Review of Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America


Political parties according to Goodwyn quoting William V. Allen, then U.S. Senator from Nebraska “should be held no more sacred than a man’s shoes or garments” and that political parties should exist only as long as they are “conducive to good government.” Goodwyn suggests that the Populist movement’s essence was “an assertion of how people can act in the name of the idea of freedom,” a “demonstration of what authentic political life can be in a functioning democracy.”

Goodwyn’s book on the late 19th century (1889-1898) Populist movement that originated from the agrarian revolution in the U.S. that wanted to form “a democratic society founded on mass dignity” could be a primer for third/independent party politics and the social issue movements that bring third parties to fruition. Goodwyn explains how the development of relevant issues, education of the general public (and not just to adherents/activists), formation of an allied wide-ranging press operation and formation of an independent party are and were absolutely necessary but lacking and contributed to the failure of the Populist movement.

Goodwyn argues that as a result the agrarian revolution failed to control the formation and direction of the People’s Party to keep it independent and prevent the party from (essentially) merging into the Democratic Party through fusion of issues and candidates into the Democratic Party. This failure allowed the emerging corporate culture, chiefly the big banking and industrial sectors, to take over the development of cultural and political life in the United States from then on resulting in apathy in politics, the disintegration of civic life and the lack of any significant voice/role of future third parties in American politics.

Goodwyn goes into a detailed analysis of what has to occur for effective third party operations including that the focus on the relevant issue(s) must not be derailed/sidetracked by incorporation of other issues, education of the general public as a long-term (possibly permanent) organized effort, and a clear, realistic (and I would argue non-emotional) long-term vision of the leadership so that movement does not die out through inertia or being co-opted by mainstream political parties.

One warning, which can be an annoyance to some readers: Although the book’s subtitle is “A Short History …,” Goodwyn repeats a lot from earlier chapters in in later chapters, particularly in the last chapter.