Populism is a style of politics used to mobilize mass movements against ruling powers. Populists claim to speak for ordinary people, taking an "us versus them" stance. Its leaders have used rhetoric that stirs up anger, floated conspiracy theories, pushed the distrust of experts, promoted nationalism and demonized outsiders. Populism has become a recurring political theme in American politics and has inspired political reform, but has also been used to direct the hostilities of angry citizens to straw men. Below is a timeline of notable populist movements throughout U.S. history.
The Know Nothings
One of the earliest populist political parties in America was the Know Nothings in 1849. Opposed to immigrants and Catholics, the Know Nothings used the beliefs of white Christian supremacy to seize political power over minority populations.
The Know Nothings grew out of a Protestant secret society known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Members formed urban gangs that harassed immigrants and spread political propaganda against them. These groups then developed into a third political party taking advantage of blind spots of the Whigs and the Democrats.
In 1854 the Know Nothings officially adopted the name the American Party, which took hold of the Massachusetts legislature. Eventually, however, the party lost support mainly when its members refused to craft any policy addressing slavery. By 1860, most party members had jumped ship to join the Republicans.
The Greenback Party
The Greenback Party rose in 1874 as a confluence of farming communities that organized through local Granges. The Greenbacks wanted to initiate inflation to help with debt and supported an eight-hour workday as part of a wider pro-labor platform. The Greenbacks ran candidates for president through 1884 before eventually dissolving.
The Populist Party
Populism found an official name with the Populist Party, or People’s Party, in 1892, adopting much of the Greenback Party’s platform, supporting a ban on foreign land ownership, state control of the railroads and shortened work days.
Women played a large role in the Populist Party, doing everything from organizing meetings to speaking at rallies and writing articles about the party platform in newspapers.
The Populists were supporters of Temperance and focused on anti-corruption efforts. But as Populist leaders were wary of courting the black vote for fear of appearing anti-white, the party focused on economic issues shared by the races, assuring white supporters that they were not implying equality. Some in the party were known to support Jim Crow laws and white supremacy.
In 1892, Populist candidate for president James B. Weaver won 22 electoral votes, but victories for the party were isolated to the deep South. By 1894 the Populists had not gained urban worker support. The party began a rapid decline and was finished by 1908.
William Jennings Bryan
The self-proclaimed defender of the common man and working classes, William Jennings Bryan was elected to Congress in Nebraska as a Democrat in 1890, and his oratory gifts won him wider attention. At the Democratic convention in 1896, a feisty speech against the gold standard and in support of silver coinage to help relieve farm debt was so acclaimed that he received the nomination for president. He lost that election, however, and repeated the experience two more times.
Bryan became known as an anti-imperialist after his experience in the Spanish Civil War. He was also a foe of monopolies. He started a newspaper, The Commoner, which led to speaking engagements that cemented him as a populist firebrand.
Bryan became secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson in 1912 but resigned when the two disagreed over involvement in the European War (the war that would eventually become World War I). Bryan supported an isolationist stance. Bryan devoted his remaining time to women’s suffrage and advocating for Prohibition.
Bryan’s final hurrah in the public eye was as the prosecutor in the Scopes’ Monkey Trial in 1925, which revealed his belief in the literal translation of the Bible and opened him up to ridicule. He died five days after winning the case.
Huey Long provided the first impactful populist political movement of the 20th century. Rising from a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission in 1918 all the way to governor in 1928, Long rode a wave of support thanks to his anti-corporate efforts, the most popular of which was an ongoing battle with Standard Oil.
With the slogan of “Every man a king,” Long’s control was wide in Louisiana. He gave police more power, installed cronies into government agencies and gained more centralized power from the legislature. He also funded education, infrastructure and energy programs by taxing the rich.
In 1930, Long became a U.S. senator, maintaining his power within Louisiana through a puppet governor. With an eye on the presidency, Long started his Share the Wealth Club, offering a literal plan to redistribute wealth. He owned a newspaper and radio station to spread his socialist ideas, which he believed went further than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge on September 8, 1935 by Dr. Carl Weiss.
Michigan-based Catholic priest Charles Coughlin was an early prototype for media populist figures. In the 1930s, 30 million people listened to his weekly radio show, which originally supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, though it became well-known for its attacks on socialism and communism.
Coughlin formed the National Union for Social Justice in 1934 and spoke out against Roosevelt and bankers. This rhetoric took anti-Semitic tones, causing the cancellation of his show in 1939. Coughlin’s broadcast career was over, but he provided a template for media populists to come.
The grandstanding governor of Alabama was already known nationally for his hard pro-segregation stance thanks to his attempts to keep black students from entering the University of Alabama campus in 1963. Painting himself as a champion of the common man who won the governorship on a platform of economic populism, Wallace sought the presidency on four different occasions, first as a Democrat in 1964 challenging Lyndon Johnson.
Populism and racism have often walked hand-in-hand, and Wallace is seen as one of the most successful practitioners of this partnership, though he sometimes claimed that his racist tones were merely political calculations to gain popular support.
During his third run for the presidency in 1972, Wallace announced that he no longer supported segregation. The campaign seemed headed for success until he was shot in Maryland by 21-year-old Arthur Bremer. Wallace spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, though he ran for president one more time, unsuccessfully. When he wasn’t seeking the presidency, he was getting elected to non-consecutive Alabama governorships.
The 1990s saw some moderate conservative populism with the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot winning 18.9 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 8.4 percent in 1996. TV and radio media also saw a rise in populist Conservative personalities like Rush Limbaugh and hosts on Fox News, on the Internet with Matt Drudge and Andrew Breitbart, and in publishing with authors like Ann Coulter.
The Tea Party
The biggest bursts of populism in the 21st Century came in activist movements on each side of the political spectrum. The Tea Party was a conservative movement that appeared in 2009 following the election of President Barack Obama. The Tea Party rode a wave of conspiracy theories about Obama in order to push the Republican Party further right to the point of Libertarianism. It also became associated with the Freedom Caucus, another populist Conservative movement.
Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street burst into action following the financial crisis of 2011. The leader-less movement focused on seeking economic reform and prosecution of the big banks behind the financial crisis. Its members staged mass marches across the country and built semi-permanent protest camps in urban areas. Though largely a progressive movement, noted for the involvement of anarchist groups, its anti-corporate, anti-bank stance also attracted conservatives, libertarians and others.
The 2016 election saw a battle of populist styles in the presidential race. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, ran a wildly popular primary race against Hillary Clinton. The senator launched an unexpectedly vigorous challenge with a platform of tackling economic inequality, though he ultimately lost the Democratic nomination.
Millionaire real estate developer Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 on the most vigorous populist platform seen in years. In many ways Trump’s campaign was an extension of the Tea Party, but built around the businessman’s personality.
Under the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Trump sought to undo any agreements that he felt damaged the United States, to curb immigration and take an aggressive, isolationist stance against other countries, including allies.
The Populist Persuasion, by Michael Kazin, Cornell University Press.
“A Brief History of Populism,” September 26, 2015, The Week.
Kingfish and His Realm, by William Ivy Hair, LSU Press
Us Vs. Them: The Birth of Populism, by John B. Judis, Columbia Global Reports.