views updated Jun 08 2018


Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


who controls government? Elected officials

how is government put into power? Elected by popular vote

what roles do the people have? Pressure big business if unfair or unethical

who controls production of goods? The people

who controls distribution of goods? The people

major figures William Jennings Bryan; George Wallace

historical example of government People's Party in U.S South in the 1890s

Populism's personalities have manifested themselves differently at various times: as an agrarian phenomenon backlash to industrialism, as a nationalistic phenomenon bypassing the existing power structures, and as a political phenomenon rebelling against the elite. At its heart, populism is a reaction against change. It tends to come from the lower and working classes, the so–called "common men," against technological, intellectual, and political innovation. The populist impulse tries to preserve a way of life and a distrust outsiders, including the power elites who rule and make decisions and the immigrants and foreigners who compete against the populists in the marketplace. As populism began as a reaction against industrialism, it primarily is a product of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty–first centuries.


It is not unusual to hear candidates, platforms, and even political parties described as populist by pundits and analysts. The word seems to mean different things to different people, or everything to everyone. Populism in its varied forms has appeared across the world, but perhaps no nation has provided a better illustration of the varieties and patterns of the political theory than the United States.

The seed of populist thought began with the War of Independence and its promise that the people could liberate their government from the hands of elites far away and take control of it themselves. The egalitarian spirit of the Declaration of Independence—"all men are created equal"—and the empowerment of the U.S. Constitution—"We the people"—reinforced this promise. Two visions informed this impulse. First, the experience of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the subsequent Great Awakenings in North America fostered belief in a personal God who could be reached by individuals without the mediation of a religious hierarchy. This religious change also socialized people to expect breaks with old churches and the establishment of new ones, emotional rhetoric, vivid oratory, and communal meetings. In other words, people learned to question authority, break with tradition, and gather to enjoy intense community building.

Another building block of what became populism was the message of the Great Enlightenment, the idea that individuals could be reasonable and rational—and that the past and the people in it often were not. The permission to think for one's self, and to criticize the traditions that came before, including the systems of government and privilege, fed into the populist mentality. Many revolutionary writers such as Thomas Paine, who supported the War of Independence, drew from the rationalist religion of the Enlightenment when appealing to the masses to rise up against England.

Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President from 1801 to 1809, served as a kind of proto–populist figure. Though not a true democrat in the sense that he didn't support direct decision making by all citizens for all affairs of state, Jefferson did present a striking change from his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams. Both behaved more like kings than commoners. Jefferson, on the other hand, downplayed ceremony, wore bedroom slippers to official meetings, and delighted in undermining the mystique surrounding public office. His heart, too, was with those he called "yeoman farmers," the individuals who worked small subsistence farms, who supported themselves by their labor, and who guarded their rights with zeal. Jefferson believed these agrarians were the key to the survival and stability of the nation, and in this sense anticipated the foundations of populism.

Perhaps the first true populist leader in the United States was Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), president from 1829 to 1837. A war hero and frontiersman, Jackson ran on a "let the people rule" platform that appealed to the masses—who in turn stormed the White House after his inauguration to eat and drink and celebrate the election of one of their own. Jackson thanked his supporters by putting them into office, creating a new precedent called the "spoils system," in which a leader dispensed appointments to loyal followers upon election.


1829:      Andrew Jackson becomes president of the United States.

1857:      In England, Aleksandr Herzen begins the newspaper Kolokol and with it the first free Russian press abroad.

1869:      The Knights of Labor are founded in the United States.

1881:      Members of the People's Will terrorist society assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

1891:      Delegates representing voter alliances, farm organizations, and reform groups meet in Cincinnati and discuss the formation of a Populist Party, also called the People's Party.

1896:      William Jennings Bryan delivers his "Cross of Gold" speech and is nominated as the presidential candidate of the Democratic and Populist parties.

1946:      Juan Perón is elected president of Argentina.

1950:      Senator Joseph McCarthy starts the Red Scare by announcing that communists have infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

1968:      George Wallace runs for U.S. president as the candidate of the American Independent Party.

1979:      Jerry Falwell founds the Moral Majority.

1992:      Ross Perot runs for U.S. president as an independent candidate.

The U.S. entered into a period of uncontrolled inflation, agitated by wild speculation in Western lands. In July of 1836, Jackson sought to stem the tide by issuing by issuing Specie Circular, which declared that the federal government would only accept hard money for the purchase of public lands. The edict simply added to the difficulties of sound banks, helping to precipitate the Panic of 1837.

Jackson was also known for his policy of Indian removal. Believing that the massive transfer of Native Americans beyond the Mississippi River was ultimately the most human policy, he signed over ninety resettlement treaties with various tribes. Thousands of Indians found themselves forced to migrate along a "Trail of Tears."

In May of 1830, Jackson vetoed appropriations for the Maysville Road, a major artery stretching from Maysville, Kentucky, to Lexington. In his message, he denied that internal improvements were a federal responsibility. Yet, by the time he left the presidency, he had authorized more federal funds for such activity than all of his predecessors combined, and was especially enthusiastic when they were sponsered by loyal democrats.

Jackson attacked those he saw as elites living off of the work of the common people and called for equality of opportunity and access for everyone. Labor unions, abolitionism, and suffrage and temperance campaigns blossomed as local grassroots reforms gained momentum. Later, Abraham Lincoln, president from 1861 until his assassination in 1865, and his image—to many whites, the everyman who grew up without privilege in a small log cabin in the woods, and to many blacks, the great emancipator and champion of the disenfranchised—built upon the image of Jackson and further burned populism into the mind of Americans.


Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson is remembered as the first great populist leader of the United States. Common people identified with him and what he represented. His legend played into the mainstream's vision of a man of the people. He was twice a war hero. At the age of 13 he fought in the War of Independence and was captured by the British. After the revolution he became a frontiersman in Tennessee, where he often was fighting and dueling. He built a reputation as a plainspoken and able attorney, and then became a war hero a second time in the War of 1812. "Old Hickory," as he was called, led his troops to a remarkable victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans.

Jackson approached his goal of the presidency differently than his predecessors. Before Jackson, candidates did not believe they should appear to want the position. They strove for disinterestedness. George Washington had started the tradition of acting like the Roman citizen Cincinnatus who, according to history, left his plow reluctantly when called to public service and returned to it when his duty was done. Washington and those who followed him allowed friends and supporters to pass good words along about their candidacies, but did their best to seem as if they preferred to be at their plow rather than in the president's chair. Jackson changed this tradition. He willingly showed his desire for the position. He campaigned for himself and played to his legend whenever possible. Rather than appealing to the elites with quiet statesmanship, he played to the masses with assurances that he was one of them and he wanted to let the people rule.

The fact that he was irreverent, rowdy, western, loud, assertive, and clearly a Washington outsider endeared Jackson to the people. After his election in 1828, citizens from across the nation went to the inaugural celebration in Washington, D.C. After the swearing–in ceremony, the people stormed the White House eating, drinking, dancing, singing, and celebrating their victory—and damaging a costly amount of furnishings in the process. Jackson fulfilled many of their expectations, dismantling privilege and championing the interests of labor and small agriculture. The momentum of his election, reelection, and the subsequent age of the common man spawned reform movements including abolitionism and women's suffrage that outlived his administrations but served as his most important legacy.

Farmers' Demands

For the first century of its existence, the United States was primarily an agricultural nation. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, new economic realities meant that the traditional farming interest and the new labor interest were warily watching the growing industrial economy. Independent political groups with populist goals began to appear: the Patrons of Husbandry in 1867, the Knights of Labor in 1869, the Greenback Party in 1876, the New York Farmers' Alliance and Texas Farmers' Alliance in 1877, the Farmers' Alliance in 1877, the Northern

Farmers' Alliance in 1880, the Colored Farmers' Alliance in 1886, the Southern Farmers' Alliance in 1887, and the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union in 1889. These groups called for railroad regulation and tax reform. After the Panic of 1873, which caused agricultural prices to plummet, many populists blamed the government's currency policy and the bankers and industrialists they believed determined it. As a result, they added another demand to their list: the unlimited coinage of silver.

The groups discovered that they could not get the attention of the Democratic and Republican parties while acting as separate entities. When neither major party made a commitment to the silver question in their 1892 presidential conventions, a third convention was held at Omaha to combine the different interests and create the Populist Party. Its goal was to take the Democratic Party's place as the second–most popular party in the nation. The platform it adopted called for specific economic policies: the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, plentiful paper money, the end of national banks, government ownership of all transportation and communication, eight–hour workdays, pensions, and a revision of the law of contracts. Members' anti–immigrant position manifested itself in a call for new immigration rules and laws forbidding the ownership of property by non–citizens. The platform also supported the direct election of U.S. senators. With its partnership of western and southern farmers and eastern industrial workers, the Populist Party nominated James B. Weaver as its candidate for the presidency. Though he polled more than one million votes, he lost to Grover Cleveland (1837–1908).

In the next presidential election, the Democratic Party borrowed the Populists' main tenet by adopting the issue of free silver coinage and nominating the eloquent William Jennings Bryan for its presidential candidate. Most populists voted with the Democratic Party instead of their own. However, the numbers still were not enough to defeat the Republican Party and its candidate, William McKinley (1843–1901). The 1896 defeat drove a further wedge between the urban and rural members of the populist coalition, and the Populist Party disintegrated. Some of its platform issues such as the direct election of senators came to pass despite the short–lived nature of the party organization.

New Concerns

The twentieth century brought several different incarnations of the populist persuasion. The first two decades primarily belonged to labor, especially as represented by the American Federation of Labor and its co–founder and president until 1924, Samuel Gompers (1850–1924). The main goals of labor were higher wages, shorter hours, and greater freedom. Labor found friends in the new breed of anti–corporate journalists who fed on scandal, such as William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951), as well as investigative journalists known as "muckrakers" who examined business in search of questionable practices to expose. Many reform laws were passed and standards introduced. After Gompers' death, the end of World War II, and the economic boom that followed, however, the labor movement lost ground.

The next wave of grassroots political action appeared as temperance societies. Although various groups had existed for decades to fight the ills of alcohol and drunkenness, a growing consensus among rural, religious, business, and women's groups gained attention through the well–organized Anti–Saloon League and Prohibition Party. After World War I, mass enthusiasm for prohibition swelled and the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. Rather than creating a sober society, though, the law created a generation of outlaws dedicated to bootlegging, smuggling, and organized crime. In 1933, the Twenty–first Amendment repealed prohibition.

The next face of populism didn't come from the Democratic Party on the left, but from the Republican Party on the right. Just as agriculture and labor and temperance had judged that their communities, values, and way of life had been under attack by elites, so, too, in the post–World War II era, did the conservative mainstream believe their Christian, capitalistic society was under attack from within by the forces of communism. Perhaps the most famous anti–communist crusader was Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957). In 1950, he announced that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. The resulting "Red Scare" led to congressional hearings to root out so–called subversives; investigators ruined others' careers even when un–American activity could not be proven. Eventually the Senate censored McCarthy for his behavior and the press exposed many of his unsubstantiated claims, but by then the seeds of anti–communist, nationalist populism had been planted among Americans. This conservative wing of populism reemerged in the 1960s behind the figure of George Wallace (1919–1998).


George Wallace

George Wallace personified the intersection between the rural and religious wings of populism in the mid–twentieth century. Trained as an attorney, Wallace was active in the Alabama Democratic party. He served in the state assembly from 1947 to 1953 and on the bench as a district court judge from 1953 to 1959. He ran for governor of the state in 1962, avowing states' rights, the common worker, the Christian family, and an anti–Washington attitude. He believed in segregation and promised to keep Alabama schools segregated despite federal orders to integrate them. He won the gubernatorial election and soon was put to the test; in 1963, two black students tried to enroll at the University of Alabama. Wallace blocked their path and relented only when President John F. Kennedy took control of the Alabama National Guard and threatened to use it against him.

Wallace's wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace, succeeded him as governor as Wallace launched a presidential campaign—although no sensible person ever questioned who really ran things in Alabama. George Wallace received the nomination of the American Independent Party, a populist coalition of Southerners, Northern labor, Christian fundamentalists, and others wary of the Washington elite. The 1968 party platform of the American Independent Party is an excellent example of populist politics in action. Although Wallace lost the election, he was reelected governor of Alabama in 1970. In 1972, he entered the Democratic presidential primaries, but his campaign all–but ended when an assassination attempt left him paralyzed below the waist.

Despite his disability, Wallace served as Alabama's governor again from 1975 to 1979 and from 1983 until his retirement in 1987. Wallace's position on a number of issues drew criticism from across the nation, especially from intellectuals and the upper and middle classes, but Wallace was extremely popular with Alabama workers of all races. His position on segregation, for example, whether on the level of maintaining a familiar, agrarian–based lifestyle or on the level of rebelling against a distant ruling elite, captured a populist moment in time for the United States.

