The Course Not Taken: The Ideological Legacy qf the American Populists
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The road leading to this project began in Dr. Jennifer Einspahr's course on democratic theory. I was reading a text for that course, Benjamin Barber's Strong Democracy, when I came across a brief aside that captured my imagination. In the discussing the importance of language and rhetoric in creating political change, Barber illustrates a rather strange truism with an intriguing example. He writes, "Only those parts of the past that have found no voice go unheard today. The agrarian populists are perhaps the most important example, and the silence that enveloped their legacy has robbed America of an important democratic course" (Barber 1984, 194 ). I was fascinated because I had never heard of the populists talked about in such a way: in High School the populist movement received only cursory coverage so all I knew about the movement was that they were farmers, and that somebody had once instructed them to 'raise less com and more hell.' In a footnote, Barber cited the work of a scholar named Lawrence Goodwyn as reviving discussion of the movement. I resolved to look into Goodwyn and the populists to figure out why Barber had referred to their legacy as an important democratic course not taken before I promptly forgot about it. I could not escape populism that easily, however. The following summer I was working with a group of community organizers doing an urban gardening and home weatherization project in Detroit. Near the end of the summer, I was floored to find two organizers trading a copy of Goodwyn's account of the populist movement, The Populist Moment, and discussing the implications of the populists for their struggles to build a progressive social movement. The summer ended and I went on study abroad before I was able to borrow their copy, but this time I was serious when I resolved to look into the populist movement and what it was about. What interested me the most was the concept that Barber raised, that there was a part of our democratic heritage that was missing from our contemporary political conversation. I was deeply curious about what this lost course actually was, and whether or not it could actually contribute to our understanding of politics today. This SIP is the product of that curiosity. In this project, I have two aims: the first is to identify what exactly the 'lost course' of populist political ideology actually was; the second is to examine the degree to which this lost course can contribute to our understanding of problems in contemporary politics. However, before I outline my research question, methodology and thesis, I want to offer the reader a brief overview of the history of the populist movement.