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What is the Populist Movement?

By James Doehring
Updated May 17, 2024
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The populist movement is a term used to describe a variety of reform initiatives associated with popular sentiment. In the United States, the People’s Party of the late 19th century was also known as the Populist Party. The rise of socialism in Latin America is often considered a modern manifestation of this movement. Some have criticized unchecked populism, however, as it can result in the oppression of a minority voice.

In the U.S., the recession of the 1890s impacted the agrarian sector of the economy earlier than other sectors. Crop prices in Southern and Midwestern states were falling, and many farmers believed the government was not taking enough action against railroad companies and other powerful industries. Large monopolies owned by wealthy tycoons were on the rise during this period. Public opposition toward these large business entities in the U.S. was one of the origins of the populist movement.

The People’s Party, established in 1887, was the first political party in the U.S. to also identify as the Populist Party, and it initiated many calls for reform that later became law. The direct election of U.S. senators was one party platform, which eventually became a constitutional amendment in 1912. Social programs for farmers during times of economic depression became reality during the 1930s. The People’s Party declined partly because it was associated with a movement to allow the free coinage of silver, a policy that would have caused inflation and held little appeal to urban citizens.

In Latin America, there has been more recent activism and revolutions associated with populism. Latin America has shown slower growth during the last several decades than have many Western and Asian countries, and many have blamed this on foreign ownership of major Latin American industries. Moreover, wealth in many Latin American countries is more concentrated than in other parts of the world, which has left the majority of citizens economically poor. Socialism, and its potential for redistributing income, has gained popularity in Latin America, and many consider this to be part of the populist movement.

There are also negative senses of the term populism. It is been proposed that “mob rule,” or unchecked popular power, can lead to social instability, as in the case of the downfall of Rome. Some scholars have also suggested that such movements can serve as the origins for fascist movements. The oppression of a minority by the majority, for example, can result if state forces follow unrestrained popular sentiments.

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Discussion Comments
By anon292847 — On Sep 22, 2012

When a government’s agenda does not reflect the true values of its people – as is the case now in America -- it is up to every one of us to act to stop it. As Henry David Thoreau explained in his classic 1849 text titled "Civil Disobedience," people have a duty not to permit their governments to overrule their consciences, and to not stand by while government makes them agents of injustice. We can end this by not voting. Boycott the vote.

When you vote, you are granting your consent of the governed. That's what voting is all about. If you knowingly vote for people you can't hold accountable, it means that you don't really care what they do once they're in office. All you care about is your right to vote, not whether or not you will actually be represented or if the government will secure your rights.

I truly think Americans do not contest "the wars" because so many Americans are employed in war industries. A good government would subsidize industry that competes on the world market, that enriches our lives, etc.

The populace movement that will work is the overthrow of two parties that are killing America. To do this non-violently is to boycott elections as a slogan, a mass movement,

By anon250559 — On Feb 26, 2012

Comfyshoes' idea of limiting to two parties allows for no correction when one party or both are failing to address what the people want, like single payer health care or real changes in banking that serve the people and not just serving the folks with money. Sure, a third party can disrupt two parties but actually, other countries use multiple parties for greater democracy. The actual representational percentage of each party impacts the final decisions.

The other part missing here is that the current two party system systematically excludes the other voices via limited debates. That is not democracy! That is hat Ralph Nader wanted, to be heard. Sure, he took votes back actually in the election that was so controversial with getting W. Bush in office, the election process was rigged and the Supreme Court stepped in a really messed up the mess. The problem wasn't Nader; it was a compromised election.

We need to hear all of our voices, not just two parties that are often clueless because they do not want to hear from Americans.

By comfyshoes — On Oct 16, 2010

Cupcake15-I know that the same thing happened to President George H. W. Bush during his reelection campaign. Ross Perot was running as an Independent but actually was more of a libertarian candidate that was more conservative than Bush, which actually split the Republican vote.

Although more people were voting for a conservative candidate, by creating a third party they actually got President Bill Clinton, a Democrat elected.

Whenever a third party is influential in an election, it almost always leads to the opposite results. This is why we need to stick with the two parties and not split the vote of our intended party.

Third parties do not get elected, so you are essentially throwing away your vote and even ensuring that the opposite candidate that you want will get elected. Third parties do more harm than good.

By cupcake15 — On Oct 16, 2010

Subway11-The populist movement and the value of third parties is mixed. While third parties do give people a voice that do not seem to agree with the existing other parties, they usually garner very little support and often hurt the candidates that most closely resembles its platform.

For example, When Al Gore ran as a Democratic candidate for President, Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate. Although Ralph Nader’s platform was also liberal populists movement like Al Gore, his running as a Green party candidate may have cost Al Gore the election because the democratic vote was split.

Since the margin that President George W. Bush won with was so slim, many feel that this was a factor in Bush winning. So by starting a third party candidacy, those voting for this candidate actually get the opposite of what they originally wanted. This is why I think that there should only be two political parties.

By subway11 — On Oct 16, 2010

Bhutan-I think the progressive movement is just another excuse to tax us more. Businesses actually offer people jobs and should not be made the enemy.

It is the wealthy that owns these businesses that offer employment opportunities to the poor and middleclass. Following this mantra, the successful get punished for their success, but the poor and middleclass also suffer because as a result of the added taxes, they may be laid off as many have been in the economy.

So how did the additional taxes on the rich help everyone else? This anti-American movement goes hand in hand with the labor movement in which the labor unions become more powerful while companies become less profitable.

I think that the Tea Party movement is the result of a reform movement underway in America. People are tired of the government not listening to them and as a result a rebellious movement occurred.

This is not a third party or an arm of the Republican Party, but a group of people truly concerned with the socialist direction that our country has taken.

By Bhutan — On Oct 16, 2010

The populist movement definition refers to an idea that businesses seek profits at the expense of individuals.

The mantra regarding Wall Street versus Main Street resonates here. This is usually a popular theme in progressivism. The progressive movement pits business against citizens and makes the government the answer to these problems.

This populist movement definition offers results in talk of raising taxes on the upper class in an effort to redistribute wealth to the lower classes. It is a tenet of Socialism that many say our government is experiencing today.

John Edwards underscored the populist movement when he ran for President. When he talked about "Two Americas", he was trying to reinforce a populist theme that there is a large disparity in people’s income in this country and somehow we need to bridge the gap.

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