- The Making and Unmaking of Western Radicalism, 1880–1905
Taken together, these two books could serve as a primer for all modern advocates of social change, third parties, or both. The instructional lessons would be particularly useful to leaders of social movements and political organizations that directly challenge existing ideas and parties and attempt to push both in a generally leftward direction. But the key point is not ideological; it is that the challenge must be frontal, even radical, and it must demand substantive change. Thus, adherents of right-wing movement cultures, as long as they are radical enough, also figure to benefit from a close reading.
Not all social movements, of course, become parties; some expressly disavow participation in electoral processes. But all are intensely political in the sense that they arise and take their being from the existing political culture and because they must—whether they wish to or not—work their way through the existing political structure. The right-wing militiamen know this—or should; so should the Perotnistas on what passes for the political center, and Earth First! or any of various (and often ill-defined) leftist movements and political organizations. The lesson for all of them is the same: the United States has gone this way before, and within the existing political structure what is being proposed will not work or, indeed, even be heard.
Peter Argersinger speaks most directly to this point. The Limits of Agrarian Radicalism is a collection of his previously published essays introduced and held together by a summary first chapter written for this volume. As the title indicates, Argersinger believes there were strict limits to the agrarian radicalism of the populist movement, and most of those limits had little to do with [End Page 252] the message of populism, everything to do with the fact that it ran head on into an entrenched political structure that allowed populism’s opponents to ignore, co-opt, cheat, and manipulate it. Populism confronted a political structure that could not accommodate a third party, and a political culture that would not accommodate an alternative set of ideas.
Political structure and political culture as categories are not as separate as the above might suggest. Rules exist for a reason. The structure of politics is a reflection of—and has a powerful influence on—the culture of politics. In the matter of the Populists, the structure all but guaranteed a two-party system. Those two parties reflected different cultural preferences and prejudices. They agreed, however, that there would be no third player in the game and they devised new rules and fine-tuned old ones to limit agrarian radicalism. As for the agrarian radicals, those same rules meant they had either to fuse with one of the “major” parties—in the process losing their soul and driving a wedge between the populist movement and the People’s Party; restrict their activities to propagandizing their alternative visions—in the process resigning themselves to a life of political impotency; or engage in open rebellion.
At one time or another they tried all three—though rebellion was engaged in reluctantly and with no real enthusiasm. This last point, though well enough known to historians, can still occasion some surprise. Argersinger confines his account to populism in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Iowa. There is nothing on the South, little on the urban, labor-based populism of the Mountain states. Still, Argersinger’s western radicals are identifiably that. He demolishes whatever is left of the notion that the Populists were conservatives in bad disguises, offering instead a collective portrait of men and women genuinely committed to change, plundered by the “interests,” as able in every way as those who opposed them, sustained and propelled by a rich “movement culture,” fired by near millennial zeal, enraged by false promises, beggared by...