The populist movement and Populist Party arose from farmer's groups that developed in the 1880s. Farmers in this period were feeling increasingly pummeled by economic factors, including climate-related crop failures and the power of the railroads to set very high fees to move their crops to market. In those days of railroad monopolies and almost no government regulation, the farmers felt outmaneuvered and frustrated by business interests. These frustrations merged into the Populist Party platform.
The populists wanted to increase the money supply to create more wealth. They wanted a form of limited socialism in which the government would own the railroads. They also pushed for a progressive income tax, and they wanted to directly elect Senators. In short, they advocated for more voice and power in government for farmers so that they could get a fair shake.
They supported Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryant in 1896. His defeat marked the decline of the populist movement. All along, however, the populists had had problems. For example, Southern farmers often did not support them because they worried that the populists would undo white supremacy. Even at their high point, during the economic depression of the early 1890s, they could not independently gain enough support to sustain themselves without forming coalitions with other groups. After the economy improved in the late 1890s, support for them dropped off even more. Eventually, some of their ideas became obsolete, and some of their issues, such as the income tax, were picked up by progressives. Ultimately, in a country increasingly moving from an agrarian to an industrial base, as time passed there were not enough farmers to launch a successful movement or party.