Online Journal
Front Page 
 Special Reports
 News Media
 Elections & Voting
 Social Security
 Editors' Blog
 Reclaiming America
 The Splendid Failure of Occupation
 The Lighter Side
 The Mailbag
 Online Journal Stores
 Official Merchandise
 Join Mailing List

Commentary Last Updated: Aug 11th, 2008 - 00:44:30

Populism then and now: Old wine, new bottle, part 1
By Joseph Danison
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 11, 2008, 00:17

Email this article
 Printer friendly page

You were once Jed Dawson, a farmer in Kansas in 1886 when nearly half of Americans worked on farms. You�re tough as a leather boot with about 5 percent body fat and hard, stringy muscles. Your wife can drive a team of horses with her left hand while she cradles the new baby in her right arm. Her cheeks have hollowed out again since she delivered the third child. The two boys are old enough to help their mother with the vegetable garden, the chickens, and the pigs, but neither one is big enough to handle the mules and the plow.

You�ve got some acreage in wheat and corn, a small barn, and a two room cabin you built yourself with a porch and two rocking chairs you brought all the way from northern Mississippi in 1879 when the furnishing merchant, Elias Scruggs, took your farm. Scruggs wanted you to stay and work the farm as a tenant. You wanted to spit in his fat red face, but you didn�t. You took two of your horses he claimed were his, and your wagon, which he also claimed was his, and the rocking chairs your wife�s father made, and you never looked backed. You cursed the crop lien and Elias Scruggs all the way to Kansas.

But when you think about it, things aren�t much better. As it stands, if the wheat and corn come in as expected, you�ll make your payments on the binding machine you had to buy with a chattel mortgage at 28 percent. You�ll be able to pay what you owe Ewan Tevits at the general store. Then you�ll have maybe $90 to carry you over to next year and you�ll be back to Ewan Tevits, hat in hand, paying twice as much on credit as you would for cash. If the crop comes in as expected, that is. When you look into the future your best hope is just to hang onto the farm. Unless corn and wheat prices rise, you�ll never get out of debt. In spite of all this, you are filled with cheerful resolve and purpose.

Now you�re reincarnated again as a foreman in a poultry plant outside Kansas City in 2008. Your name is Glen Davis. They gave you the foreman job because you�re white and you can speak a little Spanish. You�re big, your wife says, about 32 percent body fat, according to the Weight Watchers scale, but she�s bigger. She never did lose the extra pounds she put on after the third child was born. She�s not happy without gardening space for vegetables and flowers, and the boys complain about the new school. You knew you were taking on too much house when Dale Scruggs down at Countrywide signed you up, but she was working then and real estate prices were rising 10 percent a year. Look at it as an investment, Scruggs said. Better than the stock market. Real estate prices never fall.

The rate on your no-money-down ARM was due to reset about the time your daughter was born. You refinanced and then started drawing down the equity in the house because your mortgage payment doubled. You tried to sell and get into a smaller house, but no one was buying in �06. You got behind on the mortgage. When some financial outfit you never heard of started foreclosure, you wondered whatever happened to Dale Scruggs and Countrywide. You always thought Scruggs would cut you a little slack if push came to shove because you went to the same high school, but it was actually some �private equity group� in California that owned your house. You finally lost it and had to move into an apartment. You felt like you were on the up escalator going down. It was a nightmare!

That�s when you started to listen to get-out-of-debt financial evangelizer, Dave Ramsey, and realize the error of your easy credit ways. Tevits Toyota World came and took your wife�s new car. She cried more than when she left the house because it was insult to injury, she said. She�ll go back to work for the dentist when she can find some affordable daycare, but as you look into the future, even with what she�ll bring in, you can�t see how you�re ever going to be able to pay down your debt and get into another house. You never order out for pizza anymore. Your credit rating is about the same as your belt size. It�s truly depressing paying off the credit cards you can�t use anymore. You cut them up, but it didn�t make you feel righteous or liberated because now you don�t have credit. The co-pay on health insurance is ridiculous. And the gas prices! You car pool when you can. That�s what Jesus would do, most likely. At least you have a job, and food stamps.

