The Logic of American Populism From the People’s
Party to George Wallace
No one, not even Donald Trump, expected him to get the Republican presidential nomination in
2016. Similarly, no one, including Bernie Sanders, expected that up through the California
primary in June, the Vermont senator would still be challenging Hillary Clinton for the
Democratic nomination.
Trump’s success was initially attributed to his showmanship and celebrity. But as he won
primary after primary, political experts saw him playing on racist opposition to Barack
Obama’s presidency or exploiting a latent sympathy for fascism among downscale white
Americans. Sanders’s success invited less speculation, but commentators tended to dismiss
him as a utopian and to focus on the airy idealism of millennial voters. If that were not
sufficient explanation for his success, they emphasized Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a
frontrunner. It makes more sense, however, to understand Trump and Sanders’s success as the
latest chapter in the history of American populism.
Populism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe. While
strands of American populism go back to the Revolution and the Jacksonian War on the Bank of
the United States, it really begins with the People’s Party of the 1890s, which set the precedent
for movements that have popped up periodically. In the United States, in contrast to Europe,
these campaigns have burst forth suddenly and unexpectedly. Usually short-lived, nevertheless
they have had an outsized impact. While they seem unusual at the time, they are very much part
of the American political fabric.
Two Kinds of Political Events
While the history of American politics is riven with conflicts—over slavery, prohibition, the
trusts, tariffs, abortion, intervention abroad—it is also dominated for long stretches by an
underlying consensus about government’s role in the economy and abroad. If that consensus
doesn’t always unite the parties, it determines the ultimate outcome of political conflict. Thus,
from 1935 to the 1970s, there were occasional debates about the virtues of a progressive
income tax, but American policy reflected an underlying consensus in favor of it. Progressive
taxation was itself part of a broader worldview sometimes described as New Deal liberalism.
It had replaced a worldview that stressed a far more limited role for government in the
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The role of underlying worldviews is characteristic of politics in the United States and
Europe, and of all countries that are governed primarily by consent rather than by force and
terror. In Great Britain, for instance, laissez-faire capitalism, associated with Adam Smith’s
invisible hand, prevailed for much of the nineteenth century, but after World War II it was
superseded by Keynesian economics.
American politics is structured to sustain prevailing worldviews. Its characteristics of
winner takes all, first past the post, single-member districts have encouraged a two-party
system. Third-party candidates are often dismissed as “spoilers.” Moreover, in deciding on
whom to nominate in party primaries, voters and party bigwigs have generally taken
electability into account, and in the general election, candidates have generally tried to capture
the center and to stay away from being branded as an “extremist.” American political history is
littered with candidates who proved too extreme for the prevailing consensus of one or the
other major parties—think of Fred Harris or Jesse Jackson among Democrats and Tom
Tancredo or Pat Robertson among Republicans.
As a result of this two-party tilt toward the center, sharp political differences over
underlying socioeconomic issues have tended to get blunted or even ignored, particularly in
presidential elections. Campaigns are often fought over fleeting social issues such as
temperance or abortion or subsidiary economic issues such as the minimum wage or the
deficit. But there are times, when, in the face of dramatic changes in the society and economy
or in America’s place in the world, voters have suddenly become responsive to politicians or
movements that raise issues that major parties have either downplayed or ignored. There are
two kinds of such events.
The first are what political scientists call realigning elections. In these, a party or a
presidential candidate’s challenge to the prevailing worldview causes an upheaval that
reorders the existing coalitions and leads to a new majority party. Franklin Roosevelt’s
campaigns in 1932 and, even more so, 1936 did this, and so did Ronald Reagan’s campaign in
1980. Such elections are rare. They are usually precipitated by economic depression or war,
and by a succession of political outbursts that challenge, but do not replace, the prevailing
worldview. In American politics, these outbursts often take the form of populist candidacies
and movements.
These catalytic populists have defined politics in “us vs. them” terms—as struggles of the
people against the establishment based on issues and demands that the latter had been
sidestepping. The rise of the People’s Party was the first major salvo against the worldview of
laissez-faire capitalism. Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth coincided with Franklin Roosevelt’s
election in 1932 and helped drive the Roosevelt administration to develop a new politics to
sustain its majority. Together, these movements established the populist framework that Bernie
Sanders, who described himself both as a democratic socialist and as a progressive, would
adopt during his 2016 campaign.
