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February 29, 2008

Bill Moyers talks with historian Nell Irvin Painter about the Gilded Age of the late 19th century — and what some contend is the second Gilded Age of today. In the 19th century discrepancies in income and power fostered the Populist Movement. Today, "populism" has become a watchword in the campaign — with both positive and negative connotations.

In her conversation Nell Painter talks about populism then and now — and how the image it suggests is more often than not, off the mark:

It sounds as if people who are throwing "populism" around are throwing it around as a dirty word. And if it is a dirty word, they don't know what they're talking about. I think they think it's a dirty word, because it pits Americans against each other, as if we would all be hand in hand if it weren't for populist agitators....They're probably talking in very veiled terms about class issues. Class is the dirty little secret in the United States.
WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY defines "populism" as "a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people."

THE COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA traces the term more narrowly to "U.S. history, political party formed primarily to express the agrarian protest of the late 19th century." A party with goals of: "free coinage of silver, abolition of national banks, a subtreasury scheme or some similar system, a graduated income tax, plenty of paper money, government ownership of all forms of transportation and communication, election of Senators by direct vote of the people, nonownership of land by foreigners, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours, postal banks, pensions, revision of the law of contracts, and reform of immigration regulations."

The COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW lambastes the term's use in campaign 2008 as follows: "Before this gets out of hand, big media needs to stop using the word 'populist' to describe Democrats’ economic programs and their appeals to voters....Reporters and headline writers don’t need to be historians-on-deadline to know that the word 'populist' has no widely agreed-upon definition, but plenty of negative associations." Those associations include negatives: "anti-capitalist and backward-looking," and perhaps positives: "reformist, anti-elitist, and yes, anti-big business." What does it mean today?

Tell what you think about 21st century populism — and whether your consider yourself a populist — on the blog.

Nell Irvin Painter, a leading historian of the United States, is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University. In addition to her earned doctorate in history from Harvard University, she has received honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale. A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are SOUTHERN HISTORY ACROSS THE COLOR LINE and CREATING BLACK AMERICANS. A second edition of STANDING AT ARMAGEDDON and a Korean translation of SOJOURNER TRUTH, A LIFE, A SYMBOL are appearing in 2008. Her four other books are also still in print, with, further, THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE slated for publication in 2009.

Guest photo by Robin Holland

Published on February 29, 2008.

Related Media:
Katherine Newman, photo by Robin HollandKatherine Newman
Moyers interviews Katherine S. Newman, author of THE MISSING CLASS: PORTRAITS OF THE NEAR POOR IN AMERICA, about the millions of near-poor in America, who are just one disaster away from poverty. (November 2, 2008)

Marilyn B. Young, photo by Robin HollandMarilyn B. Young
Historian Marilyn B. Young, co-editor of IRAQ AND THE LESSONS OF VIETNAM: OR, HOW NOT TO LEARN FROM THE PAST . (May 11, 2007)

References and Reading:
Nell Painter's Web Site
On Nell Painter's Web site you can read selected articles from throughout Dr. Painter's career, find links to interviews and other resources.

What is Populism?

Dean Starkman's February 20, 2008 analysis of the use of "populism" in campaign coverage.

We Are All Populists Now
Jesse Walter, REASON magazine, August 21, 2007. The Libertarian take on the popularity of "populism."

World Wide Web Virtual Library: Populism
This large online compendium contains links to the official Populist Party archvies, cartoons about populism, an inflation calculator (good back to 1800) and an analysis of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ as a populist parable.

Also This Week:

As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make their appeals to lower-income voters in Ohio and Texas, expert on media and politics Kathleen Hall Jamieson analyzes the messages on the campaign trail in the lead up to Tuesday’s potentially decisive primaries.

Historian Nell Irvin Painter examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America. Does today’s economic disparity indicate a new "Gilded Age" that threatens democracy?

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