Bernie Sanders… or William Jennings Bryan?

Posted on May 19, 2016. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Who’s the outsider politician who simultaneously maintains a rebel stance against business-as-usual politics while being a party mainstay? The man who takes a stand against corporate money in politics while lambasting Republican cronyism? The man who won enthusiastic support for his presidential bid despite the long odds of his winning the Democratic nomination?

Yes, it is both Sanders and Bryan. The parallels are strong, and we were thinking about it today as yet another radio news program talked about whether it was right for Sanders to continue to campaign when he can’t win a majority of Democratic delegates. We talk about Bryan, the Nebraska Senator and early Populist, in our post on his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Bryan ran for president three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Here are some bullets that describe Bryan at the turn of the century that could easily be used to describe Sanders today:

—Bryan stood against big banking and big business, headquartered mostly on the East Cost, standing up for the right of small farmers and small business owners and workers to get a living wage and fair lending terms from banks

—Bryan came from a state with a small population that had no influence over national politics (Nebraska)

—He was anti-imperialist and ran twice for president on a platform to release all U.S. territories and dominions (he ended up supporting the Spanish-American War in 1898 because he incorrectly believed that if the U.S. beat Spain and kept the Philippines, those islands would then be given their independence by the U.S.)

—He said “universal peace cannot come until justice is enthroned throughout the world”

—In his 1908 campaign, he stood against corporate domination, called for all political contributions made by men running corporations to be publicly revealed (on election day), and that anyone who did not cooperate should be jailed

—His slogan was “Shall the People Rule?” (and it was not a rhetorical question)

When people today call Sanders a Populist, they are using a term invented for, by, and of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s entrenched hatred and suspicion of wealthy people, people from the coast, and big business blinded him to the possibility that a) not all poor people were good people; b) many of the poor white farmers who loved him were merciless promoters of segregation, Jim Crow, and the terror and torture of black Americans; c) and that a nation needs all economic segments working together to grow and be just. Bryan’s willingness to be cartoonish in attacking injustice and corruption led many Americans who were not against his basic principles to back William McKinley in 1896 and again in 1900, because McKinley’s “don’t rock the boat” conservatism came to look practical and wise when placed side-by-side with Bryan’s 6-hour speeches raging against the machine.

In 1908, Bryan ran against outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor William Taft, and Bryan raged about the undemocratic nature of one president “choosing” another. This was insider politics at its worst to Bryan, and he was baffled and outraged when the American people approved it with a resounding victory for Taft.

We’re not here to promote a particular candidate here at the HP, but we are here to suggest to those Sanders supporters that a little moderation can be a wise thing if you really want change and not just rage.

Just to be fair, let’s continue our time-traveling comparisons:

Taft himself was not well-qualified to be president, and he did not really want to be president—his dream was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (a dream he actually achieved in 1921). He made some hawkish foreign policy moves to satisfy the conservative wing of his Republican Party, while doing nothing to encourage its growing liberal wing, which he did not like but which was supported by his powerful mentor Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Party continued to fracture under Taft until the election of 1912, when Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson won the election.

…sound vaguely familiar, or plausible?

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