The Extraordinary Ordinary: Populism in America

Published: May 15, 2009

1896 political cartoon referencing William Jenning Bryans "Cross of GolJoe the Plumber and his geographic equivalent, “Main Street,” were both major figures in Election ’08. “We the People” have finally spoken and… wait a second, who’s “we” and what did “we” say, anyway? On this show, we’ll explore the many faces of populism — that notion of the power of ordinariness that Americans have both idealized and feared. We’ll ask how a term describing a 19th century agrarian reform movement came to stand in for the interests of average Americans, and explore the connections between populism and American religion. Was our Revolution the work of The People or a few powerful people? How, historically, have we translated “the voice of the people” into a language that makes sense to all of us? Of course we want to hear from you, the People of BackStory — send us your ideas, questions, and stories, and you might be invited to join us on the air!

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Comments (3)

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  1. John Ragosta

    Jefferson’s agrarian ideal was intended to ensure the independence of members of the polity because an independent farmer on his own land could bid defiance to the world and, thus, was a safe, non-corruptible depository of political power. Jefferson even wanted to give everyone (white males) in Virginia land to ensure this vision. How does this populist vision speak to us today? Home ownership? Agricultural subsidies? Farmer myths?

  2. Redpine

    I’ve been wondering recently about the inverse: the history of American meritocracy (and/or elitism depending on how you view it).

  3. Brian Markowski

    You can’t do a show about populism with out William Jennings Bryant and his “Cross of Gold” speech…which, based on the above picture is sure to be inculeded in the show. However, did you know that “The Wizard of Oz” written by Frank Baum may have based his famous book on Bryant and the events leading up to the election of 1900? The Tin Man represents the industrial worker, the Scarecrow the farmer, the Lion, possibly Bryant himself. Dorothy walks on a gold road in silver shoes. There’s no hard proof on this but it’s fun to play with all the allegories.