BILL MOYERS: Yesterday, Hillary Clinton stopped off at a chain restaurant in Ohio and posed with waitresses in a gesture of working class solidarity. Earlier this month, Barack Obama was down on the floor of a titanium factory, meeting with workers in hard hats as the cameras rolled. This kind of campaigning has the moneyed class reaching for a word that strikes dread in the hearts of Wall Street and K Street: the word is populist. Here's the headline the New York Times used: quote "before votes, democrats deliver populist appeals." And here's the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, where bubonic plague would be more welcome than populist sentiments.
PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to The Journal Editorial Report. In Ohio and both Obama and Clinton have taken on a markedly populist tone.
BILL MOYERS: Populism grew up in America during the first Gilded Age — back at the turn of the 19th century huge discrepancies in income and power separated a minority of very rich people who ran the country and everyone else. Then the disparities led to strikes, riots, labor unions, and government regulation of big business.
And today — well, that's what I want to put to Nell painter, one of our country's distinguished historians. Her grassroots history of the populist and progressive era in American life — Standing at Armageddon — will soon be out in a second edition. It's a sweeping account of America's shift from a rural and agrarian society to an urban and industrial one, when regular people had to fight for their place in the new order. Nell Painter has retired from Princeton University where she was long one of the most popular teachers, but she's active on many fronts, and serves as President of the Organization of American Historians.
Welcome to the Journal.
NELL PAINTER: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Everybody's throwing around the word populism. Do you think they know what they're talking about?
NELL PAINTER: It sounds as if people who are throwing it 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.
BILL MOYERS: Why do they think it's a dirty word?
NELL PAINTER: 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.
BILL MOYERS: What are Hillary Clinton and Obama saying that makes people invoke the word populism?
NELL PAINTER: They're probably talking in very veiled terms about class issues. Class is the dirty little secret in the United States. We're so much happier talking about race. Black people are this. And white people are that. The unspoken is that white people are middle class and black people are poor. So, black people are kind of the proxy for poor people in much of our dialogue. So, when politicians get past that, and they talk about what's interesting or needed for working people, or heaven forbid, poor people even, remember working people, or heaven forbid, poor people are probably about three-quarters of our population, at least. But when you talk about that group of Americans as having interest that are different from the people who have a lot of money, then for many who are critics of populism, that's a bad thing to point out.
BILL MOYERS: Actually, you know, when John Edwards was still in the race, he was using talk that also calls the money class. The financial interest would describe him as a populist —
NELL PAINTER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — and his message is populism —
NELL PAINTER: Yes. And they —
BILL MOYERS: — and they kept —
NELL PAINTER: — they said he was so angry.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. Why?
NELL PAINTER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
NELL PAINTER: I thought that his line was right on target. However I keep thinking back to the late 19th century when, in slightly different terms, the political rhetoric pitted identity of interest, in which all Americans found their place in an order, and some smart, rich people decided what to do and the rest of people went along with it, the workers and so forth.
That was one way of talking about the American polity, the American citizenry. But another way which came out of the People's Party, out of the Farmers' Alliances and the Grange and the Green-backers, all of these groups were saying, "Our interests are not the same. And the money power — or later in the early 20th century, the plutocracy — that those people were acting in their own interests, not in ours."
And you see it even in what topics are considered interesting and important. So, on one side at the current moment, we have discussions of war, and terrorism and security. That is America's place in the world. And on the other side, you have discussions of hard times, of expenses, of getting from day to day, of putting food on the table and so forth. Those are much more domestic issues. And in a very general way, those ideas, those strands, those issues go back 100 years.
BILL MOYERS: You quote in the forward of the new edition of your book from William Jennings Bryan, who said, I may not get it exactly right, he said, in 1899: "America can be a democracy-
NELL PAINTER: "A democracy — or an empire." Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And he didn't quite answer that. How would you answer it today?
NELL PAINTER: Well, we have become an empire. That came in the 20th century. What's between us and the populist is the 20th century: the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the two Iraq wars, to name a few. Those are all the wars that made us an empire in various, different ways.
But along with that, we still had what people face day to day. And what people face day to day, except for when they have a child, or a husband, or a spouse, or a mother and father actually in the war zone, what they face day to day is a different set of issues that have to do with health care, that have to do with wages, that have to do with that kind of issues. Which is much closer to life.
BILL MOYERS: So, what do you think we should know about the original populist, the movement that grew up in the 1890's, 1880's and 1890's? What should we know today that's relevant about them for us?
