Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The ghosts of the Old Populists are groaning at the South's failure to support Bernie Sanders

(A Populist campaign poster featuring Tom Watson of Georgia)

The ghosts of the old Populists of the late 19th century South let loose a long, communal groan Tuesday as neo-liberal Democrat Hillary Clinton claimed a strong majority of black Southern voters and thus the South in the Super Tuesday primaries. The victory came despite a record and Clintonian legacy of little support of issues important to blacks or the working class.

Clinton defeated her rival, populist Bernie Sanders, in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas, while Sanders’ lone victory in the greater South was in border state Oklahoma. Right-wing populist Republican Donald Trump also scored big in the South Tuesday.

Sanders’ poor showing in the South brings to mind the fate of the most important third party movement in U.S. history, the Populist Party of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which itself grew out of earlier uprisings such as the Farmers Alliance and the Grange Movement against East Coast corporate hegemony and the so-called “Bourbon” Democrats of the South.

Just as Sanders has decried the fixed system that has Wall Street controlling not only the economy but also the nation’s corporate-financed politics, the Populists railed against railroads, absentee landlords, and other moneyed interests. Just a few decades after the Civil War and Reconstruction, Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia called for unity among black and white farmers and factory workers to take back the country from the 1 percent that controlled it in those days.

“You are kept apart that you may be fleeced of your earnings,” Watson wrote in 1892. “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.”

(A 1908 cover to Tom Watson's Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine)

As historian C. Vann Woodward noted in his biography of the Georgia populist, “Tom Watson was perhaps the first native white Southern leader of importance to treat the Negro’s aspirations with the seriousness that human strivings deserve.”

Watson, who like Bernie Sanders in 2016 called his movement “a revolution”, fought against the convict lease system that affected countless black prisoners, called for free schools for blacks, prevented the attempted lynching of a black preacher by organizing a small army of Populists to defend him. An Augusta, Ga., newspaper subsequently charged Watson with preaching “anarchy and communism.”

The Populists, also known as the People’s Party, succeeded in electing five U.S. senators, 10 U.S. representatives, three governors, and 1,500 state legislators in the 1892 elections. The party took over both houses of the North Carolina legislature two years later.

The rise of populism so frightened the Bourbon Democrats that they began a concerted and ultimately successful effort to take control of the black vote.  “Bribery and intimidation, the stuffing of ballot boxes, the falsification of election returns” were among their tactics, according to historian John D. Hicks.  “The planters sometimes herded their employees to the polls and voted them in droves for the Democratic ticket.”

After 1896, the Populist uprising was on the wane, co-opted by the Democratic Party and, in part, self-destructed by distractions such as the call for a silver-based currency. It wasn’t long before Jim Crow took over the South, and the black vote disappeared.

Watson became so bitter by the turn of the century that he emerged as one of the most notorious and foul-mouthed racists in all of Southern demagoguery, championing the lynching of blacks just as he once had fought against it. His conversion from racial unifier to venom-spouting bigot is one of the tragedies of Southern history.

The Super Tuesday primary elections in the South this week certainly are far removed in important ways from the sad story of the Populists. Black voters in the South stayed loyal to Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons, but it doesn't appear bribery and intimidation were among them. Furthermore, many prominent black intellectuals, such as Bill Fletcher Jr. and Spike Lee, have come out in strong support for Sanders.

However, the Democratic Party of Clintonian-style “Third Way”, Republican-apeing, corporate-financed, pro-Wall Street neo-liberalism and the Southerner-dominated flagship organization, the Democratic Leadership Council, that once guided it aren’t all that far removed from the Bourbon Democrats of yesteryear.

That’s why the Bernie Sanders campaign has been and remains so important, not only to African Americans, the working class as a whole, and the nation, but also to the Democratic Party, which needs to re-discover its soul.

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