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A populist is someone who tries to reach out to ordinary people, often by talking about their economic concerns. Populists sometimes promise to "stand up to corporations" and "put people first." Populism has been a strong component of American political history, especially since the formation of such political parties during the late 1800s and early 1900s as the Populist Party, the United States Greenback Party, the Single Tax movement of Henry George, the United States Progressive Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, the Share Our Wealth movement of Huey Long, and the Union Party. Some early left-wing populist parties directly fed into the later emergence of the Socialist movement, while other populist parties have taken on a more right-wing character and fed the careers of people widely viewed as demagogues, such as Father Charles Coughlin.

Populism is characterized by a sometimes radical critique of the status quo, but on the whole does not have a strong political identity as either a left-wing or right-wing movement. Populism has taken both left-wing and right-wing forms. In recent years, conservative politicians have increasingly begun adopting populist rhetoric; for example, promising to "get big government off your backs", or to stand up to "the powerful trial lawyer lobby", "the liberal elite", or "the Hollywood elite". Populism has also at times been adopted as a vehicle for extreme radicals; in 1984 the Populist Party name was revived but was used in 1988 as a vehicle for the Presidential campaign of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Populism has continued to be a force in modern American politics. The 1992 and 1996 third-party Presidential campaigns of Ross Perot, the Presidential campaign in the 1992 Democratic primary of Jerry Brown, the 2003 California gubernatorial campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the 2004 Presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, are all widely seen as modern manifestations of the populist phenomenon.