Populism, the Grange Movement, and Monetary Policy

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How did competing ideas like Social Darwinism and the goals of the Populist Party reflect the different segments of American society in The Gilded Age ? 

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Late 19th to early 20th century, the era of the Gilded Age, was time of rapid but uneven industrial development in the U.S. New industries supplied large quantities of new goods for mass consumption. The commercializing of life and growing integration of the U.S. in the international market networks led to the growth of corporate economic power, yet, on the other hand, it led as well to the accumulating of mass poverty and increasing economic deprivation. Wealthy merchants, investors, and industrialists could benefit from high import tariffs, and rely on the use of gold as stable means of payment in the framework of the gold standard. They typically resented the idea of increasing state regulation of the economy and rejected the suggestion that they have an obligation to share their wealth with the poor and contribute to the common good of society. Social Darwinism provided a foundation for ideological justification of this stance. Social Darwinists argued that the wealthy classes owe nothing to the poor, because to support needy and weak or to introduce government regulation of working conditions would stifle free enterprise and aggravate poverty by preventing the “struggle for existence” from weeding out underachievers.

Leading American sociologist William Graham Sumner, in the very popular pamphlet What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), asserted that an obligation of the wealthy to help the poor contradicts the nature of modern rational contract-based society:

A society based on contract is a society of free and independent men, who form ties without favor or obligation, and cooperate without cringing or intrigue. A society based on contract, therefore, gives the utmost room and chance for individual development, and for all the self-reliance and dignity of a free man…. It follows, however, that one man, in a free state, cannot claim help from, and cannot be charged to give help to, another. (Sumner 1883 Chapter 1, see link below)

Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt argued that staying away from international conflicts and imperialist competition would undermine the international status of the U.S. and its control over necessary economic resources.

Populism appealed to poor farmers who suffered from high import tariffs and the need to pay through prohibitive means, such as gold; instead, they demanded cheap silver money and state regulation to check the excessive power of corporations, which oppressed farmers by lowering the prices on agricultural products. In order to win elections, the populists sought alliances with urban labor unions. They accordingly formulated a program of wide-ranging social reforms to accommodate the needs of urban workers and to offset the ills of poverty and inequality aggravated by industrialization. Thus, in its Omaha platform (1892), the short-lived Populist party demanded not only “cheap” silver money but also a graduated income tax, an eight-hour workday, government regulation of industry, and nationalization of the railroads and telegraph lines.

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In the Gilded Age, the tenets of social Darwinism stated that success went to the "fittest" members of society. In many cases these people were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The doctrine also stated that certain races of people were destined to be poor and that it was a mistake to pay them a living wage because they would only squander the money. Social Darwinism taught that this type of stratification in society was inevitable and in some cases good because it reflected the order of nature.

The Populist movement, on the other hand, sought to make life better for the working class. It saw the disparities of wealth during the Gilded Age as unnatural and that this reflected a society biased towards the success of a very small ruling elite. The Populists sought to regulate big business in order to create more areas for competition. They also wanted the free coinage of silver in order to make credit easier to obtain. While the Populists might not have been inclusive of all races, they did seek to make America more egalitarian in an economic sense.

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Those who believed in Social Darwinism and those who believed in ideas of the Populist Party reflected very different viewpoints of different segments of American society in the late 1800s. Social Darwinists believed in the concept of “survival of the fittest.” They believed that if you worked hard and were capable, you would then be successful. If you were unsuccessful, it was your own fault. This was a very cold-hearted point of view. Some who were wealthy, some business owners, and some intellectuals tended to believe in this philosophy. The Populists, on the other hand, believed that working hard was not a guarantee of becoming successful. They believed that there were times when factors beyond the control of the individual may prevent a person from achieving success. They wanted the government to step in and help those individuals who were struggling when it was through no fault of their own. Working class people and farmers believed in the ideas of the Populist Party. These groups maintained that their lack of financial success was not due to a lack of effort. They believed there were policies in place that made it difficult for them to climb the ladder of success. Those who believed in Social Darwinism represented groups that were far different from the groups that believed in the ideas of the Populist Party.

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