NELL PAINTER: How much time do you have?
BILL MOYERS: This is television.
NELL PAINTER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: It's like a classroom.
NELL PAINTER: Okay —
BILL MOYERS: You know? You have a fixed time —
NELL PAINTER: One thing I would definitely like us to remember is that the ideas that the populists put forward in the 1890's were considered harebrained.
BILL MOYERS: Harebrained?
NELL PAINTER: Harebrained. Crank ideas. But by the early 20th century, they were the ideas that came into even our U.S. Constitution. Because we had to have amendments to make it possible to have an income tax, or the direct election of senators. The whole regulatory state of the mid-20th century grows out of roots in the 90's with populism.
BILL MOYERS: They wanted the monopoly's controlled, right? They wanted government to step in and balance the power of the industrial giants —
NELL PAINTER: That's the very fundamental point that in a moment of what we call laissez-faire, that is to say that the government was not very involved, and certainly was not involved with every day people, that the populists were saying, "People control the government. And people should have the benefit of the power of the government." All of those were populist ideas saying that the power of the people through the government should serve the people, not just the corporations or the very wealthy.
BILL MOYERS: What do you see happening to ordinary people today?
NELL PAINTER: People are waking up to what has happened to our country, not just in the last eight years, but probably almost since the end of the Cold War, maybe even before. That our interest as a security state, and as an empire are not necessarily our interest as citizens. We have become what my colleague Elizabeth Cohen calls, "A consumer republic." The populists talked about a producers republic. And our interest as consumers and our interest as citizens may be different. So I live in New Jersey, where the state of our infrastructure is very much in the forefront of our politics. Are we going to pay for infrastructure? Pay for bridges, pay for roads and for intellectual infrastructure, pay for education, pay for colleges. These are not the kinds of things that Americans are going to go buy as consumers. But we need them as citizens of a polity. So many of the people who make the decisions, and finally, so many of us who vote those people in or out of office, so many of the people who are making the decisions don't need those services in the way many of us ordinary people need them. We need political leadership. And we voters need to vote for people who will provide that leadership. What I'm saying is that we need the engagement of citizens, of voters of ordinary people to push; to push back against the tremendous amount of money that goes into electing our representatives. It's not an accident that there's so much money in politics. And that politics tend to serves the needs of those who can pay.
BILL MOYERS: I brought a story with me hot off the press. And it says, quote, "The vast majority of African-American and Latino families who have entered the middle class are either borderline or at high risk of falling out of the middle class together." This report is called By a Thread, published by The Research Group and Brandeis University. And it says about 95 percent of African-American and 87 percent of Latino middle class families don't have enough net assets to meet their essential living expenses for even three months if their source of income disappears.
NELL PAINTER: Yes. It's called disparities of wealth. Not just income, wealth.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
NELL PAINTER: Well, you mentioned the word assets. Wealth is family assets. It's your house. It's your car. It's your savings. It's your retirement. It's your life insurance. It's your cash. It's that very money that you can use in unusual times, whether a bread winner loses a job, whether somebody falls ill, whether a child has to go to college, or graduate school. To have the wealth to be able to get past month by month, I mean, that's crucial to stay in the middle class or to move up. Because families are so short of wealth.
BILL MOYERS: And what is — what's the effect of this? What does it mean to us?
NELL PAINTER: The first thing it means is that families come under tremendous pressure. And you see it in the breakdown of families, the brittleness of family relations. You see it in children left home by themselves, because their parents are working two or three jobs at a time. You see it in people not being able to keep their families together, because of the stresses, the psychological stresses of hard times. And you see the culture taking the place of parents. And our culture, as you know is full of guns, and violence and sex. And so, we have lots of guns, and violence and sex moving in where parents might be if they weren't under so much stress. Some time ago people asked me, actually it was Democratic senators. They said, "What can we do about the black family?" And I said, "People need jobs. People need jobs." And if I were running the world, I would call back Franklin Roosevelt. And people would have jobs.
BILL MOYERS: You would do that instead of giving us all $500 or $800 —
NELL PAINTER: Absol —
BILL MOYERS: — to spend for whatever we wanted to?
NELL PAINTER: To —
BILL MOYERS: Because?
NELL PAINTER: Because, well, to go back to the populist, to move us more towards the citizens republic than the consumers republic. As consumers, we are the prey of our own appetites. And as citizens, we think about ourselves and our larger community. You could call it the infrastructure way of thinking.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that income inequality, which was a big issue in the populist era, grew significantly in the last year for which we had data, 2005? The top one percent of people, those with incomes of more than $348,000 received the largest share of national income since 1928, the year before the big —
NELL PAINTER: Yes. It's frightening, isn't it?