As liberal critics would point out during the 1950s, the People’s Party had within it strains
of anti-Semitism, racism, and nativism, particularly toward the Chinese, but these were at best
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secondary elements. Until the movement began to disintegrate, the original People’s Party was
primarily a movement of the left. The first major instances of rightwing populism would come
in the 1930s with Father Charles Coughlin, and then in the 1960s with George Wallace’s
presidential campaigns. Wallace helped doom the New Deal majority and helped lay the basis
for the Reagan realignment of 1980. He created a constituency and a rightwing variety of
populism—what sociologist Donald Warren called “middle American radicalism”—that
would migrate into the Republican Party and become the basis of Donald Trump’s challenge to
Republican orthodoxy in 2016.
The People’s Party
In May 1891, the legend goes, some members of the Kansas Farmers Alliance, riding back
home from a national convention in Cincinnati, came up with the term “populist” to describe
the political views that they and other alliance groups in the West and South were developing.
The next year, the alliance groups joined hands with the Knights of Labor to form the People’s
Party that over the next two years challenged the most basic assumptions that guided
Republicans and Democrats in Washington. The party would be short-lived, but its example
would establish the basis for populism in the United States and Europe.
At the time the populists were meeting in Cincinnati, the leading Republicans and
Democrats in the United States were reveling in the progress of American industry and finance.
They believed in the self-regulating market as an instrument of prosperity and individual
opportunity, and thought government’s role should be minimal. Grover Cleveland, who was
president from 1884 to 1888 and from 1892 to 1896, railed against government “paternalism.”
Public sector intervention, he declared in his second inaugural address, “stifles the spirit of
true Americanism”; its “functions,” he stated, “do not include the support of the people.”
Government’s principal role was to maintain a “sound and stable currency” through upholding
the gold standard. Cleveland and his rivals quarreled over the tariff and whether the
Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” but they agreed on the
fundamental relationship between government and the economy.
But during these years, farmers in the South and the Plains suffered from a sharp drop in
agricultural prices. Farm prices fell two-thirds in the Midwest and South from 1870 to 1890.
The Plains, which prospered in the early 1880s, were hit by a ruinous drought in the late
1880s. But unsympathetic railroads, which enjoyed monopoly status, raised the cost of
transporting farm produce. Many farmers in the South and the Plains states could barely break
even. The small family farm gave way to the large “bonanza” farm, often owned by companies
based in the East. Salaries were threatened by low-wage immigrants from China, Japan,
Portugal, and Italy. Farmers who retained their land were burdened by debt. In Kansas, 45
percent of the land had become owned by banks.
The farm revolt began in the 1870s with the Farmer Alliances in the North and South.
These were originally fraternal societies, modeled on the Masons, with secret handshakes that
bonded the members together. The Southern Alliance began in Texas and spread eastward over
the South. In the North, it began in New York, died out, and then was revived in the 1880s in
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the Plains states. The alliances organized cooperatives to try to control prices, which were
increasingly set in distant markets, and they began to pressure legislators to regulate railroad
rates. As they became more deeply involved in politics, they began to join forces with the
Knights of Labor, the workingman’s organization that had been founded in 1869 and that by the
early 1880s was the main labor group in the United States. In 1885, the Texas alliance
declared in a resolution that it sought a “perfect unity of action” between itself and the Knights
of Labor.
While the Grange, a farm advocacy group that started just after the Civil War,
foreshadowed later interest groups like the National Farmers Union, the alliances saw
themselves representing the “people,” including farmers and blue-collar workers, against the
“money power” or “plutocracy.” That was reflected in their early programs, which included a
demand for the incorporation and recognition of labor unions alongside demands for railroad
regulation, an end to land speculation, and easy money (through the replacement or
supplementing of the gold standard) to ease the burden of debt that the farmers suffered from.
Except for a few scattered leaders, the populists were not socialists. They wanted to reform
rather than abolish capitalism, and their agent of reform was not the socialist working class,
but the loosely conceived idea of “the people.” Daniel DeLeon, the head of what was then the
country’s main socialist party, the Socialist Labor Party, criticized them as “bourgeois.”
