April 8, 2008
The Siren Song of PopulismBy Lee Cary
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,
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.
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.
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,
Bryan was a Populist. Hofstadter wrote,
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.”
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.
They didn’t for Bryan.