It is an unwritten law of American politics that the politicians who devote themselves to the single-minded pursuit of power and wealth must pretend to be men of the people. The 1996 presidential campaign might have been scripted by Frank Capra, since virtually every candidate is a would-be John Doe or Jefferson Smith, taking on the Washington establishment in the name of the average guy like you and me.
Pat Buchanan or even Ross Perot might claim, with some justification, to represent middle American protest, but what about Lamar Alexander (winner of Tennessee’s Al Gore lookalike contest) and Phil Gramm, who are running against Washington? So is Steve Forbes—the epitome of an elite-class insider. Congressman-for-life Newt Gingrich would like us to see him as the advance man for a Middle American revolution against Congress, while Bill Clinton represents himself as one of the boys from Arkansas standing up against the wicked Republican establishment. (By all accounts, these Arkansas boys could teach a thing or two to their counterparts in Newark and Palermo.) Even Bob I’ll-be-anything-you-want-me-to-be, you-want-me-to-be-Ronald Reagan-I’ll-be-Ronald-Reagan” Dole occasionally grunts out some Middle American platitude about lower taxes or dirty movies.
Yes, we’re all populists now. Wealthy actor and big business spokesman Ronald Reagan was a populist; so was Annapolis graduate and peanut factor Jimmy Carter; and so, in 1968, was Richard Nixon, the politician Lyndon Johnson admired most. Johnson may well be the last man to run as an unabashed representative of what big government can do for you, which turned out to be killing our sons in Vietnam and bankrupting their grandchildren with deficit spending.
What, exactly, is a populist? Most people would, without thinking, exclude machine politicians like LBJ and spoiled rich boys like—fill in the blanks—but it is no easy task to discern a philosophy or a set of goals, apart from the resentment of the unwashed for the washed, that connects Andrew Jackson with William Jennings Bryan, Ben Tillman with Ross Perot, Tom Watson with Burt Wheeler or Pat Buchanan. One standard view is that populism is little more than the perennial protest of taxpayers against tax consumers, of wealth producers against wealth breeders (i.e., those who live off dividends and speculation), of the periphery against the center. Populism, on this understanding, is only a symptom of a disease, of interest only to political sociologists and other pathologists who have learned to hold their nose long enough to take a close look at the politics of this great democracy.
There is another view, put forward by some libertarians, which makes populism one corner of a four-sided political box that also includes conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Here the point of discrimination is the attitude toward government. Conservatives, for example, want limited government in economic matters but strong social control in matters of traditional morality; liberals are the opposite. Populists, according to this theory, favor economic control and traditional morality, while the purist libertarians support minimal government across the board. There is some descriptive validity to such an approach, but like so many views taken from 30,000 feet, it is entirely detached from ground-level politics.
I do not pretend to know what, if anything, are the permanent distinguishing characteristics of populism. Instead of spinning the wheels of speculation, I would rather begin by looking for evidence in the career of a man who, if not exactly a populist, fulfilled the longings of American populists for nearly 30 years: William Jennings Bryan. Bryan is a complex character: a reactionary who thought of himself as a progressive liberal, a demagogic orator who prided himself on mastering the facts, a cracker-barrel philosopher who rarely knew the details of an issue but always penetrated to the essence. If there was a good angel of the American character from 1896 to the 1920’s, it was Bryan.
Born to Southern parents in Illinois, Bryan did not move west to Nebraska until he had finished school and practiced law for some time. He was 27 years old when he took his wife to Lincoln, a Republican stronghold and a very unlikely place from which to launch the career of a Democratic politician. Bryan made his name by opposing his own President, Grover Cleveland, on the gold standard.
The bimetallism case is complex. Some supporters were owned by the silver lobby, which had considerable influence in the West; others, like Bryan, were defending the interests of indebted farmers. This has been seen as the perennial demand of farmers—and, indeed, of all debtors—for cheap money and inflation, but in Bryan’s view, going on the gold standard was a decision to increase the purchasing power of money, with the result that a $1000 mortgage taken out when the country was on a bimetal standard might have to be paid back with money whose purchasing power was a great deal more.
