What is a Populist?

Jessica Hobby
Jessica Hobby
The ostentatious wealth of the late 19th century industrialists and the extreme disparities in income led to the creation of the populist movement in the United States.
The ostentatious wealth of the late 19th century industrialists and the extreme disparities in income led to the creation of the populist movement in the United States.

A populist is a person who subscribes to the political philosophy of populism, which is in favor of supporting the rights of the masses and giving power to the people in the struggle against the privileged upper class. The general philosophies of populism theoretically fall somewhere in the center of the political spectrum, as opposed to left or right, but one will rarely have the same beliefs as another. Typically, this person is liberal on economic and national security issues, but conservative on social issues. Examining the populist movement in America from its inception to the present day will give a general understanding of the belief system.

Although some scholars argue that populism has been a worldwide common political phenomenon dating back to the time of Spartacus, the beginning of the movement in America usually refers to the organization of farmers and laborers who disapproved of the inequalities in America during the “Guilded Age” of the late 19th century. From 1865 to 1901, the United States saw unprecedented economic and industrial growth and an eruption of an elite class of incredibly wealthy leaders of finance and industry. With the belief that the country’s farmers and working class citizens created the nation’s wealth, they collectively joined together to create the People’s Party of the U.S.A., also known as the Populist Party.

In order to protect the working class from big business, obtain a voice in government, and level the playing field for all Americans, the People’s Party platform included an expanded national currency, a graduated income tax, and government ownership of transportation routes and communication lines. Party members had success in gaining a few seats in Congress and a presidential candidate in the 1892 election, but they were never able to present themselves as a feasible third party in a dominating two-party system. This lead to the party's formal endorsement of the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1896 election.

After the Populist Party fell apart in 1896, there really hasn’t been any significant formal organization. It was briefly revived, possibly in its most severe form, in the 1980s when David Duke, a former leader of the Klu Klux Klan, ran for president with a white supremacist platform, exploiting the native-born, Protestant populists in the early years. In the 1990s, Texas business tycoon Ross Perot ran for president with his self-funded Reform Party campaign, which was also arguably populist. In the 2000s, a few smaller parties were formed, but none with any viable political candidates. Politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, continually exhibit tendencies toward this political philosophy.

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Discussion Comments

It is hard to find a true spirit of populism in today's politics. Some politicians like to use the rhetoric of it but they shy away from making any real commitments.

And there are even more politicians who reject the notion entirely, even on the left. It is a shame that we have become such an individualistic culture. Everyone thinks about themselves, naturally, but we seem to get excited these days by the idea that others have less than we do. There is no spirit of common good.


What an incredible spewing of false myths propagated by the 1 percent to keep the 99 percent divided and confused.


can you deposit money into a trust fund for a person that is dead.


BrickBack-I totally agree. This is the reason why the education system is so poor. Unions negotiate contracts in efforts to get better compensation for the teachers, and the results are poor because the compensation is not tied to productivity and results.

So a failing teachers earns the same as a productive teacher. How is that helping the majority of society, which is what populism state?

The movie, “Waiting for Superman” really explains how this populist persuasion regarding the labor union movement is destroying the very thing it is intending to enhance- America’s education system.

Our country was based on the value of the individual and as a capitalist country, the individual can succeed if he has the right determination.

This is why I don’t care for the populist ideology. While I know that all businesses are not perfect, I would much rather take my chances with a business than with the government any day.


Cupcake15-To me a populist meaning philosophy is really misguided. For example, many labor unions that claim to negotiate better contracts for its workers actually put companies out of business.

The reason is simple. Labor union’s demands are not based on productivity; in fact many of their demands involve exorbitant pensions and wages that most companies can not pay.

GM, for example has to pay out 5 billion a year in just pension benefits. This is an unfair disadvantage that GM has over other companies who are not unionized. It is these actions that eventually hurt everyone involved because companies do not have an endless supply of money. So this is goes against any populist persuasion.


Latte31- There is usually some populist progressive push to refusing to let Wal Mart opens its doors.

Often the argument is that Wal Mart will put other small businesses out of business because of the competitive advantage that Wal Mart has. These progressive populist moments are actually limiting employment opportunities for more Americans.

Wal Mart not only offers competitive wages, but even provides part timers with health insurance. Their low prices also help the poor and middle class because they offer more value for their goods.

For example, they were the first to introduce $4 prescription medications and have even lowered that to $2.


Populist ideology really promotes the idea that the poor and middle class Americans are exploited by the excessive profits of big business. The populist movement really looks to tax the upper class as well as businesses in order to compensate for the differences in wealth.

The problem with this populist vision is that you are assuming that successful businesses are evil, when in reality these businesses employ a lot of people and offer them opportunities to earn a living where one may not exist.

Take for instance the example of Wal Mart. Wal Mart; the largest retailer in America often opens its huge stores in small rural towns which serves its customer base.

It also provides thousands of jobs to people in very rural communities that are faced with few employment options.

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    • The ostentatious wealth of the late 19th century industrialists and the extreme disparities in income led to the creation of the populist movement in the United States.
      By: ArenaCreative
      The ostentatious wealth of the late 19th century industrialists and the extreme disparities in income led to the creation of the populist movement in the United States.