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An Overview of Populism

By Charles Postel, San Francisco State University

In the early 1890s, a coalition of farmers, laborers, and middle class activists founded an independent political party named the People's Party, also known as the Populist Party. This party was the product of a broad social movement that emerged in response to wrenching changes in the American economy and society. In the decades after the Civil War, the telegraph and telephone meant that information that had taken weeks or months to travel across continents and oceans now traveled at the speed of electric current. The telecommunications revolution made the world a much smaller place (today we call it globalization). It also made possible large-scale business organization in the form of railroad corporations and other giant and centralized enterprises. Corporate power grew exponentially, allowing corporate executives to amass great fortunes, while hard times pressed on most everyone else. Americans had never experienced such a divide between rich and poor.

The People's Party was the most successful third party movement since prior to the Civil War. In 1892, the Populist candidate for president, James B. Weaver of Iowa, won more than a million votes. Tom Watson of Georgia, Jeremiah Simpson of Kansas, and Marion Cannon of California were among the leaders of the third party bloc in the U.S. Congress, while William A. Peffer of Kansas, William V. Allen of Nebraska, and Marion Butler of North Carolina were Populist U.S. Senators. The People' Party also gained key state offices in North Carolina, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota and other states. Meanwhile, dynamic Populist stump speakers such as Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas and James “Cyclone” Davis of Texas attracted enthusiastic crowds of thousands in rural districts across the nation.

The Populist movement also posed one of the biggest challenges to corporate power ever witnessed in the United States. In protest of high freight charges and usurious mortgage rates the movement pressed for government regulation or ownership of railroads and banks. To provide relief from debts and low prices on farm goods the Populists pressed for currency expansion by way of minting silver and printing greenbacks at the expense of bankers and creditors. To finance essential public functions they demanded the enactment of a progressive income tax on the wealthiest Americans. To rid government of the undue influence of corporate lobbyists the Populists demanded the direct election of senators, as well as the initiative and referendum, and other experiments in direct democracy.

The rise of Populism horrified many upper and middle class Americans. The corporate elite believed that their laissez-faire ideal of unregulated capitalism was the only model suitable for modern development. In the eyes of the well to do and well educated, Populism represented an assault by primitive “hayseeds” and ignorant “clodhoppers” that put modern civilization in peril. Ever since, such a perspective has influenced how Populism has been understood and where it has been situated in the narrative of American history.

Who were the Populists and what did they represent has been one of the great controversies of historical interpretation. For many American intellectuals, the Second World War and its aftermath raised concerns about the origins of fascism, as they had witnessed in Europe how a popular mass movement had resulted in the rise of Hitler and the Nazi holocaust. In the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter at Columbia University and other post-war scholars looked at Populism to see if it might contain seeds of irrational, intolerant, and anti-Semitic mass politics. Sure enough, that is just what they found. Hofstadter drew the conclusion that the Populists were backward looking and delusional, a rural people psychologically unable to cope with the demands of a modern society.

Quite different concerns animated the scholars of the 1970s and 1980s. Their point of reference was the grass-roots activism of the 1960s. Historians such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Christopher Lasch saw Populism as the 1960s culture writ large. Populism, as they saw it, provided a historical confirmation of their own ideas about the failings of a hierarchical and commercial culture. Populism, such scholars argued, was the democratic response of rural people taking a stand to defend their traditional way of life from the modern culture of business and development.

The common point of these sharply dissimilar views – Populism as proto-fascism versus Populism as the last best hope for grass-roots democracy – is that they are both founded on a common premise: The Populists were tradition-bound people in revolt against progress and modernity. Indeed, this premise is rooted in basic assumptions about rural people held in the wider political culture.

But Populism takes on a very different meaning if assumptions about who was modern and who was not are put in question. Populist farmers and laborers may have had callused hands and mud on their shoes, but they also viewed themselves and were modern people. They were reformers seeking innovation in commercial relations, government, and ways of life. Hundreds of thousands of women joined the Populist movement as means to gain education, employment in new industries, and freedom from traditional restraints. The Populists embraced invention and new technology, as they sought to harness scientific research to serve their own visions of prosperity and development. Far from rejecting centralized and hierarchical systems of organization, they strove to adopt such systems for marketing cooperatives and other rural needs.

The People's Party eventually failed as a third party. In the 1896 election, William Jennings Bryan, running on a reform platform and nominated by both the Democratic and Populist Parties, went down to defeat at the hands of the Republican candidate William McKinley. The People's Party never recovered from the blow. The corporate model had defeated the Populist alternative that combined public, private, and cooperative ownership, and that offered a more inclusive and humane model of modern development. But in the process of defeating the Populist challenge, both the Democratic and Republican Parties adopted much of the Populist program, from the federal income tax, to the direct election of senators, to banking reform. Populism may have died, but it had put in place powerful rural, labor, and urban constituencies for the reforms that made America modern.

© 2009 Illinois During the Gilded Age Digitization Project