When the Democratic Party first encountered Populism, it was resting upon past laurels. Though still tarnished by its association with the Civil War, the Democratic Party had restored the political equilibrium through divided control of Congress and even succeeded in sending a Democrat to the White House in 1884 and 1892. A new spirit of economic development was at work in the states of the old Confederacy, in which the Democratic majority took considerable satisfaction. The party's leaders advocated low tariffs, conservative fiscal policy, and a minimum of government intervention.
Despite its success, a serious challenge was brewing that threatened to undermine the Democratic Party in its southern bastion. The growth of the New South brought little benefit to the many small-scale farmers—white and black—who operated under the constraints of the crop lien system that subjected them to the whims of large-scale landowners and merchants. With the demonetization of silver in 1873 and the subsequent sharp decline in commodity prices, many such farmers, particularly in Texas, were spurred into organizing a cooperative movement, the Farmers’ Alliance, in 1877.
While the Alliance's reach ultimately extended across the nation—especially in the agricultural Midwest—it was in the Democratic South where Lawrence Goodwyn identified a “movement culture” that it proved most enduring. The Alliance promoted numerous cooperative marketing and purchasing initiatives at the state level, but its theorists also developed what came to be known as the subtreasury plan, which proposed the erection of federal warehouses in which farmers could stockpile crops until the market price rose to an acceptable level, and from which they could borrow up to 80 percent of the market price of crops so deposited. The subtreasury plan was the cornerstone of the Populist movement, but it was entirely unacceptable to many financial interests across the South.
Alliance members were Democrats before they joined the People's Party and generally returned to their former party allegiance following the collapse of the Populist movement. Indeed, the Alliance's first foray into electoral politics in 1890 involved not the creation of a new party but the election of pro-Alliance Democrats to state offices, most notably in Tennessee and Georgia.
The Populists soon found themselves outmaneuvered by Democratic Party leaders, some of whom, most notoriously Ben Tillman of South Carolina and James Hogg of Texas, exploited Populist discontent to secure their own political ambitions, without embracing the Populist program. Furthermore, the Populists’ decision to nominate a former Union general as their presidential candidate in 1892 allowed southern Democrats to appeal to traditional voting loyalties, even as they manipulated the returns in black-majority areas, to ensure Populist defeat. Within a decade, Populism as a political force in the South had largely dissipated.
If the Democratic Party contributed materially to the destruction of southern Populism, an equally vital factor was the role played by William Jennings Bryan. A former Nebraska congressman, Bryan had witnessed firsthand the rise of Populism in neighboring Kansas. Popularly dubbed the Great Commoner, he enjoyed a personal affinity with the common people, which set him apart from many in his own party. Bryan, however, laid greater stress upon the necessity of individual equality of opportunity and moral reform—for example, universal education—than he did upon wholesale economic restructuring.
Nominated by his party in 1896, Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the meeting point of urban East and rural West, in which he formally articulated the cultural and economic sectionalism that would come to define the United States until the Great Depression (and indeed after), the cosmopolitan cities against the pietistic countryside. It was a set of attitudes and prejudices that served to define the populist spirit within the Democratic Party for more than a century.
Historically, the language of Populism predisposed Democrats in its favor. Its icons included Thomas Jefferson (for his resistance to the centralization of government functions) and Andrew Jackson (for his assaults on the “money power” and resistance to special privilege). The Republican Party's post–Civil War commitment to state-building, meanwhile, sat uneasily with Populists, and later with former Populists, who sought to extricate the “common man” from the toils of industrial society. They called for a “counterrevolution” to restore the “moral community” and the defeat of monopoly power, sentiments that many Democrats were happy to embrace.
From 1896 until the election of Woodrow Wilson as president in 1912, Bryan and his wing of the party actively resisted the post-1898 imperialist policies and the protective tariffs that were the cornerstone of Republican policy but that offered little to the agricultural South and West. A vocal proponent of antimonopoly legislation, Bryan maintained that the destruction of monopolies before they became all-powerful was preferable to regulation by the state (a point later adopted by Woodrow Wilson). In his quest to give “the people” a voice, Bryan also championed the direct election of senators and ensured its inclusion in successive Democratic Party platforms.
Such residual Populism could hardly be denied a seat at the table when the Democrats regained control of all three branches of government in 1912, and Bryan succeeded to the office of secretary of state. Much of the early agenda of the Wilson administration, from cutting tariffs and passing antitrust legislation to the establishment of the Federal Reserve as a combination of decentralized regional reserve banks and a central supervisory board, sought to address the concerns of the rural periphery and make access to credit in those regions more achievable.
Faced with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, however, the Wilson administration shifted to a more statist model of intervention that reached its apogee in 1917–1918. While Democratic populists rejoiced at the final victory of national prohibition and the achievement of woman suffrage they took less satisfaction in wartime mobilization and the attendant suppression of dissent. The Republican victories of 1920 paved the way for a decade of bitter internal conflict within the Democratic Party in which populist language served to defend a rural community increasingly seen as under threat.
