Who speaks for the American people?

William Jennings Bryan

By Bill Martin

Politicians of all parties and platforms want to be perceived as a man (or woman) of the people, wearing the cape of the populist crusader, speaking truth to power and fighting for justice on behalf of “the common man” against big corporations, powerful banks, and the uncommon elite.

Presidential candidates, in particular, claim to speak for “the American people” under the real or imagined pretense of defending the workingman, the vanishing small farmer, the poor and downtrodden, the over-taxed and under-represented, and virtually every second-class group one can imagine. Their common enemies are those they portray as too rich, too arrogant, and simply too big, too powerful, and too out of touch to care about “the people.”

The populist call to arms, at its core, portrays the political battle as “us against them.” To have good (the self-styled populist politician), you must have evil (the powerful). And, the populist says, I am just like you, with my feet on the ground, my head filled with logic and common sense, fighting for your interests against the great and the greedy.

Politicians like Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and others have been described (or have described themselves) as heirs to the populist banner. But just saying it doesn’t make it so.

While populism, or a form of it, has been seen in countries around the world, in the United States it had its genesis in the late 19th Century, rising out of the Great Plains and finding a magnificent voice in William Jennings Bryan.

For 125 years, American politicians have been trying to recapture the Bryan magic and he remains the gold (and silver) standard for populist candidates. Many have tried to emulate the fervor he generated (see Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party of 1912, the Progressive Party of 1924 led by Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and state/national figures such as Huey P. Long in Louisiana and Pappy O’Daniel in Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, among others) but none have truly succeeded to his level on the national stage.

The Democratic Party’s unsuccessful nominee for President in 1896 when he was only 36 years old, losing to William McKinley, and again in 1900 (defeated again by McKinley) and 1908 (losing to William Howard Taft), he left a populist legacy that resonates more than a century later.

In A Godly Hero, The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006), Michael Kazin documents the rise of an ambitious small town lawyer who, through the strength of his oratory and the support of put-upon farmers and others, became a national and international figure. While the book was published before the rise of grassroots Tea Party activism and before the ascent of Donald Trump, it remains a primer for those who want to put populism in context, both historically and as it applies to the current day.

Bryan was frequently called “the Great Commoner” by his admirers, and Kazin says that his political philosophy “married democracy and pietism in a romantic gospel that borrowed equally from Jefferson and Jesus.” Anyone, no matter their upbringing or social status, could become a follower of Jesus. And everyone had equal rights and equal opportunity under the Jefferson-authored Declaration of Independence. It was a simple promise and Bryan’s eloquence carried it home.

Kazin writes:

“[In] some ways, Bryan’s time is not unlike our own. Large corporations still dominate our economy, bankroll our politicians, and frame our mass culture. Pious, if often intemperate, voices still denounce the corrosive impact of modern society and look to a spiritual awakening to cleanse the body politic. But we lack politicians, filled with conviction and blessed with charisma, who are willing to lead a charge against secular forces whose power is both mightier and more subtly deployed than a century ago.”

Again, this was written before the advent of Donald Trump, who clearly is willing to lead a bombastic charge against the powerful. But is he another William Jennings Bryan? Not hardly, in this writer’s opinion.

Bryan was born in 1860 in Illinois, the son of a prosperous and pious father whose own political awakening went back to the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson as President. After attending Illinois College and taking a law degree at Union Law College in Chicago, he moved to Lincoln, a town of 40,000 residents in Eastern Nebraska, and set up a law practice in 1887.

 Beginning in college, Bryan had been drawn to oratory, practicing and improving until it opened the doors to national fame. Kazin says, “He spoke fluently without either text or notes. His voice rang out with a clarity and sonority that pleased everyone who heard it, whatever they thought of his views.” All the more remarkable, he spoke in a time before amplification, when one’s voice had to carry through large halls and outdoor arenas. We can hardly imagine that today.

