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Do we need a healthy dose of Populism today?

As I See It

Periodically, we hear politicians referred to as “populists.” The term has become synonymous with someone who is a champion of the common people rather than a slave to special interest groups. I suspect that most people using the term probably don’t know where it came from or what it means. In our never-ending quest to stamp out ignorance wherever it lurks, herewith is the origin and meaning of the word “populist.”

As the 19th century drew to a close, there was a growing concern among farmers that industry was gaining political power at the expense of agriculture. Likewise, urban areas were gaining influence over the rural parts of the country. In an effort to counter this trend, the People’s Party was formed and its platform adopted in 1892.

The Populists sought, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to unite the forces of rural and urban labor in a great crusade to wrest control of the government from the hands of the special interest groups. Many Populist proposals achieved a great measure of success after the People’s Party itself had disappeared.

Some have characterized the Populists as socialists or communist. They were neither. They were individualists and consisted primarily of farmers who were, or who aspired to be, landowners, and therefore small capitalists. The only truly socialist reform that the Populists demanded was government ownership and operation of the railroads and the means of communication. Though public ownership of these basic industries did not happen, the Populists are credited with laying the groundwork for the massive volume of government regulations which arose in the early 20th century.

The Populists had a fear of big government and sought to control it by means of rigid civil service regulations for all government employees. They recognized that something was wrong with the monetary system in our country and proposed adopting a silver standard to correct the situation. Though silver was not the solution, the Federal Reserve System was and it owes it origins to some extent to the Populist platform.

Some Populist proposals were eventually adopted, almost intact. Chief among these were the graduated income tax, restrictions on immigration, the eight-hour work day, postal savings facilities, the initiative and referendum and election of United States senators by direct vote of the people.

The proposal for a graduated income tax predated enactment of any kind of income tax by several decades. Our federal income tax law was not signed into law until 1913.

Prior to the Populist proposal for direct election of senators by the voters, senators were selected by state legislatures.

Looking back on the concerns of the People’s Party in 1892, we see a similarity to the issues of today.

I am certain that the Populists could not even conceive of how big government could really get, and yet they were concerned about the issue a century ago.

It is refreshing to me that the problem of special interest influence on government is not something invented by our generation, though I am satisfied that we have allowed the problem to escalate to levels unimaginable by the Populists.

We have recently been subjected to the political conventions of both major political parties. The planks of the platforms of both major parties are unlikely to have much impact on our future. Neither contains radical proposals of the kind put forth by the Populists of a century ago. In fact, few platforms of any American political party have been as influential as the one the People’s Party adopted in 1892.


Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

— 1 PETER 3:15

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is cpajones@msbusiness.com.


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