What 19th-Century Populists Can Teach Americans about the Roots of Partisan Dysfunction

Source: J.S. Maloy, Scholars Strategy Network, SSN Basic Facts, April 2014

Citizen disgust with partisan trench warfare has soared in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, more Americans now identify as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans. Yet the electoral prospects of independent candidates and the policy prospects of reforms favored by independents remain low. Why?

The United States has seen this movie before. The People’s Party was founded in 1891 by disgruntled Democrats and Republicans who wanted to do something about partisan dysfunction. Unlike the better-known progressive reformers that gained visibility later, the Populists regarded partisan polarization and gridlock not as a defect of character or a rash of incivility but as grounded in more serious maladies – plutocracy, culture war, and electoral duopoly…