The Aftermath

After the 1896 presidential election in which McKinley defeated Bryan, it would be easy to suggest that the People's Party and the Populist movement were failures. Even the many Populist candidates elected at the state level only lasted one term (McMath 205-6). The party disbanded and its causes seemed lost. Moreover, third parties had significant difficulties with elections for years after that. During the 1800s, they had frequently won at least token electoral votes. After 1892, no third-party candidate (except former president Theodore Roosevelt, who can hardly be considered a minor candidate) won any electoral votes for 32 years.

However, the movement had more impact than it initially seems. First, the People's Party made statements and brought up issues with which the major parties had to deal. In fact, most of the party's platform eventually became law (Hofstadter 108). Anti-trust laws and working condition legislation was passed not too long after the end of the People's party. The Populists may have failed to take office, but they did get their message across.

Furthermore, the movement was influential enough to demand a new way of viewing government's role. As Hofstadter writes, "Populism was the first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government has some responsibility for the common weal" (61). This concept has played an important role in the politics of the 20th Century. Populism had a strong influence on the Progressive movement that followed it, and on the formation of the New Deal. The energy of populism continues to modern times. Kazin asserts that we still need this force to promote mass culture movements and defend ourselves against political passivity (283-4). The Populists of the late 1800s set a precedent for the way to work for change in the political arena.

We can take away several lessons from the People's Party experience. First, we must recognize the importance of holding on to beliefs rather than party dogma. The party's downfall stemmed partly from its (perhaps necessary) integration with the Democrats, and its subversion of its own ideals. On the flip side, a third party cannot fail to respond to the nature of the system it attempts to change. To have success, a party must play the corporate political game without sacrificing its core ideology. Finally, a third party should measure its success in terms of intellectual change and political recognition rather than in number of offices held. Modern parties can learn from Gilded Age politics to put issues first, and to be prepared to be shut out.

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