The Making of the Populist Movment: State, Market, and Party on the American Frontier

Adam Slez, University of Virginia

In attempting to make sense of the rise populist sentiment among the American electorate, scholars have focused overwhelmingly on the characteristics and conditions of the voters themselves. This misses one of the most durable features of electoral populism, namely that the emergence of populist candidates is a strategic response to an environment in which the constellation of elite interests precludes the success of new contenders or otherwise liminal competitors. From this perspective, the origins of electoral populism lie not with the populists themselves, but in the choices that shaped the competitive environment. Focusing in particular on the relationship between western settlement and agrarian mobilization during the so-called Populist moment of the late 19th century, I show how the decisions that defined the political and economic geography of the American West during the late 19th century contributed to the rise of one of the most significant third-party movements in American political history. The resulting account contributes to our understanding of political action by explicitly linking the evolution of the political field to the transformation of physical space through concerted action on the part of elites.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 144. Theoretical Perspectives on Political Parties