The populist movement is a term used to describe a variety of reform initiatives associated with popular sentiment. In the United States, the People’s Party of the late 19th century was also known as the Populist Party. The rise of socialism in Latin America is often considered a modern manifestation of this movement. Some have criticized unchecked populism, however, as it can result in the oppression of a minority voice.
In the U.S., the recession of the 1890s impacted the agrarian sector of the economy earlier than other sectors. Crop prices in Southern and Midwestern states were falling, and many farmers believed the government was not taking enough action against railroad companies and other powerful industries. Large monopolies owned by wealthy tycoons were on the rise during this period. Public opposition toward these large business entities in the U.S. was one of the origins of the populist movement.
The People’s Party, established in 1887, was the first political party in the U.S. to also identify as the Populist Party, and it initiated many calls for reform that later became law. The direct election of U.S. senators was one party platform, which eventually became a constitutional amendment in 1912. Social programs for farmers during times of economic depression became reality during the 1930s. The People’s Party declined partly because it was associated with a movement to allow the free coinage of silver, a policy that would have caused inflation and held little appeal to urban citizens.
In Latin America, there has been more recent activism and revolutions associated with populism. Latin America has shown slower growth during the last several decades than have many Western and Asian countries, and many have blamed this on foreign ownership of major Latin American industries. Moreover, wealth in many Latin American countries is more concentrated than in other parts of the world, which has left the majority of citizens economically poor. Socialism, and its potential for redistributing income, has gained popularity in Latin America, and many consider this to be part of the populist movement.
There are also negative senses of the term populism. It is been proposed that “mob rule,” or unchecked popular power, can lead to social instability, as in the case of the downfall of Rome. Some scholars have also suggested that such movements can serve as the origins for fascist movements. The oppression of a minority by the majority, for example, can result if state forces follow unrestrained popular sentiments.