Developments in the nineteenth century
The movement that would give populism its name emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century, most strongly among farmers and industrial workers in the American South and West. The movement’s origins lay in a crisis of legitimacy resulting from the growing concentration of economic wealth and political power in the hands oflarge corporations and financiers, which were both remote (concentrated in the Northeast) and increasingly dominant in the lives of farmers, through lending practices and currency management. Crucial, as well, was the populists’ disillusionment with both the Democratic and Republican Parties, which they perceived as ignoring their interests.
In response, in 1892, the populist movement coalesced into a third party, the Peoples Party, with a platform privileging agricultural issues, labor protections, regulation of the monopolistic railroad industry, and government intervention in the financial markets. The movement was strategically and discursively organised around the need to return power to the industrious people of the country. As one scholar notes, the populists wanted to ‘restore the government of the Republic to the hands of “plain people’” (Federici 1991, 32).
This was a powerful expression of what Kazin (1998, 13) calls the ‘producer ethic’ — a belief in the virtue and moral value of productive, material labor, set against means of making money that involve no material creation. Rhetorical framers of the populist movement, such as Tom Watson and Ignatius Donnelly, explicitly interpreted the economic-political conditions of the 1890s as a perversion of Jefferson’s dream. (Note that the populists’ vision conceptualised hardworking producers in terms mainly of white citizens; segments of the movement excluded or actively denigrated, to varying degrees, Chinese immigrants, African Americans and newly arrived eastern Europeans; Judis 2016).
Populists used newspapers, newsletters, and books to communicate with and mobilise publics, and some of their content included conspiracy theories of various sorts (Ostler 1995). Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the American People (1887) — a book argued to be one of the most circulated populist publications — figured prominently in the early populist movement. The work advanced specious reasons for a variety of contemporary economic problems while claiming that Wall Street moneymakers, the banking system (Jewish bankers in particular), and the deliberate manipulation of the press were complicit in the hardships of ordinary Americans. Most spectacular was the book’s ultimate claim that US government officials were collaborating with a clique of British financiers intent on looting the states (Ostler 1995).
Populist firebrands in the 1930s
From the populists until Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic and anti—New Deal turn in the late 1930s, American populism was essentially a movement of agriculture and labor, fundamentally concerned with the power of unfettered, monopolistic capitalism in American life; the need for government intervention to remedy injustice; and, often, the reticence of the major parties to act in the interests of working people (Kazin 1998). Indeed, |udis (2016) credits Huey Long’s left-populist pressure with substantially strengthening Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Coughlin is notable here both for his later rightward turn and embrace of conspiratorial thinking and for his use of radio as a new communication medium. Coughlin’s weekly radio programme began as a religion and politics broadcast in a Detroit suburb and was later syndicated around the country. His early politics were left leaning, inflected by his Catholic background: he aligned himself against ‘money-changers’, bankers, sometimes capitalism in general, and communists and sided with the citizens being harmed by the forces controlling the country (Kazin 1998). By the 1930s, CBS was airing Coughlin across the country to an estimated 30 million listeners (Modras 1989). His use of emotion and indignation and his nature of speaking ‘around’ centres of power articulated one of the first ‘challenges to middlebrow journalism’ then developing (Peck 2019, 65).
In the later 1930s, Coughlin espoused anti-Semitism and admiration for the Nazis and other fascist regimes. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in particular were integrated into Coughlin’s populist style, ‘carried out in the name of “the people”, whose innate virtue is threatened by external, alien forces’ (Cremoni 1998, 30). CBS cancelled Coughlin when the priest refused to allow the company to moderate his programme, but Coughlin quickly established his own autonomous radio network (Kay et al. 1998).