Paul Horton, teacher of history at the University of Chicago Lab School, wrote the following after participating in the first conference of the Network for Public Education:
Attending the NPE inaugural conference was an exhilarating experience! As Diane said in her keynote, we cannot afford to exclude anyone. We all met hundreds of amazing and dedicated folks in Austin.
I had a conversation with Jason Sanford at Scholtz’s that I would like to share. He encouraged me to share it with everyone: Texas was the birthplace of the Populist Party, the most successful grassroots third party movement in American History. The Party was born outside of Lampasas, Texas and spread to the entire country. The Party sought to unite urban workers, miners, and farmers, black and white, who were being squeezed by economic forces beyond their control.
We would all do well to read the Omaha Platform of the Populist Party, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5361/.
Populists, above all, wanted to do something about corporate dominance of politics and economic decisions. We face many of the same issues today in the second Gilded Age.
The late Larry Goodwyn, who wrote the best book on Populism, Democratic Promise, a University of Texas dissertation originally, wrote that the success that the movement had was based on the construction of a movement culture. Populists organized cooperative stores, newspapers, a lecturer network, raised money to form a national movement, and conventions at every level. Their platforms endorsed candidates who would support their platforms, not political parties. The Populists forced the major parties to listen because they controlled so many votes and candidates who supported their platforms were elected to government at all levels.
Above all, the Populist Party was a grassroots movement. As historian Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, many individuals have ridden populist rhetoric to the White House. Populist rhetoric is a useful political tool for politicians seeking office. Politicians abandon populist rhetoric when they raise money and solicit support from plutocrats.
The history of Populism is instructive for many reasons. Most importantly, the lesson that we need to learn is that grassroots movements are easily coopted by politicians who make promises about support for cosmetic issues and meaningful legislation is too easily watered down in the political process.
Another lesson is that coalitions that seek to unite disparate elements of the working class come under attack. What Joel Williamson has called “racial radicalism” that motivated a resurgence of the Klan in the 1890s was motivated by the political threat of a united Populist Party to the racist white power structure in the South and nationwide.
A third lesson to learn is that political movements that sustain themselves in this country must have the cooperation of the middle class. Because Populists were successfully branded by the corporate media as illiterate and stupid, corporate leaders were successful in marginalizing the Populist movement.
As Jim Hightower would say, we need to dance with the ones we came with. But I say, because teachers, firemen, police officers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers are threatened with downward mobility because corporate honchos using Computer Based Systems are trying to squeeze productivity gains out of us without paying us more, we need to make every effort to bring these groups into a broader coalition that believes in the idea of the public, the nation as a commonwealth that invests in people, not wars, and not privatization.
Back in 1964 when Milton Friedman was Barry Goldwater’s economic advisor, the country laughed at the idea of neoliberalism because most Americans were motivated to serve broader causes. Altruism was cool, and the Civil Rights movement was ascendant. Kennedy had inspired us to think big. Now the ideas of Friedman and Hayek dominate public discourse and the Ayn Rand cult has returned with a vengeance.
The idea that Corporate Education Reform is the Civil Rights Movement of our time is the pinnacle of absurdity. Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and my relative, Myles Horton, are turning over in their graves! There were no students turned out of Freedom Schools! Freedom Schools did not operate with military discipline and focus on preparing students for standardized tests. At Highlander, participants sat in a circle. There were no corporate sponsors or foundations involved. At Highlander, Ziphlia (who rewrote “We Shall Overcome”) and Myles prepared meals and washed the dishes to show their profound respect for Civil Rights leaders. Do we see Bill Gates doing this?
The NPE represents what Larry Goodwyn, who also studied the Poland’s Solidarity Movement, “Democratic Promise.” We are facing a long fight. As Diane told us, “we have to cast a wide net, but we must remain a grassroots movement.” We must insist on inclusivity in all respects. We need to be visible but our platform must speak more loudly than any segmented “talking heads.”
Thank you, NPE Executive Board for an absolutely exhilarating experience! “We Shall Overcome.”