Populist Movement Analysis

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"Who joins [the Populist movement], and why, and, conversely, why do others similarly situated not join?" This is the question, Robert McMath contends in American Populism: A Social History, 1877-1898, "that has preoccupied scholars who have studied the movement." (9) While acknowledging the work of previous scholars of the 19th century populist movement (Hicks, Woodward, Hofstadter, and Goodwyn), McMath connects the Populist's story to the "social history of rural America." He relates Populism to the "rhythms of family and community life" of the rural Plains, South and Mountain West, where this movement took root in the "social and economic networks of rural communities, not, as some would have it, among isolated and disoriented individuals."…show more content…
His use of a succinct narrative approach to portray this story in a "rise and fall" style shows the change over time between 1877 and the presidential election of 1898 that doomed chances of electoral success for Populists. McMath holds that initially farmers formed cooperatives and alliances for economic advantages, so-called "pecuniary benefits." By the late 1880s, he shows that the consolidation of labor and rural agricultural groups into "a permanent cooperative movement and labor party" was very much a possibility. (83) The great debate that followed was one over the decision to form a new political party or to lobby within and as part of the major parties (fusion). In the end, Populists tried both, and though some elections were won and limited political gains made, failure was the ultimate result. Many Southerners refused to leave their sacred Democratic party, while the Republicans successfully campaigned against incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland, and attracted "populist" votes in the process. McMath shows that after 1892 populism changed its character as the silver issue "crowded out" other reform concerns, and reduced reform politics to the "lowest common denominator." Lamentably for McMath, whose sympathies lie unabashedly with the populists about whom he
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