September 23, 2010


Real Americans (William Hogeland, Boston Review)

Then as now, the hottest blast of populist rhetoric was directed less at specific policies than at elites’ dismissal of ordinary people’s judgments, determinations, and desires; at what populists saw as the undemocratic, un-American claim to superior expertise; at forestalling decisive action through discussion and debate. With Bryan and his allies having ascertained the wishes of ordinary people, discussion and debate must cease. His plain people do not live in the East:

Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—those pioneers away out there, rearing 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 children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead—are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak.

Bryan discerned in the frontier and small-town experience something fundamentally more American than anything in the centers of elite policy—“real America,” as Palin has put it. And Bryan’s pioneers appear to have modest demands. They ask only for their rightful place at the big table. Yet the modesty justifies an unconditional confrontation. Straight from the poetry of prairie birdsong and schoolhouses and cemeteries, Bryan makes an outright declaration of war:

We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!

By the time Bryan brought the speech to its final figure, with labor and mankind a single holy body on the crucifix, the delegates were so overcome that they whipped off their coats and threw them high in the air, made silver a key position in the Democratic Party platform, and nominated Bryan, at only 36, their candidate for president. The liberal mode of seeking compromises between labor and capital—represented by Bryan’s nearest competitor in Chicago, Richard Bland—was out.

Bryan lost to William McKinley and spent the rest of his long career as perhaps the most powerful divider in American political history. He began the tradition of consolidating strength by losing elections and threatening breakaways, a tradition that has inspired Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and, possibly, Palin. He lost in 1896 by running against gold, in 1900 by running against imperialism, and in 1908 by running against trusts. He used Midwestern populist clout to build an insurgent coalition that, for a time, was a force in the Democratic Party. His constituency was so big and fervent that his endorsement became priceless, and he used it to influence platforms even while he became a well-paid superstar on the lecture circuit. Palin may be hoping to play a similar role in today’s Republican Party, and some party strategists no doubt worry that she will induce them to recreate Bryan’s losses for his Democrats. In exchange for one of his endorsements, Bryan served nominally as Secretary of State for a reluctant Wilson, but, like Palin, he could not have accomplished his ends in elected office. His main occupation was rallying, not policymaking. On whistle-stop tours, in tents, and at gatherings of every kind he made speeches, long ones, hundreds of them. Palin accomplishes similar goals with books, social media, and occasional appearances.

Both Bryan’s words and his tone express uncompromising defiance of the deliberative, intellectually sophisticated liberalism of White, Wilson, and their ilk. All he saw in their privileged expertise was dismissal, mockery, and disdain, an assumption of superiority not found even in pro-business conservatism. When today’s right-wing populists make threatening remarks like “lock and load” and talk about taking the country back, they’re applying the method that Bryan perfected. The war he kept declaring was a moral one for transcendent virtue and self-evident good, beyond debate and petition, beyond the win-some, lose-some, art-of-the-possible quotidian. Ultimately his themes were spiritual. On the circuit many of his best-loved speeches were not political at all, but purely religious, true evangelical sermons. While his political targets often were conservative corporate interests, the evangelical mood in which he expressed himself involved a fundamental rejection of liberal ways of thought and rhetoric.

The historian Richard Hofstadter, in his seminal books Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The American Political Tradition, rates Bryan’s intellectual fluency so low that the chapter on Bryan in Political Tradition is at times laugh-out-loud funny. Hofstadter joins White in viewing Bryan’s populism as a clever expression of dangerous idiocy. It’s not clear how fair that assessment is. Hofstadter’s was a unique sensibility, influenced in one way by serious Marxist scrutiny and in another by the refinements of high culture. He was brilliantly skeptical of everybody from Andrew Jackson to FDR, but almost intemperately hostile to all forms of evangelicalism, which he detailed with enormous distaste, in many books, as a defining streak in American cultural and political life.

The anti-intellectual evangelicalism that Hofstadter saw as inherent in populism and that so upsets liberals today may be witnessed in Bryan’s opposition to teaching Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, a conservative position that brought Bryan’s career to a dramatic end in the famous Scopes “monkey” trial. Bryan’s antipathy toward teaching evolution—really toward evolution itself—might seem to foreshadow populism’s fateful shift from left to right, when populists began promoting cultural conservatism instead of economic fairness. That is the shift lamented by writers such as Frank and traced by Michael Kazin in The Populist Persuasion, Rick Perlstein in Nixonland and Before the Storm, and Joseph Lowndes in From the New Deal to the New Right.

For Bryan, however, there was no shift. His anger at corruption in entrenched capital was identical to his anger at blasphemy in Darwin’s theory. In Bryan’s populism, the plain people are by definition the last arbiters of truth. On monetary policy, the people rendered their judgment against gold and in favor of silver, and Bryan delivered that judgment to the establishment. On the nature of creation, the people judged against evolution and in favor of the literal truth of the Bible; Bryan delivered that judgment, too. His argument against Darwin’s theory also had an economic element. It outraged his sense of justice to imagine humanity ascending by the survival of the fittest and the destruction of the least fit, the strong forever preying on the weak, the endless quest for dominance he associated with human hatred, greed, and corruption. He saw scientific Darwinism and social Darwinism as one and the same, and he called for a society and a conception of creation based on love, not hate.