Late in his life, Wallace apologized for his segregationist views and policies of the past, and sought forgiveness from the people he had so hurt and offended. Moreover, he said his views against integration in the 1960s were about taking a stand against the federal government's interference into the affairs of Alabama, not about racism. Whether Wallace was truly repentent only he knew for sure. However, a number of former adversaries decided to break bread with him. In 1995, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Selma march, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference welcomed George Wallace at a ceremony at the Alabama state capitol.

Anti–Washington Populism

Wallace, who became governor of Alabama in 1963, was an avowed states' rights supporter and segregationist. He blocked the doors of the University of Alabama in 1963 when two black students tried to attend classes. His rhetoric blamed the Washington establishment for imposing views on the American South—and, in some cases, North, especially Northern labor—with which they did not agree; he tied issues of race, religion, and anti–communist nationalism together to present an image of a way of life threatened by so–called liberal politics. In 1968, he ran for president as the candidate of the American Independent party, the platform for which read like a populist primer–the campaign's slogan was "Send Them a Message!" "Them," no doubt, was the Washington (and northeastern) elite. Wallace won five southern states and 46 electoral votes.

In 1972, Wallace entered the Democratic presidential race, but his candidacy was virtually destroyed by an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed below the waist. He returned to serve Alabama as governor from 1983 to 1987. Wallace remains one of the most–controversial political figures of the twentieth century, but variations of his anti–Washington fervor can be found in both the writings of the People's Party of the 1890s and in politicians campaigning for office in the twenty–first century. In The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter calls Wallace "the most influential loser in twentieth–century American politics."

The coalition of conservatives that followed McCarthy and his plea for the people to retake Washington survived into the 1980s as the Religious Right, with political–spiritual leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This grassroots movement relied on churches and other institutions outside of the traditional party structure to gather and maintain support for family values, strong defense, a government legislating in the social realm but unobtrusive in the economic sphere. This populist group feared big business less than big government and big interest groups such as those revolving around gender, race, and the environment. The coalition tended to be Republican but also drew from the southern wing of the Democratic Party—such as those who had supported Wallace— and propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency from 1981 to 1989.

Perot and Buchanan

The xenophobia of the earlier labor movement reemerged in the 1990s with a backlash against free trade. Ross Perot (1930–) formed a short–lived following with a mix of labor, religious right, and independent voters. His nationalist rhetoric played to the McCarthyist patriots, but his concerns about immigration and protectionism referred back to the Populist Party of Weaver and the Democratic Party that had absorbed it. His Reform party placed candidates in high positions such as the governor of Minnesota, but soon platform issues such as the national debt were adopted by the major parties and the purpose behind the separate party seemed to vanish.

Like Perot, Pat Buchanan also fought to create a successful coalition around concerns about immigration and democracy in the 1990s, but found that the Wallace–like rhetoric that gained supporters in the 1960s did not do so thirty years later. Backlash against the Electoral College system after the disputed presidential election of 2000 offered yet another reflection of the beliefs of the Populist Party and its concern about direct democracy.

American populism began the twenty–first century as a mixture of labor and immigration concerns on the left and religious and family values concerns on the right. The September 11, 2001, destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., created a groundswell of grassroots nationalism that transcended party. At is core, however, rested deep anxieties about immigration, economy, and values—worries that the common people were under attack, that a new definition of modernity displaced the mainstream, that a way of life was endangered by a sinister few. In short, the initial reaction of a nation in crisis revealed a populist mind set.


Several core beliefs form the foundation of populism. First, the theory embraces rule by the people. In practice, this translates as democracy—not its close relative, republicanism, in which representatives of the people rule, because these representatives might act for their own interests instead of the interests of the people. Decisions should come from the people themselves, according to populist theory. This has translated into revolt against monarchs, as in Russia, and support for new leaders who bypass traditional power structures, as in Latin America. In the United States, the populist impulse for democracy has shown itself in the desire to elect U.S. senators directly and to abolish the Electoral College system.

A second core concept of populism is that of the minority elite and majority imperiled. In every form of populism, supporters have believed that the decision–making authority of the state rested with an elite who was out of touch with the mainstream—privileged monarchs, entrenched oligarchies, even the "Washington insiders." In many cases, populists have painted these elite not as unfortunately uninformed, but as willfully ignorant of the plight of the common people, unaware because the members of the elite are busy pursuing their own interests; not surprisingly, these interests seem, at least in populist rhetoric, to be contradictory to the interests of the mainstream.

A third basis for populist theory is the idea of the good and legitimate political action as one that springs from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The grassroots nature of populist movements worldwide springs from this conviction. In the village, on the street, from the union, within the church: these are the places from which political action flows, not only because these venues are near and convenient, but also because they should be the birthplace of citizens' participation. In this sense, the personal is political; the living room is the nation on a much smaller scale.

Reaction, then Action

Despite the fact that populism as a theory contains several core concepts, painting the theory in an abstract manner is difficult. At its heart, populism is not about central principles and consistent assumptions; in effect, populists do not adopt a system of thought and then behave accordingly. Populism is about reaction, not action, and as such, it has evolved gradually. James Weaver reacted against wealthy interests and the assault on the farmer; Juan Perón in Argentina reacted against the oligarchy and the assault on labor; Jerry Falwell reacted against secularization and the perceived assault on family values. All believed they were standing up for the common people, the backbone of their nations, the quiet majority that had been exploited and endangered by the powerful elite.

At its most narrow and shallow, populism is a desire to displace a system with one that can offer more for its constituents—hence the rise of dictators who buy the people's affection with money, policy, or inspiring rhetoric. The people might not even be getting a regime that gives them a greater voice in the process; it might be enough that the new elite went through the motions of appealing to the masses—in fact, it might be enough that the new elite is just different than the old one. The impetus here need not be one of high political theory. Instead, it might simply be the knee–jerk instinct of a given people at a particular time.

More bound in time and place is the agrarian instinct of populism, the inevitable backlash against industrialism—or, in the case of the 1990s and supporters of Ross Perot, industrialism's backlash against the information age. Regardless, it is the expression of anxiety about change and what the new world would mean for the economic and political lifestyle of the people it left behind. It is about a people feeling displaced by new national or world realities, people struggling not to be forgotten. A feeling of entitlement accompanies this world view; if the people are the government, then the government should pay to preserve the people's lifestyle. The Populist Party's platform, for example, included a list of things the government could do to institutionalize and reward the party members' way of life. In a sense, those populists were trying to mold the apparatus of the state to meet their self–interest, the same thing they claimed their political rivals had done.

For example, the Populist Party called for measures to protect agricultural interests and labor concerns. This included an increase in circulated currency via the unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax that would require the wealthier to pay more and the poorer to pay less, government ownership and regulation of the railroads, economic protectionism to benefit those in agriculture, and the direct election of U.S. senators, for example. They supported other measures, too, designed to strengthen political democracy—they did, after all, believe their views were held by a majority of U.S. citizens—and give farmers comparative economic power with business and industry leaders.

Different scholars have viewed this movement in various ways across the years. Some in the early twentieth century viewed populists as the forerunners to another, albeit more urban, reform movement known as progressivism. Economic historians played into the "frontier thesis" first articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner and viewed populism as an answer to the frontier desire for economic inclusion and attention, with "frontier" applying both to the geographic location of the populists as well as their figurative positions within the economy and society. Later scholars of ideology found the populists to be less on the frontier than behind the times, motivated by irrational fears and a combination of knee–jerk racism, sexism, and anti–Semitism, and class envy as they bemoaned a process—industrialism—that could not be undone. Some intellectuals in the 1960s reacted against this interpretation and argued that populists represented the underprivileged and challenged not industrialism but capitalism. Recent historians have looked less at the economic policies of the populists and more at their social and cultural impacts and their call for democracy as a lifestyle as well as a system. Needless to say, the legacy of the agrarian populists in the United States remains a contested and controversial subject for scholars and students alike.

The most theoretical and abstract of the strains of populism is the desire for inclusion, for involvement, for greater participation and less control by the elite. The call for direct democracy in the ideal world, or at least increasingly democratic institutions of government in the real world, follows from this point. Even in so–called democracies, the efficiency of republicanism remains in tension with the values of democracy.

As a grassroots campaign, populism is less of a political theory than a political reaction. Its various faces reflect core ideas, but also illustrate variations in how they are applied, from Abraham Lincoln to Nazi leader Adolph Hitler.

The Cross of Gold Speech

Since populism often appears as a popular, grassroots movement carried by emotional orations and symbolic acts, no systematic literature of populism exists. Even the publications of populist leaders have targeted mass readership, and so seem more like propaganda than political theory. Three significant forms of populist expression remain the speech, the party platform, and the editorial.

When William Jennings Bryan addressed the Democratic Nation Convention in Chicago on July 9, 1896, his speech so impressed the crowd that he received two parties' presidential nomination, that of the Democratic and Populist parties. Bryan addressed the issue of free coinage of silver, a policy that would have helped in the short–term farmers and others hurt by deflation, and criticized those who wanted the government to stay with the gold standard for currency— Eastern bankers and Washington insiders, according to the populists. Bryan was not an economist, and did not even pretend to understand the issue from a fiscal point of view. In true populist form, he stated, "The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later."

When he spoke, Bryan touched on every populist theme: the War of Independence, Christianity, and the underdog common man. Excerpts from his speech prove the skill and populist nature of his address:

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Convention: I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were a mere measuring of abilities; but this is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty— the cause of humanity…. Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between 'the idle holders of idle capital' and 'the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country;' and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of 'the idle holders of idle capital' or upon the side of 'the struggling masses?' That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well–to–do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them. You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country. My friends, we declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth; and upon that issue we expect to carry every State in the Union. I shall not slander the inhabitants of the fair State of Massachusetts nor the inhabitants of the State of New York by saying that, when they are confronted with the proposition, they will declare that this nation is not able to attend to its own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Not once did Bryan mention Black American farmers or their role in the future of the party or the country.

Despite the backing of two parties, William Jennings Bryan could not win the presidency. Decades later, George Wallace, 1968 presidential candidate of the populist American Independent Party, also faced defeat in election to the White House. The 1968 platform for the American Independent Party, like Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech, hit on traditional populist themes such as labor, nationalism, and Christianity. The platform's preamble reflects this well. It specifically called for an education program "assisted but not controlled by the federal government," peace at home and abroad (meaning an end to the Vietnam War and thus an end to the growing anti–war movement), and controlling government spending. Wallace's anti– Washington rhetoric can be heard by many of today's politicans as they campaign for office.

Like George Wallace, Richard Viguerie, author of such books as The New Right: We're Ready to Lead and The Establishment vs. The People, came at populism from the conservative Republican side. His article represents the third major kind of populist work, the editorial. In the October 19, 1984, issue of National Review, Viguerie penned "A Populist, and Proud of It." Excerpts from this work show that the primary message of American populism changed little in a century:

Populists stand in opposition to the elitists who believe that people are not smart enough to manage their own affairs and that, therefore, the government should select intelligent, qualified persons to run society—"intelligence" and "qualifications" being measured by the degree to which a person conforms to an establishment stereotype…. The People's (or Populist) Party of the 1890s was not, after all, the band of racists and socialists that some writers have described. In some cases they advocated socialist measures, to break up the concentration of power in the hands of the establishment. But it did so because the establishment had first used the power of government to enrich itself at the expense of farmers and workers.


Populism's many forms—as a backlash to industrialism, as nationalism bypassing the power structures, and as a drive against the elite—are evident in the examples of Russia, Latin America, and the United States.

Populism developed into the dominant radical impulse in Russia in the nineteenth century. The revolutionary writer and leader Aleksandr Herzen (1812–1870) fueled the movement. In the historical agrarianism of Russia he saw the key to the nation's future. He believed that the traditional peasant communes of rural Russia could serve as the model for a cooperative commonwealth that, through its abolition of private property and emphasis on the common good, could skip the capitalist growing pains exhibited by Great Britain and the United States and move directly to socialism. His idealization of the peasantry, appeal to "go to the people," and encouragement of rebellion influenced many of the students and intellectuals of the early to mid–nineteenth century.


In 1861, Tsar Alexander II (1818–1881) freed the serfs in one of his many reforms. The freeing of the serfs—a symbolic crescendo that really didn't change the peasants' lives all that much—along with the wake of revolutionary thought from the west enticed the Russian youth, and a populist movement grew. Thousands of Russian students tried to get the peasants in the rural areas to join them in a call for more reforms, but the peasants generally didn't follow the intelligentsia call for revolution. The leaders of the movement grew frustrated, and their actions grew more and more violent. There were frequent assassination attempts against the tsar.

