The original Populists had spoken this way. And like the original Populists—but unlike the largely upbeat and optimistic Roosevelt—Long and Coughlin spoke in discontented and conspiratorial tones.
These original Populists were largely farmers from the cotton, wheat, and corn belts. And they were responding to recent economic changes which simultaneously depressed the value of their commodities and plunged them into ruinous debt at the hands of banks, mortgage companies, and furnishing merchants.
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Fox News commentator and Tea Party favorite Glenn Beck addresses supporters at his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 2010. Although American "populism" has changed in its specific political views over time, the term has often been used to describe popular movements of anger against elites who are regarded as stoking the struggles of ordinary Americans. (Photo by Luke X. Martin)
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Can it possibly be the same term used to describe Tom Watson, William Lamb, and William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s? Can it be reconciled with the "prairie populism" sometimes attributed to and , and/or the old-school conservative isolationism of , and/or , and/or Is it a useful description of the political reality represented by any of these figures?
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Does the label "populist" help us understand Sarah Palin, or the group of people she addressed that night in Nashville? Does it matter that she had notes written on the palm of her hand?
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From its first appearance in the political vernacular, "populist" has been an adjective expressing an attitude—a popular anger against elites perceived as distant from and antagonistic to the struggles of ordinary Americans—more than delineating a coherent set of political beliefs.
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The usage of "populist" began in 1892, as a secondary means of referring to the southern and western political insurgency that actually called itself the "People's Party," and which fielded third-party challengers to Republicans and Democrats in many states in 1892, 1894, and 1896.
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But the original Populists were also making an argument about their own centrality to American life, and they were doing so at more or less the exact historical moment it was no longer true. The insurgents had a reasonable grasp of what was happening to them economically, but for complex cultural reasons they believed that it could only be happening to them as the result of conspiratorial action taken at great physical and moral distance from themselves.