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Hijacking of the American Populist Tradition

The Republican assault on American History begins and ends with distortion. The clear intent of attacks on political correctness, books, and “wokeness” is to limit the free speech of Americans who wish to continue the project of “perfecting” the American experiment through reform. In a recent piece in Harper’s subtitled, “The Protestant ethic and the More

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The Republican assault on American History begins and ends with distortion.

The clear intent of attacks on political correctness, books, and “wokeness” is to limit the free speech of Americans who wish to continue the project of “perfecting” the American experiment through reform.

In a recent piece in Harper’s subtitled, “The Protestant ethic and the spirit of wokeness,” Ian Buruma points out the obvious: wokeness is as old as the conversion testimony that Puritans in New England that those seeking to be considered “the elect” had to make to become “selectmen” who could vote and hold office. Indeed, the idea of “wokeness” is baked into American historical and cultural DNA from religious great awakenings to political parties and campaigns.

I would take this a step further and argue that the war on “wokeness” is an attempt made by illiberal right-populists to denigrate and erase the legitimacy of American left-populism. In today’s political landscape, left populism has been identified with the stances taken by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that focuses on the need to reign in corporate greed through regulation, a renewal of anti-trust actions taken by the Justice Department, progressive taxation, raising the minimum wage, the extension of affordable medical care, and the encouragement and support of labor unions.

When Barack Obama tacked left in 2008, he used a rhetoric that absorbed and mobilized left populists. By 2012, he tacked to the middle, attempting to capture the urban-suburban upper middle class vote but lost the support of many older left-populists who in 2016 voted for Trump.

In addition, according to historian Gary Gerstle, Obama’s brand of neoliberalism embraced a gig economy of low wage, dead-end work and failed to address the needs of rural whites in the wake of the Recession of 2008-2009.

The right exploited this opening backed by funding from the Koch brothers and followed the “Southern Strategy” of siphoning off class-based anger into a right populism of ethno-national and racial resentment that emphasized immigration and border protection as the core issues, replacing the left populist emphasis on the critique of corporate power.

This illiberal right populism champions a white America based on traditional religious values and replaces the critique of corporate power and class inequality championed by left populists with a cultural war on “wokeness” that represses and censors any discussions in schools and universities of class structure, the histories of reform movements, and the histories of racism and patriarchy.

This right populism is funded by wealthy supporters of Trump and has been pushed by Trump supporting politicians in Red states and rural areas of Blue states and Fox News and Newsmax, media outlet that do not adhere to journalistic standards, but that portray themselves as “fair and balanced.”

Corporate backed neoliberals, in the meantime, have recently declared war on populism in general, failing to honestly distinguish between left and right populism, and delegitimizing both to embrace a return to centrist politics as the only way to prevent authoritarianism. A recent issue of Foreign Affairs was devoted to combating illiberalism centered around hyper-nationalism and racial resentment and a University of Chicago press book on Populism, both fail to take seriously the powerful economic critique of left populism, again shifting political discourse away from issues of economic inequality and corporate power.

Right populism from the Tea Party to the party of Trump embraces two tropes: the old Country Whig critique of centralized authority that harkens back to the Sons of Liberty during the American Revolution and the idea of the free-enterprise system championed by Milton Friedman and the original Chicago School of Economics. Each of these tropes is based on partial truths about American history and economics. The Sons of Liberty attacked a chartered monopoly and corporate power during the Tea party and the idea of the “free market” pushed by the Kochs and Trump’s billionaire donors does not reflect the current reality of the capture of controlling market power by a handful of digitally based corporations and energy cartels. And tellingly, the ideology of free enterprise neoliberalism was concocted by economists Von Mises and Hayek to justify the destruction of social programs instituted in Vienna from 1919 to 1934 to support the rise of the authoritarianism of the Dollfuss regime in Austria that allied itself with Mussolini.

