The Populist Vision

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The Populist Vision

Author: Charles Postel
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Copyright: 2007
Pages: 397
Cover Price: $ 39.99

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The Populist Vision is about how Americans responded to wrenching changes in the national and global economy. In the late nineteenth century, the telegraph and steam power made America and the world a much smaller place. The new technologies also made possible large-scale bureaucratic organization and centralization. Corporations grew exponentially and the rich amassed great fortunes. Those on the short end of these changes responded in the Populist revolt, one of the most effective challenges to corporate power in American history.

But what did Populism represent? Half a century ago, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter portrayed the Populist movement as an irrational response of backward-looking farmers to the challenges of modernity. Since then, historians have largely restored Populism's good name. But in so doing, they have sustained a romantic notion of Populism as the resistance movement of tradition-based and pre-modern communities to a modern and commerical society, or even a counterforce to the Enlightenment ideals of innovation and progress.

Postel's work marks a departure. He argues that the Populists understood themselves as, and were in fact, modern people. Farmer Populists strove to use the new innovations for their own ends. They sought scientific and technical knowledge, formed highly centralized organizations, launched large-scale cooperative businesses, and pressed for state-centered reforms on the model of the nation's most elaborate bureaucracy--the Postal Service. Hundreds of thousands of Populist farm women sought education, employment in schools and offices, and a more modern life. Miners, railroad workers, and other labor Populists joined with farmers to give impetus to the regulatory state.

Activists from Chicago, San Francisco, and other urban centers lent the movement an especially modern tone. Modernity was also menacing, as the ethos of racial progress influenced white Populists in their pursuit of racial segregation and Chinese exclusion. The Populist Vision offers a broad reassessment. Working extensively with primary sources, it looks at Populism as a national movement, taking into account both the leaders and the led. It focuses on farmers but also wage-earners and bohemian urbanites. It examines topics from technology, business, and women's rights, to government, race, and religion.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, business and political leaders are claiming that critics of their new structures of corporate control represent anti-modern attitudes towards the new realities of globalization. The Populist experience puts into question such claims about who is modern and who is not. And it suggests that modern society is not a given but is shaped by men and women who pursue alternative visions of what the modern world should be.

Background Information

The Populist Party was formed by those who felt that the major parties, whether Republican or Democrat, were run by big interests without regard for the common man. Chicago, Illinois, is the largest city on the Great Lakes. Although devastated by the earthquake and fire of 1907, San Francisco kept its position as the West's leading city until overtaken by Los Angeles. No longer needing Chinese labor on the transcontinental railroad, the United States shut down immigration from China with a Congressional act in 1882. The long struggle for equal rights for women took shape in the 19th century and was resisted by conservative thinking about gender roles. Religion brought some of the first English colonists to the New World and religious variety has been a national hallmark.