Not all farmers wanted the same things

Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917
Elizabeth Sanders, 1999

Elizabeth Sanders argues that “agrarian movements constituted the most important political force driving the development of the American national state in the half century before World War I” (1). But she also says they didn't really get what they wanted.  This story has not been well told, she says, because of a “strong urban labor bias” among social historians, and because Marxist-derived social theory perceives the “industrial working class” as the only “significant constituency” opposing the state and its ruling “hegemonic capitalist class” (2). Sanders says “the dynamic stimulus for Populist and Progressive Era state expansion was the periphery agrarians’ drive to establish public control over a rampaging capitalism” (3-4). In 1910, “fewer than 9 percent of nonagricultural workers were members of trade unions,” so the agrarians were well-placed to drive their reform message into the mainstream (5). And they did just that, she says: “the Democratic Party of the post-1896 period was an overwhelmingly agrarian vehicle that carried the legacy of populism” (4). So why didn't farmers get what they had wanted?

Sanders argument is based on a very specific definition of agrarianism, that I think holds a lot of explanatory power. “The term ‘agrarian,’” she says, “is used here to reference those agricultural regions...that were devoted to one or two cash crops produced for national and international (as opposed to local) markets” (28). Sanders distinguishes these “peripheral” agrarians from the more prosperous, diversified farmers of perishable and “truck” products for local markets. It's interesting that the diversified farms, the ones that basically disappeared, are considered in this context as the strong, central farms, and the monoculturists we normally think of as the source of Populist criticism of railroads and flour monopolists was the shaky, "peripheral" group. Maybe they
did get what they wanted, at least in terms of moving to the center of the debate.

The more diversified “hinterland” farmers were dependent on their local urban markets, and their political behavior reflected this identification. In contrast, “periphery agrarians were more bound to the fate of a single crop (whose price was set in a world market), more distant from crop marketing, storage, and distribution centers; more likely to be dependent on a single rail line and monopolistic or oligopolistic purchasers,” in short, the powerless producers of undifferentiated staples we normally think of, when we read accounts of the farm movement.

For me, the really interesting element of the story might be this wedge Sanders opens between these different types of farmers, as well as between different types of cities. Centers that served rich agricultural areas (Minneapolis, Spokane, even Chicago) displayed different political patterns than eastern cities whose economies relied less on agriculture.  “Because of these differences in city functions, the urban-rural distinction
per se has limited explanatory power in American politics” (16). And farmers operating in the corn belt, responsible for “the greatest concentration of corn and meat production in the world,” clearly lived different lives and as a result had different political motivations from the diversified farmers. (17)  The fact that the South, “by virtue of its size and the intensity of its grievances...almost inevitably led the periphery voting bloc in Congress,” may be a clue to a relatively unexplored division between farmers (27). Rather than thinking of rural people as sharing a common agenda, maybe we should be looking for the differences of opinion and political priorities that caused some of their major organizations to adopt an apolitical stance.

Sanders suggests that political constituencies might be grouped like economic “trading areas,” citing Bensel’s
Sectionalism and American Political Development, and his use of Rand McNally trade area maps.  This seems like it might be a promising way to look at some of the issues I’m finding in my research, which covers a group of farmers and rural businessmen who seem to be left out of the traditional story of agrarian radicalism. She concludes that agrarian-labor coalitions failed because they were “rent by class, ethnic, and regional political economy differences that diminished their capacity for economic and political mobilization and--particularly in the case of southern racial segregation--their moral authority” (412). But most interesting, Sanders suggests that although the periphery agrarians naturally advocated national government action to right the wrongs of the production/distribution/finance system, they did not support the Progressive-style discretionary bureaucracy they ultimately got. They believed “Policy-making should not be the province of ‘experts’ socially and geographically far removed” from their constituents; it should be “local, decentralized, ad-hoc” (388-9). So the question (and the story waiting to be told) is, wanting what they wanted, how is it they got what they got?