One hundred twenty-two years have passed, you�ve put on some weight, you�ve got electric lights, a computer for the boys, a big screen TV, central heat and air, and a five-year-old Chevy S-10 pick-up that nags you when you don�t buckle your seatbelt, but you�re still just one of �the people� clinging by your fingernails to the last rung of the lower middle class. Sometimes you daydream about living in the Old West, your Colt revolver on your hip, free as a bird, with some worshipful little kid calling after you, �Come back, Shane!� That shows what a lousy memory you�ve got. It�s truly just the same old sour wine in a new bottle and the same cast of characters in different outfits.

So, what�s the problem, Everyman? How do you manage to screw things up life after life? Did Dave Ramsey save your financial soul by helping you make a budget, lower your expectations, drive hard bargains with the collection agencies, and get on a path to a debt-free future? And what about old Jed Dawson who used to farm the land that your quadruplex sits on today? Would Dave Ramsey�s sage financial advice have helped him in 1886? Not likely! It�s also doubtful whether it actually helps you, either, because you�re just not having any fun and going no place fast.

Jed Dawson worked from dawn to dusk every day and could not afford to buy his wife some cloth so that she could make herself a new dress for Sunday church meetings. By and large, Jed and his wife produced what they consumed. In our mass consumer economy we find it difficult to imagine such poverty (or such self-sufficiency!), and yet in your technological bubble that buffers you against the extremes of heat and cold with all the amenities of cheap and abundant food, indoor plumbing and hot showers, swift and comfortable transportation, and entertainment with the press of a button, you are not as well off as Jed Dawson in an important way. In his day, in spite of his grueling labor, lack of creature comforts, and consumer deprivations, he had great expectations you do not have. He cherished a hope for real democracy and believed there was a fighting chance it might come about.

You, on the other hand, do not even have the hope for a real democracy because you have been told and you obediently tell yourself that you�ve already got it; therefore, you are not inclined to hope for a democracy you believe you already have. This is the real reason you are so bummed out, Glen Davis. Your indebtedness is just a symptom of your underlying life dilemma: you are told to take responsibility for a life you don�t actually control. Your mind has been sabotaged and you have been politically castrated and you don�t have a clue.

The basis for Jed Dawson�s great expectations was an organization called the Farmer�s Alliance that was just beginning to gather steam in 1886 and would eventually take on the character of a social movement called �populism.� Populism advocated policies that were intended to benefit the people as a whole in a time historians call �The Gilded Age,� when the power of corporate monopolists dominated the government that was originally designed to be by and for the people.

Populism does not exist today except in wet dreams which we forget when the alarm goes off. In the mind of Glen Davis, sabotaged as it is, the interest of �the people� is served by government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and welfare, the so-called entitlement programs talking heads on television are always saying must be cut. Glen believes he is generally better off than Jed Dawson because there is a �safety net.� If you lose your job, you can get unemployment and maybe get some money to get training for another line of work. If you get injured, you can get workman�s compensation. And so forth. The safety net is a people catcher. The rich don�t need a safety net because rich is a synonym for �safe.�

The Democrats assembled this safety net when Franklin Roosevelt was president during the Depression. These people-loving Democrats call themselves �progressive.� They advocate programs and policies to benefit the people who aren�t rich or moderately wealthy, which is about 80 percent of the population.

These progressives, who are usually members of the Democratic Party, sometimes call themselves �populists.� They are not, nor are they �democratic.�

Part 2 of this essay will explore the reasons why this is so.

Joseph Danison is a novelist and commentator in Western North Carolina. Contact him at

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor

Top of Page

Latest Headlines
Making smarter cars instead of stupid decisions
Vote first; ask questions later
Cassandra complex
Obama exploits liberal denial
Livni states that the targets in Mumbai were Jewish and Israeli (another codeword for �Western�?)
Gaza: Salvation in a news broadcast
The tragic devastation of Iraq, a critical moral issue for America
Through a hole in the air . . .
What would Jesus buy?
The new Obama administration: A lot of more of the same
Deadly consumerism
Happy Thanksgiving? Not for all
The last Thanksgiving before GD2?
Obama�s odious entourage
Bush�s disgraceful legacy
500-year war against Vietnam
Can they do that?
Why do I live in the United States?
New deal? We need a new deck!
Consumers, then chumps for predatory capitalism