When he ran for the House of Representatives in 1890 and became only the second Democrat Congressman in Nebraska history, his campaign carefully targeted the farmers and wage-earners who had long been faithful Republican voters. He attacked tariffs, trusts, land speculators, and the gold standard, the latter of which would become a hallmark of his orations. He went so far as to compare himself to David taking on Goliath of the Philistines

The roots of Bryan’s success began in 1873, when Congress placed the nation on the gold standard, recalling silver dollars then in circulation. While it’s an issue that we find a little weird today, “The Crime of ’73,” was very real for those who felt the rules of the financial system were rigged to benefit a “money monopoly.”

Kazin explains:

“Today, the passion for free silver – or the gold standard – seems bizarre and naïve… Few citizens of an advanced capitalist nation fret that they can’t convert their paper money into a tidy amount of precious metal… But in the mid-1890s, most Americans assumed that wealth consisted largely of products that were tangible and visible – crops, livestock, iron, coal, textiles, real estate. Because creditors, industrialists, and the Bank of England favored gold, ordinary Americans, who resented their power and often found it mystifying, rallied to the promise of free silver. They were groping for a flexible currency, tailored for a fast-growing economy, but they trafficked in the argot of conspiracy.”

William Jennings Bryan, boosted by a landmark, three-hour speech he gave as a freshman on the floor of the House of Representatives, became the leading spokesman for everything that was bad about the gold standard. The fight would lead to the speech that made William Jennings Bryan a household name…and a populist legend.

During his two terms in the House, he campaigned for “pro-silver” candidates across the country (and, showing that some things never change, sought campaign donations from silver barons and miners in the West). Then, in 1894 he announced he would not run for a third term in the House, but would instead seek a U.S. Senate seat from Nebraska, while becoming editor of the Omaha World-Telegram. Back then Senators were selected by the State Legislature; Nebraska’s, dominated by Republicans, and elected the forgettable John Thurston. Attorney for the big-money Union Pacific Railroad, Thurston was the opposite of a populist. 

Bryan was not discouraged and almost immediately began what would become a successful campaign to secure the Democrat nomination for President in 1896. When he arrived at that year’s Convention in Chicago, he had spent two years crisscrossing the country, giving speeches and wooing potential delegates. Still, when the Convention began Congressman Richard Bland of Missouri was the favorite.

However, Bryan captured the delegates with a fiery speech that concluded with these famous words, addressed to those who demanded the gold standard: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” These closing words touched off an explosion of joyous support in the convention hall and – although Bryan had used the “cross of gold” language in previous speeches – assured that his words would live on thanks to what is considered one of the great political speeches of all time.

Still, it did not guarantee Bryan the nomination. In fact, it wasn’t until a fifth ballot that he secured the two-thirds majority needed to win. In the hard-fought general election, Bryan campaigned throughout the Midwest, while McKinley stayed home in Ohio and had his surrogates do most of the campaigning. After a vitriolic campaign in which Bryan was called everything from a religious zealot to an anarchist, the Republican carried 23 states and 271 electoral votes and Bryan 22 states and 176 electoral votes. 

Bryan ran against again McKinley in 1900 but lost by a bigger margin, carrying only 17 states despite getting 45 percent of the vote. Times had changed. While the country was in the clutches of a depression in 1896, by the turn of the century the economy was booming and a Republican slogan of “Four More Years of the Full Dinner Pail” resonated with voters.

After the election, Bryan returned to his position at the World-Telegram, which gave him an effective soapbox, started The Commoner, a weekly publication which would eventually have a circulation of 145,000, and spoke widely across the country. In 1908, he was for a third time the Democrat nominee for president, losing by a comfortable margin to William Howard Taft, who very nearly doubled Bryan’s total in electoral votes.

Over the next several years, he continued to be heavily involved in public discourse, although he was never again a candidate for public office. He endorse prohibition, the eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, the right of unions to strike, women’s suffrage, insurance for bank deposits and a number of other progressive positions, all of which are a reality today. He spoke anywhere and everywhere, from major political rallies to local Chautauquas. After Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912, he named Bryan his Secretary of State, a popular decision at the time. As Europe moved towards World War I, Bryan advocated for neutrality, as did Wilson initially. 

In the 1920s, now living in Florida due to his wife’s declining health, Bryant began to emphasize a foundational part of his life: Christian evangelism. He started preaching over the radio and became a leading voice in the evolution/Darwinism debate. He is in many ways best remembered for his courtroom battle against Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1925. He died in his sleep less than a week after the end of the trial.

