In which we wonder whether strange bedfellows can make a new kind of politics
Kids, I’m hoping you remember a conversation we had the other day when I compared the coming of industrial capitalism to a wind that blew across the national landscape.
—How could we forget such a poetic metaphor, Mr. K.?
—I don’t think it was a metaphor, Em. I think it was an analogy.
—Oh Sadie you’re right.
—Nope. You’re both wrong. It was simile: industrialization is like the weather.
I’m impressed, Ethan.
—We just did this in English last week.
Well, bravo. To repeat: industrial capitalism was like the weather. Everybody felt it, but reacted differently depending on who they were, or where they were. Some regarded this new meteorological front sweeping across the landscape as a gentle breeze; others felt it like a chill. And people responded to the wind in different ways. All those workers who went on strike: they were responding to that weather. Racists who used lynching and Jim Crow laws to keep African Americans in their place—many white Southerners were obsessed by this notion of place—tried to prevent this labor force from blowing away.
And then there were the farmers.
—You know, we haven’t talked much about farmers in this class.
It’s true, and it’s a real defect of this course, reflecting the limits of my vision. Nowadays, farmers are only about two percent of the U.S. population, and as such are invisible to a great many of us. But until 1920, more Americans lived on farms than in cities, which is to say that in a meaningful sense U.S. history is really rural history. In any event, the wind sweeping across the nation is affecting these people just like everybody else. Some, of course, are being pushed off the farm entirely. But the ones who stay behind are being affected in powerful and complex ways. Railroads make it possible to move their crops over long distances, but put them at the mercy of rapacious railroad companies. Fancy new technology raises their yields, but such equipment is expensive and the farmers end up borrowing money that’s hard to pay back, especially when prices are dropping (in part because a surge in supply is making food less valuable).
Your recent homework has been talking about the ways farmers have started to organize in the last decades of the nineteenth century: the Grange, a series of cultural and social centers that spring up around the South and West; the Southern Alliance, which helps forms cooperatives—
—I didn’t quite get how those work.
Sort of like massive Sam’s Clubs or Costcos for farmers, Jonah. They allowed them to buy in bulk and store surplus crops cheaply.
In 1892, these various efforts coalesce in into the formation of the Populist Party. The Populists have lots of ideas about how to fix what’s wrong with the country: a graduated income tax (by which I mean the more you earn the more you pay); the direct election of Senators (chosen in elections rather than the state legislators, which is how the Constitution said it had to be done); more railroad regulation; free rural post office delivery. Many of these ideas would eventually become law, with the notable exception of one proposal we’ll get to later: the idea of pegging the dollar to silver. But at the time, these ideas are considered downright kooky.
So now I want to pose a question to you. One of the great hopes of the Populists is that they’ll be able to forge an alliance with the industrial workers of the cities and break the power of the big banks and big business. How realistic do you think that is?
—It’s really hard to say. We don’t know enough.
I understand. But Chris: you’ve got a thoughtful expression on your face. Whaddya say? Farmers and factory workers: a good fit?
Would you care to elaborate?
—“I would prefer not to.”
That wouldn’t happen to be a Melvillian “prefer not to,” would it?
—We’re reading “Bartleby the Scrivener” in Ms. Anthony’s class.
Got it. How about you, Paolo?
—Makes sense to me. They’re both getting screwed.
Do they have anything else in common?
—I dunno. Do they need anything else in common?
Great question. What do the rest of you think?
—It’s not clear to me that farmers and factory workers are a good fit. You said that one problem the farmers had was falling prices, right?
Yes, Adam, I did.
—That’s good for workers, right? They get cheaper food.
—More than that, though. It’s different cultures. People who live on farms and people who work in factories lead very different lives.
—I’d never want to live on farm. Pace is too slow.
—You’re a snob, Em.
—Why thank you, Adam!
I can tell you one thing you don’t often (sometimes, but not often) find on a farm that you find in cities all the time. Can you guess what I’m taking about?
—A good bagel?
Actually, you’re getting close. Who eats bagels in the late nineteenth century?
—I am serious.
—Bagels are Jewish food.
Yes. And where are Jews from?
There is no Israel at this point. Where are all the Jews?
Some. But you get the idea. Jews are immigrants. There are lots and lots of immigrants in America. Most of them are in cities. Again: that’s not absolutely true. You’ve got Swedes in Minnesota, for example. Czechs in Nebraska. Germans and Mexicans in rural Texas (they’re making beautiful tejano music that integrates the two cultures). But there’s a general sense that the cities, particularly the eastern cities, are very mixed, while the countryside is very white.
—Aren’t Germans white?
Sort of. Whiter than the Irish, anyway. And both are whiter than the Italians. Particularly the Sicilians. They’re basically negroes.
—Like I said. There’s that cultural barrier. They’re like not even speaking the same language.
—No “like” about it. They’re literally not speaking the same language.
—It sounds like the Populists are racists.
—Why would you say that? Mr. K. just explained they’re reaching out. They want an alliance.
Well, Sadie does have a point, Adam. Yes, they do want an alliance. But they tend to think of it on their terms.
—Are there black populists?
A typically excellent question from Yin. The answer is yes. Populism was in many ways a decentralized movement, and so there were variations in the degree of interracial cooperation. Sadly, the cooperation that did exist tended to break down. One of the most famous Populists, Ben Tillman—known as “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman—ended up as a vicious racist. There was also, I’m sorry to say, an anti-semitic strain in Populists, despite (or maybe because) many Populists had never actually met a Jewish person. Some were convinced that Jewish bankers were taking over the world.
—God, this is thoroughly depressing. Thanks for all this happy information, Mr. K.
Well, don’t despair yet, Sadie. This story isn’t quite over. I have more to tell you.
—Hey, Sadie. Don’t feel bad. Now everybody eats bagels.
—Yeah, but I had a bagel once in Denver. It was awful.
—I had one in Florida that sucked too.
—Yes, but America is a work in progress. First we got bagels for everybody. Now we need to work on making better bagels.
—A good bagel is like a refreshing breeze. Now there’s a simile.
—As good as a bagel in Denver.