Bryan saw silver as a moral question that divided working men from their exploiters: “The poor man is called a socialist if he believes that the wealth of the rich should be divided among the poor, but the rich man is called a financier if he devises a plan by which the pittance of the poor can be converted to his use. The poor man who takes property by force is a thief, but the creditor who can by legislation make a debtor pay a dollar twice as large as he borrowed is lauded as the friend of a sound currency.”
For Bryan, all the talk from businessmen about an “honest dollar” was hypocrisy: “There is not and never has been an honest dollar,” which he defined as a currency “absolutely stable in relation to all other things.” An unstable currency inevitably benefited some people at the expense of others, and conversion to the gold standard was simply a means of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor—in other words, politics as usual. His speech, delivered in Congress in August of 1893, marked Bryan both as a defender of the farmer and as an unreliable Democrat. He wisely did not seek reelection in 1894.
Over the next two years, ex-Congressman Bryan, repudiated by the leadership of his own party, laid his highly improbable plans to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency. What no one counted on was the power of his voice and the force of his character. (Microphones virtually eliminated the orator’s advantage over the schemer). By good luck and a little finagling, the boy orator of the Platte ended up the final speaker in the debate over silver. This “Cross of Gold” speech, although it contained nothing that Bryan had not said before, was a masterpiece of American oratory. Without electricity or amplification, he electrified the audience. There is probably no single speech since the days of Patrick Henry that has done so much.
Putting himself squarely in the Jeffersonian tradition of his party, he declared himself an heir to the Jacksonian revolution: “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth.” Bryan drew the line between (in Carlyle’s words) “the idle holders of capital” and the “struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes”; between the East (while insisting he had “not one word against those who live on the Atlantic coast”) and “the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness . . . who rear their children near to Nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their creator . . . “
The populist, in defending the economic interests of Main Street against Wall Street, inevitably pits the vigorous West against the degenerate past, and Bryan, when he was not running for national office, was not always so reticent about the East. Returning to Nebraska after his resignation as Secretary of State, he “congratulated the people upon living 36 hours from New York . . . the Allegheny Mountains are the salvation of the rest of the country, as they serve as a dike to keep the prejudice, the venom, the insolence, and the ignorance of the New York press from inundating the Mississippi valley.”
In Chicago, Bryan was—as he always was—on the side of reality, of real people against the cruel theories that robbed them of their livelihood, their hope, and their faith: “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
His defense of reality over abstraction drove him, in the last days of his life, to participate in the Scopes Trial, where he hoped to affirm a living faith in the living God, as opposed to the dry and deadly speculations of the Darwinists. He never pretended to have a grasp of scientific theory, and in private he confessed that he did not know whether or not the Darwinists were right on the facts. What he did know was that high school and college Darwinism was corrupting the morals of the students, and in response to Darrow’s plea for freedom of thought and expression in Dayton, he quoted Darrow’s defense of “Babe” Leopold in Chicago. Leopold was one of two spoiled rich boys who had committed a brutal and pointless murder. In his defense, Darrow had put the blame on Nietzsche: “Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?” Upholding the right of universities to teach such dangerous doctrines, Darrow still insisted that these modern teachings had “meant the death of many.”
Bryan declared this ACLUism a “damnable philosophy,” and declared—without in any way extenuating the crime—the university guilty of corrupting souls. “When you go back to the root of the question, you will find that the legislature not only had a right to protect the students from the evolutionary hypothesis but was in duty bound to do so.” For Bryan, what mattered most was not the facts of Darwinism or the economic interests served by a monetary policy; what counted was the character of the people—both individually, when it came to salvation, and nationally, when it was a question of political morality. Bryan opposed colonialism, not only because of the effect it had on the colonial subjects but even more for its influence on the imperial nation.
Poorly informed on international affairs, Bryan at first welcomed the revolutions against the Spanish colonial empire that broke out in the 1890’s. Bryan had no martial talent or inclinations, but he did volunteer as a private and at first refused, when his fellow-volunteers elected him colonel. He resigned, when it dawned on him that the imperialists intended not to destroy colonialism but to replace a Spanish empire with an American version.