Today, of course, William Jennings Bryan is a historical footnote, although he left a legacy of populism that politicians continue to try to emulate. While many of the policies he espoused have become accepted, there’s a question whether someone with his Jeffersonian Judeo-Christian ethics could be an acceptable candidate today. As author Scott Farris writes in Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation, “many fail to understand Bryan because he occupies a rare space in society … too liberal for today’s religious [and] too religious for today’s liberals.” It would be hard to find a place in today’s political environment for what Kazin calls “Bryan’s crusading moralism.”

Therein lies a key difference between the populists of the 1890s and the would-be populists heading into the 2020 elections. Bryan was guided by two principles – a belief in Jeffersonian republican democracy and an abiding faith in the teaching of Jesus Christ. Find the candidate today who espouses that and you’re likely to find a candidate on the fringes of modern politics, with little hope of electoral success.

So what about Trump, Warren, Sanders, Biden and the rest? They all say they are fighting for the American family and the American worker against the powerful moneyed interests that hold us down and bottle up our individual success. Could they even carry Bryan’s black suit jacket?

To begin with, despite Kazin’s argument that Bryan’s “time is not unlike our own,” times truly have changed. Most of the issues are different, words become almost immediately known because of social media and 24-hour news channels, and the largely agrarian society that allowed an orator from the lightly populated plains to become a household name has disappeared. In addition, none of them give more than lip service to the strong faith-based foundation of Bryant’s philosophy and his appeal to the Bible-reading masses of rural America.

On top of that, they cannot match Bryant’s speaking style. It was not unusual for him to speak for two or three hours straight and keep the audience mesmerized. Ain’t nobody got time for that – or the attention span. Politics is sound bites and 15-second clips on the news, not stem-winding speeches and polemics.

Look at the field of today’s top-level politicians cum public speakers. Bernie is often loud and overbearing, which leads to him being caricatured as a grumpy old man with a “you kids get off my lawn” attitude. Warren comes across as having an overly powerful teaching gene, leading her to a sometimes lecturing presence. Biden…well, sometimes the most entertaining thing about a Biden speech is wondering if or when he will misspeak.

Of course, his fans claim that Trump is the most populist of the populists, but his self-aggrandizing, wandering, off-script speeches are enough to make anyone yearn for the rhythmic, compelling speeches of a Kennedy or the best of Barrack Obama. Sometime Trump advisor Steve Bannon has called the current President “the greatest public speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan.” Kazin begs to differ.

Writing in Politico in 2017, Kazin agreed that both Bryan and Trump excelled in front of big audiences and took delight in bashing the elites. But there, he says, the similarities end. Politically, the differences are gargantuan. Kazin writes, “Bryan was the key figure in changing his party from a conservative one (on economic policy) to the modern liberal one that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama inherited.”

He also noted that while Bryan “gave lengthy, class-conscious addresses” on the important issues of the day, Trump “fill his talks with slogans about ‘making American great again’ and angry jousts at ‘fake news’.” Trump’s rhetoric is more comparable to Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, Kazin believes.

All that aside, there’s no question that Trump had successfully tapped in to the life’s blood of populism – the “common” men and women who night-after-night fill large arena’s to hear him rail grandiloquently against those who are out to get him. And the audience eats it up. Clearly he has found common ground among those who feel like they have not had a voice in politics, government and society.

In many ways, Elizabeth Warren is the opposite of a populist, with roots deep in elite institutions such as the Harvard Law School and, of course, the United States Senate. In populist fashion, Bernie Sanders runs a frankly socialist campaign adhering to the needs and interests of average Americans and, most importantly, relying on financial support from the grassroots. Joe Biden, in his speeches and his fundraising methods, has shown himself to be almost an “anti-populist” by criticizing some of the more aggressive “free lunch” programs of his fellow candidates. At the same time, he undoubtedly will be pushed more to the populist left as he struggles to reinvigorate his flagging campaign.

