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“In the 19th century, a ‘populist’ movement influenced the policy of the United States”

THEhe opposition between the governing parties and the so-called “populist” parties is at the heart of our political news. The history of the “populist revolt” in the United States at the end of the XIXe century, little known in France, can help to think about it (Ages of American Capitalism, Jonathan Levy, Random House, 944 pages, untranslated).

A long phase of price decline then exacerbates social tensions. Particularly affecting agricultural products (the price of wheat fell by half from 1870 to 1900), it led farmers and rural areas of the Midwest to rebel against the elites of the Northeast, perceived as arrogant and subservient to big industry or to international finance.

Reduction of the monetary base

Farmers (who still represent nearly half of the working population) are protesting in particular against their dependence on large railways, locally in a monopoly position. The inflation following the Civil War (1861-1865) led in 1873 to the suspension of the minting of silver coins in order to stabilize the currency, based in fact on the gold standard.

The silver mines are victims of the resulting depreciation (especially since the phenomenon is not confined to the United States – France and Germany, among others, also abandoning silver); above all, in a metallic monetary system, this reduction in the base also leads to a fall in credit and prices, worsening the weight of debts, while at least a third of the land is mortgaged. The gold standard is thus perceived in the agricultural and mining west as the choice of New York bankers wishing to insert the United States into the international credit system to the detriment of the people.

The Populist Party has sown seeds. The progressive movement which developed after 1900 in the big cities took up a large part of its demands

The Farmers’ Alliance, created in 1877, was first and foremost a dynamic mutual insurance company. She obtained some regulations from the railways, but failed to develop credit unions. It leads in 1891 to the creation of the Populist Party, which renews a nationalist, religious tradition, hostile to large companies, large cities, intellectuals and the internationalism of the North-East, but ideologically heterogeneous, especially on the racial question. He calls for the nationalization of the railways and the telegraph in the name of the natural monopoly, income tax, a bimetallist or even fiduciary monetary system, and even envisages the vote of women.

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