By the 1870s, most populists had grown disillusioned with the idea that the people would rise up and take control of the government; instead, these revolutionaries decided they would have to topple the government first and then give it to the people. The goal was the same, but the strategy for achieving it had changed. The anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, whose writings and activism inspired Spanish laborers to band with the syndicalist movement and fight in the Spanish Civil War, played to a different audience in his native Russia: disillusioned, alienated intellectuals. With Bakunin's work as an inspiration, small groups of mostly student revolutionaries turned to terrorism to attack the tsar and the monarchical system in general.

One of the fruits of this movement was the secret society Land and Liberty, which was formed in 1876. Their efforts to promote a mass uprising resulted in their expulsion from the countryside. The most violent wing of the group formed the People's Will in 1879. In 1881, members of this terrorist society finally succeeded in assassinating Tsar Alexander II. Other populists opposed such violent tactics. Rather than seek change immediately, they placed their hopes in gradually winning public support, which they sought with propaganda and education. Even though terrorist activities represented only one part of the populist impulse in Russia, interest in the theory began to wane. Moreover, when Tsar Alexander III (1845–1894) took over, he repealed many of his father's reforms. The spirit of the movement—from both ends—was over, and Russia slipped back to a complete totalitarian state.

Georgy Plekhanov, a former member of Land and Liberty who embraced populism but denounced violence, formed the League for the Emancipation of Labor in 1883. His views began to change as he read Karl Marx and began to work with fellow radicals such as Vladimir Lenin. Soon he doubted that the agricultural ideal of the peasant commune would be possible without allowing capitalism and industrialism to progress first. Plekhanov left populism behind and became the father of Russian Marxism. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the country faced a communist, not populist, future and the agrarian village was replaced with urban factories.

Russia's experience with populism fell into the category of an agrarian phenomenon rebelling against industrialization. The elite intelligentsia idealized the lives of country peasants and sought to bypass the turmoil of industrialism by creating a network of loosely confederated communes dedicated to working on the land. The movement failed for two reasons: first, the violence used by the fringe–group terrorists backfired and turned the mainstream away from their message. Second, populism became sidelined by the momentum of Marxism, which had seduced populist leaders and the mainstream imagination.


Aleksandr Herzen

Aleksandr Herzen, revolutionary and writer, is remembered as the father of Russian populism. In 1834, the government transferred his post as a civil servant to the outer provinces of Russia as punishment for belonging to an unorthodox political circle that advocated the state ownership of production. Herzen's de facto exile gave him a new appreciation of the agrarian lifestyle and planted the seeds for his later idealization of the peasantry of the countryside. He returned to Moscow six years later and then left Russia for good.

Herzen traveled to Paris and supported the Revolution of 1848 there. He then moved to Great Britain to establish the first free Russian press abroad, including the Russian–banned but nonetheless widely disseminated newspaper Kolokol, which was published from 1857 to 1862. He also published a number of standalone works such as Who Is To Blame? (1847), a novel about disillusionment with Russia, From the Other Shore (1855), a critique of contemporary European revolutions, and the four–volume My Past and Thoughts (1855), a history of Russia and retrospective of revolutions.

Though a Westernizer for years, Herzen continued to think back on his time in Russia and on the process of industrialization that he witnessed in Western Europe, with its urbanization and mechanization. By the late 1840s, Herzen began to argue that Russia might be able to skip the stage of industrialization altogether by modifying the traditional peasant commune to become a series of socialist villages held together by a confederation. His message about learning from the common people and adapting their agricultural lifestyle as an alternative to the systems of Western Europe launched the Russian populist movement.

Latin America

Populism also has appeared as a nationalistic phenomenon bypassing the power structure of a given country, which is what happened in Latin America. The first country to experience this form of populism was Argentina. Juan Perón first gained power as a member of the military regime that seized control of Argentina in 1943. Perón nursed a fierce ambition and an abiding interest in social policy. He courted the labor class by a combination of clever advances: he criticized the former ruling oligarchy and foreign imperialists, playing on old resentments; he offered wage increases, pensions, and benefits; he preached social justice and national strength; and he praised Argentine industrial and military power. When he ran for president in 1946, Perón won easily. Together he and his remarkable actress wife, Eva, or Evita, who became even more popular than her husband, continued to cultivate a base of support among laborers. Perón's rise to power marked a revolutionary period in Argentine history and sparked similar patterns in other Latin American countries.

For example, Rómolo Betancourt and his comrades led Acción Democrótica, the mainstream political party in postdictatorial Venezuela. In the footsteps of Perón in Argentina, they promised substantial benefits to members of the labor and middle classes in return for support of reform and a generally capitalistic system. Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brazil, had a similar story in the 1950s and 1960s; though not strictly populist in philosophy, he did harness the successful populist strategy of Perón and Betancourt to gain a following from the bottom up and rise to power. A variation on this theme appeared after World War II with the rise of Christian Democratic parties, which drew their platforms for social reform from Roman Catholic teachings. These popularly based groups first achieved power in Chile with the presidency of Eduardo Frei (served from 1964–1970) and then followed in Venezuela and El Salvador.

The United States

The United States' experience with populism predated those in Russia and Latin America and exhibited a split personality. On the one hand, the United States had its own version of agrarian backlash like that of Russia. On the other hand, American populism also was a political phenomenon of rebellion against the elite. The agrarian experience took shape with the advent of the People's Party in the 1890s. This grassroots movement responded to the economic complaints of southern and western farmers as the nation's economy changed in response to the Industrial Revolution.

People's Party As the American population slowly spread west in the nineteenth century, railroads went with them. An increasing number of people lived in rural areas, the number of farms exploded—at the start of the Civil War in 1861 there were two million farms in the United States; by the end of the century that number had tripled. The farmers needed the railroads to ship their crops to the big cities.

Farmers usually had to borrow money from banks to pay for equipment or railroad transportation of their products. However, the bankers or railroad executives could charge whatever prices they desired. According to Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, in the late 1800s a farmer "had to pay a bushel of corn in freight costs for each bushel he shipped." In addition, farmers' profits were going steadily downward. Some farmers rented their land—some historians estimate that 90 percent of Southern farmers

rented their land. Many lost their farms and had to become laborers on another farmer's land. Then that farmer would lose his job, and there would be two looking for work. And so on and so on.

In 1877, a group of farmers in Texas formed the Farmers Alliance. Nine years later, a group of Black farmers in Texas formed the Colored Farmers Alliance. That same year, members of the Farmers Alliance met in Cleburne, Texas, and produced a document known as the Cleburne Demands. They called for the government to regulate railroad costs and increase the money supply by allowing silver—instead of only gold—to be used as legal tender. Many farmers thought a huge part of the problem was a shortage of the money supply, making it even harder to get the shrinking number of dollars that were out there. The farmers began to work together to buy equipment and supplies in groups, thus at lower costs.

The movement spread like wildfire among farmers in the South and Midwest—some estimates have the Farmers Alliance numbers at almost half a million members by 1890. And it was in 1890 that the Populist Party formed. Many of its newest members were from the Farmers Alliance. The Populists actively sought the Black vote. Many local chapters of the Party were interracial, with debates among black and white farmers, although many aspects of segregation did find their way into the meetings.

In 1892, the Populists (or People's Party) nominated James Weaver for president. Democrat Grover Cleveland won the election.

The populists demanded that the government intervene in the economy to help small producers. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, ran for the presidency on a populist platform and lost. His defeat signaled that the end was near for the agrarian populist movement in the United States. Indeed, the Colored Farmers Alliance was against the idea of giving up the populists' independent movement to ally themselves with the Democrats, but the rest of the People's Party did not listen.

The Twentieth Century The political phenomenon of rebellion against the elite in the United States has appeared and reappeared several times. The grassroots movement that propelled Andrew Jackson into the White House from 1829 to 1837 used the rhetoric of electing "one of the people" to rally support; the same was true for the election of Washington outsider Jimmy Carter in 1976. The rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s with its call for a return to family values, the presidential candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and the subsequent creation of the Reform Party, and the popular reaction against the Electoral College after the disputed presidential election of 2000 all represent populist drives to eliminate the barriers between state power and the people. At its best, this movement fueled activism and reform; a classic example of this was the growth of suffrage, temperance, and abolitionist groups, among others, in the wake of Jacksonianism. At its worst, the harnessing of popular energy led to something close to mass hysteria; the extremes to which the anti–communism of the McCarthyism movement reached in the 1950s reflected this problem.

The examples of how populism has differed illustrate several aspects of the political theory. First, a nation's phase of development affects the nature of populism. The United States and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century were primarily agricultural countries experiencing early industrialism with its corresponding urbanization, mechanization, and specialization. This becomes important when looking at the Third World at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty–first century, since Third World nations reached the same position the United States and Russia reached a century earlier. The history of populism provides a clue to what kind of activism and impulses to expect in the Third World.

Second, the experience of Latin America reflects the opportunities for leaders—not always benevolent ones—to appeal to the people, sidestep regimes, and play upon popular convictions as positive as national pride and personal self–respect and as negative as class hatred and virulent xenophobia. For these leaders to be successful, hostilities and resentments must exist within the labor and middle classes, and the existing regime must be stagnant, or at least apparently uninvolved with the issues concerning the non–elite. Although this face of populism has toppled ruling parties without bloodshed, it also has powered movements as destructive as the rise of Adolph Hitler and German Nazism in the twentieth century.

The last face of populism, political reaction against the elite, seems to be a normal force of change in many nations, often achieved peacefully. In the United States, for example, this need for popular involvement often is seen in small but meaningful ways, such as in the use of referendum, or voting on legislation passed by representative assemblies; popular initiative, through which regular citizens can bypass the legislature and offer legislation for voters to decide on in a referendum; and recall, which allows voters to demand an early election if unsatisfied with their representatives.


Populism as a political theory and movement defies simple categorization due to the number of faces it has worn. The specific form populism takes changes depending on which elite and/or government it is reacting against. Even so, the impulse for the common person to have direct say in the government without the rule of the elite can be analyzed in the context of its history.

The most obvious problem with populism is its name. The term "populist" has been stretched to encompass so many ideas it is almost meaningless. Richard A. Viguerie agreed that the term was not ideal when he wrote in his 1984 article "A Populist, and Proud Of It": "If there is a better word than 'populist' to describe the people I'm referring to, I will gladly use it. In 1982 my magazine, Conservative Digest, ran a contest to find a better word, and there were six hundred entries, but nobody came up with anything better than 'populist.' So I guess we're stuck with it."

Different Meanings

Populism refers to movements and activism concerned with small–scale agricultural life in the face of modernism, but it also refers to pro–industrial leaders who sidestep the power structure to woo the support of labor; therefore, India's Mahatma Ghandi and Argentina's Juan Perón can be called populists. Populism refers to the ways in which a ruler evokes the nationalism and xenophobia of a people to rally them around large causes, and yet it also refers to the ways in which a leader empathizes with the most unassuming background of people and values equality; therefore, Italy's Benito Mussolini and the United States' Abraham Lincoln might be said to be populists. If all four can be populists, is the word too abstract, too loose, too all– encompassing to have meaning? Aside from the lack of specificity of the term, other analytical points can be raised. Certainly empowering the people can be a positive thing; populism, after all, provided a springboard for abolitionism and feminism, among other things. Criticisms of populism, however, also exist.

One interpretation of populism is that it is a more recent manifestation of a long pattern of opposition in human societies: those at the center versus those at the periphery. The center of power, of course, has changed often in terms of philosophy and location. For several centuries before the advent of populism, this duality was the "crown and town" opposition; those at court got to know the monarch and draw closer to power and influence, while those in the towns lived far away from the kings and queens and not only had little power and influence, but also lived a different lifestyle in a different economic and political atmosphere than the one at court. In the case of U.S. populism, then, the crown might be the banks of New York City or the government buildings of Washington, D. C., while the town might be the farm in Georgia, the factory in Detroit, or the church in Missouri.

Another interpretation of populism views agrarian populism as the true embodiment of the political theory. In this approach, populists formed a democratic movement that provided the last and most articulate critique of corporate capitalism before the realities of the industrial age ended the agrarian lifestyle, and thus the only real alternative to commercial culture, permanently. This view suggests populists had the insight to realize that corporate capitalism did not promise or provide wealth for everyone; the populists themselves were proof that the new economy could hurt as well as reward.


H. Ross Perot

H. Ross Perot, a U.S. business and political leader, is best known as the founder and first presidential candidate of the populist Reform party. After service in the military, Perot began his career as a salesman for IBM. In 1962 he created one of the nation's first computer data service companies, Electronic Data Systems, or EDS. He sold EDS to General Motors in 1984 but retained an interest in EDS; after vocal criticism of GM's management, he sold his remaining interest in 1986 for $700 million. In 1988, he founded Perot Systems Corp., another computer service company.

