By Beth Day Romulo
Today we are seeing Populism – the advocacy of the rights, wisdom, and virtue of common people – on the rise again in both the United States and parts of Europe.
The Populist movement began in the United States in the 1890’s as a farmers’ protest movement, a coalition of agrarian reformers who had lost their importance as a minority protest group when they were defeated in national elections in 1896. Throughout the 1890s, local action groups, known as the Farmers Alliance, sprang up across America, representing farmers who were discontented because of their crop failures, falling prices, and poor credit facilities.
In 1892, their leaders organized the Populist, or Peoples, Party, and the former Farmers Alliance ceased to exist. While trying to broaden their base to include other groups, the Populists still remained almost entirely agrarian-oriented. They demanded a graduated income tax, government ownership of the railroads, a tax for revenue only, and the direct election of US senators, to give farmers economic parity with business and industry.
In 1892, the Populist presidential candidate, James Weaver, polled 22 electoral votes. By fusing with the Democratic Party, the combined organizations elected several members to Congress, three governors, and hundreds of minor officials and legislators. In 1896, the defeat of their presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, signaled the end of the Populist movement. Some of the Populist causes were later adopted by the Progressive Party. But the Populist movement is considered by historians to be one of the most challenging protest movements in American history.