In “Democratic Promise,” Larry Goodwyn’s definitive history of America’s 19th-century Populist movement, he describes the migration of hundreds of thousands of abjectly poor Southern farmers into Texas in the 1870s and ‘80s. They were escaping the scurrilous “company store” system of crop lending that predatory financiers had imposed on the rural South, trapping farmers in perpetual peonage. The people’s only way was literally to abandon their farms and flee the state. Family after family loaded their meager belongings onto horse-drawn wagons, nailed a “Gone to Texas” note to their cabin doors and headed west.
“Farm families unhitched their wagons, dug in on the rim of the Great Plains, and scratched for survival,” Goodwyn wrote. “They were desperate years, more desperate than outsiders could know. It was here that the organizational base was created for what historians would later call ‘the agrarian revolt.’”
About 70 miles northwest of Austin, in a nondescript spot named Pleasant Valley, a small roadside plaque quietly commemorates “FARMERS’ ALLIANCE NO. 1.” Here, in 1877, a handful of the area’s destitute cotton growers convened at John R. Allen’s farm to confront their common plight. From this beginning, a powerful nationwide network of more than 3,000 Alliance chapters arose in just a few years, providing an economic, political and social structure that empowered common people to battle moneyed elites. The farmers’ hard struggle for survival ignited the Populist movement, which became a historic mass effort to align the realities of American society with our egalitarian ideals and to construct, as one founder proudly put it, “a grand social and political palace where liberty may dwell and justice be safely domiciled.”
For some 20 years, this Populist movement was phenomenally successful, producing radical democratic change — until the bankers, monopolists and a two-party duopoly rose as one to twist America’s financial, marketing and political systems into a noose to hang the upstarts. By 1900, the Alliance and its People’s Party had expired. But the farmers’ rebelliousness and bright progressive agenda lived on, resurfacing in the Progressive Era reforms of leaders like “Fighting Bob” LaFollett, the penny auctions of the Great Depression, and the New Deal’s safety net programs.
You may not have heard about it, but our farmers are in crisis. Talk to farm families today and you’ll feel their anxiety and anger that the Fates are conspiring against them. They are endangered not only by unrestrained monopolists but also by such external bedevilments as Trump’s trade war tantrums, the ravages of climate change and a cabal of Wall Street and Silicon Valley profiteers intent on roboticizing food production. All threatening to eliminate the next generation of family farms.
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Yet, what comes across most powerfully is a combination of sadness, bewilderment and a sense of abandonment. Farmers and their family farms no longer seem to matter to much of the country. Banks refuse to invest in new businesses, major stores are pulling out, clinics are now often more than an hour away, schools are consolidated, and even ag extension services are absconding to the suburbs.
Yet, those families’ desperation goes unheeded by our political, media and business leaders. No one in power even seems aware that extreme stress disorders and suicides are epidemic among farmers today. Some progressives are also piling on, carelessly dismissing farm and small-town residents and vilifying them as the clods who elected Trump. It’s true that the Trumpster’s farm program is “Hee Haw,” but Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s programs effectively sacrificed farmers to Wall Street, Monsanto, oligarchic middlemen and factory farms. Did those political geniuses think farmers wouldn’t notice? Years of ignoring and/or siding against family farmers will eventually take a toll on their enthusiasm for a political party.
So here we go into 2020. People of all stripes and in all of our diverse groups need to correct course. We must go directly into rural communities with an honest willingness to hear what farm families are saying. Developing a comprehensive overhaul of the exploitative corporate ag system and welcome them as full partners in our overall goal.
For America’s CEOs, my gift is a beautifully boxed, brand-new set of corporate ethics. It’s called the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”