American historians have generally treated Populism in one of two ways: They have either confused it with the Progressivism that followed shortly on its heels, as a forerunner of the New Deal and modern liberalism; or, in a slightly more sophisticated and honest version, they have dismissed it as misguided rural bigotry irrelevant to the goals of enlightened urbanites.

The first interpretation is clearly wrong.  It is true that there was some slight coincidence of political goals, in terms of federal legislation, arising from the Populists’ search for specific remedies.  But Populists were basically rural Jeffersonians who mistrusted the remote and concentrated power of the Eastern elites who were the more obviously observable cause of their own distresses.  Most of the Progressives, at least in the East, were self-consciously modern.  They believed in the rule of elite urban experts (themselves) to solve all social ills by the application of science and systematization (regimentation).  They were hired hands of the ruling class despised by the Populists, and still are.  No Progressive that I know of was an enthusiast for free silver, and Progressives from east of the Mississippi almost all joined the homefront clamor for the War to End All Wars.  Populists did not, and in fact provided the greatest core of patriotic opposition.

Ponder this wonderful reactionary and timely passage from Ignatius Donnelly’s oration a Populist National Convention:

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.  Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench….The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists…the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty….We charge that the controlling influences dominating the old political parties have allowed the dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to restraint or prevent them.  They have agreed together to ignore in the coming campaign every issue….In this crisis of human affairs the intelligent working people and producers of the United States have come together in the name of justice, order and society, to defend liberty, prosperity and justice. ~Clyde Wilson, 1994 review of American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898 in From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition (2003)