Should populism be dismissed simply as a threat to democracy?
By Herbert Rothschild
If you, like me, know little about local history, I suggest you read Jeffrey LaLande’s “The Jackson County Rebellion,” just released by OSU Press. While its focus is a populist movement that began in the late 1920s and in 1933 reached a climax marked by mass turbulence, political illegality and a murder, it begins with the white settlement of Jackson County and discusses two earlier populist movements — the era of the Populist Party in the 1890s and the Klan agitation of the 1920s.
This fascinating local history, well researched and narrated, would be reason enough to recommend LaLande’s book but not enough to devote a column to it. Rather, I do so for the light it sheds on populism. LaLande doesn’t extend his insights to contemporary politics, but I will.
The movement that after-the-fact acquired the name LaLande used for his title was led by a charismatic figure named Llewellyn Banks, who owned a newspaper in Medford and agricultural land and a fruit purchasing business that paid the growers cash instead of taking their harvests on consignment like the big buyers. After several years of incendiary rhetoric and hurling unsubstantiated claims of corruption at those who controlled county government, he mobilized support for candidates who had major successes in the election of 1932. The effort to preserve those victories against the incumbents’ resistance, both underhanded and above-board, led to the “rebellion.”
It’s impossible to disentangle Banks’ genuine concern for the downtrodden with his desperate attempts to save himself from financial disaster. The same is true of Earl Fehl, next to Banks the most important leader of the movement. Fehl was elected county judge, the head of what we now call the County Commission. But he helped engineer the theft and destruction of ballots in advance of a recount of the votes for sheriff, which an ally of Banks and Fehl had narrowly won. Both men went in prison, Fehl for the theft and Banks for killing a Medford constable who had come to arrest him.
Given my primary interest, the most important chapter is the last, in which LaLande situates the local movement within a populist tradition of largely rural agitation against concentrated economic power and the elected officials who serve it. To his credit, LaLande refuses to endorse the interpretation given to the events by Robert Ruhl, owner of the Medford Mail Tribune, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his courageous opposition to Banks’ reprehensible leadership. Ruhl viewed what happened solely as the work of a would-be dictator. LaLande knows that Banks’ movement drew upon a fund of grievances, both real and perceived.
LaLande, however, didn’t do enough research into the difference between the perceived and the real. For example, small landowners complained about the burden of unjust taxation, but we never learn anything of the tax system in the county. Further, we don’t get clarity about the serious issue of land foreclosures and what relief, if any, Banks and Fehl proposed. LaLande exonerates what the populists called the courthouse “Gang” from the charge of widespread corruption, but we learn nothing of how their allegiance to the county’s economic elite may have shaped policy decisions to the detriment of the thousands who flocked to Banks’ banner.
LaLande mentions Huey Long with some frequency but only as a would-be dictator, which is as reductive as Ruhl’s take on Banks. While LaLande cites three books on Long in his bibliography, he seems to have no idea what Long did for the people of Louisiana or his role in pushing FDR further to the left than the new president seemed prepared to go. Unlike Banks and Fehl, Long’s desire to serve the downtrodden was unmixed with any desire other than the desire to acquire more power to serve them more. Also, he was free from the Nativist bigotry that marred the movement in Jackson County. He brought the same benefits to Louisiana’s blacks as to its whites.
Long was governor of Louisiana from 1929 through 1932, then U.S. senator until his assassination in 1935. As senator, he continued to run the state, over which he achieved total political control. No one before or since did for the people of Louisiana what Long did.
In 1928, Louisiana had roughly 300 miles of paved roads, which meant poor farmers often couldn’t get their crops to market. By 1935 it had 9,700 miles of paved roads, this during the Depression. Before Long, the parishes (counties) maintained the few public schools there were, and nothing was free. He made sure the state provided free schooling, busing and textbooks to every child. He made college almost free and required only an in-state high school diploma for admission; enrollments tripled.
Among Long’s public works projects was the charity hospital system, at which medical care was free. He abolished the poll tax, reduced utility rates, and exempted from taxes the first $2,000 of a home’s value. He created the Debt Moratorium Act, which stopped foreclosures and gave families a grace period to pay mortgages and settle debts. Thanks to his intervention, of the nation’s 4,800 banks that collapsed between 1929 and 1932, only seven were in Louisiana. I could extend this list.
LaLande’s discussion of populism would have been stronger had he acknowledged the achievements of leaders like Long and Robert LaFollette. And it would have been a useful springboard for understanding what’s happening in our country now.
Trump is a bogus populist. In office he served the wealthy and did little for the people whose grievances he played upon. Only the worst aspects of populism — its bigotry and disrespect for legal processes — mark the MAGA movement. But there are real grievances everywhere. Rural America, in the grip of corporate agriculture and concentrated food processors, feels the pain. Thanks largely to real populists like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden has broken with the Clinton/Obama subservience to the plutocracy and is trying to achieve something like the “Share the Wealth” program Long achieved in Louisiana and advocated nationally. Now, as in the ’30s, Republican leaders will have none of it.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at email@example.com.