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The Failure of the Populist Movement

In the 1890’s, a popular movement began in the South and West USA among farmers; a movement resulting in the formation of the Populist Party. The Populists were largely a group of farmers who had become disillusioned by the laissez-faire capitalism of the Gilded Age (namely the issue of railroad monopolies) after agriculture began to sharply decline, and thus they demanded massive reforms to the political system of America, in an attempt to wrench control of it from the hands of wealthy capitalists. The Populist movement, however, failed to have its reforms initiated and the party died out soon after the election of 1896. The Populist movement failed because it was limited by two major factors – its grassroots, plainspoken style, and the perceived radicalism of the reforms it demanded.

Problems of Populism

The Populist movement was conducted in such a way that it alienated certain groups of people, thus impeding its reform efforts. The Populists, largely constructed of farmers, had their roots in the granges where farmers would meet to discuss pertinent issues. In these granges social gospel preachers would deliver sermons in which they linked capitalism with sin. This style of oration, along its constant message that “Jesus was a socialist”, became cornerstones of the Populist movement. This plainspoken sermonizing style of oration largely damned the wealthy people of the East, effectively alienating them and helping to cost the party a large block of potential votes.

The Populists, with their lack of political experience, largely utilized less-than-subtle methods to get their point across. These methods can be clearly seen through the style of “Mother” Mary Jones Harris, a curious figure in American history who frequently protested in favor of workers rights, namely the right to strike. Jones managed, like much of the Populist Party, to alienate middle-to-upper-middle class people with her blunt, brusque style. In fact, a cross-class alliance of women hated by Jones was more successful in realizing many of the rights that Jones herself had been seeking at the time. Many Populists, like Mary Harris Jones, managed to alienate a significant portion of the population who might have, if nothing else, potentially lent support to their reform efforts, and in doing so the Populists lost critical support that contributed to their failure to have their reforms instated.

Populist Platform

The Populists supported a platform of reform seen as too-radical by many, leading them to avoid such reforms in favor of more moderate, if any, reforms, further dooming the Populists’ efforts to failure. Populists supported reforms such as government ownership of railroads, an income tax, eight-hour work days, and the paramount issue, the unlimited coining of silver to boost the money supply. These reforms were so distant from the system of the time (with income taxes having been recently declared unconstitutional), that even people who were moderately reform-minded saw them as radical; a step too far from the current state of laissez-faire economics.

This being so, there were those that supported certain aspects of the Populists’ reform programs, such as Democrat William Jennings Bryan, whose vehement support of the free-silver issue was possibly unmatched. Bryan and his supporters saw it as more realistic to support one reform measure at a time than to support and entire platform of reform, as opposed to the Populists, who, as a result of Bryan’s presidential nomination, were forced to throw their support behind Bryan, eventually leading to a breakup of the Populist Party following Bryan’s loss. More moderate reformers such as Bryan forced the Populists to forgo their other controversial reforms, which was just as well, as in reality these “radical” reforms had already further alienated potential Populist-supporters, costing them votes and resulting in the eventual failure of their reform efforts.

Conclusions

The Populists, though their intentions were good, approached the problem of reforming the laissez-faire system in a way which failed to unite all the possible supporters of such reforms, resulting in the eventual failure of those reforms. The sermonizing, simplistic style of the Populists, along with their support of (for the time period) radical reforms, resulted in the alienation of more moderately reform minded individuals, along with a significant portion of the middle class, costing them critical support. Without this support their efforts floundered, leaving little lasting effect on the American political system. With the decline of the Populists, however, the stage was set for more moderate middle-class reform efforts to come along and reform the system in ways the Populists could not.


History | United States


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