The growing importance of an urban, and heavily Catholic, vote to the Democratic coalition presented a severe crisis of confidence for many populist Democrats, reflected in the dramatic rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and its impact on the politics of the South (not to mention the famous deadlocked national convention of 1924). Populism and nativism came to be increasingly synonymous within the Democratic Party, as was a commitment to the maintenance of Prohibition. The economic elements of the older Populist agenda were either abandoned or modified by an emerging cadre of urban Democrats who championed a pluralistic form of Americanism.
In the South, however, populist Democrats did find a champion with a national agenda who spoke their language, Huey Long of Louisiana. A charismatic son of Louisiana's Winn Parish (where the state's People's Party was born), Long entered politics in 1916 and soon acquired a reputation as a scourge of corporate interests, particularly the Standard Oil Company. In 1928 he won election as governor with solid backing from the small-scale farmers of the state, pushing through a reform program that included free textbooks for school students and revision of the tax code to impose greater burdens on oil and gas interests. Moving on to the U.S. Senate in 1930, he continued to exercise control of Louisiana politics through his supporters.
In one sense, Long's methods were, at times, ruthless and would seem to have placed him outside the populist mainstream, yet Long argued that his regime enjoyed widespread popular support. His achievements included a major highway construction program and the improvement of the state's public health facilities, and he avoided the southern populist tendency to exploit racial prejudice. By 1931, he had set his sights on achieving a more pronounced national profile and quickly broke with the southern Democrats who controlled the Senate committee system.
Although he backed Roosevelt for president in 1932 and campaigned in the agricultural Midwest where he was warmly received, Long soured quickly on the new president, castigating the New Deal for its early economic conservatism. As an alternative he began to publicize what came to be known as the Share Our Wealth Plan, which proposed punitive taxes on income and inheritances above $1 million used to guarantee a minimum household income to every American. Although economically unsustainable, the simplicity of Long's plans for redistribution and its emphasis on increasing the purchasing power of ordinary Americans caught the popular imagination. The subsequent development of a national network of Share Our Wealth clubs—echoing to some degree the earlier modus operandi of the Farmers’ Alliance—signaled an intention to become a national movement, only aborted by Long's murder in 1935.
Long was unquestionably in a class by himself among populist Democrats, not least in his ability to transcend the racial issue. His passing marked the final phase of insurgent Democratic populism with a broad economic appeal and its replacement by a populism that stressed its cultural conservatism in the face of the perceived threat, now posed less by corporations than by the federal government. During the 1940s and 1950s, populist rhetoric against, for example, communist infiltration of the federal government came mostly from Republicans, but by the early 1960s, southern populists had found a new champion, this time from Alabama.
The Wallace voters who backed his independent candidacy in 1968 and voted for him in Democratic primaries that year and in 1972, in a sense, represented a culmination of the Populist experiment. Like Bryan, Wallace appealed to the middling white producers and against eastern elites, and like Bryan his success owed much to his own unique style. Unlike Bryan, however, he worked without even partial support from the party of which he was nominally a member and faced the same hurdles that confronted his populist forbearers in 1892.
Since Wallace, the Democratic Party has largely failed to produce a leader with the capacity of mobilizing that particular constituency. The increasing power of liberal activists in positions of leadership has tended to work against any Democratic politician who professes more than moderately culturally conservative credentials, a very necessary ingredient in building populist support. While it has been argued that the efforts of politicians such as Jesse Jackson to build a biracial coalition might be dubbed populist, this requires a complete redefinition of the meaning and the history of the term.
Populism as a political movement at one time challenged the very existence of the Democratic Party, which responded with ruthless efficiency to suppress it. This did not prevent the incorporation of populist ideas into the very fabric of the party and—for a while—even bringing them to the seat of power. The reconstruction of the American state after 1933, as well as the shift in the electoral coalition that sustained the Democratic Party, led to the association of populist ideas with that section of the Democratic Party that felt peculiar reservations about rule from the center, particularly when that rule threatened to impinge upon that central institution of the South—segregation. The earlier populist economic critiques of society gave way to a cultural critique more easily accommodated by post—New Deal Republicanism, embodied in the person of Ronald Reagan. Reagan's election as president in 1980 marked the defeat of the last southern Democrat who even attempted to assert his populist credentials, namely Jimmy Carter.
See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Carter, James Earl “Jimmy” (1924–) ; “Cross of Gold” Speech (1896) ; Federal Reserve Act (1913) ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Jefferson, Thomas (1743–1826) ; Ku Klux Klan (KKK) ; Long, Huey (1893–1935) ; New Deal ; Obama, Barack, Populist Rhetoric of ; Progressivism ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882–1945) ; South, Populism in the ; Silver Republicans ; Subtreasury Plan ; Tillman, Benjamin R. (1847–1918)
Bensel, Richard F. Sectionalism and American Political Development, 1880–1980. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Burner, David. The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918–1932. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Kazin, Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.