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Arkansas’s New Appetite for Direct Democracy

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Arkansas’ motto has been Regnat populus, “The people rule,” since it became a state, in 1836. But Arkansans became captivated with direct democracy in the second half of the 19th century, when the Populist movement spread across the South and into the West, hitting Arkansas, which lies on the border of the two regions. The first Populists, those who formed agrarian cooperatives and the short-lived People’s Party in the 1890s, were mostly white farmers whose primary complaint was that wealth and political power were concentrated among the elite—capitalists, politicians, and others who they argued were not in tune with the producing classes.

Though the Populist movement largely disintegrated by the turn of the 20th century, in Arkansas, a loose alliance between farm and labor interests helped keep the idea of initiative and referendum alive. “By the early 20th century, a lot of folks were seeing that partisan politics was simply not a viable means of getting to democracy,” says Robert McMath, dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas Honors College and a historian of southern populism. The state legislature at the time was embroiled in corruption scandals, and as the Arkansas historian David Thomas wrote in the 1930s, there was “a general feeling that the lawmakers stayed in Little Rock too long and spent too much money.”

The growing clamor for initiative and referendum was both a response to that worry and a push for policies that voters thought the legislature was too slow to pass, primarily tax cuts. Arkansas wasn’t the only state with such internal turmoil: In the first decade of the 20th century, it was one of 13 states that adopted a system of initiative and referendum.

In Arkansas, the adoption became all but assured when William Jennings Bryan, the populist hero and four-time Democratic presidential candidate, traversed the state on a whistle-stop train tour, giving 55 speeches in five days in support of the proposal. Crowds at Bryan’s speeches reportedly ranged in size from a few hundred to more than 15,000; entire towns shut down for hours to hear him speak. All told, more than 75,000 people went to his speeches.

The Populists at the turn of the 20th century were not the populists of the current era, according to McMath. Back then, they were primarily driven by economics and a gut feeling that the more true democracy present in state government, the better. What today’s pundits call populists—the Trump-rally crowds chanting “Lock her up”; the white, working-class Trump voter toiling in coal country—aren’t in keeping with the tradition of American populism, he says.

“The politics of populism in Arkansas was about as close to socialism as you find anywhere,” McMath says. In the early 20th century, Socialists maintained a strong third-party presence in Arkansas. (There are no hard data on their numbers in the state, but in neighboring Oklahoma, Socialists comprised a greater percentage of the population than they did in New York.) The direct-democracy coalition in Arkansas was composed of Socialists, Progressives, Democrats, and the remaining Populists, who shared an anti-elite mind-set in what has always been a poor, under-resourced state. “People were just poorer here for longer here,” Parry says. “There wasn’t a planter class, for example, that developed in the states in the Deep South.” For a while, initiative and referendum seemed to be their antidote to the legislature. Citizens brought initiatives to the ballot more than a dozen times a decade from the 1920s through the 1960s.


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