Some of the alliance members backed the Greenback Party’s presidential slate in 1880 and
1884, but most sought to influence the dominant parties in their region. The Southern Alliance
wanted to transform the Democratic Party, and the alliance in the Great Plains wanted to
change the Republicans. In December 1889, the alliances began a series of meetings to
develop a national program. Besides the demands on currency and land, the program now also
included the nationalization of railroads, a graduated income tax, political reform (including
the secret ballot and direct election of senators), and a “sub-treasury” plan that would allow
farmers to borrow money from the federal government to store their crops until prices rose
high enough for them to be profitable.
When the alliance pressured candidates from the Democrats and Republicans to endorse
this platform, the demands proved to be too radical and far-reaching for the major parties. In
the Plains, Republicans scorned the alliance proposals as utopian moralism. “The Decalogue
and the golden rule have no place in a political campaign,” Kansas Republican Senator John J.
Ingalls wrote. In the South, some Democratic statehouse candidates endorsed the alliance
proposals, but once in office they rebuffed them. Alliance leaders concluded the Democrats
and Republicans were in the grip of the plutocracy and that the populists would have to
organize their own party. Kansas alliance members organized in 1890 a state People’s Party
that did well in that year’s elections. Then in 1892, the alliances, along with the Knights of
Labor and other groups, formed a national People’s Party and nominated James K. Weaver, a
former Greenback Party presidential candidate, to run for president.
The party held its convention in February in St. Louis, where Minnesota populist Ignatius
Donnelly penned a preamble to the platform that won widespread acclaim and became the
group’s manifesto—what the populists called the nation’s “second Declaration of
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Independence.” Donnelly was a former Republican congressman and railroad lobbyist who in
the mid-1870s had begun moving leftward and had won acclaim as an author and an orator. In
the preamble, Donnelly charged that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build
up the colossal fortunes of a few.” Government and the major parties were complicit in this
theft. “We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted
the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them,”
Donnelly wrote.
Donnelly’s preamble echoed the themes of Jacksonian democracy. “We seek to restore the
government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people,’ with whose class it originated,”
he wrote. But while the Jackson Democrats wanted to restore popular democracy by
eliminating the role of government in the economy, Donnelly and the populists—in a challenge
to the prevailing laissez-faire worldview—wanted government to actively combat economic
injustice. “We believe that the powers of government—in other words, of the people—should
be expanded . . . as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the
teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall
eventually cease in the land.”
At the St. Louis convention, Donnelly’s platform was enthusiastically endorsed by
Georgia’s Tom Watson, who had been elected to Congress in 1890 as a Democrat backing the
alliance platform. “Never before in the history of the world was there arrayed at the ballot box
the contending forces of Democracy and Plutocracy,” Watson declared. “Will you stand with
the people . . . by the side of the other wealth producers of the nation . . . or will you stand
facing them, and from the plutocratic ranks fire a ballot in support of the old parties and their
policies of disorganization, despotism, and death?”
There was always a more conservative strain within the populist movement. In the South,
some alliance members cooperated with the parallel Colored Farmers’ Alliance, but others did
not, and racial issues often divided populists from the Plains and the South. Populists also
favored the expulsion of Chinese immigrants, whom businesses had imported to provide cheap
labor on western farms and railroads. That was understandable, but their support for exclusion
was often colored by racist rhetoric. Kansas populist leader Mary E. Lease warned of a “tide
of Mongols.” And Watson’s People’s Party Paper denounced the Chinese as “moral and social
lepers.” But in the 1880s and early 1890s, populist politics was primarily directed upward at
the plutocrats. As historian Robert McMath recounts, they were repeatedly accused of being
“Molly Maguires, Anarchists, and Communists.”
In the 1892 election, the People’s Party did remarkably well. Their woefully underfunded
presidential candidate received 8 percent of the vote and carried five states. Then in 1893, as
Cleveland was taking office, an economic depression took hold, leaving a quarter of
Americans unemployed and thousands of farmers bankrupt. Cleveland reaffirmed the gold
standard, and to pleas for government aid from farmers, Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture,
Julius Sterling Morton, responded, “The intelligent, practical, and successful farmer needs no
aid from the government. The ignorant, impractical, and indolent farmer deserves none.”
