During the 1870s and 1880s the American agricultural community suffered from innumerable problems as the United States became increasingly urban and industrial. Farmers first sought to solve their own problems through the economic cooperatives founded by the Grange. When these self-help programs proved a failure, farmers began to demand that government respond to their plight. They increasingly turned to the Farmers Alliance, a new agrarian group which sought to pressure the major political parties and the Congress into adopting their demands. When, because of the nature of the Gilded Age party system, the Republicans and Democrats as well as Congress refused to respond or responded superficially, the Farmers Alliance evolved into a third political party known as the Populists. They were intent on wresting power from the Republicans and Democrats at both the state and federal level. While they failed to take over the national government through the electoral process, they would end the Gilded Age party system and prepare America for fundamental changes in government accomplished by others after the turn of the century.
Farmers realized that they by themselves simply werenít numerous enough to carry a majority of the Electoral College; the Populist party therefore was an attempt to unite the rural farmers with voters in the silver states of the Far West and urban industrial laborers in the Northeast. This voting coalition would be difficult to create and maintain given the diversity of interests it would need to reconcile. While each group had a reason for wanting to alter the existing political system, their interests often conflicted. Rural farmers disliked urban dwellers and industrial interests. Newly-arrived immigrants were just that - urban dwellers who provided the unskilled labor to industrial manufacturers. The coalition nature of the Populist party is certainly reflected in its membersí characteristics.
Class Origins: Lower middle class (farmers and mining interests) and lower class (urban industrial laborers who were usually newly-arrived immigrants)
Occupational Backgrounds: Farmers and others associated with agriculture, mine owners and other economically dependent on western silver mine operations, industrial laborers
Geographic Distribution: The rural agrarian states of the South, Southwest, and Midwest; the mining states of the Far West; the urban areas of the Northeast
During its brief existence, the Populist party was dominated by its agrarian component. This becomes clear when one looks at the platform or agenda of the party during the 1890s. The political and economic planks of the Populist platform came directly from the Ocala Demands of the Farmers Alliance - the subtreasury program, the free coinage of silver, an end to protective tariffs on manufactured goods, the abolition of national banks, a progressive federal income tax, the direct election of U. S. senators, and the regulation of railroads or their outright nationalization by the federal government.
One of the most significant and distinctive actions of the Populist party was its demand that the federal government abandon its laissez faire policy and take some limited responsibility for the social well-being of American citizens. The 1890s witnessed a financial panic in 1893 which quickly spread into the worst depression the nation had ever witnessed. As unemployment skyrocketed and fear contracted the money supply even further, Jacob S. Coxey, a Populist, organized a march upon Washington, D. C., by unemployed men. They demanded that the government take active measures to ease the problem of unemployment and suffering by hiring unemployed laborers to construct roads and bridges across the country. Such a demand was unprecedented. The Populists were the first political party organization to contest national elections that demanded that the size, activity level, and, if need be, expense of government be increased to deal with the problems of a perplexing, complicated modern America.
Obstacles Facing the Populistsí Attempts to Attain Major Party Status
In order to understand what happened politically in the 1894 congressional elections and culminated in the 1896 national election, one needs a broader reference - a system for comparing elections.
Critical Elections: The Mainsprings of American Politics
Political scientists have a method of comparing elections that rests upon the idea that at any given time there is a political system featuring a majority party and a minority party. This is not for one election cycle but for long periods of time. One party, year in and year out, will have more voters affiliated with it than the other. Given this framework, they have classified elections as either maintaining, deviating, or realigning.
A maintaining election is the most common type. It maintains the political status quo. The majority party wins the election primarily because it commands the affiliation/allegiance of the majority of voters in that particular political era. There is no great interest in the election - the outcome is simply a function of the dominant party asserting its superiority in a normal run-of-the-mill election.
A deviating election deviates from what one would presume the electionís outcome to be. The minority party wins but nonetheless remains the minority party in the long haul. The election is an exception; it does not permanently alter the party system. Deviating elections can occur for a variety of reasons: the majority party nominates a candidate seen as an extremist, the minority party nominates an incredibly popular personality, the majority party undergoes a period of infighting and factional strife, etc. Regardless, the minority party wins the election but does not permanently alter the party system.
The rarest type of election is known as a realigning election, which does permanently change the party system. Realigning elections mark a rejection of the political status quo; they end one party system and usher in another.
Characteristics of Realigning Elections
The 1896 Election
In 1896 the Democratic party reacted to what it perceived as an electoral threat from the Populists by adopting the most popular of their demands - the free coinage of silver. In nominating William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska on a free silver ticket, the Democrats were trying to attract Populist support in the coming election and coopt the Populist threat. The depression of the 1890s had strengthened the demand for free silver. Many Americans saw the inflation promised by free silver as an economic cure to the deflation of the depression. Meeting after the Democrats, the Populists endorsed Bryanís candidacy even though the Democratic platform was silent on the rest of the Populist demands.
The Republican party nominated William McKinley on a platform emphasizing the continued desirability of the gold standard and protective tariffs.
While Bryan polled nearly a million more popular votes than Grover Cleveland had in winning the presidency in 1892, he was trounced by McKinley in the Electoral College. Besides being on the wrong side of the political realignment, Bryan lost the election for several specific reasons:
While the Populists failed to win national office or displace either or both of the major parties, they had a significant impact on the American political and governmental systems. Many of the Populist demands which were viewed as radical and extreme in the 1890s were enacted shortly thereafter. By 1920 U. S. senators were elected directly, a progressive federal income tax was in operation, railroad regulatory efforts were strengthened significantly, protective tariffs had been lowered, short-term credit had been made available in rural areas, etc. While the Populists were unable to enact their platform during their existence, they prepared the way for these adjustments to a modern, more complicated American society.