Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 181-94.
Lawrence Goodwyn's book Democratic Promise is an important contribution to our understanding of the nature of Populism. Reviewers have termed it "brilliant" and "comprehensive" and "the new standard against which all future efforts must be measured."1 Goodwyn does, indeed, provide the reader with insights into the nature of Populism that are available nowhere else. Unfortunately, his work also has serious flaws, most obviously in his handling of the Populist movement in Nebraska but ultimately pervading the entire book. The student of Populism must be aware of the flaws but ought not dismiss the work as a whole, for its contributions are important.
The most important contribution Goodwyn makes is to be found in his thorough and sympathetic development of the origins of Texas Populism. He portrays Texas Populism as the political manifestation of an "Alliance culture" born during the mid- and late 1880s as farmers in a few Texas counties began to organize Alliances and, through the Alliances, to establish producers' and consumers' cooperatives. This cooperative experience, with its occasional successes and more general failures, radicalized the participants and produced an "Alliance culture" as shared experiences became shared understandings, expectations, and values. Ultimately the Texas Alliance organized or merged with similar organizations throughout the South and then moved northward, finally reaching forty-three states and territories and some two million farm families.2
Goodwyn argues that the expansion of the concept of cooperation, carried out by organizers sent from Texas, laid the basis for political Populism, for "the cooperative movement led to political education in terms of farmer merchant, farmer-creditor, and farmer-shipper relations and ... such education led to the ... energizing self-perception of the farmer's subordinate place in the industrial society." Goodwyn stresses that "only the cooperative experience over a period of time provided the kind of education that imparted to the political movement the specific form and substance of the greenback heritage."3 When the new party met in 1892 to nominate national candidates, however, it already had symptoms of an internal split, derived according to Goodwyn from two very different varieties of third party activity. One variety proceeded from the Alliance counterculture and produced a Populism that Goodwyn clearly sees as "genuine." By 1892, however, there also existed what Goodwyn describes as a "shadow movement," created in imitation of the counterculture but without its cooperative experience and hence without its values. The "shadow movement" had its base in Nebraska where, Goodwyn argues, the party was "virtually issueless," subscribed to no "clearly defined Populist doctrines," and "represented little more than a quest for honorable men who would pledge themselves to forsake corrupt practices." The 1896 presidential nominating convention became the scene of the final showdown between these two factions, and the nomination of William Jennings Bryan, representing the ascendancy of the "shadow movement," marked the death of genuine Populism.4