Postel also reveals that the Populists, who decried the corruption of the traditional political parties, sought “a new type of politics that would deliver rationalized, nonpartisan and businesslike governances.”

For the Populists, argues Postel, the Post Office represented the ideal government agency. An elaborate bureaucracy, the Post Office simply delivered a necessary service without favoring special interests or interfering with the lives of its customers. This was “the Populist vision of an alternative capitalism in which private enterprise coalesced with both cooperative and state-based economies.” The Farmers Alliance, for example, “pursued the dramatic expansion of government regulation and control in the country’s economic life. This included demands for the public ownership of railroads and the telegraph. … At stake was who should be included and who should wield shares of power — a conflict that all concerned understood as vital to the future of a modern America.”

Most historians of the Populist movement have focused largely on one region of the country, or exclusively on farmers or miners. Postel instead provides a far more expansive view of this national movement by including black and white farmers, wage earners, miners, railroad workers, rural women and bohemian urbanites. Taken together, those who participated in such a broad-based movement not only ranted against banks and farm policies, but also scrutinized the wages of workers, education, women’s rights, business, religion, race, science and technology.

It is Postel’s focus on women, however, that makes his interpretation of Populists so convincing. For decades, historians of gender have argued that whenever you study women as part of any social movement or political event, your interpretation will very likely change. We now know, for example, that middle-class women — for good or ill — have led most of the social and reform movements in our country’s past.

By including women, Postel discovers a modern sensibility that other historians of the Populist movement have missed. Like their male counterparts, rural women sought a different path to progress and capitalist development. By taking seriously the dreams and hopes of women farmers, Postel explores the female Populists who struggled to end the whiskey trade that threatened their earnings and families, dreamed of leaving field labor for a modern education, fought for the right to vote, and sought their own economic independence as telegraphers, clerks, teachers and even professionals.

The Populist movement attracted hundreds of thousands of women. Why? Because it was the only institution that offered women equal political participation. In addition, it also “offered rural women hope for an expanded social cultural environment, improved methods in the kitchen and garden, a more just configuration of marriage and family relationships, and increased opportunities for education, employment, and perhaps participation in political affairs. In short,” writes Postel, “the Alliance movement attracted large numbers of women because it raised the prospects of a more independent and modern life.” And this vision of female independence, he emphasizes, is incompatible with an older historical description of “rural protest representing tradition-bound farmers heroically defending their communities and homes from the encroachments of modernity. …”

Aside from demonstrating the modernity of Populism, Postel’s great insight is that the particular way American capitalism developed was not “predetermined.” The Populist struggle to develop a more regulated and equitable capitalism, he argues, was not defeated because it was a backward, traditional, agrarian movement. The Populist vision of progress lost because its participants could not defeat the more powerful political and economic interests they battled.

Elegantly written, meticulously researched, “The Populist Vision” is an enthralling history of the movement that created the most pervasive political impulse in American politics. Postel’s book has won both the Frederick Jackson Turner and Bancroft awards, which it justly deserves. His work also helps us to understand the actual Populist Vision that lies behind the superficial and shallow rhetoric to which we’ve been subjected during this election year.

Ruth Rosen teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America” (Penguin, 2006) and is a frequent contributor to Dissent Magazine and Talking Points Memo.

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