Difference Between Populism and Progressivism

Populism vs Progressivism

American society has traditionally been reformist, and populism and progressivism are two of the very popular mass movements or ideologies integral to this ongoing and continuous reforms, have taken place in the American society in the last 150 years. The two ideologies have many similarities, so much so that many find it hard to imagine there can be any differences in between populism and progressivism. This article highlights these differences by listing the features of both ideologies.


Populist movement started in the last decade of the 19th century and was more of a revolt by the farmers or those associated with agriculture in one or the other way. The decline in farmer’s economic conditions coupled with their desire to unite to improve the lot of the farmers and others belonging to working classes. The society, in the later part of the 19th century, was divided into the haves and have-nots of the society. Those with farming background were of the view that the government was favoring the banks and the industrialists and was, in fact, plotting to destroy agriculture altogether. The rural people working in the farm sector were a disgruntled lot as they felt they were getting the wrong end of the stick. These were mostly people from down south and poor white, who though voted for Republicans, wanted wholesome changes in the financial policies of the government.

Populists wanted more government control of banking and industries. They desired a graduated income tax given to them via 16th amendment. They also wanted direct election of the senators from their states, which the government acceded to through the 17th amendment. Rest of the demands of the populists were also accepted by the government slowly and gradually such as regulation of banks and industries, reforms in the civil services, a short 8 hour day for labor class, and so on.


Progressivism was an ideology that arose in the beginning of the 20th century. The unfair election system, exploitation of workers, women and children, corruption in the business class and the legal system that gave concessions to rich people were the common enemies of the progressivism. The movement was a reflection of the dissatisfaction among the urban classes and those belonging to the middle classes. Mostly, the men and women belong to the middle class, who felt exploited by the rich and had to bear the brunt of rising prices and inflation because of the large influx of immigrants and blacks. The burgeoning middle class also did not like the idea of socialism, as they felt it was a ploy to take away from them what was left in the wake of corruption and pro poor policies of the government.

Despite the fact that most of the demands of the populists were bordered on the ideas of communism; finally, overwhelming majorities of their demands were acceded by the government, and they became the law of the land eventually.


What is the difference between Populism and Progressivism?

• Populism arose in the late 19th century while progressivism arose in the beginning of the 20th century.

• Populism came from the farmers and the poor sections of the society from down south while progressivism came from middle classes, who were fed up with the corruption of the rich and the appeasement of the poor by the government.

• While progressivism focused on changing the political system itself, populism focused upon reforming the economic system.