The Populist and Progressive Movements in American History

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The Populist and Progressive movements in American politics share many similarities despite springing forth from different demands. The Populist movement primarily grew from the agrarian sector of the economy that feared that Eastern industrialists and bankers were gaining too much influence and control over both political parties. The Populist agenda grew from a desire for reform in the banking industry, specifically to allow for free silver coinage. The Populists sought more governmental control of the banking system as well as governmental control over the operation of the nation’s railroad and communication systems. The Populist movement was one that wanted to return a sense of power to the working man and sought to end the burgeoning sense that American was transforming from its democratic roots into a oligarchy run by the capitalist elite.

A sense of imbalance in the way the American economy was being run led to the rise of Populism. Widespread discontent with the lack of progress in railroad reform and with the McKinley tariffs—combined with the Constitutional inability to directly elect their own Senators led to the creation of a powerful new third party that sought many wholesale changes. Populism was at heart a rise borne from the discontent of the rural areas of America, building gradually but with an increasingly earnest fire among the farming communities in both the north and south, uniting the interests of black and whites alike. Populism was also helped along toward its destiny as a major movement through its beginnings as a means of socialization. The populist agenda was spread through such social events as picnics. They organized around a unified front against the encroaching power of the railroad industry and other manufacturers.

The Progressive movement differs mostly from the Populist movement in focusing on reforming the political process as a whole, rather than focusing on the economic system. The Progressives saw the unchecked corruption of big business and the legal system—as well as the continuing exploitation of workers, women and children—as the primary enemy. The spark for the progressives was the unfair election system which poisoned every aspect of American life. The progressive movement in America was mainly a middle class affair, made up of both men and women who saw their interests being co-opted both by the interests of the rich and the poor. They saw the large corporate interests in much the same light as the pressures being brought to bear by the huge onslaught of immigrants looking to take their jobs. Even labor unions were viewed with suspicion as a spreading tide of socialist aggression. The progressives viewed their primary goal in terms of regaining what they saw as a lapsed power; their interests had once been the main concern of the government, but those interests were now not at the top of the heap.

Although often accused of just barely falling short of communism on some of their proposals, the fact remains that most of the issues supported by the Populist movement eventually became the law of the land and the effect of the populist agenda is even felt today.