December 30, 1993
We could use a 'Populist' alternative to the 2 parties
by Howard Fast
"Populist" is one of those words that come into use suddenly -- in this case starting about three years ago -- and then are used and misused ad nauseam, most often as a term of contempt or as a put-down. This is a shame, for the term has proud historical antecedents and is pertinent to the situation in which the country finds itself today.
The word had its origin in 1892, as a general expression of discontent and frustration on the part of farmers and workers. In July 1893, a Populist political convention was convened in Omaha, Neb., with those attending voicing their anger with both political parties. The Republicans had nominated the current president, Benjamin Harrison, while the Democrats nominated former President Grover Cleveland, neither of whom offered anything much to the common people.
The Populists called for government ownership of railroads, telephone and telegraph; a graduated income tax; restrictions on immigration; an eight-hour workday; popular election of U.S. senators and the secret ballot. The final five demands of the Populist movement have become accepted as a given, without much thought as to the long battle fought to achieve these demands. Back then they were by no means a given; they were won with blood and anguish, and they remain not only as pillars of a free society, but the legacy of the Populist movement.
But the overall aim of the Populists, the creation and ultimate victory of a people's political party, was never achieved. In time, the Democratic Party was forced to incorporate Populist demands, and eventually each of these five demands became the law of the land.
To this day, however, there is no national political party that expresses the will of the people. Cowed utterly by the charge that he was simply another tax-and-spend Democrat, President Clinton pledged himself to be a "new" Democrat, and that he certainly is, for if this "new" Democratic party has proved anything, it is simply that it is no different in any basic matter than the Republican administration it superseded. When its single effort to install a public service jobs program was blocked by a Republican filibuster, it turned tail and ran for cover. Its single boast of a great congressional victory was achieved with Republican votes, with a majority of Democratic congressmen voting against NAFTA.
The bright and pleasant young man who was Clinton's first press spokesman was fired before he had an opportunity to learn his job, to be replaced by the more adjustable Dee Dee Meyers.
Even Les Aspin is being replaced by a Republican, Bobby Ray Inman, who would not frighten the Pentagon with threats of budget cuts. And in this case, Mr. Clinton proved his steadfastness in defense of women by accepting Admiral Inman's tax delinquencies, the same delinquencies that caused him to dump Zoe Baird, his first choice for attorney general, without even a whisper of a protest or any backing on his part. We are told that Admiral Inman's behavior in the matter of taxes will not stand in the way of his appointment or confirmation.
It was the above that prompted a wit, paraphrasing Mark Twain, to remark that there was absolutely no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, except that the Democrats were even more so.
Which brings us back to my few paragraphs about the origin of the Populist movement in America. No one today would argue against the measures the Populists fought for and won. They are so deeply a part of the democratic system that we think of them as a part of the original Constitution, and we might well insist that a democracy could not survive without these rights.
But who speaks for the people today? We pride ourselves so greatly on our two-party system that we try to export it wherever we can. But in all reality, what does our two-party system really amount to?
One might say that the Republicans are the more honest of the two, since they make no bones about defending the interests of big business; but dishonesty and duplicity are hardly a proud definition for a people's party, which the Democrats claim to be. It is quite true that a whole army of volunteers descended upon Washington, D.C., intent on dipping into the bottomless honeypot, and elbowing aside the crowd that had fed itself over the past 12 years. But it's just damn hard to distinguish the one from the other. It's simply a question of who ladles out the gravy.