In the 1894 election, the People’s Party’s candidates for the House of Representatives won
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10 percent of the vote. The party elected 4 congressmen, 4 senators, 21 state executives, and
465 state legislators. With their base in the South and the West, and with Cleveland wildly
unpopular, they looked to be on their way to challenging the Democrats as the second party, but
the election of 1894 turned out to be the party’s swan song.
The populists were done in by the dynamics of the two-party system. In the Plains states,
anger against Cleveland turned voters back to the more electable Republicans. In the South,
Democrats subdued the People’s Party by a combination of cooptation and, in response to the
willingness of some populists to court the negro vote, vicious race-baiting. Watson said of the
opposition to the People’s Party, “The argument against the independent political movement in
the South may be boiled down into one word—nigger.”
In the wake of 1894, Southern Democrats like South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork” Ben
Tillman commonly combined a patina of populist economics and political reform with white
supremacy. (Tillman’s nickname came from his promise in 1984 that if he were elected, he
would go to Washington and “stick a pitchfork in Grover Cleveland’s old fat ribs.”) Watson
himself and Texas’s James “Cyclone” Davis, while continuing to support populist economics,
became allies of the Ku Klux Klan.
But the biggest damage occurred on the national stage. In 1896, the Democrats nominated
Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan and adopted key planks of the populist platform, including
monetization of silver (“free silver”!), the regulation of the railroads and other corporations,
and a restriction on “foreign pauper labor.” At its convention, the People’s Party chose to
endorse Bryan rather than to run a candidate of its own. In the 1896 election, the populist vote
migrated to the major parties. To make matters worse, the populists also lost their blue-collar
ally when the Knights of Labor fell apart and was replaced by the interest-group oriented
American Federation of Labor. The People’s Party limped along and finally collapsed after the
1908 election when Watson, running as its presidential candidate, received 0.19 percent of the
But during their heyday from 1885 to 1894, the populists of the alliances and the People’s
Party had a profound effect on American and, as it turned out, Latin American and European
politics. They developed the logic of populism—the concept of a “people” arrayed against an
elite that refused to grant necessary reforms. In American politics, they were an early sign of
the inadequacy of the two parties’ view of government and the economy.
The populists were the first to call for government to regulate and even nationalize
industries that were integral to the economy, like the railroads; they wanted government to
reduce the economic inequality that capitalism, when left to its own devices, was creating; and
they wanted to reduce the power of business in determining the outcome of elections. Populism
had an immediate impact on the politics of some progressive Democrats like Bryan, and even
on Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. Eventually, much of the
populists’ agenda—from the graduated income tax to a version of the sub-treasury plan—was
incorporated into the New Deal and into the outlook of New Deal liberalism.
Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth
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In the 1920s, while much of Europe suffered from economic and political instability, partly as
a result of post-World War I reparations and gold-based finance, the American economy
enjoyed a boom. Republican business boosterism and rugged individualism dominated
politics. But the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed shattered
the public’s confidence in the free market, as well as in Republican rule, and helped to bring
about a new Democratic majority.
Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats won a landslide victory in 1932, but not by
repudiating the Republicans’ overall outlook on government and the economy. In the campaign,
Roosevelt criticized Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover for overspending and promised to
cut the government bureaucracy by 25 percent and balance the budget. Once in office,
Roosevelt actually tried to make good on this promise through the Government Economy Act,
which cut more than $500 million from the budget mainly out of veterans’ benefits and
government salaries.
Roosevelt did move aggressively during his first two years to reform banking and provide
jobs through new government programs. He created a National Recovery Administration that
was supposed to work out corporatist arrangements between business and labor and stem
cutthroat price competition. But Roosevelt did not directly address economic inequality, which
had grown during the years of the Republican majority and which progressive economists
believed lay at the heart of the crash and the Depression. It took pressure from outside to get
Roosevelt to do this, and much of it came from Louisiana politician Huey Long. Long created a
populist movement that Democrats feared would threaten Roosevelt’s reelection and possibly
even the existence of the Democratic Party.
