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6 Responses to William Jennings Bryan, Revisted

  1. Michael Drew says:

    Didn’t realize Bryan ended up so humbled.

  2. Bryan, like Trump, won a presidential nomination as tribune for a once dominant, now fading, group: small farmers; white working class

    It depends on what one means by “small farmer.” I’d say Bryan was trying to appeal more to “producers” than to “small farmers” per se (witness his claim that all the cities could disappear and yet be replaced very quickly as long as American farms existed), although I imagine his constituency viewed themselves as “small” vis-a-vis the great forces that allegedly were oppressing them.

    The white working class wasn’t “fading” by 1896. Even if by “white” we mean Anglo-Saxon-German, they would retain a very preferential position in the labor market at least until the New Deal. But I also think those Anglo-Saxon-German workers probably sided more with McKinley.

    Bryan in 96 like Trump offered an acute diagnosis: Bryan (rightly) blamed gold standard & protections; Trump, immigration and trade

    Not sure how “acute” Trump has been. He appeals to the xenophobic and protectionist crowd, but he seems willing to dump them when its convenient. But I haven’t been following him that closely.

    But Bryan joined his championship of his people to unacceptable contempt for all the rest of American society. Familiar?

    He certainly had contempt for bankers, financiers, railroads, and (some) industrial magnates. And he certainly didn’t complain about his party’s policy of white rule in the South, which shows a contempt for black people. He probably also displayed contempt against cities and the types of people who allegedly populated them.

    Bryan frightened many – even many Democrats – with radical rhetoric, extreme views on eg Prohibition, and personal unsteadiness

    I don’t know much about his personal unsteadiness. He doesn’t seem like the off-the-cuff kind of guy that Trump wants to portray himself as. But whether his views were “extreme,” I guess it depends. To us Prohibition seems extreme, but enough people would endorse it less than 30 years after 1896 to make it part of the Constitution. Bimetallism vs. Gold was a divisive issue, but people very high up in the Democratic Party (like Cleveland’s vice president) were anti-gold standard. His rhetoric was extreme? Maybe. I don’t have much to go off of other than his 1896 speech.

    Over 3 elections, Bryan went down to defeat & defeat. And he dragged “his people” down with him.

    I thought this was about 1896. But at least looking at 1900, his election was based on the “extreme” view that fighting a war of imperial conquest in the Philippines was a bad idea. As to whether his defeats “dragged ‘his people’ down with him,” we have to think of what the prospects for a Dem victory were at that time:
    1896: The Dems were the party of the 1890s depression and the attack against the Pullman strikers. A pro-gold and rhetorically free-trade Democratic party under Cleveland would not have won against the pro-gold and protectionist Republican.
    1900: McKinley and the GOP were the party of the recovery and gold was less of an issue because more had been discovered (in Alaska, I believe).
    1904: Bryan wasn’t on the ticket and the Dems still lost….to TR.
    1908: Bryan couldn’t beat the candidate endorsed by the very popular TR. I doubt another Dem could, but who knows.
    1912: Bryan wasn’t on the ticket, and the Dems won. But they probably won more because the GOP was divided than because Wilson had a durable, winning coalition. And like Trump, Bryan was so toxic to the party that the new president named him secretary of state. I’m not saying he was a good secretary of state, just that appointing him seemed design to satisfy a Bryanite constituency.

    Bryan’s losses made hard money+protectionism the policy of the US for most of the next 35 years.

    See the elections above. I find it hard to believe that protectionism was going to end in either case. Cleveland was free trade but couldn’t enact meaningful tariff reform. TR, Taft, and Wilson briefly flirted with tariff reform. Maybe it was mostly window-dressing, but it’s hard to believe they’d feel the need to dress the windows if it weren’t in part because of Bryanism.

    Bryan’s ideas had an after life in the New Deal, which moved US off gold and gradually swung to freer trade.

    Don’t have much to say.

    But by then it was too late for “his people.” Small farming as a way of life was over.

    Don’t have much to say here, either.

    Bryan’s hope that Protestants and British-origin Americans could exclude Catholics, Irish, Eastern Europeans, from power over too

    Right on that. I’m not sure how much his hope was that explicit, though.

    The people who had trusted and revered Bryan were politically ruined by his self-inflicted limits, prejudices, and failures.

    Not saying he’s wrong, but need evidence.

    Bryan ended his days a flimflam man, selling Florida real estate to credulous investors, who’d be wiped out by the crash of 1925.

    I honestly didn’t know about this. At least Frum abstained from mentioning Bryan’s role in the Scopes trial.

    All the above probably makes me seem like a Bryan enthusiast. I’m not. He represented some of the good and most of the worst of American politics and a sloganeering tendency we see on the left and the right. Frum’s analysis falters most on his failure to recognize that Bryan had more of a base in the party than Trump does. Bryan may have joined the populists or started his own 3d party if Cleveland had gotten the nomination, but it would have been a break from an existing relationship.

  3. fillyjonk says:

    Heh, my reaction (at least ’til I got to the end) was, “Yeah, and are we gonna see another biology teacher show-trial about the teaching of evolution?”

    (That’s mostly what I know Bryan for: the Scopes “monkey trial.” Well, also the Cross of Gold speech and that he was an early populist, but the monkey trial is my main association.)

  4. Kolohe says:

    I was initially inclined to hate this analogy, (because as said above, native born white people would actually go on their longest best run for the first 30 years of the 20th century. (Among their several good runs in the 20th century)

    But it’s begining to grow on me from a macro/micro perspective.

    The so called white working class found themselves with a real share of the wealth in post WW2 america, protected due to a lot of customs and laws (many not morally good) now eroded due to globalization. Trumpists are trying to capture this lost Eden.

    Similarly, the writing was on the wall for the small freeholder as soon as the Mcormick Reaper came on line, but they were able to gain a real share of the wealth by constant capital infusions of western lands (gained through customs and law, many not morally good).

    By the time WJB came along, these capital infusions were over (frontier was closed by the US Census in 1890) and globalization with railroads and steamships were really hitting the small freeholders the hardest. (And their lands, already marginal were starting to lose productivity, and would completely collapse a generation later). WJB was also trying to futilely recapture the lost eden.

    Where the analogy falls apart is that right after cross of gold, a faction of the Republican party (but had the White House) started to make war on the industrialists, followed by a faction of the Democratic party (but also had the White House) made peace with the bankers.

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