The enduring pull of populism

Farm Forum

Populist is a popular term right now.

Bernie Sanders is a populist, according to some reports.

Even billionaire Donald Trump is somehow labeled a populist.

The term is now defined, at least in some news reports, as a candidate who tries to reach out to the people, who seeks popular support for his or her campaign. Actually, that’s the goal of anyone running for office, but you don’t see Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush labeled as populists.

Members of almost-royal families, sure.

George McGovern was called a “prairie populist” during his heyday on the national scene. The term was usually applied to liberals who were seen as champions of the underdogs.

However, Bill Janklow, a moderate to conservative Republican, was also labeled a populist at times. Wild Bill was truly a man of the people; he enjoyed one-on-one discussions with people, even those who disliked or disagreed with him.

The real Populist Party was a national force for a few years at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. It was a movement driven by farmers who thought they were being cheated by railroads, grain interests and banks.

At its first national convention, held in Omaha in 1892, the People’s Party, as the Populists were also known, endorsed the direct election of senators. Until 1914, legislatures elected them.

The Omaha Platform also endorsed the eight-hour day, a graduated income tax as a way to loosen the tight hold the rich had on the nation, the abolition of national banks, civil service reform, and government regulation of railroads, telegraphs and telephones. It also favored referendums and recalls.

All those ideas sound reasonable now.

The Populist Party did surprisingly well in 1892, as its candidate, James Weaver, received more than a million votes nationwide and carried Kansas, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. More than 100 Populists were elected to state legislatures.

South Dakota was a Populist stronghold. The Independent Party, a precursor of the Populists, formed in the state in 1890.

In 1896, South Dakota supported William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president under both the Populist and Democratic Party banners, with different VP candidates. Bryan lost in the first of his three runs for the White House; South Dakota supported Republicans in 1900 and 1908.

Populist Andrew E. Lee was elected governor and re-elected in 1898 on a fusion party ticket. Richard F. Pettigrew, the state’s first senator, left the Republican Party and aligned himself with the Populists and both members of Congress, Freeman Knowles and John Kelley were Populists.

In 1900, as the Populists descended into turmoil and racist/anti-Catholic policies, the party held its national convention in Sioux Falls. It was, and almost assuredly always will be, the only national political convention held in South Dakota.

The populists started as part of a grassroots movement to aid farmers and small business owners being abused by the railroads and captains of industry. A lack of leadership, the fatal alliance with the Democrats and the struggle of trying to create a true third-party movement in this country doomed the Populists.

It meant too many things to too many people, from the virtually enslaved cotton farmers of the South to the struggling wheat farmers of the Midwest, from the hard-working factory workers of the big cities to the prohibitionists and racists who also crowded into the tent.

By 1904, the party was a spent force.

It didn’t last long, but its spirit is often referenced during campaigns. After all these decades, it’s still popular to be a populist.

Fourth-generation South Dakota native Tom Lawrence has been writing about the state since 1978. Write him at, and read his blog at