The Siren Song of Populism

He took possession of the Democratic Party with the mesmerizing power of his oratory as his followers screamed, waved their arms, threw their coats in the air, and rallied to his call that, “This community is ready for healing.”

A lawyer from a midwestern state, some said he was too young. He hadn’t served enough time in Congress. He needs seasoning. But his supporters were not dissuaded. They were captivated when he said,

“Destiny is not a matter of chance.  It is a matter of choice.  It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.”

It was the speech he delivered before the Democratic Party convention that launched him toward the nomination.  His was a new, young, spell-binding voice for a party that needed one.  He appealed to a hungry populism – singling out the powerful rich who were taking advantage of poorer Americans.  Then, later, he spoke against what some call “imperialism.” Audiences responded with what one reporter (not Chris Matthews) compared to a thundering artillery barrage.

Yet, the most recent Democratic president didn’t support his nomination. Neither did a healthy number among his own party. But that didn’t stop the juggernaut of a populous movement he’d ignited with his voice, and sustained with speeches delivered across the nation.

He spoke against the influence of big business and big banks over markets, and against monetary policies that favor the wealthy. His candidacy transcends politics-as-usual, and he didn’t hesitate to employ biblical oratorical motifs. His campaign became something of a religious crusade.

“This is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty – the cause of humanity.”
Democrat Party convention delegates were, in the end, swept up by the power of his language.  And, with wild enthusiasm, they nominated him for the Presidency of the United States of America. 

The day after William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech on July 8, 1896 (listen to Bryan recreate a portion of it years later here), the Democrats voted him their presidential nominee.  He promised change.

“A man can be born again; the springs of life can be cleansed instantly…If this is true of one, it can be true of any number.  Thus, a nation can be born in a day if the ideals of the people can be changed.”

He was a 36-years old former congressman from Nebraska, called “the boy Orator of the Platte,” born in Illinois in 1860.  Democrat President Grover Cleveland didn’t favor his candidacy.  Bryan favored Free Silver the controversial monetary issue of the day. 

Richard Hofstadter, author of The American Political Tradition, wrote that Bryan,

“…emerg[ed] suddenly from obscurity at an hour when the people were in an angry mood, farming his message for a simple constituency nursed in evangelical Protestantism and knowing little literature but the Bible.” p. 183

Bryan was a Populist.  Hofstadter wrote,
"Populism was the first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government has some responsibility for the common weal; indeed, it was the first movement to attack seriously the problems created by industrialism.  The complaints and demands and prophetic denunciations of the Populists stirred the latent liberalism in many Americans and startled many conservatives into a new flexibility...The utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future.” The Age of Reform, pp. 61-62    

The politics of grievance and resentment live on.  Instead of debtors agitating for monetary inflation to ease their burdens, identity politics has brought us a toxic blend of anger, resentment, and guilt.  This time we’re offered a strong dose of collective, not individual, responsibility.  The appeal may be eternal, but Americans have historically been less susceptible than other nations to the blandishments of Populists. 

Bryan was also called “The Great Commoner.”

“The Commoner’s heart was filled with simple emotions, but his mind was stocked with equally simple ideas. Presumably he would have lost his political effectiveness if he had learned to look at his supporters with a critical eye, but his capacity for identifying himself with them was costly, for it gave them not so much leadership as expression.  He spoke for them so perfectly that he never spoke to them. In his lifelong stream of impassioned rhetoric he communicated only what they already believed.” The American Political Tradition, p.187
In one of his current Pennsylvania campaign ads, Senator Barack Obama, casually dressed, walks through an abandoned, dilapidated factory, summoning the ghosts of a utopia perceived as lost by his followers - some felling victimized, others feeling guilty.  And the Siren sings.

Bryan would be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908, in three failed attempts to become president. Wilson appointed him Secretary of State, but Bryan resigned when he felt Wilson was leading America into World War I.

Among his memorable quotes is one that speaks to the current race for the Democratic Party nomination.

“I hope the two wings of the Democratic Party may flap together.”

