Possibly the biggest detriment to the People's Party was the internal fighting of the party, caused by its fractured nature on several levels. First, people of a variety of ideologies made up the party. It drew its members largely from the Farmers' Alliance, but also included people from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the American Federation of Labor, and Christian Socialists (Kazin 28). These groups had enough in common to unite politically, but they were not totally similar. Obviously, their primary goals differed on some levels. Even before the 1892 election, the party was also split between "fusionists" and the "mid-roaders." Fusionists wanted to join with the Democrats to support a candidate who would most support their platform, but the mid-roaders wanted to avoid collaboration with major parties they viewed as corrupt and misdirected (McMath 174-5). The People's Party split between continuing to promote its core ideology, or seeking to gain an office through which it could enact
policy. In 1896, the party nominated the Democrat Bryan as its candidate,
effectively ending its existence as an independent political force. In
doing so, the People's Party suppressed much of its own ideology by
promoting the silver issue to the forefront (Taggart 35). Interestingly,
the free silver issue had not been previously considered a strong or
unique stance by the People's Party (Hofstadter 104). Both major parties
had free silverites, and the People's Party saw a need to try to unite
with these sources. In order to attempt to gain official power, the party
had to sacrifice much of its ideology. The focus of the movement shifted from creating change to winning power.
We also find that third-party movements contain inherent complexities that cause their own destruction. First, reform movements resist the mainstream system, but usually end up working within that system. Change could possibly come from outside, but the moment a group forms a new political party, it becomes part of the vehicle it resists. Either the major parties absorb the resistance effort or it is defeated by its own politicality. Referring to the populist movement at the end of the 19th Century, Hofstadter writes, "The attempt to make agrarianism into a mass movement based upon third party ideological politics also had to be supplanted by the modern methods of pressure politics and lobbying within the framework of the existing party system" (95). The tools available to fight the system were the same tools that made remaining politically independent impossible.
Furthermore, if the third party successfully advances its ideology, that ideology becomes part of the system, and the third party has no further reason for existence. In theory (and, at least in part, in reality) third parties exist for their platforms and not as machinations for gaining power. Success to a third party comes with the acceptance of its doctrine, and not necessarily through the acquistion of political office. When these doctrines are accepted, the party can go away. One scholar points out, "Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die" (Hofstadter 97). For this reason, minor parties have rarely (if ever) had cause for sustained existence. As the major party picked up on some populist ideology (particularly the silver issue), the People's Party could disappear without having been defeated in fact. This idea played out pragmatically after the 1896. Social movements flourished, but never coalesced into a unified political party, in large part because the people behind these movements did want the larger plans of political ascension and integration to overshadow the particular needs of the movement (Kazin 149-50). These people realized that getting their ideas put into action was more important than trying to establish a new order. Third party politicization gave way to less structural sorts of reform.
We realize, then, that we cannot measure the success of the People's Party or the Populist movement in terms of offices held or votes won. We must determine whether or not their ideology was advanced with the major parties after the movement ceased.