That position was complicated by the angrily uncompromising tone, anything but loving, that he took and encouraged his supporters to take. The line between prairie birdsong and explosion was always a thin one for Bryan; that thinness may have made his career as a speaker and a leader. His politics of a non-political populism, advancing itself on religious and social grounds, stands for self-declared, self-defined goodness. It equates that goodness with the ordinary, working-class, democratic values that it declares fundamentally American. In protecting those values, it announces itself ready, at a moment’s notice, to fight to the death the arrogant social superiority that it views as institutionalized in liberal thought.

...of how Bryan's appearance at the Scopes Trial was part and parcel of his populism, you can't beat Edward Larson's Summer for the Gods.

Summer for the Gods: How conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin (Edward J. Larson)

The First World War played a pivotal role. American intervention in that gruesome conflict, as part of a progressive effort to defeat German militarism and make the world safe for democracy, was supported by many of the modernists who revered the nation's wartime leader, Woodrow Wilson, who was himself a second-generation modernist academic. As a passionate champion of peace, William Jennings Bryan opposed this position and, in 1915, resigned his post as Wilson's Secretary of State in protest over the drift toward war. He spent the next two years criss-crossing the country campaigning against intervention.

Many leading premillennial Christians shared Bryan's open hostility toward American intervention in World War One--seeing that conflict as both a product of natural human depravity and the possible fulfillment of prophesy regarding the global catastrophes that must precede the coming of heaven on earth. With Shailer Mathews, a liberal theologian from the University of Chicago, leading the charge, some modernists took this opportunity to attack premillennialism as an otherworldly threat to national security in wartime. Premillennialists responded in kind by stressing the German roots of higher academic criticism, attributing an evolutionary "survival-of-the-fittest" mentality to German militarism, and accusing modernism of undermining traditional American faith in biblical values. "The new theology has led Germany into barbarism," the premillennialist journal Our Hope declared in a 1918 editorial, "and it will lead any nation into the same demoralization." The trauma of war stirred passions on both sides, and spurred a bitter, decade-long battle among American Christians.

Fundamentalists came to view modernism, together with its twin supports of biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the source of much that troubled Western culture. When a horribly brutal war led to an unjust and uneasy peace, the rise of international communism, worldwide labor unrest, and an apparent breakdown of traditional values--the cultural crisis worsened for conservative Christians in the United States. "One indication that many premillennialists were shifting their emphasis--away from just evangelizing, praying, and waiting for the end time, toward more intense concern with retarding [social] degenerative trends--was the role they played in the formation of the first explicitly fundamentalist organization," one historian noted. "In the summer of 1918, under the guidance of William B. Riley, a number of leaders in the Bible school and prophetic conference movement conceived of the idea of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association [WCFA]."

In 1919, Riley welcomed some 6,000 conservative Christians to the WCFA's inaugural conference with the warning that their Protestant denominations were "rapidly coming under the leadership of the new infidelity, known as 'modernism.'" One by one, seventeen prominent ministers from across the country took the podium to denounce modernism as, in the words of one speaker, "the product of Satan's lie" and to call for a return to biblical fundamentals in church and culture.

Although these early developments laid the foundation for the anti-evolution crusade and the ensuing Scopes trial, they did not predestine it. Fundamentalism began as a response to theological developments within the Protestant church rather than to political or educational developments within American society. Even the name of the WCFA's journal, Christian Fundamentals in Schools and Churches, originally referred to support for teaching biblical fundamentals in divinity schools and churches rather than opposition to evolutionary instruction in public schools--though it neatly fit the organization's later emphasis. "When the Fundamentals movement was originally formed, it was supposed that our particular foe was the so-called 'higher criticism,'" Riley later recalled, "but in the onward going affairs, we discovered that basic to the many forms of modern infidelity is the philosophy of evolution." Riley was predisposed to make this connection, but it took the much better known William Jennings Bryan to turn the fundamentalist movement into a popular crusade against evolutionary teaching that led directly to Dayton.

Bryan was not a dispensational premillennialist: he did not agree with their view that the Bible prophesied the imminent degeneration of the world in preparation for Christ's second coming. Quite to the contrary, he thoroughly enjoyed many things of this world--particularly politics, oratory, travel, and food--and believed in the power of reform to make life better. Reform took two forms for Bryan--personal reform through individual religious faith and public reform through majoritarian governmental action. He maintained a deep faith in both throughout his life, and each contributed to his final political campaign against evolutionary teaching. "My father taught me to believe in Democracy as well as Christianity," Bryan observed late in his life.

Bryan's crusade against evolutionary teaching capped a remarkable 35-year-long career in the public eye. He entered Congress in 1890 as a 30-year-old populist Democratic politician committed to roll back the Republican tariff for the dirt farmers of his native Nebraska. His charismatic speaking ability and youthful enthusiasm quickly earned him the nickname "The Boy Orator of the Platte." Bryan's greatest speech occurred at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, where he defied his party's conservative incumbent president, Grover Cleveland, and the Eastern establishment that then dominated both political parties by demanding an alternative silver-based currency to help debtors cope with the crippling deflation caused by exclusive reliance on limited gold-backed money. A potent mixture of radical majoritarian arguments and traditional religious oratory--defiantly demanding, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold"--the speech electrified the convention and secured the party's presidential nomination for Bryan. For many, he now became known as "The Great Commoner"; for some, "The Peerless Leader."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 23, 2010 9:01 AM
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