BILL MOYERS: It is.
NELL PAINTER: It is.
BILL MOYERS: And what does that say to you?
NELL PAINTER: It says, "Oh! We're going to have another damn depression." That's what it says to me. And then I remember that we have a lot of safeguards in place that were not in place in 1929 and are in place now because of the disaster of the Great Depression. But then again, many of those safeguards have been weakened particularly over the last quarter century or so. So, the regulatory stays. I think that what we see, in terms of the credit crunch, it started with the sub-prime problem, but it spread throughout the whole financial sector is — has to do with lack of regulation.
BILL MOYERS: So, what are the questions, Dr. Painter, that you think the populists would — are asking us today?
NELL PAINTER: Well, the populists —
BILL MOYERS: The ghost of the populist?
NELL PAINTER: The ghost of the populist, or our own populist are asking us, "What is the role of the citizens in our economy? What is the role of the government in our economy? What is the role of the government for serving the needs of ordinary people? Who does the government serve, or should it serve?" And governments can work for people. I know that sounds really wooly-headed these days when government should be off our backs. Maybe government has been too far off our backs, so that it cannot serve our needs.
BILL MOYERS: You remind us in the forward to your new edition that this century, this period you were writing about, a century or so ago America was wrestling with this very —
NELL PAINTER: The very —
BILL MOYERS: — what is, or should be the relation between the power of money and the power of the people? How do you see that playing out today?
NELL PAINTER: I think we're asking exactly the same . I think that's at the heart of election reform, legislation — public financing. I think it's also at the heart of questions about regulation. Do you let the free market run amok because it's good for all of us? And people are saying no. It's not necessarily good for all of us. Because we get tainted toys. We get downer cows processed into hamburger. So, the return of that kind of questions I think is saying that Americans are seeing the — are hearing the resonance of the questions, and perhaps even the answers of 100 years ago.
BILL MOYERS: As you talk, I'm reminded that what we owe the progressives and the populists of that period you write about 100 and so years ago, we owe them the progressive income tax. We owe them the direct election of United State Senators. We owe them —
NELL PAINTER: The Federal Reserve System.
BILL MOYERS: — the Federal Reserve System, the over-sight by the government of unfettered, capitalist power. So, why did you call your classic book Standing at Armageddon?
NELL PAINTER: Because so many people in the late 19th and early 20th century actually felt that their world was collapsing around them. So, the idea of the end of the world, that was circulating. And over and over again, people were using that kind of language when they talked about the need for remedies. The term, "Standing at Armageddon," actually comes from Teddy Roosevelt. And Roosevelt, in 1912, when he ran as the progressive candidate for president, was rallying his supporters. And he said, "We stand at Armageddon. And we battle for the Lord." He was talking about delegates, mind you.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, he —
NELL PAINTER: It's a great line.
BILL MOYERS: Something akin to what's going on right now —
NELL PAINTER: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: — with the super delegates, right?
NELL PAINTER: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: It's interesting, isn't it, that Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, both men of property, championed the cause of people against the big corporations?
NELL PAINTER: Because they realized that not standing up to gross economic power risked ruining their country, risked incredible disorder, risked asking for Armageddon. In — after 1907, but certainly after the populist and after the great hard times of the '90's, and the strikes, and the riots and all the disorder of the great upheaval. Theodore Roosevelt realized that he couldn't just let the bankers and the railroads call the tune. Because they would run the country into the ground. Franklin Roosevelt, looking at the Great Depression, and the strikes, and the riots, and the marches realized once again that government would have to step in and put a hand on the side of ordinary people. That the system cannot run by itself.
BILL MOYERS: You are a historian. You're an historian, and not a prophet. But are we standing at Armageddon today?
NELL PAINTER: I don't think we're ever standing at Armageddon in the United States. Because we do have lots and lots and lots of safeguards. And one of our safeguards is simply our huge size. Nobody can move us around very quickly. Everything takes a lot of time. I don't think we're going to have a revolution in the United States. So, in that sense, we're not standing in Armageddon. And we never will. However, we certainly are standing at a critical moment, in which we decide whether or not to continue as, in Bryan's terms, "An empire," or whether we want to return to our roots as a democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Nell Painter, thank you very much for sharing.
NELL PAINTER: Thank you.