Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Manship School of Mass Communication
Populists and Progressives around the turn of the 20th century had similar reform goals and many of the same foes. Both wanted to expand the power of the federal government to counter corporate monopolies which were dominating the nation’s economy and political system. In the early 1900s, Progressives enacted numerous reforms that were championed by Populists, including regulating railroads and other large corporations, breaking-up monopolies, implementing a graduated income tax, among other reforms. With so much agreement on policy, why did Populists and Progressives actively work against one another in the 1890s?
Part of their antagonism came from their distinct group identities. Populists typically were political outsiders, including farmers and laborers from the rural areas of the South and West, who had grown to distrust political elites. Progressives tended to be college-educated professionals and elites from big cities on the East Coast. Whether Populism and Progressivism were compatible or antagonistic depended on whether their shared policy goals, or their separate group identities were salient—on this question, journalism and political communication played a critical role in focusing the reformers’ attention. Populists journalism was full of unproven conspiracy theories about Wall Street and British bankers, resentment towards big cities on the Eastern Seaboard, distrust towards the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines, and outrage towards political and economic elites. Progressives viewed this sort of discourse as dangerous to public opinion and a determent to reform. Instead, Progressives favored detailed investigative journalism and political communication that framed reform as a pragmatic and non-partisan balance between competing interests. Reform failed in the 1890s, in part, because Populist journalism and political communication inflamed antagonistic group identities and diverted reformers’ attention away from a common conception of the problems facing the nation. This resulted in Progressives siding with conservatives in the 1890s and the defeat of the Populist movement.
Klein, Timothy Vest, "Languages of Reform: Populist Revolution or Middle-class Progressivism?" (2022). LSU Doctoral Dissertations. 6016.
Hamilton, John M.
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