Perot's political activism began during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. When two of his employees were held in an Iranian prison, Perot paid for a rescue operation that liberated them. In 1992 he ran for the presidency as an independent candidate. His criticism of the size of the national debt brought him a grassroots following and nearly one–fifth of the popular vote. After the election, he became a vocal critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which promoted more open trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. His wariness of Washington insiders, praise of the common people, concern for labor, and distrust of foreign competition and immigration placed him squarely within the populist tradition.

In 1995 Perot created a national political party called the Reform Party. He ran as the party's candidate for president in 1996 but garnered fewer votes than in 1992. The Reform Party eventually outgrew its creator and gained new prominence in the late 1990s with the election of candidate Jesse Ventura as Governor of Minnesota. Perot's affect on the nation as an outsider critic of Washington politics, a rallying flag for grassroots activism, and creator of a significant alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties made Perot a key political figure in 1990s.

This interpretation credits the populists with more foresight than could have been possible, however— the development of the economy in Russia and the United States, for example, was not inevitable. In fact, Russia and the United States as illustrations prove how differently the development might have evolved. To call the populists prophets of corporate capitalism, then, when corporate capitalism did not yet exist fully, is using hindsight unfairly. Moreover, the claim that corporate capitalism did not benefit the populist seems strained, since the populists did not really take part in that economy. They were not corporate capitalists. In

a sense, they were apart in their own agrarian economy, and their failure to join the growing new one— and not the new one itself—caused part of their plight.

The most compelling and least flattering interpretation of populism is that it was and is a reactionary force that maintained a backward–looking stance by means of a conspiratorial view of history. This view has three components. First, populism could not exist on its own in power; it does not set forth distinct principles, but rather moves in opposition to other things. It does not act; it reacts. Second, populists have tended to be at the end of social and economic trends, trying to preserve—and, in some senses, institutionalize—ways of life that no longer apply easily to the technology and demands of the time. Perhaps the most disturbing of the components is the third: the conspiratorial view of history. To have the "us" of populism, the oppressed, requires the "them" of populism, the oppressors. "The man" always put and puts the "little guy" down. The Populist Party, or People's Party, platform of 1892 put it this way: "A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world." American agrarians believed the eastern bankers had conspired with the Washington elite to disenfranchise the farmers. Likewise, the U.S. anti–communists believed that the U.S. State Department was full of communists planning to subvert American family values. The worst–case scenario of this kind of thinking results in xenophobia—it is the fault of foreigners—or racism, sexism, and, in the case of Germany's Nazism, anti–Semitism. Blaming groups often leads more to hate and scapegoatism than productive strategies for growth.

Populism in Oz

The U.S. agrarian experience with populism not only changed the political landscape of the nation, but some say it also produced an enduring achievement in American literature: Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900 after the peak of the agrarian populist movement, offered an entrancing children's story that doubled as an allegory of the American populist drama. The theory was first advanced by Henry M. Littlefield in his 1964 article "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism" from American Quarterly. More than a few historians and critics have echoed Littlefield's findings.

The symbolism of the story centered around the key issue of the populist platform: free silver. The story of Oz—the word "Oz" itself a play on the abbreviation for ounce, the standard measure of precious metals—included the clashing images of the yellow brick road, a symbol of the gold standard on which the economy was based, and magic silver shoes (which were changed to ruby slippers for the movie because the producers felt that color looked better against the yellow road), which spoke to the desire by populists for free coinage of silver. Just as Dorothy found the road to be restrictive, but the shoes to be the answer to her needs, populists hoped the addition of elastic and abundant silver to the economy would limit the power of bankers and help the common people to preserve—or, in Dorothy's case, return—home.

If Dorothy served as a symbol of the United States, unknowing and innocent, held in the sway of gold without realizing the true liberating power of silver, then her companions also reflected other actors in the story of populism. The Cowardly Lion, for example, roared loudly but did little; in the same way, the great orator William Jennings Bryan made stirring speeches but failed to win the presidency despite repeated attempts. Perhaps the Tin Man represented the overworked and underpaid eastern workers, dehumanized and self–destructive regardless of how hard they worked, while the Scarecrow symbolized the Midwestern farmers facing drought and ruin, and in the Emerald City, or Washington, D.C., The Wonderful Wizard of Oz took the place of the U.S. president. Some critics see the Wicked Witches of the East and West as banker bosses and railroad barons, as well; after all, the book often returns to the theme of a people dominated and enslaved by powerful tyrants, whether they be the Munchkins trapped by the Wicked Witch of the East or the flying monkeys abused by the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Wizard of Oz became an American classic as a book, a play, and a motion picture, most notably as the 1939 Judy Garland film. At its core, however, it presented not a celebration but rather a sympathetic critique of the rise and fall of American populism. The farmer, the laborer, the politician—the U.S. public— in the novel traveled to the nation's capital to request that their wishes be fulfilled, but each of the wishes were somehow oversimplified or self–delusional. The Scarecrow really had a brain, for he was clever and shrewd, if somewhat unpolished; likewise, the Tin Man and the Lion already had a heart and courage, respectively, even if they did not know how to capitalize on their assets. Dorothy could have returned home at any time—she, too, possessed the means to help herself throughout the novel. More important still, the U.S. President ended up to be an everyman with no special powers to remake the world with magic.

At the end of the novel, silver had lost its magic as the shoes disappeared, agricultural interests reclaimed Washington as the Scarecrow ruled the Emerald City, industrialism pushed west with the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion remained a player in the woods, just as Bryan remained active though never in charge. The newly freed Munchkins and flying monkeys had to negotiate their own way in this new reality. The naïveté of the characters' wishes gave way to the more complex reality of the changing world; the simplicity of their desires proved to be distractions rather than real reflections of their needs. In short, Baum appreciated the problems the populists raised, but found the solutions they offered to be naïve and overly elementary. The populists, he implied, often were their own worst enemies. In order to meet the challenges of a changing nation, they had to help themselves; in their doing so, Baum suggested, the movement known as agrarian populism all but disintegrated.

Of course, there are plenty of historians who may not wholeheartedly agree with Littlefield's analyis. William R. Leach offered another interpretation of Oz—as a celebration of the American big city. There are likely plenty of readers who believe it is simply a wonderful tale of fantasy. At any rate, it does offer a different and very interesting way to study the dynamics of Populism in the late–nineteenth century.


  • Investigate and compare: in what ways were nineteenth–century Russian and American populism similar?
  • Why was Eva Perón such a successful populist symbol?
  • In what ways did the Populist party, or People's party, of the nineteenth century compare to the American Independent party of the twentieth century?



Cayton, Andrew, Elisabeth Israels Perry, and Allan M. Winkler. America: Pathways to the Present. Needham, Massachusetts: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Clanton, Gene. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890–1900. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Holmes, William F., ed. American Populism. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1994.

Johnston, Joseph F., Jr. "Conservative Populism: A Dead End." National Review. (October 19, 1984): 38–42.

Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Miller, David, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Cambridge, Blackwell, 1991.

Peffer, William A. Populism, Its Rise and Fall. Peter H. Argersinger, ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Turner, James. "Understanding the Populists," The Journal of American History. 67:2 (September 1980): 354–373.

Viguerie, Richard A. "A Populist, and Proud Of It." National Review. (October 19, 1984): 42–44.

Wallbank, T. Walter and Arnold Shrier. Living World History. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1990.

Further Readings

Baum, L. Frank. The Annotated Wizard of Oz: A Centennial Edition. Michael Patrick Hearn, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. This work explores The Wizard of Oz and helps to reveal it as an extended metaphor of the story of populism.

Goodwynn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. This book recounts the history of the farmers' movement and its relationship to populism.

Hahn, Steven. The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Virginia Upcountry, 1850–1890. Reprint edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. This book describes the early intellectual roots of populism in the United States.

Remini, Robert Vincent. Andrew Jackson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. This biography focuses on the populist president Andrew Jackson and his influence on U.S. politics.

Taggert, Paul. Populism. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000. This general overview provides a theoretical look at populism as an idea.


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Populism, as both ideology and political movement, is nearly a universal, albeit sporadic, feature of all modern democratic political systems. One basic problem in identifying and assessing populist movements can be traced to definitional questions because their basic features are similar to those found in conventional democratic politics. For example, references to the people by charismatic leaders who emphasize the need for a redeeming break with current practice and who exploit the anger of citizens are all features of populist protest as well as staples of electoral practice. Further, the causes of populist movements are quite varied and can include a wide range of both economic and cultural issues.

In the United States after the Civil War, farmers protested against the impact of industrialization, particularly in regard to railroad rates for their crops, the cost of new machinery, and bank lending policies. These complaints coalesced into a mass movement led by the Farmers Alliance. Populists formed their own political party in 1892 and approved a platform that expanded on these initial protests. The party later merged with the Democrats and the movement declined in part as a result of the defeat of William Jennings Bryan by William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election. Populist movements in somewhat different forms, however, continue to reemerge as a factor in American politics. While populism is possibly the only example of an indigenous radical mass movement in the United States, it is a subject of controversy among democratic theorists.

The Farmers Alliance was a complex collection of state and local organizations, including two broad groups in the Midwest and the South, that sometimes competed with one another. Since the Southern Alliance did not admit African Americans, these farmers formed their own organization (Colored Farmers Alliance). These groups used a variety of inventive measures to increase the price of crops. The price of cotton, for example, had declined below the cost of production. Cooperative trade agreements were made with merchants for lower prices for equipment and higher prices for produce. In some states, the alliance built its own mills for crops. Speakers and lobbyists were hired to publicize the farmers plight. The Colored Farmers Alliance created aid programs for needy farmers.

Differences in strategies and tactics, however, plagued the movement. Some Texas alliancemen favored the polices of Andrew Dunlap, who emphasized a strictly business approach of self-help, while others, including S. O. Dawes and Charles William Macune, sought broader goals and focused on reforming the currency system, which they had concluded was the core cause of the farmers plight. There were also disputes between relatively economically secure farmers who could afford the cash and carry agreements of the cooperatives and indebted farmers who could not.

The goals of the movement began to expand in the late 1880s as the impact of these cooperative plans proved to be more limited than hoped and farmers became disenchanted with politicians who failed effectively to promote agendas that helped elect them to office. Mary Lease, a Kansas activist, allegedly urged farmers to raise less corn and more hell. Independent candidates with alliance support ran with considerable success in midwestern states in 1890. In the South, the alliance focused upon taking over the Democratic Party. While these local efforts produced elected officials such as Tom Watson of Georgia and Sockless Jerry Simpson of Kansas, who would become major figures in the populist movement, the alliance leaders increasingly came to the conclusion that a national third party was the only hope for farmers.

After series of meetings in Ocala, Florida; Saint Louis, Missouri; and Cincinnati, Ohio, a national convention was held in Omaha, Nebraska, to form a new political party. The Omaha platform itself became a revered document among Populists who regarded it as a second Declaration of Independence. The preamble, written by Ignatius Donnelly, announced that a vast conspiracy against mankind was about to take possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once terrible social convulsions, a destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism was certain to follow. The proposals themselves were organized into three categories: finance, transportation, and land. The new party demanded the free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold, an increase in the money supply, a graduate income tax, limits on state and federal spending, postal savings banks, public ownership of railroads, privatization of land now held by corporations in excess of their actual needs, and reclamation of land owned by aliens. The convention also approved an expression of sentiments, including support for a strike led by the Knights of Labor against clothing manufacturers in Rochester, New York, and urged a boycott of the firms products. Specific endorsement of a subtreasury plan that provided for government-backed credits for farmers, which Macune had long supported, did not appear in the final document. Nor was a proposal for female suffrage included on the platform, although it had been endorsed at the Saint Louis meeting.

Delegates would likely have nominated Leonidas L. Polk, head of the National Farmers Alliance and renowned orator, for president, but they turned instead to James B. Weaver, a former Union general, after Polks sudden death. James G. Field, a former Confederate general, was nominated to give the ticket regional balance. Weaver campaigned widely and attempted to trace the ideology of the party back to Andrew Jackson. The whole movement, he said, can be summed up in one sentence: Equal rights for all and special privileges to none. The Populist Party received a million votes and twenty-two electoral votes in the 1892 presidential election. Populist candidates at the state level did quite well, although the party was unable to win control of any state government without Democratic Party support.

Several decisions proved to be crucial to the course of populism after the 1892 election. Grover Clevelands victory as president was the result in large part of the Populist Party, which drew Republican votes, particularly in western states. The Democrats were severely weakened by the panic of 1894. Some Populists, called fusionists, argued that they should now attempt to take control of the Democratic Party away from its conservative leaders. Others argued for a continuation of a separate third party, and others believed that a regionally based party should be the focus of the next elections. When Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan with Populist support at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1896, Populists feared that two presidential candidates supporting populist proposals would assure a Republican victory. Some Populists now argued that the new party should endorse Bryan rather than nominate him as their candidate. At their convention in Saint Louis, Populist delegates nominated Bryan but refused to accept his running mate, Arthur Sewall, a conservative shipbuilder, and nominated Tom Watson instead. Populists did not anticipate that the outcome of the election would be a major national party realignment that made Republicans the dominant party for the next thirty-six years. Antifusionists claimed that Bryans defeat was largely the result of his emphasis of monetary issues over other Populist ideas. The majority of Populists again nominated Bryan, although a faction of the party dissented and nominated their own candidates. Tom Watson ran as the presidential candidate of the Populist Party in 1904 and 1906 but received only 120,000 and 30,000 votes, respectively.

