Populism to Progressivism In Alabama (Library of Alabama Classics)
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Six years of depression in the trans-Mississippi West, the decline of foreign trade after the enactment of the McKinley tariff, and an abnormally high burden of private debt were disquieting features of the situation. Most attention was centred, however, on the gold reserve in the federal Treasury. When on April 21, , the reserve fell below that amount, the psychological impact was far-reaching.
Investors hastened to convert their holdings into gold; banks and brokerage houses were hard-pressed; and many business houses and financial institutions failed. Prices dropped, employment was curtailed, and the nation entered a period of severe economic depression that continued for more than three years.
It was widely believed that the principal cause of the drain on the Treasury was the obligation to purchase large amounts of silver. To those who held this view, the obvious remedy was the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The issue was political as well as economic.
It divided both major parties, but most of the leading advocates of existing silver policies were Democrats. Cleveland, however, had long been opposed to the silver-purchase policy, and in the crisis he resolved upon repeal as an essential step in protecting the Treasury. He therefore called Congress to meet in special session on August 7, The new Congress had Democratic majorities in both houses, and, if it had any mandate , it was to repeal the McKinley tariff.
It had no mandate on the silver issue, and more than half of its Democratic members came from constituencies that favoured an increase in the coinage of silver. Cleveland faced a herculean task in forcing repeal through Congress, but, by the use of every power at his command, he gained his objective.
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The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed at the end of October by a bill that made no compensating provision for the coinage of silver. Cleveland had won a personal triumph, but he had irrevocably divided his party; and in some sections of the nation he had become the most unpopular president of his generation. The extent to which Cleveland had lost control of his party became apparent when Congress turned from silver to the tariff. In the Senate, however, the bill was so altered that it bore little resemblance to the original measure, and on some items it imposed higher duties than had the McKinley Tariff Act.
It was finally passed in August , but Cleveland was so dissatisfied that he refused to sign it; and it became law without his signature. The act contained a provision for an income tax, but this feature was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in In the midterm elections of the Republicans recaptured control of both houses of Congress. This indicated the discontent produced by the continuing depression. It also guaranteed that, with a Democratic president and Republican Congress, there would be inaction in domestic legislation while both parties looked forward to the election of At their convention in St.
Louis the Republicans selected Gov.
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William McKinley of Ohio as their presidential nominee. He had served in the Federal army during the Civil War, and his record as governor of Ohio tended to offset his association with the unpopular tariff of The Democratic convention in Chicago was unusually exciting. Bryan was a former congressman from Nebraska , and at 36 he was the youngest man ever to be the nominee for president of a major party. By experience and conviction he shared the outlook of the agrarian elements that dominated the convention and whose principal spokesman he became.
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Rightwing populism, meanwhile, is different to a conservatism that primarily identifies with the business classes against their critics and antagonists below.
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In its American and western European versions, it is also different to an authoritarian conservatism that aims to subvert democracy. It operates within a democratic context. They can be blue-collar workers, shopkeepers, or students burdened by debt; they can be the poor or the middle class. The conflict itself turns on a set of demands that the populists make of the elite — demands that the populists believe the establishment will be unwilling to grant them.
But promising a wall that the Mexican government will pay for or the total cessation of immigration — that does establish a frontier. These kinds of demands define the clash between the people and the establishment. In this sense, American and western European populist movements have flourished when they are in opposition, and have suffered identity crises when they have entered government. P opulist campaigns and parties often function as warning signs of a political crisis. In both Europe and the US, populist movements have been most successful at times when people see the prevailing political norms — which are preserved and defended by the existing establishment — as being at odds with their own hopes, fears, and concerns.
The populists express these neglected concerns and frame them in a politics that pits the people against an intransigent elite.
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By doing so, they become catalysts for political change. Populist campaigns and parties, by nature, point to problems through demands that are unlikely to be realised in the present political circumstances. In the case of some rightwing populists, these demands are laced with bigotry or challenge democratic norms.
In other cases, they are clouded with misinformation. But they still point to tears in the fabric of accepted political wisdom. In recent decades, as the great postwar boom has stalled, the major parties on both sides of the Atlantic, have embraced a neoliberal agenda of free movement of capital and labour to achieve prosperity.
Leaders have favoured increased immigration, only to find that American voters were up in arms about illegal immigration, and European voters were up in arms about immigrant communities they regarded as seedbeds of crime and, later, terrorism. In continental Europe, the major parties embraced the idea of the single currency only to find that it fell into disfavour during the Great Recession. Over the next 70 years, Europe would become home to an array of parties on the left, centre and right, but it would not witness anything resembling American populism until the s.
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The first European populist parties were rightwing. They accused the elites of coddling communists, welfare recipients, or immigrants. In the last decade, however, leftwing populist parties have arisen in Spain and Greece that direct their ire against the establishment in their country or against the EU headquarters in Brussels.
The main difference between US and European populists is that while American parties and campaigns come and go quickly, some European populist parties have been around for decades. That is primarily because many European nations have multi-party systems, and many of the countries have proportional representation that allows smaller parties to maintain a foothold even when they are polling in single digits. Populist movements themselves do not often achieve their own objectives.
Their demands may be co-opted by the major parties, or they may be thoroughly rejected.
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But they do roil the waters. They signal that the prevailing political ideology is not working and the standard worldview is breaking down. N o one, not even the man himself, expected Donald Trump to get the Republican presidential nomination in Similarly, no one, including Bernie Sanders, expected that through the California primary in June, the Vermont senator would still be challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. In the US, in contrast to Europe, these campaigns have burst forth suddenly and unexpectedly. Despite usually being short-lived, they have, nevertheless, had an outsized impact.
And while they may seem unusual at the time, they are very much part of the political fabric of the nation. American politics is structured to sustain such prevailing worldviews. As a result of this two-party tilt towards the centre, sharp political differences over underlying socioeconomic issues have tended to become blunted or even to be ignored, particularly in presidential elections.
Together, these movements established the framework that Bernie Sanders, who described himself both as a democratic socialist and as a progressive, would adopt during his campaign.