In O Brother, Where Art Thou? there are two figures
who display elements of "populism." One is "Pappy O'Daniel"
and the other is "Homer Stokes." Both characters are, quite
obviously, politicians. But just how their characters represent
that vague American political impulse is perhaps less clear.
Although the film presents "Pappy O'Daniel" earlier in the
film, in his initial appearance he is only a voice coming
through the radio as the host of the "Pappy O'Daniel Flour
Hour," a program presenting "old-timey" music and hawking
O'Daniel own brand of flour. Below is a clip from the first
visual appearance of "Pappy":
"Populism" is itself one of the more controversial terms in American political history. Typically, it is associated with the Farmer's Alliance of the 1890s that pitted a (surprisingly) de-segregated group of Southern farmers against the forces of the emergent industrial economy and its political cronies. For better or worse, William Jennings Bryant's introduction of the "Silver Standard" compromised the Alliance's drive for more paper currency in order to drive up inflation and thereby decrease the significance of the debt that most farmers found themselves in. Curiously enough, both this initial appearance of "populism" and its generally accepted "second coming" occurred during the two decades of American history most devastated by economic depression. In the 1930s, politicians and cultural figures like Huey P. Long of Louisiana, Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit, and the real-life Pappy O'Daniel of Texas emerged on the political front, largely as a response to the disparities of wealth and the desperation of poverty that came crashing down on the nation during Herbert Hoover's presidency.
There are a variety of reasons why "populism" remains controversial among political scientists and historians. For one thing, it is too vague to be considered a "movement" proper in all but the 1890s. Huey Long and Father Coughlin were not involved in any real alliance during the 1930s. But there is also the incontrovertible value judgment that colors much discussion of the "populism" that implies an overwhelming distrust of any mass movement. And, perhaps, there is good reason for this. Though usually allied loosely with the Democratic Party, the "populist" impulse in politics is really neither Republican nor Democratic; in fact, it is not properly "conservative" or "progressive" at all. Furthermore, it really is not limited to the 1890s or 1930s at all.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? presents two characters ("Pappy O'Daniel" and "Homer Stokes") who are both running for the governorship of Mississippi in the 1930s. "Pappy," like his real-life basis, is the proprietor of a flourmill. He is the incumbent in the race, and his opponent "Homer Stokes" is running on a platform of "reform." Below is a clip from a political rally held by "Homer" in order to drum up support and increase his "constituency":
In this clip, "Homer" displays many of the hallmark theatrics of "populist" politics: disdain for the big businesses and support for the "little man." As the following clip shows, "Pappy O'Daniel" is well aware that the campaign style of his opponent threatens to overturn even his homespun radio persona:
But though "populism" may be neither conservative or progressive, it is a Janus-faced beast. The two most common criticisms of Huey Long (perhaps the most exemplary historical example of "populism") were that he was a "dictator" and that his political platform was essentially the door through which the Red Menace of communism would waltz into America. O Brother, Where Art Thou? contains no real reference to the communism scare, but in the following scene, the trio of protagonists come across a Ku Klux Klan rally where the participants are about to lynch a black man-who just happens to be the same "Tommy Johnson" that they had encountered earlier. And the "Grand Wizard" of the lynching is none other than "Homer Stokes" in full Klan regalia:
This scene is derived almost in its entirety from a similar sequence in The Wizard of Oz. For a comparison, see the clip below:
What is to made of the equation that combines the "reform"
candidate "Stokes" with the Klan member? And the visual quotation
from The Wizard of Oz? In essence, "populism's" Janus-face
is exactly the dilemma presented by this sequence of scenes.
On the one hand, it presents the opportunity for real social
reform and the implementation of progressive ideals. On the
other, though, like the guards in the fantasy of Oz and the
real Klan, any mass movement can easily become (if it is not
already) a fascistic enterprise. Father Charles Coughlin-whose
own career was built out of radio broadcasting-began sympathizing
with the Nazis as the 1930s progressed. But ultimately, O
Brother, Where Art Thou? displaces this dystopic version
of "populism" with one far more amenable to the ideal visions
of the 1930s as perpetuated by the 1960s:
Ulysses Everett McGill has found his wife. In the process of trying to win her back, he must don a costume and perform as part of the band at "Homer Stokes" political rally. "Stokes" and the rest of the Klan members have just been thwarted in their attempt to lynch "Tommy Johnson." Because of the widespread dissemination of Everett and the rest of the boys' recording, they are an instant crowd-pleaser, and even "Homer's" friend-of-the-little-man shtick cannot overcome the crowd's pleasure in the music, even though the quartet of protagonists has "miscegenated."
"Pappy O'Daniel" sees this as an opportunity to realign himself with the desires of the crowd. He waddles up on stage and grants the four of them pardons from any criminal offenses. He even makes mention of them being his "Brain Trust"-an allusion to Franklin Roosevelt's group of advisors. Then the entire crowd joins in a chorus of "You Are My Sunshine," a song that the real-life Pappy O'Daniel actually wrote. This utopian ideal of integration and valorization of the "populist" impulse is hinted at a few years earlier than O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the film Primary Colors, of which a clip is presented below:
In this final sequence, and given the variety of historical and representational context given below, what is the film's final word on "populism?" O Brother, Where Art Thou? comes at the end of the Clinton presidency, and Primary Colors clearly wants to draw parallels between the "friend of the little man" of the 1930s and Bill Clinton's own "I feel your pain" rhetoric. But in the end, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not really concerned with whether "Pappy O'Daniel" is a political opportunist or "Homer Stokes" is a genuine reformer-racist or not. What is repeated again and again is the importance of artifice and theatricality that makes up a good campaign and a good politician. Ultimately, it is unimportant in the reading of the film to understand reference to Pappy O'Daniel or Huey Long or to be aware of the visual quote from The Wizard of Oz. These characters are as recognizable as Andrew Jackson's log cabin or "The man from Hope" or George W. Bush's cowboy hat.