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Populist and Progressive Movements - Essay Example

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Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal rested on a common assumption, namely, that one could wring a higher standard of living out of the Industrial Revolution for all the people within the framework of constitutional government and capitalism. Because the radical left denied that assumption, it does not belong to the progressive tradition…
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Populist and Progressive Movements
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Download file to see previous pages The Populists, failing to understand that their problems derived from a world-wide agricultural depression, projected their grievances on aliens: on Easterners, Wall Street, English capitalists, and Jewish bankers who were allied in a conspiracy, according to the Populist philosophy of history, to destroy the liberty-loving, Anglo-Saxon husbandmen. This notion stemmed from self-deception. Instead of accepting himself for the agricultural capitalist he was, the Populist imagined himself to be the mythical yeoman who had been celebrated since Jefferson's day as the unspoiled child of Nature and the worthiest of all Americans.
Populists had identified three broad areas of economic discontent in the pre-political as well as political phases of their protest: the familiar Populist trinity of demands contained in the Omaha Platform of 1892--transportation, money, and land. These demands conveniently define the genesis of the movement's protest, particularly because they were critical to what Populists viewed as a forcible process of modernization that sacrificed agriculture to the presumed imperatives of a rationalized industrial order. Their cumulative effect was greater than the sum of their separate consequences, and this led Populists to generalize specific economic grievances in their political analysis and indictment of a system that resulted in the loss of human liberties. Populists protested against the extension of the mechanisms of power of an advanced capitalist economy into the more settled institutions of the countryside. The agrarian economy was also capitalistic, but it was unable to counter the superior industrial, financial, and commercial pressures that fostered a closed market in agriculture and made the conditions of farming onerous. The burden of conducting agricultural operations, and perhaps even of maintaining a particular way of life (not necessarily pastoral, but founded on the aspiration for, or in many cases the reality of, economic and political independence), motivated Populists to enlarge the basis of their criticism. They were not only agrarians who confronted the industrial structure, but they were also political democrats who sought the realization of constitutional principles. These principles were applicable to both industry and agriculture, and they would confirm the sovereignty of government, acting on behalf of the people, over the total modern economy. If capitalism was to have a moral basis, its political foundations must sustain equitable social and economic relations: The people's welfare must become the standard of public authority. That alone would reduce the power of consolidated wealth and preserve a democratic social order.
Populists accordingly maintained that a well-ordered polity was necessary to the protection of property; only in such a political framework could the standard of public interest be raised to ward off threats, which they perceived to originate in a monopolistic system, to personal holdings and the fair remuneration of labor. "Usurpation" and related terms connoted the illegal seizure of property and labor-created value by corporate enterprise. This expropriation of the lesser capitalist and laborer signified the breakdown of the legitimate authority that alone was capable of enforcing general-welfare principles in the regulation of society.
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