July, August, suspense

Wall Street lost to sense.

August, September, October,

More suspense,

And the whole East down like a wind-smashed fence.

Then Hanna to the rescue,

. . . And beat the cheapskate, blatherskite,

Populistic, anarchistic,


Election night at midnight:

Boy Bryan’s defeat.

Defeat of western silver.

Defeat of the wheat.

Victory of letterfiles

And plutocrats in miles

With dollar signs upon their coats.

— “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan”

by Vachel Lindsay

Jacksonville, AL.   All three times William Jennings Bryan ran for president, his campaigns were woefully under funded.  According to one estimate, Bryan’s campaign in 1896 spent $425,000 while McKinley had $16,500,000 with which to work.  For the 1900 rematch between Bryan and McKinley, it was $425,000 up against $9,500,000.  Finally, in 1908, Bryan’s treasury had $750,000 while Taft possessed $1,700,000.

The largest contributor to Bryan’s first campaign was publisher William Randolph Hearst, who kicked in $20,000 of his own money and collected a comparable amount from others.  Hearst supported Bryan again four years later, but backed a third party in 1908.  Bryan had a few other wealthy political friends, such as O.H.P. Belmont, but not many in comparison to McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft—or Wilson, for that matter.  Lack of funding was not the only reason Bryan lost his races.  There were many factors but failure to raise the kind of money necessary to get his message out, especially since almost all of the metropolitan press was hostile to him, must have hurt his chances.

How would America have been different if Bryan had won instead of McKinley in 1896?  Alternate histories are speculative, by their very nature, and we shouldn’t exaggerate the power of one man, even the president, but there are some possible outcomes that would have been much better for the nation as a whole.  First off, the crucial turning point toward U.S. imperialism might not have happened in 1898.  Hawaii would not have been annexed.  The Spanish-American War would have probably not occurred.  Colonies such as the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico would have probably not been acquired.

Theodore Roosevelt likely would have never been president.  This means TR would not have been able to co-opt the progressive Republican movement during the 1900-1916 period, which might have allowed the more genuine progressive Robert La Follette to gain the GOP presidential nomination in 1908 or 1912.  In 1896, Roosevelt was the lead police commissioner of New York City.  If he had not achieved power and fame through becoming assistant secretary of the Navy and leader of the Rough Riders during the first two years of the McKinley administration, he might not have become governor of New York and then vice president of the United States.

The absence from the national stage of the popular but demagogic Roosevelt, described by Senator Richard Pettigrew (R-SD) as “the monumental faker of the world,” would have likely prevented the rise of his distant cousin and fellow demagogue Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The Democratic Roosevelt came to national attention when chosen as the vice presidential nominee in 1920.  The much more famous Republican Roosevelt had died the previous year; the party hoped to capitalize on the name.  It didn’t help the ticket much—Cox-Roosevelt was buried by Harding-Coolidge—but it did set FDR up for eventual election to the governorship of New York and, ultimately, the presidency.

Woodrow Wilson, arguably the worst president in U.S. history, probably would have been kept out of the White House.  He might have still moved from the presidency of Princeton into the governorship of New Jersey in 1910, but his ascent to national power would have likely been thwarted if a Bryan presidency had occurred.

If Bryan had won in 1896, Maine businessman Arthur Sewall would have become vice president.  In the historical world, Sewall was not tapped to run again with Bryan; that job went to former Vice President Adlai Stevenson in 1900.  In our hypothetical world, even if Vice President Sewall had run again in 1900, he died two months before election day.  If reelected, Bryan likely would have tapped a more progressive person as his political heir—someone like Charles Towne (his first preference as a 1900 running mate), William Stone (governor and then senator from Missouri), or John Kern (his 1908 running mate).  This might have precluded the nomination of the half-term Governor Wilson in 1912.  Instead, there was a vacuum among progressives within the national party because all eyes were on Bryan, who may or may not have wanted the nomination once again that year.

If Wilson’s ambition to be president had been blocked by a strong successor to Bryan, we might have been spared Jim Crow in the federal government, the Federal Reserve Act, entry into World War I, the Conscription Act, the War Industries Board, the Committee on Public Education, the Sedition Act, the Red Scare, the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Admittedly, many of these were bipartisan initiatives.  For example, Wilson’s central bank was a Democratic version of the Aldrich Plan earlier proposed by Republicans (opposed by Bryan) and former president W.H. Taft was arguing for a League to Enforce Peace as early as 1915 (opposed by Bryan).  But it took Wilson’s political skills—as a political scientist, I’m embarrassed to say that WW is our discipline’s only example of a scholar reaching the pinnacle of actual power—and ability to co-opt a skeptical Democratic Party to successfully achieve these dishonest reforms and deadly crusades.  Avoidance of the great European conflict, and a dashing of the British Empire’s hopes for American entry as a junior partner to keep the Triple Entente afloat, would have produced a ripple effect that might have stopped the Bolsheviks from coming to power in Russia and the Nazis from rising in Germany.