Long grew up in Winn, Louisiana, a small, poor farming town that was a hotbed of populist
and socialist support. He carried on the populist tradition, campaigning for governor on the
slogan, “Every man a king, but no man wears a crown,” and railing against oil companies and
the “money power.” Elected governor in 1928, he funded Louisiana’s roads, healthcare system,
and schools, while exempting low-income people from taxes and proposing (and eventually
getting) an extraction tax on oil companies. He didn’t repudiate racism, but he didn’t actively
encourage it either. “Don’t say I am working for niggers, I’m not. I’m for the poor man—all
poor men,” he declared. Dictatorial and charismatic, he was an exemplar of the populist who
became the unifying force holding “the people” together. One reporter wrote of Long’s
constituents, “They worship the ground he walks on.”
Long got elected to the senate in 1930, and in 1932 he backed Roosevelt for president. But
soon after Roosevelt took office, Long broke with him. He spoke out and voted against the
Government Economy Act. He claimed it was the work of “Mr. Morgan” and “Mr.
Rockefeller.” In February 1934, Long announced on radio the formation of a Share Our Wealth
Society. Its centerpiece was a proposal to cap a family’s wealth at $5 million and income at $1
million through taxes, and to use the revenue to provide every family a “household estate” that
would be enough for “a home, an automobile, a radio, and ordinary conveniences” and a
guaranteed annual income to “maintain a family in comfort,” as well as an old-age pension.
Long’s tax rates on the wealthy were draconian, but they still would not have produced the
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revenue necessary for what he promised. Roosevelt’s allies in the media mocked Long’s
proposal. The New Republic sent Long a mock questionnaire about the details of his plan,
asking, “Upon what statistics of economic studies do you base your conclusions?” But the very
extravagance of Long’s plan established a political divide between him and the powers-that-be
that could not easily be bridged. It defined the movement’s radicalism the way free silver, the
sub-treasury plan, and the nationalization of railroads defined the People’s Party.
Long’s Share Our Wealth clubs—more than 27,000 had started by the following February
—functioned not only as local political organizations but as the basis for a new political party.
They were often run out of churches and schools. In addition, Long boasted of a mailing list of
more than 7.5 million. Long’s most active base, like that of the People’s Party and subsequent
populist movements, was not among the very poor. It was among the middle class, who feared
that they would be cast down by the Depression into the ranks of the very poor. Historian Alan
Brinkley wrote of Long’s followers:
Having gained a foothold in the world of bourgeois respectability, they stood in danger of
being plunged back into what they viewed as an abyss of powerlessness and dependence. It
was that fear that made the middle class, even more than those who were truly rootless and
indigent, a politically volatile group.
Roosevelt and the Democrats feared Long’s candidacy. In 1935, the Democratic National Party
did a secret poll in which they determined that if Long ran on a Third-party ticket against
Roosevelt in 1936, he could win between three and four million votes and throw the election
to the Republicans. That fear was an important factor in Roosevelt and the Democrats joining
forces that year to pass what was called “the Second New Deal.” Unlike the first, it dealt
directly with the issue of economic inequality that Long had repeatedly raised.
On June 19, the Senate passed the Social Security Act, which provided old-age pensions
and unemployment compensation. On the same day, Roosevelt surprised Congress by
proposing a tax reform measure to encourage “a wider distribution of wealth.” He imposed
levies on large businesses and raised taxes on the wealthy and on large inheritances. Long
criticized the proposals as being weak, but they were widely portrayed as “soaking the rich.”
Roosevelt also incorporated populist rhetoric in his presidential campaign that year,
championing the “average man” against the “economic royalists.”
As it turned out, Roosevelt did not have to fear Long’s candidacy. In September 1935, the
Kingfish was assassinated in Baton Rouge. And in 1936, Roosevelt won another landslide. But
Long had a significant influence over the New Deal and over American politics. He and his
movement pushed Congress to adopt programs that became pillars of American policy for the
next four decades. Long brought the New Deal’s outlook into line with the public’s underlying
concern about the inequality of wealth and power.
George Wallace
The ’60s were thought of as an era of ferment on the left. In Europe, there were the May–June
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1968 protests in France and the Hot Autumn in Italy in 1969. In the United States, it was the
time of civil rights, black power, anti-war, feminism, and environmentalism. But it was also
when a rightwing populist, George Wallace, acting in opposition to civil rights rulings and
legislation, blew a large hole in the roof that New Deal liberalism had erected over American
The New Deal had rested on a tacit alliance between liberal Democrats and conservative
Southern Democrats who resisted any legislation that might challenge white supremacy. As a
result, key New Deal legislation, including the Social Security and Minimum Wage acts, were
formulated to exclude Southern blacks from their benefits. But after World War II, northern
Democrats, propelled by the Cold War’s ideological struggle, Brown v. Board of Education,
and a powerful civil rights movement, embraced the black American cause.
