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Through The Age Of Reform

Through The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter argues that the threat of Populism was due to “farmer’s schizophrenic response” to the pressures of the transforming society around them. After the Second World War and the Holocaust, there were fears of totalitarianism which made people think twice about mass politics. Therefore, like other mid-century scholars of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hofstadter reexamined Populism to determine if the farmers’ protests might have aspects of “irrational, intolerant, and anti-Semitic mass politics.” He considered the Populist Movement to simply be a heightened expression during a particular point in time, rather than a significant radical undertaking. Moreover, Hofstadter views the farmers as disorganized and self-centered. His diagnosis of the farmer’s mental state showed how the typical farmer was analogous to a “harassed little country businessman.” During hard times of rural distress, “the farmer saw himself as the injured yeoman of agrarian myth.” To Hofstadter, these farmers thus possessed regressive delusions that were bordering on “unreasoned radicalism and intolerance.”

Instead of economic upheaval, Hofstadter believed the Populists felt threatened by “moral and social degeneration and the eclipse of democratic institutions.” These feelings of vulnerability led the Populists to seek out holding on to “some of the values of agrarian life, to save personal entrepreneurship and individual opportunity and the character type they engendered, and to maintain a homogeneous Yankee civilization” For Hofstadter, the general premise of the movement was to restore economic individualism as well as political democracy. These aspects of society were thought to have been damaged by “the great corporation and the corrupt political machine.” The Populists thus desired to bring back a kind of civic purity as well as morality that was thought to have been lost. The Populist Movement had “an ambiguous character” which shows Hofstadter’s negative view of the movement as disorganized and unclear.

In his 1976 work, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, Lawrence Goodwyn challenges Hofstadter by arguing Populism was a true democratic revolt against progress and commercial change. He argues that Populists were actually forward-thinking revolutionaries seeking concrete transformation, not just a group of farmers in favor of small-scale reform. Goodwyn thus desires to “restore the Populists’ democratic and progressive reputation.” He asserts that, although the power of an agrarian revolt is difficult to fathom, Populism should still be seen as “a time of economically coherent democratic striving.” By using a New Left, more Marxist state of thought, Goodwyn wrote as one the new social historians of the 1970s and 1980s, calling for a cultural redefinition of the movement. Marx implemented concepts of class as a “central interpretive tool” in his understanding of the extent to which class conflict was present in a society during a given period. Goodwyn writes immediately following the Civil Right Movement, a period of significant upheaval to the traditional social order in the United States. After unforeseen groups gained traction in making significant changes to society in his lifetime, Goodwyn takes on this newfound lens in examining the true impact of the farmers’ revolt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America.

Goodwyn believed that once it had been established, the Populist Movement challenged the corporate state as well as the notions of progress it produced. He saw the Populist movement as a “cultural resistance to the rising commercial order and to development itself,” which emphasized the economic impact on the farmers. Many American farmers quickly saw that the economic system was not benefitting them. Farmers realized that that the claim that America was a democratic society “was not supported by the events governing their lives.” After examining cultural aspects of the farmers’ revolt, Goodwyn determined “that the old link between democracy and progress was historical fallacy.” Although Populism represented the last hope for democracy in America, it did so as a direct challenge to the “creed of progress.” Therefore, for Goodwyn, Populism involved a rejection of what he characterized as “the corporate culture of uninterrupted improvement.” Even though Populists started a democratic movement, Goodwyn is sure to note that they weren’t exactly “guided by genius.” For example, the farmers possessed many shortcomings, including theoretical shortcomings, which demonstrated some of their faults. That being said, overall the “Populists attempted to insulate themselves against being intimidated by the enormous political, economic, and social pressures that accompanied the emergence of corporate America,” and made significant reform for their time. Even with its imperfections, the Populist revolt was so influential that it is deemed by Goodwyn, “the most elaborate example of mass insurgency we have in American history.”

Charles Postel challenges Goodwyn’s idea that the Populists sought to revert to the old days of their agrarian past in the face of growing industrialization and capitalism. Writing as a modern day historian with a wider examination of the movement, Postel asserts the Populist Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was actually an effort to make America modern. In light of the “speculative booms, spectacular busts,” and discussions of the significance of the global economy of the early twenty-first century, Postel examines the “striking resemblance to changes Americans have experienced in the past.” He challenges Populism’s previously defined historiography, contributed to by historians such as Hofstadter and Goodwyn, with the common misconception that “Populism failed because Populism was wrong,” or that Populism was a disorganized and simply an ineffective attempt at social change in American history. Postel challenges this supposition that the Populists were anti-modern, bound by tradition, and opposed to progress by arguing that the revolt was one of the “most powerful independent political movements in history.” Therefore, the men and women of the movement were modern people seeking reform, rather than hopeful politicians seeking a party in which they could identify. He reexamines the Populist Revolt through a wider, more streamlined lens which shows how Populism really did “form a unique social movement that represented a distinctly modernizing impulse.” This lens helps explain how the Populists had the confidence to defy the status quo in their society.