In one way, at least, Trump is closer to Bryan that are Warren, Biden and Sanders. The latter three are all products of the United States Senate and Washington, D.C., surrounded by elites even as they profess otherwise. Bryan served only two terms in the House of Representatives and ran pretty much as an outsider. Financially comfortable for his time, he rose from the farmlands of Nebraska. Trump, extremely rich, rose from the neon jungles of New York City, but he had never held public office before his shocking election in 2016 and could make a compelling case, as did Bryan, of holding allegiance only to the people. Still, who would deign to attach the word “commoner” to Donald Trump in the way it was applied to William Jennings Bryan.  

Of course, one could make a case for the populism of the appealing long-shot candidacy of Pete Buttigieg, a product of the heartland who also proclaims a strong faith-based belief system, despite the fact that many evangelists decry his openly gay lifestyle choices. In a September conversation with reporters on board his campaign bus, as reported by BuzzFeed, he was asked how he sees populists, who on the right identify with Trump and on the left identify with rivals such as Sanders and Warren? “I think that’s maybe the most slippery term of all,” he said. “I think anyone who wants to win an election is trying to be popular. I guess my anxiety with populism is … I think it misstates the balance between following the people and leading the people.”

 Returning to the incumbent, there is an even more compelling difference that argues that Trump is no William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s righteousness in pursuit of his cause hardly compares to Donald Trump’s proclamations of “witch hunt” and victimhood. And while Bryan was adept at making long and popular speeches defending Christianity, there are still many who question the sincerity of Trump’s faith. In fact, there are no top-tier candidates of either party who effectively carry the cross of faith on the campaign trail. It is, after all, not politically correct.

So, is there a place for a populist in today’s political environment? Maybe it’s just not fair to try to compare today’s politicians, despite their rhetoric, to the Bryan, who came from a different time and era. But that won’t stop them from trying on the populist mantle.

Then again, maybe populism isn’t all it’s purported to be. Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, was quoted in The Atlantic in 2017 as saying that populists are dividers, not uniters. (How Trumpian!) They view society as “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.”

That leaves a lot of room in between those extremes. The challenge for Republicans and Democrats alike is to try to convince a majority of those in the middle that their policies reflect their interests. Commonsense says it would be easier to push the people in the middle toward populism than toward elitism.

The door is open for a populist of national import and impact. Unfortunately, there often is a thin line between populist and demagogue, which make it easier for a Wallace or a McCarthy to step into the limelight (although the rise of both occurred prior to the advent of the Internet and the dominance of television news behemoths). In today’s antagonistic, polarized political environment, it is hard to envision a politician of Bryan’s faith-based appeal and magnetism securing a national footing in order to seek elected office, even with the help of mass media.

Bryan was wildly popular during his lifetime and at the same time wildly despised. Kazin puts it this way: “[He] was always a man caught between two contradictory impulses. As a moralizing populist, Bryan courted both applause and hostility.” Bryan, Kazin supposes, “longed for the respect that Theodore Roosevelt, an upper-class reformer comfortable with both aspects of his identity, gained from both the erudite and the plebian.”

Kazin says it was probably a good idea that Bryan was never elected President. “[He} relished confrontations over principle and abhorred compromise,” traits that would have made it difficult “to rally an enduring majority in what would have been a nation rent by angry divisions of class, region, and party.” Sound familiar?

Bryan’s gift was a unique ability to wrap himself in Christianity while making issues sound urgent, dramatic and clear, Kazin writes, and encouraging citizens to challenge the motives and interest of the most powerful. In a passage written ten years before Trump’s election, Kazin says that such a gift “is a quality absent among our recent leaders, for all their promises.” It was Bryan’s “sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world [that] won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day.”

Of course, William Jennings Bryan died almost 100 years ago and today is a footnote in history. For nearly 100 years, his was one of two statues representing Nebraska in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. In September, it was removed and replaced by Standing Bear, a Ponca Indian Chief and Native American civil rights leader.

Bill Martin has had a long career in the communications field. At various times he has been a journalist, political and public relations consultant, professional speechwriter, editor, and communications director for a major nonprofit. He is editor of “The Look of the Elephant: The Westering Experience in the Word of Those Who Lived It, 1841-1861.” He currently lives in Georgetown, Texas, where he is a freelance writer and editor. Contact him at wordsure@gmail.com.