A Green State of Mind: A Green Theoretical Journal (hosted by the Green Party of New York State)
The Rise of the Populist-Progressive
by Darin Robbins [member of the GPNYS State Committee] May 22, 2009
The populist and progressive movements need each other, both historically and now, in order to present a real political alternative to the the interlocking system of militarism, religious fundamentalism, and corporations.
The presidential election of 1896 was considered the most dramatic in American history up to that point. It was a realignment of political positions as well as a strong showing of third party activity. The Republican candidate William McKinley forged a coalition in which businessmen, professionals, skilled factory workers, and prosperous farmers were heavily represented. This made up the character of the Republican party well into the 20th century. In contrast, William Jennings Bryan was the nominee of the Democrats, the Populists, and the Silver Republicans. Economic issues were the most important in this election…
…although Bryan lost the election and his support by the Populists caused that third party to dissipate, the new political grouping emerged as the forefront in the Democratic Party well into the progressive movement and into the New Deal era. In other words, the election of 1896 was the official split between party politics of the 19th and 20th century. It was only after World War II that the overall similarity between the Democrats and Republicans became truly apparent and obvious…
Even though populism as a political party was in decline after 1896, it did not mean that the populist movement disappeared completely. In official history, there is the appearance that the populism of the 1890’s gave way to the progressive movement of the first twenty years of the 1900’s. What actually occurred was an interaction that distinctly defined left and right progressivism. The populists exerted an invisible influence on the leftwing progressives, and would have created the new phenomenon of the populist-progressive in the American political field if World War I did not provide an obstacle at that time. The outbreak of war caused liberals who were limited by the Democratic Party to support the Wilson administration in a way that paralleled many socialists who supported their respective countries in Europe. On the other side of the coin, rightwing progressives were also nationalists in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt was a nationalist…Both the rightwing version of the populist and progressive movements were contained by the existing political and economic system. Any possibility of change would always be redirected to particular reforms that served to perpetuate the system in the long-term.
Populism and progressivism need each other in an interdependent way. Populism is a methodology while progressivism is a perspective on political change…the progressive vision is one that seeks to change the deep political, cultural, and economic structures for the benefit of people. The progressive vision without populism can easily become a source of centralized control and a bureaucratic hierarchy, as hinted at by Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. The populist method without a progressive long-term perspective can also degenerate into a fear of change and the scapegoating of supposed “elitists” solely within the cultural sphere.
The Green Party in this respect can be the point of intersection of populism and progressivism within a political party organization. As the Green Party can be said to be the children of the 1960’s, it can also be considered to be the grandchildren of the Populist Party. There is a rich heritage that has resulted in the emergence of a populist-progressive movement within late capitalism. The intersection of populism and progressivism is a bulwark against the appropriation by conservatives and liberals of either populism or progressivism alone. The populist-progressive is a new political identity that reaches toward the past for a new future. The populist-progressive is completely outside of the old liberal and conservative spectrum. The Green Party, as a party of populist-progressives, can remake the political landscape in a way that empowers individuals and communities.