The Forgotten New Deal — Populism

What is the connection between the New Deal and the Populist movement led by William Jennings Bryan? The standard answer is–not much.  Historians like Richard Hofstadter liked to emphasize the influence of the Progressive Era on Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it’s hard to find two political leaders with more different personalities or agendas than FDR and Bryan.

On the other hand, there should be a connection.  Every constitutional generation is influenced by its predecessor.  The jargon term I use for this is the “feedback effect.”  For instance, abolitionists developed their doctrines in reaction to Jacksonian Democracy.  And conservatives developed their jurisprudential outlook in response to what happened during the 1960s.  So why isn’t the same true for the New Deal?  (Yes, the Populists lost, but that should just speak to the strength of the link, not its existence.)

The revisionist answer is that the New Deal came very close to becoming a rerun of Populism but for two critical events — the decision in the Gold Clause Cases and the assassination of Huey Long.  If either of these had gone the other way, then FDR would have taken a much more Populist approach.  Accordingly, it turns out that 1935 was just as important, if not more so, to the evolution of New Deal Constitutionalism than 1937.  I’ll talk about that next week.

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2 Responses

  1. Derek Brett says:

    Really looking forward to the upcoming discussion on this ….

  2. ohwilleke says:

    One of the most obvious examples of a feedback reaction against Populism in American law is the adoption of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), in 1919, and its subsequent repeal, in 1933, via the 21st Amendment.

    Prohibition and Populism overlapped as political movements. For example, a prohibitionist leader won the Populist party nomination in the Governor race in Georgia, without objection, on August 7, 1896.