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American Populist Briefing

American Populist Briefing Schedule​

  • Whitepaper Available Access:

    • Members & Fellows

    • Members of U.S. Congress

    • Three Seas Region Embassies

  • Congressional Roundtable Advisory Available, Contact EEIT for Details

  • Embassy Roundtable Advisory Available, Contact EEIT for Details

  • National Press Club, Washington, D.C. To Be Announced

  • Member Breakout Sessions at May Summit


Topics Covered

  • Economic Nationalism   

  • Consumer Nationalism    

  • Resource Nationalism    

  • Economic Nationalism and COVID-19 Pandemic   

  • U.S. Trade  

  • Protection of Individual Liberties 

  • Protecting Free Speech and Encouraging Dissent      

  • Partisanship in the Mainstream Media       

  • The Role of Social Media Platforms  

  • The Marketplace of Ideas   

  • Deconstruction of the Administrative State    

  • The case of Greece       

  • The case of U.S. Universities      

  • Conclusion



Populism has a long history in American politics. Its first appearance was before the Civil War in the 1840s in response to increasing Catholic immigration. The Know-Nothing movement originated as anti-Catholic, nativist movement in New York. The movement gained traction in the 1854 election, when its candidates won races in New England, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California, gaining 52 out of 234 seats in the House of Representatives. This resulted in the formation of the American Party in 1855. This period was marked by the demise of the Whig Party, the traditional opposition to the Democratic Party, and the collapse of the two-party system over the issue of slavery. Out of this wreckage, the new anti-slavery Republican Party was formed in the north, while the American Party tried to consolidate pro-Union anti-Democratic voters in the South and the working poor in the North. However, the issue of slavery dominated the 1856 elections, and, without a clear pro- or anti-slavery stance, the American Party lost heavily. Their presidential ticket won around 21% of the popular vote, but only one state with 8 electoral votes, and they lost 38 of their 52 representatives in the House. Further division followed in 1857, when most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party, diminishing its influence in the North. After further electoral losses in the 1860 elections, the Civil War ended all activities of the American Party.

In 1874, another populist party, the Greenback Party, emerged in response to the economic crisis of 1873. It started with a platform calling for monetary reform and the adoption of inflationary monetary policy, which was expanded in 1880 to include support for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour workday, and the income tax, positioning the party as a left-wing, agrarian, and socialist. After some success in the 1878 and 1880 elections, winning 13 and 10 congressional seats, respectively, the Greenback Party went into decline, and won its last seat in 1888. The party’s best showing in presidential elections happened in 1880 when its ticked won 3.3% of the popular vote. However, this relatively short-lived success had long-term effects forcing the gradual adoption of its policies by the mainstream political parties.

The political successor of the Greenback Party was the People’s Party (also known as the Populist Party). In 1892, it nominated James B. Weaver, Greenback Party’s candidate in the 1880 election, for president, and won 8.5% of the popular votes and four states. Its political coalition was similar to the previous populist parties: farmers in the South and West and the working poor in the Northeast and Midwest. The party supported government intervention in the agriculture sector, government control of the railroads, monetary reform, elimination of private banks, eight-hour workday, direct election of senators, and tax reform. Some of its policies were considered radical socialist, while others were relatively conservative. The party declined after supporting the Democratic Party candidate in the 1896 presidential election, which ended in a Republican victory.

In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party after losing the Republican nomination, to support his presidential run. The party adopted progressive and populist positions, with a strong anti-corruption message. The Progressive Party platform was published as “A Contract With the People”, calling for campaign finance reform, political reforms to combat corruption, a national health service, social insurance, an eight-hour workday, inheritance tax, the minimum wage for women, worker’s compensation for workplace injuries, women’s suffrage, and measures for direct democracy (recall elections, referendum,…). Roosevelt outperformed the Republican Party candidate W. H. Taft but lost heavily to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who won 435 out of 531 electoral votes. The Progressive Party declined afterward and disappeared by 1920.

After the Progressive Party, it would take over 70 years for another significant populist party to appear on the political scene. However, some influential figures advocated the populist agenda. Huey Long served as the governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, and then as a US Senator from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. Although a Democrat and an early supporter of President F. D. Roosevelt, he was a vocal critic of Roosevelt’s policies under the New Deal. He advocated wealth redistribution under his Share Our Wealth Plan, which included a basic household grant, free college and vocational training, federal agricultural subsidies, major public works projects, and free medical service. Although this plan was widely criticized as expensive and impossible, many of his policies became a part of the Second New Deal in 1935, which established social security, increased the income tax on higher-income individuals, initiated major public works that employed millions, and provided financial support to families with dependent children.

In 1992, businessman and billionaire Ross Perot announced his candidacy for president as an independent. He ran on a centrist populist platform advocating balancing the budget with measures like the fuel tax and cuts to Social Security, greater gun control, an end to job outsourcing, and the use of digital technologies to enact an electronic direct democracy. He later added the opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Five months before the election, Perot led the polls at 39%, however, this slipped to 7-9% just before the first debate, amid upheaval in Perot’s campaign. His debate performance re-energized his campaign, and he ultimately won around 19% of the popular vote, but no electoral votes. The majority of his voters were middle class and moderates, and exit polls showed that the second choice preference of Perot’s voters was split evenly between Bush and Clinton – Perot managed to attract both Democratic and Republican supporters in equal numbers. After this, Perot’s political career went into decline when he ineffectively debated then-Vice President Gore on the issue of NAFTA. In 1995, Perot founded the Reform Party as a political vehicle for his 1996 presidential bid. Although he was excluded from the debates this time, Perot still managed to win around 8% of the popular vote. By 2000, the Reform Party was disintegrating due to internal strife and Perot endorsed G. W. Bush for president.

Although no other populist party emerged since, populism steadily became a feature of mainstream politics, on both the right and the left. In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders ran on a left-wing populist platform, winning 23 states and 1846 delegates. Sanders ultimately won 13.2 million votes or around 43% of the primary vote. His platform included political campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage, higher tax rates for high-income earners, fighting the wealth inequality, comprehensive Wall Street reform and the break-up of big banks and financial institutions, investment in infrastructure, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and universal healthcare. The unexpected success of his campaign is credited with a significant shift in the policies of the Democratic Party on healthcare, environment, and economic issues, like the minimum wage.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump emerged as the winner of the primaries, but his campaign initially struggled to catch up to the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. In August 2016, Stephen Bannon joined the Trump campaign as the campaign chief executive, leading to the adoption of a conservative populist platform that included the promises of replacing the Affordable Care Act with a better, more affordable, and more wide-ranging healthcare system, the abolishment of NAFTA, an end to job outsourcing, the introduction of tariffs to protect and stimulate domestic production, especially in the manufacturing sector, and the promotion of the balance of trade. The plan was heavily criticized as unrealistic, but its policies appealed to the working-class voters, especially in the Midwest, the traditional Democratic stronghold, leading to an election victory when Trump managed to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by narrow margins.

Now, elements of these populist platforms have been increasingly integrated into the mainstream politics of the two major parties: Democrats advocate raising the minimum wage, expanding the healthcare system with strong support for universal healthcare, and there is strong support for the reform of the financial system. Republicans have, on the other hand, already integrated the trade policies of the Trump campaign, and NAFTA has been replaced with the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement. Populist platforms will likely continue to find a place in American politics.


Economic Nationalism and more are covered at the briefing...

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