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The Populist Party, also known as the People's Party, was a political ticket in the United States (U.S.) that formed in the late 1880s and lasted until the election of 1908. The party was the result of a grassroots movement — marked by a strong call for free silver — that grew out of farmers' concerns over economic suffering in agricultural communities. The movement achieved significant political gains in the election of 1892, when it successfully captured multiple seats of Congress. It began to wane after the election of 1896, when nominee Williams Jennings Bryan, in a failed bid for the presidency, thrust the party into a bigger national spotlight. Though the movement didn’t last long, it strongly impacted the American landscape. Even today, the words “populist” and “populism” are used to describe any political movement marked by anti-establishment fervor among candidates and the general population.
Concerned over falling agricultural prices, indebted farmers united in protest against what they viewed as a faulty system of lending and currency. They also felt an economic pinch from rising prices in businesses, such as railroad lines. This led to the call for the unlimited coinage of silver, also known as the free silver movement, which the agricultural community felt would benefit farmers’ quality of living by causing inflationary prices. The movement gained steam between the years of 1887 and 1892 with the cooperation of several farmers' groups, including the Southern Farmer's Alliance and the National Agricultural Wheel. By 1892, the alliances had evolved into a political ticket called the Populist Party.
The Populist Party experienced significant victories in the election of 1892. The presidential contenders, presidential nominee James B. Weaver and vice presidential nominee James G. Field, didn't come close to winning the election, but the party succeeded in winning several congressional seats in various states such as Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Nevada. The party continued to gain steam over the next four years, leading up to the presidential election of 1896. Although its strong support of the free silver movement was losing popularity as the recession waned, the Populist Party continued to make it one of its main platforms.
In 1896, the Populist Party nabbed their most high-profile candidate, Democrat William Jennings Bryant, to run on the populist ticket for president in 1896. Bryan's inclusion on the Populist ticket marked a fusion between the Democratic and Populist parties. It was at this time that Bryan gave his "Cross of Gold" speech, which built on the party's free silver movement. This, however, proved unpopular with urban demographics, which had lost a relevant connection to the economic concerns of the farmers after the recession ended. This was a major factor to Bryan's defeat in the presidential race, as well as to the losses that the Populist Party suffered in Congress.
After the election of 1896, the Populist Party struggled to define itself. The fusion with the Democratic Party proved problematic; Populists and Democrats alike disagreed over whether the parties should be conjoined, and if so, how they should operate together. Ultimately, the waning popularity of the free silver movement, coupled with an increasing identity crisis, caused the Populist Party to steadily diminish in size and potency. The party continued to make a showing on presidential tickets up until the election of 1908, when it disbanded once and for all.
During its existence, the party did make some significant impact on American politics. With help from other parties, it helped to popularize the notion of an eight-hour workday, as well as the direct election of senators. It also provided a colorful entry to the American political lexicon: the word "populism" came to be associated with any popular movement that aimed to take on the big-government establishment. The Tea Party, for example, gained a national spotlight as a populist movement after the election of 2008.
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