As the party of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans had traditionally been receptive to black
civil rights, and the Republican leadership in Congress supported Lyndon Johnson’s Civil
Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Barry Goldwater was an early dissenter, but
in the 1964 presidential election, Johnson easily defeated him. Johnson’s victory did not,
however, signal widespread support for his civil rights initiatives, and after he passed the
Voting Rights Act and launched the War on Poverty, a popular backlash grew. Wallace turned
the backlash into a populist crusade.
Wallace was raised in a rural small town in Alabama. His father and grandfather dabbled
in politics. They were New Deal Democrats under Roosevelt’s spell. Wallace would
eventually make his name as an arch-segregationist, but he was initially a populist Democrat
like Long for whom race was strictly a secondary consideration. When he was a delegate to the
1948 Democratic Convention, he didn’t join the Dixiecrat walkout in protest of the party’s
civil rights platform. He initially ran for governor in 1958 as a New Deal Democrat and lost
against a candidate backed by the Ku Klux Klan. After that, he pledged, “I will never be
outniggered again.”
In 1962, Wallace ran again and this time he won as a proponent of “segregation now,
segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In 1963, he gained notoriety when he attempted to
block two black students from registering at the University of Alabama. In 1964, he ran in the
Democratic primaries against Johnson’s surrogates in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland and
got about a third of the vote—as high as 43 percent in Maryland, where he carried 15 of 23
counties. In 1968, he ran as an independent against Nixon and Humphrey. In early October, he
was ahead of Humphrey in the polls, but in the end, he got 13.5 percent of the vote and carried
five states in the South. In 1972, he ran as a Democrat, and stood a chance of taking the
nomination when an assassin shot and crippled him while he was campaigning in May for the
Maryland primary.
Wallace emphasized his opposition to racial integration, but he framed it as a defense of
the average (white) American against the tyranny of Washington bureaucrats. Big government
was imposing its way on the average person. Appearing on Meet the Press in 1967, Wallace
summed up his candidacy:
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There’s a backlash against big government in this country. This is a movement of the
people. . . . And I think that if the politicians get in the way a lot of them are going to get
run over by this average man in the street—this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel
mill, this barber, this beautician, the policeman on the beat . . . the little businessman.
Wallace opposed busing—which became a major issue after a 1971 Supreme Court order
upheld it as a means to achieve desegregation—because it was breaking up working-class
neighborhoods, and he attacked the white liberals who promoted it as hypocrites who refused
to subject their children to what they insisted that working- and middle-class kids be subjected
to. “They are building a bridge over the Potomac for all the white liberals fleeing to Virginia,”
he declared.
Wallace was not, however, a political conservative. On domestic issues that didn’t directly
touch on race, Wallace ran as a New Deal Democrat. In his campaign brochure in 1968, he
boasted that in Alabama, he had increased spending on education, welfare, roads, and
agriculture. When he was asked in 1967 who he would appoint to his cabinet if he were
elected, he said he would consider either AFL-CIO head George Meany or Leonard
Woodcock, the head of the United Auto Workers. He also drew a line between the people and
the very rich and powerful. Campaigning in Florida, he said, “We’re sick and tired of the
average citizen being taxed to death while these multibillionaires like the Rockefellers and the
Fords and the Mellons and Carnegies go without paying taxes.” Wallace, like Long, was often
called fascist, but he was a rightwing populist in the tradition of the post-1896 Tom Watson.
When protesters accused him of being a fascist, Wallace, who served in World War II,
responded, “I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers.”
Like Wallace, his supporters were a mix of left and right in their convictions. In 1976,
sociologist Donald Warren published a study of what he called “middle American radicals,”
or MARs. On the basis of extensive surveys conducted in 1971–72 and 1975, Warren defined a
distinct political group that was neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative. MARs “feel the
middle class has been seriously neglected,” Warren wrote. They see “government as favoring
both the rich and poor simultaneously.”