Bryan was shrewd enough to realize that whatever benefits might attach to colonial empires, they were reserved to monarchies: “The fruits of imperialism, be they bitter or sweet, must be left to the subjects of monarchy. This is the one tree of which the citizens of a republic may not partake. It is the voice of the serpent, not the voice of God, that bids us eat.”
Imperialism invariably increases the power of the military, and, Bryan pointed out, there had been a fourfold increase of America’s standing army from 1896 to 1899. “A large standing army . . . is ever a menace to a republican form of government.” Progressive imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt, however much they might have dressed themselves up in sheepskinned hypocrisy, were the same old warmongering wolves that had always plagued the human race. At the St. Louis convention in 1904, Bryan described the speech of Governor Black in nominating TR as “a eulogy of war . . . an exalting of the doctrine of brute force.”
Imperialism must either make aliens citizens—virtually inconceivable in the case of the Philippines—or make them subjects by force. “In what respect does the position of the Republican party differ from the position taken by the English government in 1776?” To the apostles of democratic globalism and jackbooted human rights, Bryan replied: “Force can defend a right, but force has never yet created a right.”
Even more repulsive than old-fashioned imperialism was the hypocrisy of Anglophile Republicans who wanted to liberate Spanish possessions but expressed no sympathy for Republican Boers. Picking up the theme of Anglo-Saxon jingoism, Bryan argued that self-government was the genius of the Anglo-Saxon, but that the American had raised this creed to a Golden Rule; “Anglo-Saxon civilization has taught the individual to protect his own rights, American civilization will teach him to respect the rights of others.”
The Republicans insisted that they were going to educate the Filipinos in the ways of democracy, but Bryan pointed out the obvious flaw: “If we expect to maintain a colonial policy, we shall not find it to our advantage to educate the people. The educated Filipinos are now in revolt against us. . . . If we are to govern them without their consent and give them no voice in determining the taxes which they must pay, we dare not educate them, lest they learn to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and mock us for our inconsistency.”
The messianic democratists preached conversion of the world by the sword, but, asked Bryan, “If true Christianity consists in carrying out in our daily lives the teaching of Christ, who will say that we are commanded to civilize with dynamite and proselyte with the sword?”
Bryan did not change his mind on imperialism in the years following the Spanish-American War, and as Secretary of State he labored mightily—without the support of the President whose nomination he had secured—to keep the United States out of the great European bloodletting. Unfortunately, his cabinet position precluded any open attacks on Wilson’s policies, and once his country had entered the war, the patriotic Bryan kept his peace. The best he could do was to resign in protest over Wilson’s one-sided support of England. In particular he urged Wilson to discourage Americans from traveling on ships that might be attacked, and he wanted to forbid American passenger ships from carrying munitions. He guessed immediately that the Lusitania was carrying war materiel and therefore a justifiable target for the German navy.
Bryan was a politician, not a philosopher, and it is easy to point to occasions in his career when he seems to have betrayed his principles. The same can be said of Robert Taft or, indeed, of any great statesman. The statesman’s task—unlike that of the philosopher or the pure politician—is complex. He must chart a course for his nation, or at least that part of the nation willing to follow him. In this he resembles the philosopher or pundit, but he must also deal with each situation and opportunity as it presents itself. Refusal to compromise is self-indulgence, not probity.
Bryan faithfully maintained his central convictions throughout his career; he championed the rights of the wealth-creating growers and makers of things against their exploiters, the sound Heartland against the decadent East, the Old Republic against the evil empire that Theodore Roosevelt and his friends were constructing. TR had his virtues, and Bryan had his weaknesses, but these two men can be taken to represent the two possibilities of American national life in the 20th century. The Speaker of the House of Representatives apparently thinks so too. According to Fred Barnes in a wonderfully naive piece in the first number of what some conservatives are calling the Weekly Reader: “Gingrich’s model . . . is not FDR, but three Republican leaders at the turn of the century: Presidents William McKinley . . . and Theodore Roosevelt . . . and Republican strategist Mark Hanna. The struggle between these Republicans and William Jennings Bryan, the chronic Democratic presidential candidate, has ‘remarkable parallels to where the two parties arc today,’ Gingrich argues. ‘Bryan was a remarkably shallow but emotionally effective demagogue, maximizing class warfare and a sense of fear in order to avoid modernization. McKinley, Roosevelt, and Hanna represented the rise of modern America.'”
