- The Last Populist: Populism, Modernity, and the Consequential Career of Henry Lewis Bentley (1847–1933)
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If we are to believe what we read on the Internet, populism is on the march globally. A quick sampling of recent headlines gives a taste of the phenomenon: “The Dangerous Rise of Populism,” reads the 2017 World Report from the group Human Rights Watch, which warns of “global attacks on human rights values” by populist regimes. From the Brookings Institution comes a story on “the Rise of European Populism and the Collapse of the Center-Left,” proclaiming it “the most important European political development of the 21st century.” Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria concurs, noting that Europe “is ablaze with populism.” An op-ed piece in the New York Times chronicles “The Return of Populism, Latin America Style” in Colombia and Mexico, while a Washington Post piece warns that “An emerging populism is sweeping the Middle East.” From Kurdistan to Thailand, from Great Britain to the Philippines, the “virus of populism,” as theEconomist termed it, seems to be spreading. Even in normally staid Canada, the Toronto Sun takes note of the “rise of populism in Ontario.”1 [End Page 157]
Nowhere has the term “populist” been invoked more in recent times than in the United States, where the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 brought the word to the forefront of political discourse. Trump’s America-first nationalism, appeals to the working class, and denunciation of immigrants marked him as a populist of the political right, and indeed, most of the populist movements worldwide today are associated with that end of the political spectrum. Modern populism’s strong association with racism, xenophobia, and ultra-nationalism has reinforced widespread negative connotations of the term, although it should be noted that hostility to pluralism is not the sole provenance of the right. Trump’s criticism of establishment elites and his promise to drain the corrupt Washington swamp also could have come from a populist of the left. Nonetheless, only on rare occasions does populism still get invoked in a positive manner, as in 2017 when a liberal journalist labeled Trump a “fake populist,” declaring instead that social democrat Bernie Sanders’s liberal populism was the real thing. In the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections, as pundits began to turn their attention to the 2020 campaign, the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt also offered up another relatively rare positive use of the term when he advised Democrats on “The Secret to Winning in 2020: It’s the populism, stupid.”2
The term “populism” dates to the 1890s, when the third-party movement formally known as the People’s Party briefly challenged the Republicans and Democrats. This article examines the life and career of one of the original Populists3 in an attempt to refresh modern memories about the origins of the term and to further refine our understanding of what Populism, in its original incarnation, was all about. Henry Lewis Bentley (1847–1933) is almost entirely forgotten today, but he was one of the principal leaders of the People’s Party both in Texas and nationally. Moreover, a close study of his long and fascinating career not only reveals much [End Page 158] about the true nature of 1890s Populism but provides important hints about the roots of our own era’s politics, though not in the ways that those who invoke the term today might expect.
Before turning our attention to Bentley, a quick primer on the term “populism” itself seems in order. The historian Michael Kazin has offered one of the most useful definitions, calling it not an ideology but a “persuasion,” a style of political rhetoric. In the political language of populism, “speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek...