The most influential smear of USA populism was Richard Hofstadter's 1955 book, The Age of Reform, which was given the ruling elites' imprimatur of a Pulitizer Prize. (Hoftstadter's best known work is his 1964 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics.) Eight years after The Age of Reform was published, Walter Nugent tore it apart in his book, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, written as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago. Nugent's relentless rebuttal of a supposed classic by éminence grise Hofstadter was the opening shot in what has been called “one of the bloodiest episodes in American historiography.” Late last year, a 50th anniversary edition of Nugent's book was released. Here is part of a review of Nugent's book:
...the Hofstadter thesis saw populism as a reactionary response to industrial production, urbanization, and the role of the United States in the world market place. These forces were undermining the status of the independent, rural farmer – who responded with nativism, conspiracy theories, and a rather hysterical yearning to return to the fine old ways of the good old days. Hofstadter quoted anti-Semitic statements by populist figures, sounding like something from a speech delivered at the end of a torchlight parade in Germany circa 1932. While he stopped short of calling the People’s Party proto-fascist, Hofstadter did situate the populists in a continuum of episodes of irrational American civic life running from the Salem witch trials to McCarthyism. (More recent examples might be adduced here, of course.)
The revisionist perspective held that the populists of the 1890s were suffering from “status anxiety,” leading to political protest directed as much against cultural change as economic conditions. And if populists and McCarthyites alike were xenophobic, anti-intellectual, and belligerently nationalistic – well, in that case the Hofstadter thesis seemed to make some compelling points.
A very big “if,” that one. Hofstadter drew on then-recent psychoanalytic and sociological ideas, and wrote with such power and grace that the two Pulitzer Prizes he received (one of them for The Age of Reform) seem like a matter of course. But the doctoral dissertation that Walter Nugent wrote at the University of Chicago – published, two years after it was accepted, as The Tolerant Populists – went after the Hofstadter thesis with hammer and tongs on its one major weakness: the senior historian hadn’t logged much time in the archives.
Nugent did, and it shows. He focused on Kansas – the epicenter of the Populist political earthquake, where the movement began and quickly established the state’s second most powerful party. Besides analyzing the available demographic and electoral data for the 1890s, Nugent went over scores of newspapers, large and small, including papers published by and for the state’s German-language communities.
The picture emerging from his research is anything but one of close-minded and nostalgic people who gloried in their status as native Kansans, obsessed with bitter feelings about foreigners, paranoid about the outside world, and ready to take it out on immigrants in general or Jews in particular.
In fact the evidence shows, time and again, exactly the opposite. People’s Party organizers appealed for support from every immigrant group in the state and often won their votes. Populist speakers and editorialists were infuriated that Kansans were being dispossessed from their homes by foreign investors who bought up real estate on speculation. A basic populist demand was that the law should ensure that land would be held by people who worked it, but the hostility was directed at foreign landlords; the populists made no effort to restrict the purchase of land by the non-native born who wanted to farm.
The anti-Semitic rants that Hofstadter quoted from populist writings were indeed virulent, but Nugent reports finding only a few examples of anything like them out of the countless documents he read from Kansas. Attacks on the Rothschilds, an eminent Anglo-Jewish banking family, certainly did show up in Populist denunciations – as did similar denunciations of the Morgans and the families of various robber barons. Nugent points out that Jew-baiting and immigrant-bashing were far more common among mainstream politicians and shapers of elite opinion, and that one Jewish writer “had heard so little about Populist anti-Semitism that he sent the Populist governor [of Kansas]… a pamphlet beginning, ‘Moses, the Populist Law-Giver.’ ”
People’s Party candidates in Kansas included an African-American minister (for state auditor), a woman (for state superintendent for public instruction), and a Jew (for postmaster) -- plus too many recently naturalized citizens of German, Welsh, Irish, Swiss, Czech, and other stock, running for too many positions, to list.
Except for “a brogue here and an umlaut there,” says Nugent, they were no different from other Populists. The policies they championed – such as state ownership of railroads and telephone providers, inflationary monetary policies that would reduce the value of their mortgages, and laws prohibiting alien ownership of land – were in response to real economic hardship, not murky unconscious impulses or complaints about cultural disrespect.