In general, the Populist Party felt that the government should be involved in protecting the "little guy" from the rich and from big businesses.
Specifically, the Populists felt that farmers were getting abused by the rich. They felt that the railroads and the banks took advantage of the fact that farmers needed to borrow money and to transport their crops to markets. They felt that both gouged farmers unfairly.
Therefore, they supported government regulation of those industries to prevent them from treating farmers "unfairly." In fact, they even advocated government ownership of railroads and telegraph systems to prevent abuse of farmers.
The largest role that the Populist party played in American politics was ensuring that the voices of dispossessed and disenfranchised did not go unnoticed. Forming an alliance of farmers and those who were on the "bottom rung" of the American social and political order, the Populist driving force was to maintain political allegiance to these individuals. The primary motivation of the party was to demand that government play an interventionist role in the lives of these individuals. This is to say that government should not be entirely driven by the interests of the wealthy and powerful, but rather listen to and promote the general welfare of those individuals who lack significant economic and political power.
In a laissez-faire economy where the government had virtually no regulation on business or corporate practices, the Gilded Age ran amok. Employees in these businesses did not have the right to organize, and working conditions were typically horrible. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of the early 1890's was supposed to be a progressive law to break up monoplies and trusts, but it was instead used to break up these very unions.
Populists believed that government's role was to protect consumers, and regulate commerce in such a way that exploitation was not the rule of the workplace, and that the poorest 90% of society, especially farmers, might receive a fair shake for their hard labor.
Of course, the robber barons of the age stood to lose millions if populist/progressive reform took place, so they ensured that business friendly Mckinley was elected in 1896, and maintained the status quo.
The demands of the Populist Party as per their manifesto called "Populist Part Platform" released on July 4, 1892 include the following.
- Union of the labour force to be made permanent and perpetual.
- Railways, telegraphs and telephones should be owned and managed by the government.
- Free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold
- Graduated income tax.
- State and national revenues to be limited to be limited to necessary expenses of the government.
- Postal saving banks to be established by the government.
- Land and other natural resources should not be monopolized for speculative purposes, or owned by aliens.
- Free ballot and fair count in all elections.
- Fair and liberal pension to ex-Union soldiers and sailors.
- Reduction of working hours for labour.
- Maintenance of a large standing army of mercenaries.
- Limiting office of president and vice-president to one term.
- Direct election by people to the post of senators.
- No subsidy or national aid to be given to any private corporation for any purpose.
For more details please the site referred below.
The agricultural depression triggered an outburst of political radicalism, the Alliance movement. The Farmers Alliance spread throughout the South and into the Midwest. The farm groups entered politics in the elections of 1890. In 1892, these farm groups combined with representatives of the Knights of Labor and various professional reformers to organize the People's, or Populist, party.
The convention adopted a sweeping platform calling for a graduated income tax; the nationalization of rail, telegraph, and telephone systems; the "subtreasury" plan, and the unlimited coinage of silver. The party also called for the adoption of the initiative and referendum, popular election of United States senators, an eight-hour workday, and immigration restrictions. In the presidential election, Cleveland defeated Harrison. The Populist candidate, James B. Weaver, attracted over a million votes, but results in congressional and state races were disappointing.
Opponents of the Populists in the South played on racial fears, and the Populists failed to attract the support of urban workers.