Populism, the Grange Movement, and Monetary Policy

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What caused the end of the populist movement?

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The main cause of the end of the populist movement was the split in the populist ranks between those who wanted to remain independent and the so-called fusionists, who wanted to merge the Populist Party with the Democrats.

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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.

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Although the Populist Party attracted a fair degree of support for its policies, it was never able to appeal to a broad swathe of American voters. As a result, the party was never able to establish itself as a truly national force in American politics able to compete with the Democrats and the Republicans.

The 1894 mid-term elections were very disappointing for the populists. This led some of their number, who would eventually be known by the name of “fusionists,” to argue for a formal merger with the Democratic Party, which had suffered a calamitous defeat in the 1894 mid-terms.

However, not all populists were supportive of the merger proposals. The radical wing of the movement wanted the party to remain independent. Only that way, they believed, would they be able to offer the American people a genuine alternative to the established parties. Such radicals clearly understood that a merger with the Democrats would involve a watering-down of their plans for root and branch economic reform and public ownership of railroads.

In the event, the radicals prevailed, generating a huge split in the populist movement that, along with other factors such as an improving economy, sounded the death knell for the Populist Party.

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The Populist movement was popular for a while, but it eventually declined. There are some reasons for the decline of the Populist Party. One reason has to do with the needs of the workers and the needs of the farmers. The farmers wanted monetary policies that would raise the price of crops. They want the government to provide places where farmers could store their crops until farm prices rose. They wanted low-interest loans. They also wanted the government to increase the money supply. These policies didn’t sit well with workers. Workers, for example, weren’t going to support policies that would increase the cost of food. Workers were also fearful that the policies of the Populists could cause them to lose their jobs. In the election of 1896, business owners strongly suggested that a victory by William Jennings Bryan would lead to layoffs.

Another factor that hurt the Populist Party and led to its decline was the economy improved after the election of 1896. As a result, there was less of a need to increase the money supply, which had been a big theme of the Populist Party.

Finally, the country was not ready for some of the progressive ideas of the Populist Party. For example, the Populist Party called for the direct election of United States Senators. While this happened in 1913, the country was not ready to embrace this concept in the 1890s. The Populist Party was too forward thinking for the country on this issue.

There were several reasons for the decline of the Populist Party.

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The Populist Party (or people's party) was popular because it supported farmers in the South and West who were suffering from declining prices, high interest rates, economic depressions, droughts, and an unpredictable market.  The populist party gained national attention when they supported Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate.  

One of the reasons this led to a decline in the populist party is because nominating Bryan alienated the African-American populists.  The African-Americans argued that the democratic party failed to support them in the South.  The white populists ignored their appeal and supported Bryan.  When Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley in the election, the populist movement took a major hit.  

Additionally, right about this time, gold and been discovered out west, which renewed the economy and helped many farmers in this region, who had previously relied on the populist party to fight for their prosperity.  Now that the economy was picking up, the populist party wasn't needed anymore.  

Ultimately, the populist party merged in with the Progressive Party, which had a much larger audience (all working class as opposed to just farmers in the South and West) and was more successful in achieving goals for its supporters.

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The populist movement ended for two main reasons.  First, it was unable to get enough people to support it.  It was never really able to expand its base past the farm communities of the South and West.  It was never able to make inroads among the workers and among the middle class.  Second, the populist movement was absorbed into the Progressive movement.  The Progressives were able to take populist ideas and integrate them into a bigger movement.  The Progressives had a much bigger agenda and were able to appeal to workers and to the middle class.  Therefore, they were better than the populists at achieving populist goals.  This helped them to be successful and made the populists irrelevant.

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