Despite the collapse of the movement, the themes of the Populist Party have sporadically remerged in American politics. Antipathy to elites, an interest in monetary plans as a fulcrum for political change, support for rural and small-town values, and acceptance of conspiratorial theories are featured in whole or in part among those who supported Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s and the presidential campaigns of George Wallace (1968) and Ross Perot (1992) as third-party candidates. Several presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and George W. Bush in 2004, have employed some populist themes.

The golden age of populism in Latin America occurred later than in the United States. These movements were responses in part to the Great Depression. They grew in the context of unstable regimes, and some were more successful than their earlier North American counterparts. The exemplar was Juan Perón, who governed Argentina for two terms as president (19461955; 197374) with the support of urban workers (derisively called the shirtless ones by his opponents) through the promise of numerous economic benefits, the nationalization of major corporations, and the incorporation of trade unions into the government. Perón called his programs the third way, but Peronism was in fact a volatile mixture of right- and left-wing elements. Gertúlio Vargas in Brazil and Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico pursued some of the same policies. Vargas was an admirer of Mussolini, and Perón welcomed fascists to his country after World War II, while Cárdenas invited Leon Trotsky to Mexico after his exile. While those sympathetic to the Peronistas are still a political force and Cárdenass regime gave birth to the Party of the Mexican Revolution, or PRM, the current rise of populism can be directly traced to reaction against the neoliberal policies of political leaders in the 1990s. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, among others, have rejected programs encouraging foreign investment and privatizing social services as policies of U.S. imperialism. Chavezs Bolivarian Revolution emphasizes redistributive programs based on state oil revenues, and Morales promotes the economic and cultural goals of indigenous farmers. Both frame their policies as correctives to the power of local elites and foreign economic interests.

Many scholars locate the basic features of populism in the rise of fascist regimes in Europe and thus conclude that populist appeals are a significant threat to democratic regimes. On the other hand, political leaders such as David Lloyd George in the United Kingdom and Leon Blum in France employed populist themes and programs within a democratic context. Recent populist movements reveal the same range of alternatives. Protests against immigration and economic centralization have produced populist challenges in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Austria, and France.

Scholars are divided over whether populist outbursts represent a desirable form of democratic protest against economic and political centralization or whether they pose a threat to democracy in their emphasis on the authority of the people and opposition to economic change.

SEE ALSO Ballots; Chavez, Hugo; Elections; Jingoism; McCarthyism; Peronism; Personality, Cult of; Progressive Movement; Racism; Radicalism; Social Movements


Canovan, Margaret. 1999. Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy. Political Studies 47 (1): 216.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. 1976. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hicks, John D. 1931. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers Alliance and the Peoples Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1955. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Knopf.

Kazin, Michael. 1998. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Rev. ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Mazzoleni, Gianpietro, Julianne Stewart, and Bruce Horsfield, eds. 2003. The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis. Westport, CT: Praeger.

McMath, Robert C., Jr. 1993. American Populism: A Social History, 18771898. New York: Hill and Wang.

Peal, David. 1989. The Politics of Populism: Germany and the American South in the 1890s. Comparative Studies in History and Society 31 (2): 340362.

Philip Abbott


views updated Jun 08 2018


"What's the matter with Kansas?" the journalist William Allen White (1868–1944) asked in 1896 as he surveyed the political landscape of his native state, wondering at the preponderance of politicians "who can bellow about the crime of '73, who hate prosperity, and who think, because a man believes in national honor, he is a tool of Wall Street" (p. 86). The frenzy of the state's ruling Populists had not been slaked, in White's view, by their having created a climate hostile to investment and become the laughingstock of the rest of the country: "Then, for fear some hint that the state had become respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, we have decided to send three or four harpies out lecturing, telling the people that Kansas is raising hell and letting the corn go to weed" (p. 86). In his essay, widely reprinted in the Republican press, White dripped sarcasm as he sought to convey how his state had lost touch with reality: "Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can't pay his debts, on the altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men, but the chance to get something for nothing" (p. 86).

The bewilderment of White and other Republicans notwithstanding, Populism resonated among southern, midwestern, and western farmers because it bespoke their situation and articulated their often inchoate sense that America had betrayed its democratic principles. Seagraves, the small town editor in Hamlin Garland's 1890 story "Among the Corn-Rows," thinks, after speaking with a midwestern farmer, "This working farmer had voiced the modern idea. It was an absolute overturn of all the ideas of nobility and special privilege born of the feudal past. . . . It was a wild, grand upstirring of the modern democrat against the aristocrat, against the idea of caste and the privilege of living on the labor of others. This atom of humanity (how infinitesimal this drop in the ocean of humanity!) was feeling the nameless longing of expanding personality. He had declared rebellion against laws that were survivals of hate and prejudice. He had exposed also the native spring of the emigrant by uttering the feeling that it is better to be an equal among peasants than a servant before nobles" (pp. 92–93). Seagraves tells the farmer he would like to use his ideas in an editorial, prompting the farmer to comment: "My ideas! Why I didn't know I had any" (p. 93).


In the post–Civil War era, farmers found themselves victimized by the growing incursion of market forces into formerly remote areas, which ensnared them in a web of national and even international commercial relations. With the goal of contracting currency, Congress had demonetized silver in 1873—an act Populists would later decry as "the crime of '73," though it was little noticed at the time—and moved the country onto the gold standard by the end of the 1870s. For many farmers, the result was the cycle of ever-increasing debt characteristic of sharecropping, tenancy, peonage, or the crop-lien system. As Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) termed it in the title of another story, they were "under the lion's paw." In the South, the lien system came to be viewed by farmers as a new form of slavery: they were forced to sign over to the furnishing merchant first their crop and eventually their land. "In fact," the historian C. Vann Woodward has concluded, the crop-lien system "came to be more widespread than slavery had been, for it was no respecter of race or class; and if it be judged objectively, by its economic results alone, the new evil may have worked more permanent injury to the South than the ancient evil" (Origins of the New South, p. 180). The dominant economic and social theories, with their emphasis on laissez-faire capitalism and Social Darwinism, expressed no sympathy for debt-ridden farmers or for the growing number of unemployed wandering the country in the many depression years of the late nineteenth century. As an editorial in the Lincoln, Nebraska, Farmers' Alliance described the situation, "The actual state of society to-day is a state of war, active irreconcilable war on every side, and in all things. . . . Competition is only another name for war. It means slavery to millions—it means the sale of virtue for bread—it means for thousands upon thousands starvation, misery and death. After four thousand years of life is this the best that we can achieve? If so, who cares how soon the end may come?" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 4).

Farmers frequently joined together to sing Knowles Shaw's ballad "The Farmer Feeds Us All" (ca. 1870) with its chorus:

Then take him by the hand,
All ye people of the land,
Stand by him whatever troubles befall;
We may say whate'er we can,
Yet the farmer is the man,
Yes, the farmer is the man that feeds us all.

But integration into larger market networks drove crop prices down while increased reliance on monopolies such as the railroads, over whose rates the farmers had no control, made it more difficult for them to feed their own families. In an era of spectacular economic growth, the irony that their desperate straits existed in the midst of economic abundance was not lost on farmers. In the words of the Alabama Populist Milford Howard (1862–1937), "The granaries are bursting with wheat; the bins are filled with corn; the stock-yards are over-flowing with cattle, hogs and sheep; the fields of the South have been white with cotton—an abundance everywhere throughout the entire country. Of it we can say, as was said of the Promised Land of Canaan, 'It flows with milk and honey.' Notwithstanding all this, the people are starving" (p. 244).

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, farmers in all regions had responded to the situation by forming a variety of cooperative organizations, including the Granger and the Northern Alliance in the Midwest, the Agricultural Wheel in the South, and the Texas Alliance in the Southwest. These cooperative organizations had been crucial in the development of what Lawrence Goodwyn has termed the "movement culture," which allowed farmers to understand the commonality of their interests and the nature of those who opposed them, whether furnishing merchants, land companies, banks, railroads, or grain elevator companies. Out of this movement culture there developed the collective self-confidence necessary to allow the farmers en masse to formulate an alternative to the dominant cultural understanding of the American economy and their role in it. Economists told the farmers they were responsible for their own troubles, having overproduced and thus driven prices down. But farmers found a different culprit: the monopolies and trusts that wielded extensive control over Gilded Age society. "Between [the] plenty ripening on the boughs of our civilization and the people hungering for it," wrote the Populist muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd (1847–1903) in his 1894 classic, Wealth against Commonwealth, "step the . . . syndicates, trusts, combinations, with the cry of 'overproduction'—too much of everything. Holding back the riches of the earth, sea and sky from their fellows who famish and freeze in the dark, they declare to them that there is too much light and warmth and food. They assert the right, for their private profit, to regulate the consumption by the people of the necessaries of life, and to control production, not by the needs of humanity, but by the desires of a few for dividends" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 9).


With the failure of attempts at economic mutual aid, farmers began to realize that a turn to politics had become necessary, and so in the early 1890s the People's Party was born. In its major statement of purpose, the 1892 Omaha Platform, the party called for a flexible paper currency to be distributed through the subtreasury plan, a system of government-owned warehouses in which farmers could store their crops while borrowing against them; the public ownership of the railroad, telegraph, and telephone companies; a graduated income tax; and the direct election of U.S. senators. With precious few allies in the universities, the mainstream press, and other traditional seats of cultural power, the populist movement developed its own methods for spreading its message, including the National Reform Press Association, with its hundreds of newspapers across the nation. "For a fact," Nebraska's Platte County Argus commented, "this ought to be a campaign of education" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 447). The Populist leaders took seriously their role as educators, as can be seen in the extensive use of statistics in the writings of the Populist senator from Kansas William Peffer; in Lloyd's densely detailed descriptions of corporate malfeasance; in the many case studies discussed in the 1892 presidential candidate James Weaver's campaign book A Call to Action; and in the learned disquisitions on such subjects as the Indian caste system and English labor history that peppered the speeches of the South's most famous Populist, Tom Watson. Such material provided fodder for the extensive network of stump speakers who campaigned throughout the country. The message spread rapidly, as the Populists won elections in several southern, midwestern, and western states, and their presidential ticket in 1892 earned more than one million popular and twenty-two electoral votes.

In his dystopian novel Caesar's Column (1890), the Minnesota Populist Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) described American republicanism as a sham: "We are a Republic only in name; free only in forms. Mohammedanism . . . never knew, in its worst estate, a more complete and abominable despotism than that under which we live. And as it would be worse to starve to death in sight of the most delicious viands than in the midst of a foodless desert, so the very assertions, constantly dinned into our ears by the hireling newspapers, that we are the freest people on earth, serve only to make our slavery more bitter and unbearable" (p. 37). Seeing themselves as inheritors of the republican ideology of "producerism" dating back to the American Revolution, Populists believed they were completing the unfinished democratic project of the Civil War. As Weaver said, "We shall proceed to show that in the very midst of the struggle for the overthrow of the slave oligarchy, our institutions were assailed by another foe mightier than the former, equally cruel, wider in its field of operation, infinitely greater in wealth, and immeasurably more difficult to control. It will be readily understood that we allude to the sudden growth of corporate power and its attendant consequences" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 121).

Corporate powers had come to dominate government, the courts, and the press, but their fundamental impact was even more pernicious in that they ensconced greed as the dominating nexus of social relations. As the Texas Populist intellectual Thomas Nugent (1841–1895) described it, "The spirit of plutocratic capitalism is the dominating force in our organized social and industrial life. . . . It robs genius of its glory, makes of intellect a drudge and a slave, and utilizes the achievements of science to raid the stock markets and enlarge the margin of profits. Thus it wipes out as with a sponge the distinction between right and wrong, makes merchandise of the noblest ideals, sets gain before the world as the highest end of life, and converts men into predatory human animals" (Pollack, Populist Mind, pp. 305–306).

At its base, the Populist argument rested on the labor theory of value, namely, that labor created wealth, which then became capital. But as capital became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, it began to dominate political channels, and the combination of concentrated capital and state power served to impoverish the working classes, both rural and industrial. In Nugent's words, "Capital could never have attained such ascendancy, but for the legislation which has given it unjust advantages and enabled it to monopolize both natural resources and public functions and utilities" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 306). Or, as Weaver claimed, "Labor can create wealth but it cannot create money. It requires a statute to speak money into existence. It is the creature of law, not the product of nature" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 132). Watson pondered, "What is the labor question? In a nutshell it is this: Labor asks of capital, 'Why is it you have so much and do so little work, while I have so little and do so much?'" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 424).

