Populist William Jennings Bryan

[I’m a little behind today because of other pressing work. So I’m going to rerun my birthday post from last year. It isn’t just the time thing. I think that William Jennings Bryan is wrongly vilified today. People ought to know the truth about him: he was a hero of the people. And it was a lot more sensible to be a creationist in 1925 than it is today. -FM]

William Jennings BryanOn 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!

7 thoughts on “Populist William Jennings Bryan

  1. I disagree with this sort of trade off. I do agree that from a utilitarian standpoint, economic justice is somewhat more important than social justice. I also share your frustration when I see the President and much of the press acting like incremental advances in gay rights are a substitute for economic fairness. Repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” doesn’t help a single mother feed her family. Legal gay wedding do not solve the problem of food insecurity.

    Where I disagree is with the idea that bargaining away social justice for economic justice will make life in this country better. I feel that you may be under estimating just how socially conservative the median American voter really is. The salarymen and hausfraus in my community are nuts and when politicians invoke the safety or well being of “our children,” watch out if you are gay, an immigrant, non white, liberal, a single woman or non christian. A BIG, mass unionization and a strong social safety net will mean very little when we are languishing in a dungeon because we wrote articles that the local housewives deemed “dangerous to our youth.”

    Furthermore, much of social liberalism involves advancing the human and civil rights of marginalized groups. Rights should not be subject to regular plebiscites, even if the electorate is enlightened and certainly not if the electorate is like the typical American electorate.

    One more thing, I doubt that economic justice can last very long under conditions of severe social injustice. If the voters believe that unmarried women are wanton sluts, that blacks are lazy and brutish, that gay people are child molesters, that Mexicans are conniving job sealers and that Atheists have no sense of right and wrong; it is not that great a leap to believe that the poor are poor because they lack impulse control and work ethic and that the rich are rich because they are virtuous.

    Inequality, economic and social, feeds off a deliberate refusal to acknowledge our shared humanity. Social conservatism is a disease that would infect whatever economic justice could be gained by making such a Faustian trade off.

    • You’re right, of course. No such tradeoff could be made today. The right has gone full-totalitarian on us. No concession to religious demands or economic reforms benefitting the rich would ever be enough. Totalitarians will always claim that the reason their citizens suffer is because dark traitorous enemies undermine goodness; they can never stop demanding more oppression.

      If, however, one could rewrite American history, go back in time and trade social advances for economic ones, would you? I would. Because economic advances generally lead to social advances. If I could trade class mobility, good unions, a high standard of living for everyone, for being forced to sit in church for an hour a week, I’d take that deal in a second! (I can always zone out in church, I perfected that skill by age five!) Of course we had all those things 50 years ago (at least for white males) and that’s largely what resulted in the social advances we’ve enjoyed.

      Unfortunately the reverse is usually also true; decreased standards of living can easily lead to increased demands for social restrictions. We’ve lived this for three decades now. And it’s what Islamophobes refuse to realize; if you dislike cultural restrictions in some Muslim communities (and we all should), the best way to change that is improve life for poor people in those communities, not harm them and ostracize them!

      • I do think we need to distinguish between the parties and the people. I’m probably a bit more optimistic than Colin. But the polls are pretty clear: Americans overall are quite liberal when it comes to economics and somewhat conservative when it comes to social issues. Of course, there is the 20%-30% Republican base who would read A Modest Proposal literally. But overall, they don’t matter. The main thing that I think is that the Democrats should spend much more time pushing economic populism. It’s good politics!

        • They should, but they can’t. Only someone with a national profile like Warren or Franken can raise money without going in hock to corporations, now that unions are dead. Which is precisely why the super-rich wanted to kill unions.

          Also for their educational value. When you work like a slave, you don’t have a lot of free time to examine politics nor the inclination to read depressing stuff. Union meetings filled in those gaps, now right-wing propaganda does. That’s how you get dingbattery like the Rand Paul, Tea Party attendees. They’re not necessarily stupid, and not all of them are hateful racists, not intentionally. Most just want answers, why is my life so stressful.

          If civilization lasts another few hundred years, and were I a betting man I’d lay odds against it, Rush Limbaugh would have to be labeled the most important person of our era. Fox News is just repeating what Rush pioneered. Unions died, and Rush swept in, seeing an opportunity no-one else perceived; our glorious market in action. I doubt he has any serious political preferences, the same way I doubt most propagandists do; they say what rings the loudest bells. Rush was a genius, if one considers innovative exploiters of our current economic system to be, by default, geniuses.

          • I think you need to see Limbaugh inside the context of the right wing echo chamber. At least in the old days (but I assume still), all he talked about was what he read on The Wall Street Journal editorial page. I really think he is just a foot soldier — an extremely important one, but still. If he didn’t exist, there would be someone else. In a sense, there is. There are lots of mini-Rushes. And don’t forget that most of the Fox News fools also have huge radio shows.

            But if you wonder how fascism becomes popular, Limbaugh is a good example. I find the “ditto-heads” truly interesting. The only time I completely agree with someone is when I don’t know them very well. I’m sure that all the ditto-heads think of themselves as rugged individualists. So what’s with that? At the same time, the Ayn Rand followers are the same way. I read through the comments the other day on my article “Ayn Rand and Indians.” And these Rand followers would brook no criticism of her. She wasn’t a wise and insightful person to them — she was the bringer of The Truth. Again: these are people who think they are the very definition of independent thinks. It makes me think of this bit of Lou Read:

            You know, some people got no choice
            And they can never find a voice
            To talk with that they can even call their own
            So the first thing that they see
            That allows them the right to be
            Why they follow it, you know, it’s called bad luck.

            In that song, he was referring to heroin. But I think that Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand are far more dangerous.

    • I agree with you. I don’t think such a trade-off is a practical option. I’m just saying that for me, economics trumps all else. It may be that without social equality there can be no economic equality, but it is certainly true that without economic equality there can be no social equality. Most people think of the LGBT community as upper-middle class, but in reality, it is poorer than the median. Economic and social inequality are all part of the same thing: inequality. My big complaint — as you mentioned — is with the Democratic Party redefining liberalism as social liberalism. That’s been a catastrophe.

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