It was a time when a demoralized population was subjected to corrupt elections, the spineless press was censored and subsidized by muscled partisan agents, outrageous interest rates implemented by suit-wearing pirates bankrupted citizens, and unfair mortgages left people homeless and desperate. Meanwhile, land concentration forced poor people off valuable property and ensured corporate profits continued to balloon unregulated.
The poor kept getting poorer, the rich kept getting richer, and all the while an elite class fought to reinforce arbitrary divides between the working class to keep them -- the angry masses -- at bay and squabbling among themselves.
The year was 1892. From this systematic abuse of the poor arose the People's Party, or the Populist Party, one of the original third parties in the history of the United States. Mainly farmers, the Populist Party bridged a divide and united two groups that many politicians saw as hopelessly and permanently estranged: northern Republicans and southern Democrats, the city-slickers and good ole' boys -- white and black. If you want to be crude about it: the intellectual north and ass-backwards south.
At the time, Republicans were the ones who were anti-slavery. The Democratic southerners wanted a return to the "better time" where lavish plantations lined verdant cotton fields. Republican northerners wanted an eight-hour week day and streets that weren't lined with feces. Naturally, blacks liked the Republican party because 99.9% of them were a little nervous the crazy Democrats would enslave them again.
Think: red state-blue state, but turned on its head. It feels only vaguely unfamiliar, like a dream. Except, it happened. It happened in this very country 115 years ago.
A Colored Farmers National Alliance emerged. Even Alabamians saw the need for racial unity. The official newspaper of the Alabama Knights of Labor, the Alabama Sentinel, wrote: "The Bourbon Democracy are trying to down the Alliance with the old cry 'nigger'. It won't work though" (Zinn, A People's History Of The United States).
The respective Alliances asked themselves a basic question: What is equality?
Luckily, the Founding Fathers had already answered the question. Human beings are born with certain unalienable rights. If a society wishes to call itself moral and free, it must protect these rights, which include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The good news is: these rights are free. They belong to the people. The bad news is: rich men always try to take away these rights away and lease them back to poor people with interest rates tacked on.
As in 1892, today in 2007, we are undergoing a class crisis. A weakened union full of religiously and racially segregated sects, and an inflated state of Corporatism, threaten to sever the spinal cord of this fragile democracy.
Only now, everyone can see the Emperor has no clothes. The banks are operating on a prayer and the lie that Fort Knox still has gold in its dusty vaults. People are sitting in tent cities after they lose their homes because vulture capitalists gave them loans they knew poor people couldn't afford to pay. Congress voted to let sick children die. Poor soldiers are shipped off to Iraq to stand atop IEDs so Bush and Clinton legacies don't have to.
But what happened in 1892? Things were bad back then, but the people managed to temporarily reverse some damage and restore a little bit of democracy. How did they do it?
People took shit personally back then. If one poor person was wronged, then they were all wronged. Tom Watson, the Populist leader of Georgia, said:
"You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both" (Zinn, History).
In other words, by identifying with the weakest among them, the party grew stronger.
Imagine what would have been possible if we saw Katrina victims, who stood for days on their rooftops, less as a painful reminder of a collective immoral history, and more as needful brothers and sisters. There would have been no demand for the fat FEMA bureaucrats to waddle their way southward. There would have already been a damn army down there - A People's Army - moving debris and saving lives.
What happened to that 1892 collective spirit? Populism, like so many ideologies, went the way of the dinosaur the moment politicians got their grubby hands on it and stuffed money down its throat, fattening the body like a helpless goose pre-Foie Gras.
The irony, of course, is that Populism was never meant for the elite politicians. Populism belongs to the people, as does the unfortunate issue of the class divide. Poor people are delusional if they think politicians will declare progressive taxation or universal health care on their own. As if one day Dubya will roll out of bed, watch the sun rise over the White House lawn and think: By God! I should be taxing the rich! Not the poor!
Thankfully, much has changed since 1892, but what hasn't changed is "change" itself. Change begins from the bottom and grows upward like vines. Change begins with the poor working class, who should demand much more than the crumbs they have been given.