Ironically, the Populists' wide-ranging and penetrating critique of Gilded Age capitalism rested on a belief in the sanctity of competition and private property. Populists sought some degree of individual economic independence and believed private property was essential for achieving it. In their view, as the historian Norman Pollack has said, "Property was only a threat when it became integrated with mechanisms of domination" (The Just Polity, p. 6) and thus worked contrary to the interests of the community, and the Populist goal was to use the power of the state to prevent the growth of monopolies where practicable and assume ownership of natural monopolies to serve the public interest. Existing monopolies thwarted genuine competition and the philosophy of laissez-faire resulted only in brutal competition among surplus laborers that drove wages downward and among farmers who were working to pay off their debts in a deflated economy.

Self-consciously standing against the dominant ideology, Populists challenged justifications of excessive wealth and poverty such as Social Darwinism, arguing instead that government had a responsibility to protect the weak. In the words of Lorenzo D. Lewelling (1846–1900), the Populist governor of Kansas, "The survival of the fittest is the government of brutes and reptiles, and such philosophy must give place to a government which recognizes human brotherhood. It is the province of government to protect the weak, but the government to-day is resolved into a struggle of the masses with the classes for supremacy and bread, until business, home and personal integrity are trembling in the face of possible want in the family. . . . If it be true that the poor have no right to the property of the rich let it also be declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor" (Pollack, Populist Mind, pp. 51–52). Populists also delighted in subverting the dominant discourse and using the language of the business classes for their own ends. In an age when the specter of anarchism haunted capitalists, the Decatur, Texas, Times argued that the monopolists were the true anarchists: "Red-handed anarchy is fast developing in the soldiery of our beloved Republic, in the courts, the elections, in the legislatures and congress" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 56). Similarly, Henry Demarest Lloyd used the language of self-interest and Social Darwinism for populist ends: "The whole problem can be argued out from the point of view of self-interest, putting the self-interest of the community against the self-interest of the individual; the self-interest of the better against the self-interest of the worse; and reading the survival of the strongest to mean the survival of the stronger virtues, not the stronger greed" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 69).

Adopted in July 1892, the Omaha Platform represents a comprehensive statement of the Populist worldview, with its apocalyptic vision of Gilded Age America. The preamble was written by Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota novelist, journalist, stump speaker and tireless party activist. The platform's resolutions included demands for a policy of economic inflation, limitations on the power of monopolies to dominate the economy, greater democratization of political life, and support for the rights of industrial workers.

The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation: we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we bred the two great classes—tramps and millionaires. . . .

Our country finds itself confronted by conditions for which there is no precedent in the history of the world; our annual agricultural productions amount to billions of dollars in value, which must, within a few weeks or months, be exchanged for billions of dollars of commodities consumed in their production; the existing currency supply is wholly inadequate to make this exchange; the results are falling prices, the formation of combines and rings, the impoverishment of the producing class.

Ignatius Donnelly, "The Omaha Platform" (1892), in Pollack, Populist Mind, pp, 60, 62.

Populists saw their movement as very much in the American grain and presented themselves as the true defenders of the Constitution and the law. In their view, the corporate hijacking of the courts and lawmaking bodies represented a betrayal of the American constitutional system. This commitment to established constitutional means also set the parameters of acceptable Populist activity, largely defined by party organizing and participation in elections, and a rejection of violence as a political tool. As Nugent cautioned, "In combatting monopoly, let us never forget that neither force nor infringement of individual liberty is justifiable or safe. Let us remember that we ought above all others to set ourselves against anarchy in every form, against every measure calculated to break down the security which the laws afford to private property, and in favor only of those lawful and orderly methods which can always be successfully defended, and the observance of which will never fail to enlist for the workingman the sympathies of the good and worthy people of every class. . . . A good cause committed to violent methods inevitably finds in them its grave. An intelligent ballot is the only refuge of justice and liberty" (Pollack, Populist Mind, pp. 311–312). Similarly, Donnelly's cautionary tale, Caesar's Column, warned of a coming apocalypse when the workers would turn to violence, culminating in "a hell of injustice, ending in a holocaust of slaughter"(Donnelly, p. 57).


In order to build a mass movement, the Populists attempted to form alliances across several of the deepest rifts in Gilded Age America. From their agrarian origins, farmers reached out to industrial workers and the unemployed, fellow victims, in their view, of the war between the ruling classes and the masses. The Omaha Platform championed the cause of industrial labor with its call to limit immigration to reduce competition for jobs, to enforce the eight-hour workday, to abolish the strikebreaking Pinkerton Agency, and to support the Knights of Labor. The party stood with labor in all the major conflicts of the era. In the 1892 strike against Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel Plant, Mary E. Lease (1853–1933), one of the most famous Populist stump speakers, specifically called on Kansas farmers to send the striking workers a trainload of supplies: "We have been told by those who deal in misrepresentations that the farmers were not in sympathy with the wants and demands of laborers in town and city. Let us hurl this falsehood back, and show to the world that the farmers of Kansas are imbued with the spirit of 1776, and in sympathy with the toilers and oppressed humanity everywhere" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 449). In A Strike of Millionaires against Miners (1890), Henry Demarest Lloyd described miners caught in a circle of debt similar to the that of the crop-lien system. "Sometimes it was one thing, sometimes another; but the upshot of it was that, mostly, when the miner came to settle with the company for the preceding month's work, he found that, after paying for his oil, and the sharpening of his tools, his rent or his monthly installment on the lot he had bought, his monthly contribution to the doctor, and his bill at the company's store, there was nothing left. He had just made ends meet; perhaps he was a little behind"(Pollack, Populist Mind, pp. 411–412).

The Populists also supported the cause of the unemployed. In their critique of industrial capitalism, Lewelling and others viewed the growing number of unemployed as resulting directly from the combination of monopolies and increasing mechanization. "In this country, the monopoly of labor-saving machinery and its devotion to selfish instead of social use, have rendered more and more human beings superfluous until we have a standing army of the unemployed numbering even in the most prosperous times not less than one million able-bodied men"(Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 331). In his 1891 novel, Congressman Swanson, Charles C. Post (1854–1914) described the response of the business classes to the growing number of unemployed: "And as the machinery of legislation was in their hands, or the hands of their dupes and tools, the politicians, 'Tramp laws' were passed, and it became a crime for a man out of employment and out of money to ask for bread" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 353). Standing as staunch supporters of demonstrations by the unemployed like that led by Jacob Coxey in 1894, the Populists called for the federal government to create a program of public works to provide jobs for the unemployed.

In trying to build a national movement, the Populists found themselves confronting the sectionalism and the regional hold the two main political parties had on American politics. In an era in which the Civil War was a recent memory and parties were closely tied to sectional divisions, the Populists called on farmers and workers to break with their traditional political loyalties and support a third party. And in the South especially, this split involved even more basic social issues, as the politics of the existing parties became entangled in the region's racial divisions. Populists in the South, in challenging the dominant Democratic Party, confronted directly that party's ideology of white supremacy. Not all Populists were willing to make this break with the past, but many in the South proved ready to stand in economic and political solidarity across racial lines. Speaking of black and white farmers, Watson said, "Now the People's Party says to these two men, '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'" (Pollack, Populist Mind, pp. 371–372). Similarly, the Louisiana People's Party adopted a resolution proclaiming, "We declare emphatically that the interests of the white and colored races in the South are identical. . . . Legislation beneficial to the white man must, at the same time, be beneficial to the colored man." Black Populists too realized that joining the movement involved a wrenching break with traditional loyalties; as a black Georgia farmer wrote, "It seems to be a hard thing for us colored men to give up the republican party, but let us stop and consider: We are living in another man's house, working another man's land, and our smoke house and meal-tub are in town. Let us quit the old party and vote for wife and children and a chance for a home" (Pollack, Populist Mind, pp. 395–396). And yet, as white southern Populists stressed, this willingness to break with the region's racial heritage and withstand the Democrats' fearmongering cries of "Negro Rule" had its limits. As one white Alabama Populist wrote, "This has nothing whatever to do with social equality. It is a question of the material interests of both races" (Pollack, Populist Mind, p. 389).


Populism, by allowing itself to be contained largely within existing political processes, saw its protest "largely, if not exclusively, confined to the channels that the society had established to neutralize dissent" (Pollack, The Just Polity, pp. 64–65). These self-imposed ideological parameters created a profound dilemma for the party in 1896 when the question of fusion with the Democrats seemed to offer the best chance for electoral victory. As the historian Robert McMath comments, "Here the logic and history of Populism as a movement collided with the ultimate political question: how to get more votes than the other guy" (p. 175). Within the Democratic Party, a faction emerged in the mid-1890s calling for the free and unlimited coinage of silver. Fueled by such popular works as W. H. Harvey's Coin's Financial School (1894), bimetallists called for a policy of inflation that, in the Populist view, still left the fundamental issues unresolved: it did nothing to counter the trend toward monopoly nor did it create a flexible monetary system that could keep up with population or industrial growth. When the free silver faction took control of the Democratic Party and nominated William Jennings Bryan, Populists faced the choice of fusing with the Democrats and thus jettisoning most of their platform, or running their own candidate and guaranteeing the election of the gold standard Republican William McKinley. Led by such fusionists as Watson and Weaver, the party chose to ally itself with the Democrats, though many Populists never accepted the decision. As an outraged Donnelly said, "The Democracy raped our convention while our leaders held the struggling victim" (Ridge, p. 357). The Populist Party, having channeled its militancy into electoral politics, was devastated by the 1896 defeat and never recovered. In Pollack's words, "Populism did not decline gradually. It fell over a precipice, to some extent a situation of its own making" (The Just Polity, p. 21).

see alsoPolitical Parties


Primary Works

Donnelly, Ignatius. Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century. 1890. Edited with an introduction by Nicholas Ruddick. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Lloyd, Henry Demarest. Wealth against Commonwealth 1894. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1963.

Pollack, Norman, ed. The Populist Mind. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

White, William Allen. "What's the Matter with Kansas?" 1896. In American Issues, Volume 2: Since 1865, edited by Irwin Unger and Robert Tomes. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Secondary Works

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1998.

McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1898. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Pollack, Norman. The Just Polity: Populism, Law, and Human Welfare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Ridge, Martin. Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Woodward, C. Vann. Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

David Cochran


views updated Jun 08 2018



In the context of film studies, discussions of Populism tend to downplay the history of the People's Party of the United States, whose organizers themselves helped coin the adjective "Populist" from the Latin populus in seeking a less unwieldy journalistic handle. Rather, film critics emphasize a more generally majoritarian sensibility ("The Folklore of Populism," "The Fantasy of Goodwill") typically associated with the New Deal-era films of Frank Capra (1897–1991), especially the "Populist Trilogy" of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941).

Apart from the Capra-Populism conflation, the only sustained tradition of linking the Populist Party with film involves Victor Fleming's 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, though the argument that Dorothy's silver shoes refer allegorically to the "Free Silver" platform plank dear to mining state Populists is undercut in The Wizard of Oz by the shift from silver to ruby slippers. Still, it is hard to deny the New Deal resonances of the MGM Wizard's FDR-like pronouncements about the dynamics of courage in the face of soul-daunting circumstances. (By contrast, some see Baum's novel as anti -Populist, with the Wicked Witch of the West standing for "capital-P" Populism, an equation made plausible by the prominence of female orators among Populism's organizers and advocates.)


To discuss populism as myth usually means attending to its retrogressive "Agrarian Myth" elements. From the internationalist perspective of classical Marxism, populism is simply the agrarian myth in action—in venues as disparate as Russia, India, and Latin America—and is inherently reactionary for naturalizing "peasantness" as definitive of a "national" or "ethnic" essence. The American derivation of this small-p populism typically sees the Populist Party as a single episode of a much larger political saga pitting Hamiltonian finance capitalists against Jeffersonian yeoman farmers. Nature, in this picture, is pastoral, Edenic, so that rural hardship is chiefly attributed to conspiratorial elites—bankers, rail-road executives, intellectuals—and the urban political machines they control. An obviously influential instance of this agrarian resentment is D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), where the specter of an alien political regime disempowering a native rural aristocracy leads to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Two literary movements or genres are often invoked in charting the populist conflict between rural and urban interests: the "cracker-box" philosopher-humorist tradition stretching from Seba Smith (1792–1868) through Mark Twain (1835–1910) to Will Rogers (1879–1935), and the middle-brow and middle class, mostly magazine fiction of the 1920s and 1930s (Clarence Budington Kelland, Damon Runyon, Rose Wilder Lane, Joel Chandler Harris, Irvin S. Cobb). Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town combines both strains, in that Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds is a common-sense Yankee sage who writes greeting card verse and derives from a story by Kelland.