Historians Heather Cox Richardson and Jeremi Suri deepen the above analysis of right populism by connecting it to the southernization of the United States as a continuation of the Civil War. Right populism in these narratives focuses on the resurgence of a conservative evangelical white nationalism and runaway individualism that seeks to preserve a free enterprise embracing state based on the exploitation of people of color and women. History in this view is the “heritage” of those who fought for states’ rights against Federal authority that was/is represented by the defense of civil protections and voting rights for people of color protected by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The historical myth-narratives produced by Hillsdale College (The Land of Hope) and Prager University videos that champion the preservation of White Christian values are replacing more complex narratives of American history that explain history from multiple cultural and class viewpoints. The censoring of “woke” history strips away concepts that would allow students to see beyond a right populist lens, jettisoning class analysis, discussions of power, the history of slavery as an economic institution based on torture that was tied to the growth of the American economy, the history of American patriarchy, the histories of minority groups, and the histories of reform movements and traditions.

The war on “woke” history is clearly designed to indoctrinate young people in Red states and rural areas of Blue states away from a left populism based on a critique of corporate power that unites whites and people of color to a right populism that focuses on the economic resentment of rural white Christians against immigrants, people of color, and those who would support a multiethnic republic. The “war on woke” also targets older voters who once voted for Obama in 2016, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Right populism seeks to forge a new authoritarian order based on corporate greed and white Christian nationalism.

From the perspective of authentic American populists of the late nineteenth century the “war on woke” would be seen as a perversion of their outlook.

This would certainly be the case for the readers of The Wide-Awake Sentinel, the newspaper of proto-Populist Greenback Independent Party in Alabama who had no doubt that uniting blacks and whites into a solid class based coalition represented the best hope of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and small farmers to preserve their economic independence that was threatened by white supremacist Bourbon Democrats who used arbitrary arrests of poor blacks and whites to create a for-profit convict-labor prison system and who routinely intimidated their political opponents.

These Bourbon Democrats assassinated the state’s Greenback candidate for governor in 1881 who used the paper to voice distain for white supremacist power based on violence. The Greenback Party incorporated the free-labor views forged by the Reconstruction Republican Party that attracted laborers and farmers by maintaining that economic wealth was created by the work of the laborer but hijacked by bankers who supported deflation that produced crippling interest rates and debt, and corporate interests that included backroom dealing railroad companies that had captured state and Federal governments.

For the original American populists, the “deep state” was government controlled by corporate interests to make the rich richer. The only remedy was a class-based politics that united black and white workers and farmers, north and south that could override the power of corporate greed. The Greenback Party and its successor movements, the Union Labor Party of 1888, and the single-tax movement of Henry George, brought together workers and farmers all over the country. Miners and mill workers in Birmingham and rural northern Alabama subscribed to John Swinton’s Paper, the country’s most popular labor paper published in in New York.

In 1886, 1887, and 1888 The Knights of Labor and The Agricultural Wheel grew rapidly in areas of the upper South that tended to support biracial politics and coalitions. In railroad towns, black and white railroad yard workers who had supported the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 tended to join the Knights of Labor and in rural areas, former Greenbackers tended to join the Agricultural Wheel.

Workers and farmers organized non-profit cooperatives and avoided stores typically run by planters and merchants who charged high interest rates and who supported the white supremacist Bourbon Democrats. They also supported newspapers like the Alabama State Wheel and the Nashville Toiler that published news from Wheel and Knights of Labor locals. The excitement of the organization of cooperatives and locals is reflected in the words of a black Wheeler George W. Custer, “Now Wheelers, we have a good opportunity before us; if we will take advantage. We must unite together as a band of brothers, all pull one way after the same thing….as God helps the cheerful giver, let us wheelers help each other…” Authentic American left populism is reflected in these words in the effort to bring blacks and whites together to overcome racist economic and political power structures in the Jim Crow South.

The State Wheel echoed the Industrial News, the national paper of The Knights of Labor: “Every laboring man should be his own thinker, they should take a good labor paper and read its columns, and learn from its pages how their brethren are being treated all over the country….If we go on in the same old ruts as our fathers, and do not grasp the chances of escape that lay before us, then we are willing to take punishment from our master’s hands and do not deserve liberty.” Thousands of white and black farmers, mechanics, and railroad hands throughout the upper South would subscribe to labor papers that shared national labor news, and those who could not afford to subscribe or were not literate would listen to the papers being read at local cooperative meetings. The State Wheel also endorsed the single-tax ideas of Henry George that proposed to heavily tax land speculation to redistribute social benefits in local communities. The culprits in northern Alabama were mining companies that bought up arable land and drove up land values. This is the authentic spirit of American left populism, a spirit that was focused on building national solidarity within the labor movement that overcame the North South divide.

