American Populisms: Thomas Jefferson to Rush Limbaugh

In the early 1890s, a coalition of farmers, laborers and middle class activists founded an independent political party named the People's Party, also known as the Populist Party. This party was the product of a broad social movement that emerged in response to wrenching changes in the American economy and society. In the decades after the Civil War, the telegraph and telephone meant that information that had taken weeks or months to travel across continents and oceans now traveled at the speed of electric current. The telecommunications revolution made the world a much smaller place (today we call it globalization). It also made possible large-scale business organization in the form of railroad corporations and other giant and centralized enterprises. Corporate power grew exponentially, allowing corporate executives to amass great fortunes, while hard times pressed on most everyone else. Americans had never experienced such a divide between rich and poor. The People's Party was the most successful third party movement since prior to the Civil War. In 1892, the Populist candidate for president, James B. Weaver of Iowa, won more than a million votes. Tom Watson of Georgia, Jeremiah Simpson of Kansas and Marion Cannon of California were among the leaders of the third party bloc in the U.S. Congress, while William A. Peffer of Kansas, William V. Allen of Nebraska and Marion Butler of North Carolina were Populist U.S. Senators. The People' Party also gained key state offices in North Carolina, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota and other states. Meanwhile, dynamic Populist stump speakers such as Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas and James “Cyclone” Davis of Texas attracted enthusiastic crowds of thousands in rural districts across the nation.

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The Populist movement also posed one of the biggest challenges to corporate power ever witnessed in the United States. In protest of high freight charges and usurious mortgage rates the movement pressed for government regulation or ownership of railroads and banks. To provide relief from debts and low prices on farm goods the Populists pressed for currency expansion by way of minting silver and printing greenbacks at the expense of bankers and creditors. To finance essential public functions they demanded the enactment of a progressive income tax on the wealthiest Americans. To rid government of the undue influence of corporate lobbyists the Populists demanded the direct election of senators, as well as the initiative and referendum and other experiments in direct democracy. The rise of Populism horrified many upper and middle class Americans. The corporate elite believed that their laissez-faire ideal of unregulated capitalism was the only model suitable for modern development. In the eyes of the well to do and well educated, Populism represented an assault by primitive “hayseeds” and ignorant “clodhoppers” that put modern civilization in peril. Ever since, such a perspective has influenced how Populism has been understood and where it has been situated in the narrative of American history.

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