As we prepare for what will almost certainly be another bad election year in a series of bad election years for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, I have been thinking about the politics of this peculiar state. This is perhaps a manifestation of a common left wing trait, namely our obsession with explaining how anyone could possibly disagree with us, inevitably loaded with unhelpful buzz words and jargon. I aim to avoid this; at the very least I promise not to use the term “false consciousness.”
I have often puzzled at how the political culture here took such a seemingly dramatic 180-degree turn in so short a time. It can’t be explained by the “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party. The true “Dixiecrats” driven out of the party in the 1960s were militantly anti-new deal and anti-civil rights, whereas Oklahoma elected around that time the very pro-civil rights Fred Harris to fill the seat of Robert Kerr, who had helped push the New Deal through the senate thirty years earlier. The “law and order” (read: pro segregation) candidates for Governor in the 1950s each polled only a few hundred votes. How did Oklahoma, so progressive at its inception, become such a citadel of hardcore conservatism?
The way to cut through this particular Gordian knot is to look at Oklahoma history and politics in a different way. It seems to me that most Oklahomans are members of the same political party, which is one that no longer exists.
Prior to statehood, 36 of the 39 members of Oklahoma’s legislative body were members of the People’s Party, or Populists for short.
Populism was a radical agrarian movement which emerged first among the wheat farmers of Kansas and Nebraska and went on to spread throughout the plains, and eventually into the South, where their efforts were often met with murderous repression from the southern Democratic party.
The Populist program reads like an amalgam of the various and sundry concerns of both state parties in Oklahoma today. Oklahoma Democrats are left leaning populists. Oklahoma Republicans are mostly right leaning populists. Populists saw the power of banks and large corporations as threats to liberty, but were broadly supportive of farmers and small businesses. Populists opposed imperialism as well as internationalism, opposed almost all public debt, wanted the Government to liquidate most of its property and land holdings, promoted the graduated income tax and aggressive programs for social welfare, pushed for “public works to employ idle labor,” and were in favor of decentralized administration and direct democracy. The single issue they are remembered best for was the quixotic quest to get the US government to back currency with silver, which would have devalued the currency to the point that all outstanding debts (especially mortgages) could be paid back for pennies on the dollar.
Populism faded in the face of repression by the southern wing of the Democratic party and co-option by the northern wing of the Democratic party. Some ex-populists in the plains states gravitated into nascent socialist movements, others joined “farmer-labor” coalitions within the Democratic and Republican parties. Southern Populists mostly joined the Democratic party and adopted their white supremacist rhetoric and policies. Tom Watson of Georgia, who in 1892 gave a rather cogent analysis of American race relations (“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”) went on to be a staunch segregationist in the 20th century. Such are the bargains some will make for success.
Oklahomans are passionate people. These passions can be directed in any number of ways; they can be directed towards making Oklahoma a great place for everyone to live or towards making it as exclusive as a country club. They can be focused against scapegoats and red herrings or directed towards the solving of actual problems.Our fractured populism could go either way.
In so many ways – our fatalism, our extremes of wealth and poverty, right wing and left wing populism, the tension between tight knit community and heroic individualism, the omnipresence of religion in public life, our complicated tribal groupings, indigenous and otherwise – the politics of Oklahoma better resembles that of Latin America than that of New York. Like our hemispheric neighbors, we have swung from one extreme to the other over a period of decades, and my hope is that the pendulum is prepared to swing back the other way. Unlike much of Latin America, we have so far managed to live together happily despite our differences. May it always be so.