What Is Populism? | History

NARRATOR: What do all these
people have in common? They’ve all been
called populists, but is that an insult
or a compliment? And is it even accurate? It’s hard to tell. The term is defined as a member
of a political party claiming to represent the common
people, but populism isn’t as easy to understand
as some other isms. Why? To answer that, we need to go
back to the origin of the term late in the 19th century. The decades following
the Civil War were a time of massive
growth in America. From 1860 to 1890, the American
population nearly doubled. Production of steel and coal
exploded, all while the US Army battled Native
Americans in a bid to carve out more and more
land for railroads and farmers as the country
expanded ever westward. With over 62 million
American mouths to feed, farming looked like
a lucrative field. Technological advancement
made it even easier to grow and harvest crops,
if you could afford to invest in the technology. But many farmers couldn’t,
not on their own. So they took out hefty
loans from eastern banks, believing that the
high demand for food would allow them to pay off
their debt in a short time. But then crop prices
fell and drought hit, and the privately-owned
railroad monopolies drove up transportation costs. Many farmers soon went bankrupt. The federal government
did little to help, refusing to break
up the monopolies and offering little
to ease the suffering. So farmers took matters
into their own hands, banding together to
advocate for themselves. In May 1891, one such
farmers’ alliance in Kansas coined the phrase “populist,”
meaning of the people, to describe their movement. Within a year, the
People’s Party, also known as the Populist
Party, had been formed. It was born out of an unlikely
alliance between farmers, union leaders, and
workers’ organizations like the Knights of Labor. Their collective target was
the moneyed elite of the East. Populist orator Mary
Ellen Lease famously stated that America had become
a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and
for Wall Street, and the Populist Party
agitated for massive reform. The populists called for the
recognition of labor unions, regulation of the
railroad industry, the direct election of senators,
a progressive income tax, women’s suffrage, an
eight-hour work day, and more. These were considered
radical ideas at the time. Through their collective
action, the party gained power and a foothold
on the national stage. In 1892, they nominated
James B. Weaver for president, who
received 8% of the vote and captured five states. Two years later, the party
sent eight members to Congress and captured hundreds of
state legislature seats. But there were divisive
factions within. Nativists and racists
blamed Jewish immigrants and Chinese railroad
workers for their woes. Some populist groups welcomed
black farmers in the South, but others refused them as
the Jim Crow era took hold. While the movement began outside
the two-party system, by 1896 the Populist Party
had become aligned with the Democratic Party. They nominated
William Jennings Bryan for president, an influential
populist politician. This too ostracized
many black populists, who felt a loyalty
to the Republicans, the party of Lincoln. The Populist Party waned,
but its founding ideals would persevere. Louisiana governor
and Senator Huey Long led a left-wing
populist movement that addressed Americans’
real fears during the depths of the Great Depression. He demanded a radical
redistribution of wealth from the country’s richest
citizens to its poorest. His plan, known as
Share Our Wealth, would have capped personal
income at $50 million in today’s money. He considered a run
for president in 1936, but was assassinated. His ideas, however,
did not die and helped push the already liberal
New Deal policies of FDR even further left. In the 1950s, America
saw one of its first right-wing manifestations
of populism under Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy claimed communists had
infiltrated positions of power in the government and military
with the help of the East Coast liberal intelligentsia. Attacking the liberal
elites echoed the outcries of the original
populist movement, but for very different reasons. In the 1960s, Alabama
governor George Wallace made a name for himself
as a staunch segregationist. He used populist rhetoric to
capitalize on mostly white middle class resentment of
the sweeping social changes of the decade. The low and middle income
group in this country haven’t had any representation,
and the pseudo-intellectuals have taken over the party
in the Democratic Party. NARRATOR: His followers
attacked the government, Vietnam War protesters, the
media, liberals, and the elite. Populist ideas and rhetoric
continued into the modern day. Barack Obama, responding to the
unsustainable cost of health care, campaigned on
universal coverage as a candidate in
the 2008 election and pushed through the
Affordable Care Act as president. The legislation covered many
more Americans than before, but left the private health
care industry intact. It was still
attacked as radical. No more petitions! Fight the politicians! Fight the politicians! NARRATOR: In the 2016 Democratic
presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders tapped into a
very real anger at both Wall Street and the government over
the 2008 financial crisis, the subsequent great
recession, and a recovery that had left many Americans behind. As a result of their
greed and illegal behavior, they drove this economy into
the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. NARRATOR: His proposed
economic policies, like a progressive estate tax,
doubling the minimum wage, and improving paid
family and medical leave, paralleled those of the
populist farmers of the 1890s. It’s going to be so
beautiful, and you’re going to pay far less money. NARRATOR: Donald Trump, while
running for president in 2016, also made a populist appeal
to the economic and social insecurity of many
Americans, portraying his political opponents
and the media as the elite and employing a nativist
tone similar to the more divisive factions of the late
19th century populist movement. [chanting] Throughout American
history, populism has been celebrated,
condemned, and appropriated across the political spectrum. There is no easy definition,
but the one thing all populist movements
seem to have in common is an appeal to the people
and their fears, anxieties, and dreams of a better world.

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