Political and Social Movements


What was populism?

A commoners’ movement, in the United States populism was formalized in 1891 with the founding of the Populist Party, which worked to improve conditions for farmers and laborers. In the presidential election of 1892, the party supported its own political candidate, the former (third-party) Greenback candidate James B. Weaver (1833–1912). Though Weaver lost, the Populists remained a strong force. In the next presidential election, of 1896, they backed Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), a self-proclaimed commoner who was sympathetic to the causes of the Farmers’ Alliances and of the National Grange (reform-minded agricultural organizations) as well as the nation’s workers. Bryan lost to William McKinley (1843-1901), and soon after the election the Populist Party began to fall apart, disappearing altogether by 1908. Nevertheless, the party’s initiatives continued to figure in the nation’s political life for the next two decades and many populist ideas were made into laws, including the free coinage of silver and government issue of more paper money (“greenbacks”) to loosen the money supply, adoption of a graduated income tax, passage of an amendment allowing for the popular election of U.S. senators (the Constitution provided for their election by the state legislatures), passage of antitrust laws (to combat the monopolistic control of American business), and implementation of the eight-hour workday. Since the early 1900s political candidates and ideas have continued to be described as populist, meaning they favor the rights of and uphold the beliefs and values of the common people.


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