On this day in 1860, the populist icon William Jennings Bryan was born. It’s sad that today he is almost entirely remembered for his anti-evolution views in the Scopes Trial. Because he was a lot more than that. And I mean that in a good and a bad way. But I think he stands as the ultimate example of populism. If you look at what actual Americans think about political issues, you will find that they are somewhat conservative on social issues and somewhat liberal on economic issues. That’s what Bryan was, except without the “somewhat.”
What boggles my mind is that the modern day everyman archetype is Sarah Palin: socially and economically conservative. But that’s not populist at all! What is populist about thinking that you should get less money and billionaires should get more? What obviously as gone on is a very successful marketing campaign. I’m with Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas? The conservative movement has convinced large swaths of America to vote against their best interest in the name of a bizarre kind of identity politics.
I should be clear where I stand: I would give up pretty much all of the socially liberal policies for strong economically liberal policies. Make same-sex marriage illegal in exchange for a $15 inflation adjusted minimum wage? No problem! Make abortion illegal in exchange for a wealth tax and an end to the payroll tax cap? No problem, other than the fact that I’m a man and I don’t have the right to negotiate away a right that belongs to women. But you get the idea: I place a far higher premium on economic issue than I do social issues.
As a result of this, I’m pretty happy where Bryan came down politically. What’s more, let’s face it: he was a smart guy and times have changed. But regardless, this is all Maslow “hierarchy of needs” stuff. People need jobs. And check out what he has to say about the gold standard in 1896. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” There are plenty of conservatives today who want to do just that. And there are plenty of “populists” who would cheer them on.
Here is the end of the speech, via NPR:
Happy birthday William Jennings Bryan!