This spirit is perhaps most clearly expressed in the Omaha Platform of the National People’s or Populist Party published on Independence Day of 1992. Minnesota firebrand lawyer, journalist, and farmer penned the Platform’s preamble that decried the capture of both major political parties by corporate interests that used deflation to drive up interest rates that increase debt for worker and farmers who were forced to use credit to survive. The value of land was being driven up by investors who represented corporate conglomerates and voters were routinely intimidated as they approached polling places and lined up with tickets that identified their political intentions.

From the perspective of the Populists who supported the platform, “The newspapers are largely muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down….The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

To be sure, these left populists were concerned about immigration, but immigration in the late nineteenth century was directly sponsored by corporations who used contract labor as an intentional strategy to drive down wages. And, although “the womb of governmental injustice” did create two classes, echoing Marx, Gilded Age parties and governments were completely captured by corporate interests. The left populist gaze was centered on corporate power and greed as the core problem.

The solutions that the People’s Party proposed in the Omaha Platform required the recapture of government at all levels from corporate control. Populists pledged to vote only for those who endorsed their platform which would demand the direct election of senators, a graduated income tax, strict regulation and public ownership of railroads and utility companies, support of labor unions and labor organizing, the elimination of the Pinkertons and other “private armies” used to intimidate labor, the creation of Federal Banks to extend farmers loans at subsidized interest rates, the expansion of the money supply to lower interest rates, and the breakup of cartels, combines, and “rings” used to corner markets unfairly.

In short, unlike today’s right Populists, Gilded Age left populists favored an expanded government serving the interests of “the people” was required to create economic and political justice. “We believe that the power of the 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 teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

This language, far from attacking a conspiratorial “deep state” controlled by a group of child molesters in the view of today’s Trump right populists, embraces a recaptured and expanded Federal government that would pursue policies that would create a more equitable republic for all classes and cultural groups.

My great great grandfather, James Madison Horton, was a Greenback Party organizer and a Populist. He helped organize mass biracial political meetings to which hundreds of extended families would march, flanked by former union and confederate soldiers carrying guns to protect them from attacks by white supremacists. He and his fellow organizers knew that these meetings were a threat to a Jim Crow South based on the exploitation of black and white small farmers and workers. He did not believe that a society based on race and inequality should be tolerated and that the creation of a biracial worker’s brotherhood was the last best hope for his community, state, and country. He had worked alongside and befriended slaves as a day laborer before the Civil War and his black friends, many former Union soldiers (USCT), helped him organized mass Greenback Party picnics.

His task was not easy. James Madison’s friend and neighbor, James Madison Pickens, who ran for governor on the Greenback Party ticket, was assassinated by a former Confederate trooper of the local Bourbon congressman, Joseph Wheeler, a former Confederate general.

Today’s right populists who support former President Trump are the equivalent of the ex-Confederates who sought and seek to create an authoritarian society based on racism. They claim to be “we the people” in the same way that former confederate soldiers who rode in Klan robes believed that they were protecting democracy—white supremacist herrenvolk democracy.

Authentic left populism, on the other hand, seeks to unite all workers of all cultural groups across the country into a movement based on common class interests to defeat corporate power and corporate control of government at all levels.

The last best hope for our country is a movement that mobilizes working people to end corporate control of government in the spirit of the Omaha Platform.

The spirit of the Wide-Awake Sentinel should not die with the assassination of James Madison Pickens and the destruction of the press that created it by white supremacists. The spirit of Abolitionism survived the murder of Elijah Lovejoy and the smashing of his press.

The war against “woke” is yet another attempt to smash the presses and silence those who would stand up to economic and political injustice. Book banning and censorship are Orwellian attempts to disappear the legacy of a very real dream of an America based on a vision of building a multiracial democracy. The “war on woke” is a prelude to the construction of an authoritarian state built on violence and white supremacy, a replay of the post Reconstruction Jim Crow South.

“We the people” must prevent this from happening.

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This content originally appeared on and was authored by Paul Horton.

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