American History for Truthdiggers: Wealth, Squalor in the Progressive Era
And there was something else: money in politics. McKinley and his corporate Republicans raised $7 million (the equivalent of $3 billion today), the Democrats just $300,000. Bryan ran an energetic campaign, riding the rails and giving 600 speeches in 27 states; McKinley rarely left his home and rested on his financial advantages. In the end, money won. McKinley would be president. Lest we become too sentimental and consider Bryan’s and the Populists’ failed campaign as some sort of moral victory, it is necessary to illuminate the “dark side” of Populism.
Many Populists demonstrated strong strains of nativism and racism. They railed against “Jew” bankers, “Slavic” immigrants up north and, in the South, the “Negro menace.” This was not mere rhetoric. As Populism rose in the West and South, blacks were being utterly disenfranchised. Southern states—now back in the hands of many former Confederate leaders—struck almost every eligible black voter from the rolls. Between 1898 and 1910, the number of black registered voters in Louisiana dropped from 130,000 to 730! Populism, in other words, may have been the party of the “people,” but it was most certainly only thus for white people. Consider the contrast. The very year Bryan ran his crusading campaign (1896), the Supreme Court would hold that segregation was legal when it ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Few Populists made an effort to craft an interracial alliance of poor people, and thus it was ultimately American blacks who were left to writhe on Bryan’s proverbial cross of gold.
The Progressive Moment: Social Freedom or Social Control
The Panic and Depression of 1893 was so severe—and the government so unprepared and unwilling to intervene—that millions of families were brought to the brink of starvation, and the “ranks of a tramp army” (of unemployed men) swelled. Though the Populists never managed to convince or co-opt Northern factory workers to join their crusade, many of the sentiments and proposed policies of the People’s Party began to infuse a new movement of (mostly middle class) “Progressives,” as they styled themselves. Progressives weren’t exactly radical in the traditional sense—though their wealthy opponents depicted them as such—and they belonged to both major political parties. What they most had in common was an abiding criticism of the excesses of American “boom-bust” capitalism, and a sense that regulation of markets and the intervention of government could mitigate the worst aspects of this and future depressions.
Throughout their heyday, 1896-1920 or so, Progressives called for, and often achieved, many of the government programs and policies that exist to this day. They pushed for antitrust and anti-monopoly regulations, the eight-hour workday, an end to child labor and unemployment, and workers’ compensation insurance, to name but a few. One problem for the Progressives was their inability to forge lasting alliances with rural Populists, whom they saw as backward country bumpkins. Nor did the rural poor trust the machinations of these urban (seemingly arrogant) reformist Progressives. The two groups had such divergent cultural values and traditions—as well as different views on immigration and government intervention—that a true union of urban/rural workers and reformists never manifested itself.
Money has been corrupting politics for a LONG time.