Scholarship since the 1990s on Will Rogers and Capra alike gives reasons for doubting the strict equation of film populism and political reaction, though Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) has been seen as epitomizing the agrarian desire to eschew the modern "rat race" in favor of an orientalist "Shangri-La"-cum-"chicken ranch." Indeed, some writers have linked the geography of Capra's "Valley of the Blue Moon" Himalayan utopia to Leni Riefenstahl's proto-fascist "Mountain" films (for example, The Blue Light [1932]), as exhibiting the more atavistic strain of the Agrarian Myth. And there is a long list of more natively "American" films in which a near-link of populism and fascism is suggested, including Capra's Meet John Doe and All the King's Men (Robert Rossen, 1949).


To emphasize the sins of populism—its nativism, its temptation to anti-Semitism in deploring the power of the "money interests" and intellectuals—displaces to the point of denying the economic conditions that gave rise to the Populist Party. After the Civil War, increased production of grains and silver drove commodity prices down and made it increasingly difficult for tenant farmers to make loan payments. In response, self-help farmers' cooperatives advocated (among other things) government control of railroads and a graduated income tax.

Two Hollywood genres depict economic issues relevant to Populism, both associated chiefly with the American 1930s. One is the western, in which banks and railroads and land disputes—many of them historically contemporary with the rise of Populism—come under repeated scrutiny. Though scholarship of the early twenty-first century on 1930s B-westerns points to the conflation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century time cues (cow ponies, motor cars) as confirming the link between the economics of Populism and those of the "Popular Front" New Deal, the best known Populist western is John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), wherein a well-fed frontier banker absconds with a recently received payroll and spouts Hooverite slogans ("The government must not interfere with business") while complaining about bank examiners to his fellow passengers.

Another western often associated with Populism is Jesse James (Henry King, 1939); what sets Jesse on the path to outlawry is the railroad's strong-arm attempt to take over the family farm, resulting in his mother's death, which Jesse repays by sticking up the railroad, and a bank or two for good measure. Later westerns evoking the rural crises that led to the farmers' revolt of the 1880s and 1890s include Shane (George Stevens, 1953) and Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980). A resonant instance of this tradition is McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), in which William Devane's politically ambitious lawyer invokes William Jennings Bryan, the Populist (and Democratic) Party's 1896 presidential candidate, by way of encouraging McCabe (Warren Beatty) to stand fast against Wild-West corporate thuggery ("McCabe strikes a blow for the little man").

A second strain of movie Populism linked to the 1930s involves films that treat Depression-era agricultural dilemmas directly. Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934) literally depicts an agricultural cooperative, as a city couple organizes other down-and-outs to help work the land they are (effectively) tenanting. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town features a whole army of dispossessed farmers, who see Longfellow's homestead giveaway scheme as their last chance. The "Kansas" portions of The Wizard of Oz evoke Depression-era agricultural anxieties. Ford's Tobacco Road (1941) depicts an almost surreal clan of Georgia farmers who are saved from eviction when the cash-strapped landlord himself pays the banker to let them stay for one more crop. The Southerner (Jean Renoir, 1945) similarly delineates the plight of field hands who turn to tenant farming to improve their lot.

Pride of place in this tradition obviously goes to Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), one of Hollywood's most radical examinations of the kind of agricultural tragedy—narratively the result of "dust bowl" weather but visually the fault of a bank and its Eisensteinian bulldozer—that drove farmers in the 1880s and 1890s to organize. The tradition continues in later films—Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974)—where Depression-era outlawry is sympathetically linked to economic hardship and dispossession. And the agricultural iconography on view in Our Daily Bread is repeated in "Farm Crisis" movies of the 1980s, Country (Richard Pearce, 1984), The River (Mark Rydell, 1984), and Places in the Heart (Robert Benton, 1984), the last of which is also set in the 1930s.


The equation of Capra and Populism is perennial but distorting. The most direct link involves Meet John Doe, where the montage of the growth of the John Doe clubs emphasizes—via maps and musical cues—the South and the Midwest, regions where Populism was most influential, thus lending chilling credibility to the "iron hand" third party presidential ambitions of media tycoon D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). In view of Norton's ersatz Populism, it should be remembered that the "pastoral" is itself an urban genre or fantasy. Deeds finds his farmers in New York City, after all, and it is only in Washington, D.C. that Jefferson Smith finds his mature populist voice.

That aside, Capra's "populism" has less to do with the Populist Party than with the "American Dream" version of the Agrarian Myth and its anxious, highly charged belief in the benevolence of Nature and of human nature. To the extent that "Capraesque" and "populist" are synonymous post-Capra, the Capra legacy involves a volatile combination of cosmic benevolence and go-for-broke political idealism.

The political strain is evident in the "neo-Capra" movies of the Clinton era—Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), The Distinguished Gentleman (Jonathan Lynn, 1992), Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1994), The American President (Rob Reiner, 1995), and Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)—which self-consciously appropriate narrative situations and democratic iconography from Capra's "Populist Trilogy," though rarely with as great a sense of consequence as Capra and his writers (chiefly Robert Riskin [1897–1955]) derived from their circumstances.

The "cosmic benevolence" feature, obviously, derives from the guardian angel framework of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Though Capra's was not the first 1940s film to employ an angelic guardian or mentor—Here Comes Mr. Jordon (Alexander Hall, 1941) and A Guy Named Joe (Victor Fleming, 1943) come to mind, each of which was eventually remade, the former by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry as Heaven Can Wait (1978), the latter by Steven Spielberg as Always (1989)—it is probable that the "fantasy of goodwill" phrase stuck to Capra because only heavenly intervention could save James Stewart's George Bailey from himself and also because such narrational sleight-of-hand, for which Wonderful Life's "heavenly projection room" conceit is so wonderfully apt, emphatically confirms the sense in which all of Capra's political morality fables require breathlessly miraculous conversions to arrive at their variously problematic conclusions.

The subjunctive mode of It's a Wonderful Life, in which a given life is depicted as being haunted or redeemed by an alternative existence, is also basic to Capra's political fables—in each his populist hero is effectively kidnapped from his ordinary life into some other one—and the dreamlike aura, always on the edge between nightmare and wish fulfillment, rarely dissipates. Hence the frequency with which "time travel" fables like Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) or Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989) are described as "Capraesque," and the appellation can as readily be applied to "ghost stories" like Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990) or The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), or to sci-fi films like Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) or Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997), or to The Majestic (Frank Darabont, 2001), where cinema is depicted as a source of individual and communal, even political, renewal after a period of personal and cultural amnesia.

It has been claimed that cinema's photographic capacity to "naturalize" fantasy marks the medium itself as "populist" in the regressive sense. It is equally as true that cinema's capacity to haunt our present life with a picture of another world that seems uncannily like our own yet just beyond reach marks it as "populist" in the best sense, as appealing to the better angels of our nature. An American Dream, indeed.

SEE ALSO Great Depression


Brass, Tom. Peasants, Populism, and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass,2000.

Clanton, Gene O. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890–1900. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Dighe, Ranjit S., ed. The Historian's Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum's Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2002.

Gehring, Wes D. Populism and the Capra Legacy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Richards, Jeffrey. Visions of Yesterday. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Sklar, Robert, and Vito Zagarrio, eds. Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Stanfield, Peter. Horse Opera: The Strange History of the 1930s Singing Cowboy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Leland Poague


views updated May 18 2018


POPULISM arose in the late 1880s and 1890s as a movement of farmers, laborers, and other reformers protesting the inequities of American life. The late nineteenth century was an era of rapid innovations in telecommunications, steam transport, industrial organization, and global trade. The Populists believed that these changes unfairly benefited the leaders of industry and finance, and impoverished the men and women of the farms and workshops that produced the nation's wealth. Because of this belief, scholars have often described Populism as an expression of the resistance of tradition-bound small producers to the modernizing ethos of progress. Yet many late-nineteenth century farmers and laborers showed as much commitment to the ideals of progress as any other group of Americans. Instead of rejecting change, the Populists sought to put their own stamp on the technical and market revolutions. Farmers, mechanics, and other ordinary citizens were confident that they could collectively shape commerce and government to serve their own interests. Therein lay the significance of the Populist movement.

After the Civil War (1861–1865), the combination of Indian removal and railroad expansion opened up vast areas of the trans-Mississippi West to wheat and other staple-crop farming. In the South, too, cotton growing expanded into new territory. The global market for American cereals and fibers, however, failed to keep pace with the rapid growth of American agriculture, which placed a steady downward pressure on market prices. Between 1870 and 1890, the wholesale index of farm products in the United States declined from 112 to 71. For many farmers, their highly mortgaged and indebted farms offered scant prospects of sustainability, much less of prosperity.

Farmers' Alliances

Reform-minded farmers resorted to organization. In the upper Midwest, they affiliated with the Northwestern Farmers' Alliance led by Milton George, and with the Illinois-based Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association. The National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, or Southern Alliance, represented the largest and most influential farm organization. Originating in Texas, the Southern Alliance organized farmers from Georgia to California, and from the Dakotas to New Mexico. By 1890, it claimed over 1,200,000 members in twenty-seven states.

Charles Macune, the president of the Southern Alliance, believed that farmers had to organize as a business interest on a par with other commercial interests. Accordingly, farmers' organizations lobbied to raise the position of agriculture in the national economy. They sought diffusion of commercial, scientific, and technical knowledge. They advocated cooperative business principles and experimented with large-scale incorporated enterprises to regulate cotton and other agricultural markets. They also pressed for an expanded government role in the farm economy. They took the federal postal system as a model of potential reform, and demanded postal savings banks, a postal telegraph, and nationalized railways. Macune also proposed a subtreasury system that would provide low-interest federal loans on staple crops to be stored in federal warehouses.

Farm reformers also sought rural education. They campaigned for public schools and colleges. At the same time, the Alliance movement itself was to serve as "the most powerful and complete educator of modern times." The Alliances created an extensive system of literature networks, lecture circuits, and adult education across much of rural America. Farmwomen took part in this educational work in numbers then unmatched by any secular mobilization of women in American history. Roughly one out of four Alliance members was female. Their ranks included the famous orator Mary Lease, the editor Annie Diggs of Kansas, Marion Todd of Illinois, and Bettie Gay of Texas. Women often joined the rural reform movement in pursuit of female suffrage and temperance. They also

sought to ease the burdens of rural labor and realize a more independent, modern life.

The Alliance movement organized along strict racial lines. Many rural reformers advocated Chinese exclusion, and the Southern Alliance enforced a "whites only" rule. Although blacks joined their own Colored Farmers' Alliance, the white and black Alliances were very separate and unequal. In part, this reflected the gap between white Alliance members, who tended to be middling farmers with property, and black Alliance members, who tended to be poor renters working white owners' land as tenants or sharecroppers. It also reflected the commitment of the white Alliance to segregation and white supremacy.

The People's Party

The Alliance movement originally embraced a policy of nonpartisanship, which meant effecting reform by supporting sympathetic candidates within both the Democratic and the Republican Parties. Many reformers, however, grew discontent with this policy, convinced that the existing parties were too bound by graft and corruption to challenge corporate privilege. Such discontent provided the impulse for a third party. After a series of preliminary meetings, farm, labor, and other reform groups held the founding convention of the People's Party of the U.S.A., also known as the Populist Party. in Omaha, Nebraska, in July 1892. The Populist platform contained the fundamental Alliance demands regarding money, transportation, and land. This included the subtreasury plan, an expanded national currency and the coinage of silver to stimulate the economy and provide debt relief, a graduated income tax, government ownership of the telegraph, telephones, and railroads, and the prohibition of speculative land ownership by railroad corporations and foreign investors. The People's Party also favored the adoption of the secret ballot, direct election of Senators, legislation by referendum, and other measures to break the corrupting influence of corporate lobbyists over the political process.

Populist efforts to win the support of the labor movement produced mixed results. Most urban wage earners, especially in the Northeast, where Populism had only minimal organization, showed little interest in the third party. The Populists, who were mainly native-born and Protestant, never succeeded in appealing to large numbers of Catholic and immigrant workers. Nonetheless, especially with the onset of a severe economic depression in 1893, significant sections of the labor movement looked to Populism for answers. In Chicago and other cities, socialists and trade unionists made political agreements with the People's Party.

More importantly, miners and railroad workers—two of the largest and most dynamic forces in the labor movement—shared much in common with the rural Populists. They, too, sought systematic organization as a counterbalance to corporate power. They, too, believed in government intervention in the form of regulation and mandatory arbitration, and they believed in public ownership as the ultimate means to restrain the corporations. Mine workers provided the main support for the People's Party in several Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states. Many railroad employees also joined the third-party effort. The Populists supported the railroad workers in the great Pullman strike during the summer of 1894. After the suppression of the strike by federal authorities, the imprisoned leader of the railroad workers, Eugene V. Debs, emerged as one of the most highly regarded champions of the People's Party. Jobless workers also looked to the Populists. Jacob Coxey, a People's Party candidate from Ohio, led the "Industrial Armies" on a march to Washington to demand a federal "Good Roads" bill to provide jobs for the unemployed.

