More than just a moment: the deep roots of American populism

  • Themes: American Democracy

History tells us that economic and political populism is as quintessentially American as capitalism itself.

American anti-trust cartoon, 1889.
American anti-trust cartoon, 1889. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Across Western democracies, populist politics are in vogue. That is especially true of the United States, where it has taken on a heavily economic form, whether it is Donald Trump and Joe Biden making promises about tariffs to woo voters in swing states with traditionally large manufacturing sectors, or more extreme calls emanating from the left and right to soak the rich.

This marks a distinct change from a time not so long ago when presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama spoke soberly about the need to take a long-term view of trade policy or insisted that America had to adopt a nuanced approach towards China. In other ways, however, today’s economic populism harks back to long-established patterns in American politics.

In one sense, America experiences a major populist wave every four years when it elects its president. Presidential candidates typically make bold economic promises (‘end the Fed,’ ‘abolish poverty’, etc.) that have little chance of being given legislative effect but are designed to motivate people to go and vote.

At other times, figures emerge in American politics who generate populist waves of support by portraying themselves as anti-establishment outsiders challenging the perceived economic elites of the time. Twentieth-century examples include Louisiana governor Huey Long, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, and the Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin.

In the 1930s, Coughlin’s skilful use of radio allowed his fiery mixture of anti-capitalist, anti-semitic, and pro-fascist sentiments to reach millions of Americans. Integral to Coughlin’s message was a call for the nationalisation of multiple industries, state-guarantees of employment, widespread and ongoing redistributions of wealth, and the curtailment of free markets and property rights.

In terms of content, most expressions of American economic populism have insisted that government –specifically, the Federal government – must play a much bigger role in the economy. That has gone hand-in-hand with the identification of particular domestic groups or other nations as opponents to be confronted.

Consider the Kentucky politician, Henry Clay (1777-1852). Distinguished for having served as a member of Congress, speaker of the House of Representatives, a senator, secretary of state, and a losing candidate in three US presidential elections, Clay laid out an entire economic agenda that foresaw a highly activist Federal government. Conceived in the 1820s, Clay’s ‘American System’ proposed high tariff walls, massive federal spending on infrastructure, a national bank to expand the availability of domestic capital, and state-directed efforts to develop profitable internal markets for agriculture (agricultural goods being America’s biggest export at the time).

Just as Donald Trump identified China in 2015 as the great economic challenge to America when explaining his adherence to protectionist policies, so too did Clay insist that what he labelled as Britain’s laissez-faire ways were threatening the American people’s happiness. Unless America embraced his programme, Clay argued in speeches to his fellow legislators and at mass gatherings, it risked becoming an economic slave to Britain.

Successful popular movements to increase tariffs after the Civil War likewise portrayed Britain as the great bogeyman. It was not only leaders of industry in the north-east who placed enormous pressure on Congressmen and Senators to raise tariffs. They were joined by a growing class of American industrial workers who, like their employers, saw free trade Britain, and its remarkable capacity to produce higher-quality manufacturing goods cheaper and faster than anyone else, as threatening their livelihoods.

Economic populism has also taken on explicitly class dimensions in America. Senator Bernie Sanders’s railings against ‘millionaires and billionaires’ in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections find ample precedent in the ‘People’s Party’ or the ‘Populist Party’, which became a political force in late-19th century America.

The Populist Party emerged in Western and Southern states in the early 1890s out of an agrarian protest movement against the monied and business interests associated with the Gilded Age. ‘A vast conspiracy against mankind,’ proclaimed the Populist Party’s 1892 platform, ‘has been organised on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world’. The alleged conspirators were big businesses, especially large-scale domestic and foreign bankers.

Prior to being absorbed into the Democrat Party, the Populist Party agitated for more economic regulation, reductions in weekly working hours, a graduated income tax, direct federal aid to farmers, and government ownership of the railroads, as well as telephone and telegraph services. It also pushed hard for the United States to embrace a bi-metallist monetary system (i.e., gold and silver). This, it was argued, would help make capital more available to the masses.

The appeal of the Populists’ anti-big business messages became apparent in the 1892 presidential election. Led by James B. Weaver, the Populist ticket won 8.5 per cent of the popular vote and carried five Western states.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt deployed similar messages to advance his New Deal policies in the 1930s. Though FDR personified the North-East WASP America elite of his time, his rhetoric had more than a hint of populism about it.

In his 1936 acceptance speech on being re-nominated as the Democrats’ presidential candidate, for instance, FDR disparaged ‘economic royalists’ and assailed the ‘privileged princes of these new economic dynasties’ intent on creating a ‘new industrial dictatorship’ at the expense of the ‘average family’, ‘the small businessman’, and ‘those who tilled the soil’. It was not for idle reasons that much of FDR’s programme initially found favour with the likes of Father Coughlin. For some time, the president and the priest were largely singing from the same songbook.

There have been occasions when populist impulses have assumed a different economic face in America. The most famous case is surely Ronald Reagan. He bucked the trend by giving a distinctly populist edge to his free market and limited government messages: something that market liberals in America and elsewhere have traditionally struggled to do.

Something similar could be said of the Tea Party movement of the late-2000s or the ‘Contract with America’ promoted by the Republicans in the lead-up to the 1994 mid-term elections when the GOP won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952. In both cases, the Republicans capitalised upon popular opposition to two Democratic presidents’ efforts to expand government control of healthcare.

From this standpoint, we see that economic populism is much more hard-wired into American politics and culture than populism’s advocates and critics are perhaps willing to acknowledge. This guarantees that economic populism will continue to resurface in the United States long after the current wave has subsided. The faces promoting the policies may change, but the issues and sentiments probably won’t. Economic populism, it turns out, is as quintessentially American as capitalism itself.


Samuel Gregg