What Is Populism?
Populism is an American movement that started in 1891 with the founding of the Populist Party, which worked to improve conditions for farmers and laborers. The Populist Party supported its own third-party candidate, James B. Weaver (1833–1912), in the 1892 presidential election. Although he lost, the Populists remained a strong force. In the following election of 1896 they backed Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), who proclaimed himself sympathetic to the causes of the Farmer's Alliance, the National Grange (a reform-minded agricultural organization), as well as the nation's working class. Soon after Bryan lost to William McKinley (1843–1901) the Populist Party began to fall apart, disappearing altogether by 1908.
Nevertheless, many of the party's initiatives and ideals remained strong themes in the nation's political life. During the next two decades many Populist Party goals were enacted into laws. Among them were the free coinage (making coins) of silver and government issue of more paper money ("greenbacks") to loosen the money supply and adoption of a graduated income tax (taxation based on each person's income). Other Populist reforms were an amendment allowing for the popular election of U.S. senators, antitrust laws (to combat business monopolies in which one company has exclusive control over a good or service), and implementation of the eight-hour work day. To this day many political candidates appeal to voters by referring to themselves as Populists, implying that they favor the rights and values of the common people.
Further Information: McMath, Robert C., and Eric Foner, eds. American Populism: A Social History: 1877–1898. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1990; "Populism." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/02/002C3000.htm, November 1, 2000; Populism and Progressivism. [Online] Available http://www.gcty.com/Athens/Olympus/4467/Progressive.html, November 1, 2000.