Populism also provided a meeting ground for the nation's nonconformists, iconoclasts, and free thinkers. It attracted advocates of every type of social and mental innovation. Of these, the most influential were the adherents of the economic panacea movements, such as the Single Tax leagues inspired by the tax doctrines of Henry George, and the Nationalist clubs that pursued the state-capitalist utopia sketched in Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward (1888). The People's Party also embraced religious nonconformists. Populists were often raised in Protestant homes and held strong religious beliefs. Yet many reformers abandoned ideas of traditional piety in favor of a social gospel more fitting to the demands of secular reform. Other Populists embraced agnosticism, spiritualism, mental science, and other belief systems that they considered to be more suitable to a scientific age.

Fusion and Decline

The People's Party stirred deep anxiety among upper-and middle-class Americans. The political establishment attacked the Populists as "cranks and heretics" who threatened to subvert the republic with "anarchy and lawlessness." Nevertheless, Populism scored a number of electoral victories. William A. Peffer of the Kansas People's Party gained a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1890. In the 1892 presidential election, the Populist candidate James B. Weaver of Iowa carried six states with twenty-two electoral votes. That same November, the Populists elected two governors, Davis Waite of Colorado and Lorenzo D. Lewelling of Kansas. Populists in the U.S. Congress included Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, Marion Cannon of California, and "Sockless Jerry" Simpson of Kansas.

These modest achievements, however, only underscored the formidable institutional obstacles facing a third party that attempted to crack the winner-take-all, two-party system. Populism struggled to present itself as a viable political alternative. By 1896, many supporters of the People's Party favored electoral combination, or fusion, with one of the dominant parties. Fusion led to the election that fall of seven senators and thirty-two congressmen supported by the Populists. Fusion also led to Populist

endorsement of the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate, Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan. The Democratic-Populist Bryan campaign focused on the single issue of coining silver, leaving aside the more substantial Populist reforms. Bryan's defeat at the polls delivered a mortal blow to the Populist cause. Although the People's Party did not formally disband until the beginning of the new century, it lost political credibility. The Populist experiment had run its course.


Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Barthelme, Marion K. Women in the Texas Populist Movement: Letters to the Southern Mercury. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Hicks, John D. The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Larson, Robert W. Populism in the Mountain West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

McMath, Robert C., Jr. American Populism: A Social History, 1877–1896. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Ostler, Jeffrey. Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880–1892. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.


See alsoFarmers' Alliance ; Machine, Political ; Political Parties ; Third Parties .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Scholars differ on the question of when the tendency known as populism (narodnichestvo ) was most significant in Russian social and political thought. Some suggest that populism was prominent from 1848 to 1881; others, that it was a revolutionary movement in the period between 1860 and 1895. Soviet scholars primarily focused on the 1870s and 1880s. There is also disagreement about what populism represented as an ideology. There are three ways of looking at it: as a reaction against Western capitalism and socialism, as agrarian socialism, and as a theory advocating the hegemony of the masses over the educated elite.

As this should make evident, populism meant different things to different people; it was not a single coherent doctrine but a widespread movement in nineteenth-century Russia favoring such goals as social justice and equality. Populism in Russia is generally believed to have been strongly influenced by the thinking of Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who during the 1850s and 1860s argued that the peasant commune (mir ) was crucial to Russia's transition from capitalism to socialism via a peasant revolution.

There were three strands in the Russian populist movement. The first, classical populism, was associated with Peter Lavrovich Lavrov (18231900), a nobleman by birth who had received a military education and later became a professor of mathematics. Lavrov was an activist in the student and intellectual movement of the 1860s, and a consequence was forced to emigrate from Russia in 1870. His experience in the Paris Commune during the 1870s convinced him of the need for change, especially in the aftermath of the Great Reforms of the 1860s. In his Historical Letters (18681869), Lavrov stated that human progress required a revolution that would totally destroy the existing order. Again in his Historical Letters (1870) and in his revolutionary journal Vpered (Forward ) from 1870 to 1872, Lavrov argued that intellectuals had a moral obligation to fight for socialism, and in order to achieve this goal they would have to work with the masses. As he saw it, preparation for revolution was the key. In The State in Future Society, Lavrov outlined the establishment of universal suffrage, the emergence of a society in which the masses would run the government, and above all, the introduction of the notion of popular justice.

The second type of Russian populism was more conspiratorial, for it grew out of the failure of the classical variant to convert the majority of the Russian people to socialism via preparation and self-education. The major thinkers here were Peter G. Zaichnevsky (18421896), Sergei G. Nechaev (18471883), and Peter Nikitich Tkachev (18441885). Zaichnevsky, in his pamphlet Young Russia, called for direct action and rejected the possibility of a compromise between the ruling class (including liberals) and the rest of society. He argued that revolution had to be carried out by the majority, using force if necessary, in order to transform Russia's political, economic, and social system along socialist lines. Not surprisingly, Zaichnevsky's ideas are often seen as a blueprint for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Nechaev pointed to two lessons that could be learned from the failure of classical populism: first, the need for tighter organization, stricter discipline, and better planning, and second, the effort to go to the people had proved that the intelligentsia were very remote from the masses. In his Catechism of a Revolutionary, Nechaev argued that individual actions must be controlled by the party and advocated a code for revolutionaries in which members were dedicated, committed to action not words, adhered to party discipline, and above all, were willing to use every possible means to achieve revolution. Finally, Tkachev, who is probably the most significant of the three chief conspiratorial populists, advocated a closely knit secret organization that would carry out a revolution in the name of the people. For obvious reasons, he is often described as the forerunner of Vladimir Lenin or as the first Bolshevik. All three of these thinkers envisioned a revolution by a minority on behalf of the majority, followed by agitation and propaganda to protect its gains. The similarity to the events around the 1917 October Revolution is evident.

Populists of the classical and conspiratorial varieties rejected terrorism as a method, and Tkachev maintained that it would divert energy away from the revolution. The terrorist wing of Russian populism, however, insisted that agitprop and repeated calls for revolution would accomplish nothing, and therefore direct action was essential. This position was associated with the two main groups that grew out of the Land and Freedom (Zemlya i Volya ) organization, People's Will (Narodnaia Volya ), and Black Partition (Cherny Peredel ). The failure of the earlier populist movements and the situation in late nineteenth-century Russia (i.e., no political parties or real trade unions, government intervention in every area of life) led to a direct attack on the state, culminating in the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881. Although the clamp-down and greater censorship that followed this event reduced the degree of terrorism, they did not eliminate it altogether, as shown by the emergence of a workers' section and young People's Will after 1881.

The populists did not accept the idea that the Russian people had a unique character or destiny. Instead they emphasized Russia's backwardness, but in their view it was not necessarily a disadvantage, because backwardness would enable Russia to avoid the capitalist path and embark upon agrarian socialism based on a federal structure of self-governing units of producers and consumers. When this did not come to pass, some populists turned to more extreme measures, such as terrorism. All in all, the lessons learned from the failure of populism paved the way for a gradual move toward the emergence of social democracy in Russia during the 1890s.

See also: great reforms; land and freedom party; people's will, the; social democratic workers party


Geifman, Anna. (1993). Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 18941917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Offord, Derek. (1987). The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pipes, Richard. (1964). "Narodnichestvo : A Semantic Inquiry." Slavic Review 23(3):441-458.

Venturi, Franco. (1983). Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in 19th Century Russia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wortman, Richard. (1967). The Crisis of Russian Populism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Christopher Williams


views updated May 14 2018


The industrialization of the United States in the late nineteenth century caused enormous social, economic, and political upheavals in nearly every sector of the nation. Perhaps no group suffered greater dislocations than the farmers, whose livelihood and prosperity were now subject to forces over which they had no direct control. In a series of movements, farmers joined together seeking remedies to their ills. Agrarian protest reached its peak in the Populist movement in the early 1890s, when farmers took to politics in an effort to implement specific economic and political programs.

One will find little evidence of a direct impact of populism on American constitutional development. Rather, the Populists, as part of their larger reform agenda, did make particular proposals that eventually found fruition in the Progressive era. The clearest statement of these demands can be found in the People's party platform of 1896.

The platform is notable for several reasons. First, it summed up two decades of resentment by the farmers against a system they believed ignored their needs and exploited them mercilessly. Several of the complaints directly addressed the structure and operation of government. To begin with, the Populists denounced the recent Supreme Court decision in pollock v. farmers ' loan trust co. (1895) that had invalidated the 1894 income tax rider to the tariff. To the Populists, this decision represented another example of the government's siding with the rich, and the platform demanded "a graduated income tax, to the end that aggregated wealth shall bear its proportion of taxation." In Pollock, they argued, the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the Constitution and invaded "the rightful powers of Congress" over taxation.

The Populists were not the first to denounce the Pollock decision, but they did add a strong voice to the chorus demanding an income tax. The proposal for a constitutional amendment gradually gained support throughout the country, culminating in ratification of the sixteenth amendment in 1913.

The platform also called for the election of the President, Vice-President, and the Senate by "a direct vote of the people." Under the Constitution, an electoral college selected the two executive officers, with each state's electors equal to the sum of its senators and representatives. Originally each state could chose its electors as it saw fit, but within a relatively short period of time all states adopted a system in which the popular vote determined which candidate received each state's electoral college ballots—typically in a winner-take-all system. This arrangement emphasized the importance of the larger states and created the possibility that a candidate with a majority of the popular vote could lose in the electoral college. The system has been criticized for decades, and constitutional amendments to abolish the electoral college are periodically introduced in Congress. So far, however, there has been no popular groundswell to carry through a change.

Initially, state legislatures also chose United States senators. In the Gilded Age, bribery and influence peddling often led to the selection of rich industrialists, so that by the 1890s the Senate had come to be known as a "millionaires' club." A few states had preferential primary elections to allow voters to indicate their choice for senator, but the Populists wanted direct election to eliminate what they saw as the corrupting influence of great wealth.

Any change in the election method would require a constitutional amendment, and the House of Representatives passed such an amendment in 1894, 1898, 1900, and 1902; in each session the Senate turned it down. By 1912, thirty states had preferential primaries, and the Senate finally bowed to the inevitable. It passed the seventeenth amendment, authorizing the direct election of senators, and the states ratified it the following year.

The 1896 Populist platform also called for other political reforms, some of which could be achieved without constitutional amendment. This list included the adoption of a secret ballot, limiting the use of the injunction in labor disputes, and public ownership of the railroad and telegraph. The Populists also proposed "a system of direct legislation through the initiative and referendum, under proper Constitutional safeguards."

The Populists saw many of their platform items enacted within a relative short period of time. They did not cause the adoption of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, but certainly by adding their voices to the demand they helped to achieve these reforms. Except in wartime, we have never had government ownership or control of railroads and telegraph, but the regulatory powers finally given to the Interstate Commerce Commission in the first decade of the twentieth century provided an equivalent to the Populist demands—that public welfare take precedence over private interests.

The states did adopt secret ballots, and many of them also enacted initiative and referendum measures. Although the secret ballot proved effective in buttressing democratic elections, the other two proposals never proved as effective or easy to use as the Populists had anticipated. The elimination of the injunction as a judicial weapon against labor unions, however, had to wait until the New Deal era.

In sum, the Populist demand for political change itself had relatively little effect on American constitutional development. By adding their voices to the demand for change, however, they reinforced reform currents already underway.

Melvin I. Urofsky


Pollack, Norman 1987 The Just Polity: Populism, Law, and Human Welfare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


views updated May 18 2018

populism A term that entered the vocabulary of American politics with the formation in 1892 of the Populist Party. Most of the party's supporters were small farmers in the South and especially the West of the country. The principal plank in the party's platform was the idea that their supporters' grievances against the banks (who always seemed far too keen to foreclose on their mortgages) and the railroad companies (who were able to charge exorbitant haulage rates because of their monopoly positions) would be best resolved if the state nationalized the land and the railways.

Today, the term is most often used within Marxist and neo-Marxist circles in a broadened and transformed sense to refer to any political movement which seeks to mobilize the people as individuals, rather than as members of a particular socio-economic group, against a state which is considered to be either controlled by vested interests or too powerful in itself (see, for example, E. Laclau , Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, 1978
). For this reason, too, and somewhat ironically since they were promoted by the state itself, the policies of British governments during the 1980s, and the ideology which informed them (so-called Thatcherism), were sometimes described by those on the political left as ‘authoritarian populism’.

Populism has been a potent political force in developing countries–Peronism in Argentina is an obvious example–and has emerged as a major phenomenon in post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe. In both cases the connections with nationalism are important.


views updated May 29 2018


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