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The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America
by Lawrence Goodwyn

(Oxford University Press)

Review by John Gabree

“The Populist Moment” is a reworking for the general reader of “Democratic Promise,” a history of American Populism. For Prof. Goodwyn, the destruction of Populism as a political force is an example of the ways in which a powerful elite can thwart democratic reform. By removing whole areas of public life from democratic control, the powerful elite is able to limit citizens' freedom while pretending to uphold democracy.

The campaign of 1896 between McKinley and Brian, and ostensibly between the gold and silver standards, effectively removed democratic limitations on economic power, in the same way that foreign policy was withdrawn from democratic control during and after World War II.

Goodwyn sees Populism as a movement of democratic promise. Like the popular movements of the '60s (continued in a distorted form in the single-issue politics of the '70s), Populism was important much less for its programs and organizations than for its "actions" in bringing thousands of a ordinary citizens in contact with each other "in a self-generated culture of collective dignity and individual longing. As a movement of people, it was expansive, passionate, flawed, creative -- above all, enhancing in its assertion of human striving.”

Considering the history presented here, it is, if not surprising, at least disheartening that Populism has become a dirty word. Populism was the largest and strongest mass democratic movement in American history. The Populists showed how people who felt powerless "could create for themselves the psychological space to dare to aspire grandly" and to challenge the oppressive "received culture" (received, that is, from those who control and benefit from the status quo).

The Populist idea was simple (if subtle): People could work together to achieve individual freedom. It is an idea that still animates many citizens, such as the anti-nuclear activists, the “anticipatory democrats” and some trade unionists. It might even work. (1978)

Order The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn
or Democratic Promise by Lawrence Goodwyn



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