Populist Politics: The Business of Government

By Charles Postel, San Francisco State University

The Populist organizations such as the Farmers' Alliance were avowedly non-political and above party politics. In practice this meant that they worked for reform by way of influencing the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. However, by the early 1890s many members of the Farmers' Alliance and kindred groups came to the conclusion that the traditional parties were too attached to corporate interests and the perks of political office to be effective agents of reform. This led to the “industrial conferences” held in Cincinnati, Ohio (May 1891) and St. Louis, Missouri (February 1892) that launched the new People's Party or Populist Party. The national People's Party convention held in July 1892 in Omaha, Nebraska produced the Omaha Platform, the manifesto celebrated by the Populists as “The Second Declaration of Independence.”

Drafted by the Minnesota reformer Ignatius Donnelly, the preamble of the Omaha platform echoed the original Declaration of Independence with its warning that American liberty was threatened. Corrupted by the corporations, banks, and trusts, government policy bred “the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.” The Omaha Platform was not only a cry of protest, as it was also a set of positive demands to make sure that the government would serve the needs of the farmer-labor majority. These demands amounted to an innovative and massive expansion of the role of government in the national economy.

The Populist platform called for the nationalization of the railroads, the telegraphs, and other “natural monopolies.” It demanded that the federal government stimulate the economy, raise farm prices, and relieve debt burdens by inflating the dollar with a policy of printing paper money and coining silver at the ration to gold of 16 ounces to one. It endorsed the subtreasury proposal of the Farmers' Alliance that would provide federal loans at two percent interest on the crops that farmers stored in a national system of federal warehouses. To finance a more active federal government, and to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth, the platform also demanded the adoption of a federal income tax to be paid by the wealthiest Americans.

In the literature on the Populists one will see references to Populist hostility to the bureaucracy of big government. But this characterization makes little sense in regard to the original Populists of the 1890s. At the time, the federal government was quite small and the Populists wanted to make it much bigger and more effective. They also had a highly favorable opinion of the one large federal bureaucracy of that era: the U.S. Post Office. As compared to the abusive and arbitrary practices of the railroad and telegraph corporations, the Populists viewed the Post Office as the model of efficient and equitable business practices. The expansion of government, they believed, should be on the same model. As the Omaha Platform stated: “We believe that the power of government – in other words of the people – should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teaching of experience shall justify.”

While demanding a larger role for government, the Populists also wanted cheap government. They believed that the people's business should be conducted in the spirit of business efficiency. This meant purging the corrupting influence of corporate lobbyists, and breaking the power of political bosses in state legislatures and city and town councils. The Populists wanted to do away with the personal and partisan politics of parties in favor of impersonal and business-like administration. The clean government proposals in the Omaha Platform included civil service laws, the direct election of senators, and the secret ballot, as well as direct legislation through the initiative and referendum. Populist education in “the science of government” would ensure that the vote rested in the hands of an informed citizenry.

The People's Party had an encouraging start at the polls. In 1892, James B. Weaver of Iowa won over a million votes as the Populist candidate for president. Colorado, Kansas, and North Dakota elected Populist governors. The Populist blocs in California, North Carolina, and other states held the balance of power in the legislatures. This was the most promising third party movement since the rise of the Republican Party in the decade before the Civil War.

Yet the Populists remained far from gaining national power. To the extent that they appealed to voters against partisan politics, they undercut their own ability to conduct political warfare. And everywhere the realities of the winner-take-all political system worked against the success of a third party. In the Northeastern states, powerful Republican and Democratic machines effectively froze out a Populist challenge. Elsewhere, when the two traditional parties faced each other in competitive elections, one of the parties would adopt reforms attractive to Populist-minded voters, again freezing out the third party. The People's Party scored its major victories in Republican Western states and Democratic Southern states, where the Populists emerged as the reform opposition. But even then, whether in North Carolina or Kansas, Populist electoral victories were almost always the result of so-called “fusion” agreements with either the Democrats in the West or the Republicans in the South.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a young congressman from Nebraska captured the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the platform of silver inflation and other reforms that rural voters wanted. Bryan's nomination split the People's Party, as some Populists wanted “fusion” with the Democratic ticket while “middle of the road” Populists wanted an independent People's Party ticket. The electoral defeat of Bryan at the hands of the Republican William McKinley proved a mortal blow to the People's Party from which it never recovered.