Setting aside the potted history—calling Mark Hanna a strategist is like calling Al Capone a businessman—one has to concede the Speaker’s point. The battle lines in 1896 were clearly drawn: McKinley and Hanna represented the forces of “modernization”—big business linked to big government, the masters of war and the builders of empire, big profits from a consumerism that preys upon families and subverts all morality. Bryan, on the other hand, was a simple man speaking the language of Jefferson and the Bible. This stark comparison is not entirely fair to the victor: in truth, Bill McKinley was not the worst Republican who has ever sat in the White House. Both he and his crooked mentor were reluctant imperialists: unlike the Bull Moose, they had boodle, not conquest on their minds.
It is strange how this century is ending as it began. Ideas and myths that we had thought dead and buried suddenly reappear. No one, we should have thought, at this late date, could possibly think of rehabilitating the “Ohio Dynasty” of American politics. In his 1932 novel The Farm, Ohioan Louis Bromfield wrote of the good old days of Ohio before “the War of Secession.” Bromfield was almost nostalgic for the old-fashioned Midwestern politician “with his chicanery, his opportunism, and his hypocrisy born more of the times and the sketchy ethics of a people greedy for quick riches than of any individual baseness. . . . Ohio had not yet produced her array of weak Presidents and corrupt, arrogant, and unscrupulous ‘bosses.'”
Then the war came, which turned the country over to the profiteers and swindlers. The 1870’s and 80’s were an orgy of greed that equally disgusted men as opposite in character as Henry Adams and Mark Twain, but it was in the next “splendid little war” that our national character was completely corrupted. Bromfield, looking back, summed up the 90’s: “Everything was ‘bully’ with the colonel of the Rough Riders, and Senator Lodge was weaving a mesh of chicanery and bad faith to force the American people into a wild career of imperialism.”
Going to school in those years meant an indoctrination that might have been drafted by Mr. Barnes. The object was to fill the “budding citizens with a blind enthusiasm for a government (and so for themselves) regardless of its folly, its corruption, and hypocrisy. There was even an effort made to make us believe that the President was a sacrosanct creature, incapable of wrong, vet at home . . . [he] had heard of McKinley and Hanna and he knew that his own state had produced a whole crop of feeble Presidents and scoundrelly politicians.”
Such was the choice in 1896. On one side stood the forces of corruption and imperialism masquerading as free enterprise and patriotism, and on the other stood Bryan and the Populists. It is the same choice today. In the entire field of presidential candidates, there is only one man speaking on behalf of middle Americans, and he too has been accused (in the Wall Street journal, for example) of inciting “class warfare”; he is one of the few political leaders willing to use the language of our old-time religion to combat the grotesque heresies of “modernization,” and he is the only candidate who has consistently opposed American adventurism in Somalia, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans (where his pro-Croatian prejudices have driven him to—but never over—the brink into interventionism).
Like Bryan, Pat Buchanan may be wrongheaded in some of his policies, but he has his heart in the right place, in defending the interests of ordinary Americans against the transnational elite class that has leveraged its way into ownership of most of the free world. After 100 years, we have the same choice before us, but it is not between Democrats and Republicans. The debate over the budget revealed that the differences between the congressional Republicans and the administration were all questions of degree, not of fundamental principle.
It is not a contest between Democrats and Republicans, but between one republican and the imperialists in both parties. There are good arguments to be made in favor of empire, and they were made honestly by Roosevelt I and disingenuously by Roosevelt II, and the public interest would be better served if Messrs. Dole and Clinton would make their ease openly and without subterfuge. But even if they do not, the choice between republic and empire is clear enough even for a Harvard Ph.D. to see it. If Americans refuse to see the election in this cold light of day, then they probably do not deserve to hold onto even the fig leaf of free elections concealing the naked libido dominandi that is the one reality of our political life.