They didn’t for Bryan.
He took possession of the Democratic Party with the mesmerizing power of his oratory as his followers screamed, waved their arms, threw their coats in the air, and rallied to his call that, “This community is ready for healing.”

A lawyer from a midwestern state, some said he was too young. He hadn’t served enough time in Congress. He needs seasoning. But his supporters were not dissuaded. They were captivated when he said,

“Destiny is not a matter of chance.  It is a matter of choice.  It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.”

It was the speech he delivered before the Democratic Party convention that launched him toward the nomination.  His was a new, young, spell-binding voice for a party that needed one.  He appealed to a hungry populism – singling out the powerful rich who were taking advantage of poorer Americans.  Then, later, he spoke against what some call “imperialism.” Audiences responded with what one reporter (not Chris Matthews) compared to a thundering artillery barrage.

Yet, the most recent Democratic president didn’t support his nomination. Neither did a healthy number among his own party. But that didn’t stop the juggernaut of a populous movement he’d ignited with his voice, and sustained with speeches delivered across the nation.

He spoke against the influence of big business and big banks over markets, and against monetary policies that favor the wealthy. His candidacy transcends politics-as-usual, and he didn’t hesitate to employ biblical oratorical motifs. His campaign became something of a religious crusade.

“This is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty – the cause of humanity.”
Democrat Party convention delegates were, in the end, swept up by the power of his language.  And, with wild enthusiasm, they nominated him for the Presidency of the United States of America. 

The day after William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech on July 8, 1896 (listen to Bryan recreate a portion of it years later here), the Democrats voted him their presidential nominee.  He promised change.

“A man can be born again; the springs of life can be cleansed instantly…If this is true of one, it can be true of any number.  Thus, a nation can be born in a day if the ideals of the people can be changed.”

He was a 36-years old former congressman from Nebraska, called “the boy Orator of the Platte,” born in Illinois in 1860.  Democrat President Grover Cleveland didn’t favor his candidacy.  Bryan favored Free Silver the controversial monetary issue of the day. 

Richard Hofstadter, author of The American Political Tradition, wrote that Bryan,

“…emerg[ed] suddenly from obscurity at an hour when the people were in an angry mood, farming his message for a simple constituency nursed in evangelical Protestantism and knowing little literature but the Bible.” p. 183

Bryan was a Populist.  Hofstadter wrote,
"Populism was the first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government has some responsibility for the common weal; indeed, it was the first movement to attack seriously the problems created by industrialism.  The complaints and demands and prophetic denunciations of the Populists stirred the latent liberalism in many Americans and startled many conservatives into a new flexibility...The utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future.” The Age of Reform, pp. 61-62    

The politics of grievance and resentment live on.  Instead of debtors agitating for monetary inflation to ease their burdens, identity politics has brought us a toxic blend of anger, resentment, and guilt.  This time we’re offered a strong dose of collective, not individual, responsibility.  The appeal may be eternal, but Americans have historically been less susceptible than other nations to the blandishments of Populists. 

Bryan was also called “The Great Commoner.”

“The Commoner’s heart was filled with simple emotions, but his mind was stocked with equally simple ideas. Presumably he would have lost his political effectiveness if he had learned to look at his supporters with a critical eye, but his capacity for identifying himself with them was costly, for it gave them not so much leadership as expression.  He spoke for them so perfectly that he never spoke to them. In his lifelong stream of impassioned rhetoric he communicated only what they already believed.” The American Political Tradition, p.187
In one of his current Pennsylvania campaign ads, Senator Barack Obama, casually dressed, walks through an abandoned, dilapidated factory, summoning the ghosts of a utopia perceived as lost by his followers - some felling victimized, others feeling guilty.  And the Siren sings.

Bryan would be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908, in three failed attempts to become president. Wilson appointed him Secretary of State, but Bryan resigned when he felt Wilson was leading America into World War I.

Among his memorable quotes is one that speaks to the current race for the Democratic Party nomination.

“I hope the two wings of the Democratic Party may flap together.”

They didn’t for Bryan.