Warren’s MARs held conservative positions on poverty and racial issues. They rejected
racial busing and welfare agencies as examples of “the rich [giving] in to the demands of the
poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.” They disliked the national
government, but they also thought corporations “have too much power” and were “too big.”
They favored many liberal programs. They wanted government to guarantee jobs to everyone.
They supported price (but not wage) control, Medicare, some kind of national health insurance,
federal aid to education, and Social Security.
Warren found that MARs represented about a quarter of the electorate. They were on
average more male than female; they had a high school but not a college education; their
income fell in the middle, or slightly below; they had skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar jobs,
or clerical or sales white-collar work. When Warren grouped by income and education the
other groups he surveyed into “lower income,” “average middles,” “high education middles,”
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-03-10 13:21:28. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
and “affluents,” he found that of all of them the MARs were most likely to contemplate voting
for George Wallace in 1972. A Gallup study of the demographics of the 1968 Wallace vote
found his constituency to be identical to that of Warren’s MARs.
In other words, Wallace’s base was among voters who saw themselves as “middle
class”—the American equivalent of “the people”—and who saw themselves locked in conflict
with those below and above. Like Wallace, they remained New Deal liberals in many of their
views, but not on matters that bore on race or law and order. In these cases, they adamantly
rejected the welfare and busing and affirmative action policies that 1972 Democratic
presidential candidate George McGovern and many liberal Democrats favored. They had
begun the political journey from Democrat to Independent to Republican that would finally
conclude in the 1994 congressional elections.
Wallace, like Long, was a movement unto himself. When he was shot and forced to drop
out of the presidential campaign, it ended his attempt to transform American politics. He would
run again in 1976 but would be eclipsed by another Southern politician, Jimmy Carter.
Attempts by conservatives to retain his American Independent Party flopped. He would serve
as governor again, and would repudiate and apologize for his own opposition to racial
integration. He would end his career much as he began—as a New Deal Democrat. But
Wallace and his followers had already had a profound influence on the two-party system.
Wallace’s campaigns were the opening wedge in the realignment of the parties in the South.
The Republicans would subsequently accommodate Wallace’s positions on big government,
welfare, busing, and affirmative action. And Nixon had already begun to do that. As Kevin
Phillips understood in his prescient 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority,
Wallace’s votes would migrate to the Republican Party. In 1972, Nixon’s percentage vote
against McGovern closely resembled the total of Nixon and Wallace’s votes in 1968 in 45 of
50 states. In 14 states, the percentages were almost identical.
The Democratic and Republican coalitions that would emerge after Wallace’s 1968 run and
McGovern’s 1972 campaign would be significantly different from the coalitions of the New
Deal era. From 1932 through 1960, the two parties’ support could roughly be arrayed in a
pyramid with income and education moving upward. Democrats, as the party of the “common
man,” took up most of the bottom two-thirds. That allowed the Democrats to win most of the
In 1972, many white voters in the lower and middle segments of the pyramid would begin
shifting to the Republicans, while many professionals—from nurses and teachers to engineers
and architects—who had been loyal Republicans, but who had been touched by the new left
movements of the ’60s, and had expected but not found autonomy and satisfaction in their work,
would begin voting for the Democrats. They became critics of unregulated capitalism, and their
descendants would provide much of Bernie Sanders’s support. The Democrats began building
an odd coalition of the minority poor with upper-middle-class whites. There would no longer
be a clear demarcation between the parties on income and education.
The transformation of the coalitions would be delayed by the Watergate scandal and
wouldn’t fully come to fruition until 1980 or even 1994, when the Republicans would win both
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-03-10 13:21:28. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.
houses of Congress. Wallace’s populist candidacies, far more than Goldwater’s, set this
process in motion. His campaigns would lead to Republicans adopting Wallace’s stand on
government and state’s rights, along with an opportunistic imitation of his own populist antielitist politics (directed at “Washington”). But then Pat Buchanan in his 1992 and 1996
campaigns and Trump in his 2016 campaign would draw on the unruly populism of Wallace’s
middle American radicals and would mobilize it against the Republicans’ more traditional
Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion : How the great recession transformed american and european politics. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’></a>
Created from ucsd on 2021-03-10 13:21:28. Copyright © 2016. Columbia Global Reports. All rights reserved.

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