Obviously, Bryan was not perfect.  If he had been elected president, he would have made some compromises and errors.  One of his biggest actual mistakes was switching from Champ Clark to Woodrow Wilson at the 1912 convention.  He would not have presided over a utopia or been able to reverse all of the baneful trends of the late nineteenth century.  But things may have been decidedly different, in a good way, had Bryan won in 1896.  In contrast to McKinley, a populist in power would have made a difference.  In contrast to Roosevelt the First, having a peace-minded anti-imperialist in power would have made a difference.  In contrast to Taft, having an agrarian in power would have made a difference.  In contrast to Wilson, having an advocate of political decentralization and evangelical Christianity in power would have made a difference.

Because mainstream historians tend to side with the winners and sanctify the status quo, we often think of history as inevitable.  It is not.  Powerful individuals have an effect.  You can’t get more powerful than the president.  Now if Nixon had won instead of Kennedy in 1960, or Humphrey instead of Nixon in 1968, or Gore instead of Bush in 2000, not much would have been different.  We’re talking about Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola in these instances.  Plutocrat A or Plutocrat B.  Imperialist A or Imperialist B.  Statist A or Statist B.  That was not true in the case of Bryan and McKinley.  They were not both manifestations of a bipartisan power elite.  Bryan was more of a Nader figure than a Gore, Kerry, or Obama figure within the Democratic Party.  The national party establishment opposed him for good reasons.  There was mutual enmity based upon divergent principles, bases of support, and funding sources.

Speaking of funding, let’s get back to my original point.  It’s too bad the Great Commoner did not have an adequately funded campaign the first time he ran.  The appealing young candidate came close to winning.  He was able to move somewhat beyond his rural base with support from prominent representatives of urban culture such as W.R. Hearst, Clarence Darrow, William Sulzer, and Samuel Gompers.  In 1896, Bryan essentially tied McKinley, in terms of the number of states carried in the general election (22 vs. 23).  Although the electoral vote was more lopsided in favor of McKinley, Bryan trailed in the popular vote by a mere four percentage points (47 percent to 51 percent).  More money might have made the Boy Orator of the Platte more competitive in the eastern states that were dominated by a plutocratic press that denounced him with unremitting hostility and dishonesty.

The adage about it being better to light a candle than to curse the darkness is hackneyed but true.  There’s a similar principle enunciated in the book of James: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Of course, giving money to a political candidate is not the same as helping a destitute brother or sister who is struggling to survive so I don’t want to press the parallel too far.  Still, truth can be useful in various contexts.

This brings us to contemporary political application.  History can be interesting but so what?  Are there any modern-day Bryans?  Can we find any candidates who exemplify FPR values?  Yes we can.  For instance, there’s the progressive Democrat from the hotbed of commonweal and “isolationism” known as Wisconsin.  Senator Russ Feingold is serving his third term in Washington.  As powerful as the executive branch has unfortunately become, it is not the only component of the U.S. government.  We shouldn’t put all of our eggs into one basket, especially when that basket is so hard to acquire.  Feingold is the grandson of  Jewish immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine.  He was born in Janesville, Wisconsin—a few miles from the birthplace of my great-great-grandmother, Anna Garvey, in Rock County.

Running an anti-establishment campaign, Feingold unseated an incumbent Republican in 1992.  In office, he has often bucked his party’s leadership.  He is sometimes the only Democrat to vote Yea or Nay on a particular roll call and is often on the losing side.  He opposed most-favored-nation status for the Communist regime in China during the Clinton years.  He was the only member of his party in the Senate to vote against a motion calling for dismissal of impeachment charges against Clinton.  He refused to support Al Gore during the 2000 primary season, although he reportedly thought Bill Bradley was a phony progressive whose record did not match his rhetoric.  (He correctly diagnosed John Edwards as having the same ailment eight years later.)

Feingold was one of a handful of Democrats who voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general, while 42 of his party colleagues were opposed.  In June 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act—foisted upon states, localities, parents, and children by Bush and Kennedy—passed 92-8.  Feingold was among the minority in opposition, one of only two Democrats (Fritz Hollings was the other).  A few months later, he was the only member of the Senate to vote against the USA Patriot Act.  He openly condemns the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group which has become almost synonymous with party leadership since 1992.  Feingold is no party hack.

Feingold is a champion of the common people.  He has been the Senate’s leading opponent of congressional pay raises during his time in office.  He opposes pork barrel spending and unbalanced budgets.  Although the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act is detested by some conservatives and libertarians, its populist intent is clear, at least on Feingold’s part.  The bipartisan Wall Street bailout of October 2008 (TARP) passed the Senate with a vote of 74-25.  This occurred even though Americans of every label, in the 80 to 90 percent range, were strongly opposed.  Feingold was one of nine Democrats to vote Nay (ten if you count Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the party).  When Ben Bernanke was reconfirmed 70-30 as Federal Reserve chairman in January of this year, Feingold was among the dozen Dems to vote against.  Feingold is working with Sanders to restore Ron Paul’s Audit the Fed provision to the financial services reform bill pushed by Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd.  Dodd, a Wall Street Democrat, has removed the GAO audit as a favor to his patrons.

Wisconsin has never been congenial to imperialism.  It awarded GOP presidential primary victories to candidates like Robert La Follette (favorite son), George Norris, William Borah, Douglas MacArthur, and Robert Taft.  Even in Democratic contests, the less-imperialistic candidates have done well.  Hubert Humphrey, the embodiment of “humanitarian” globaloney and militaristic internationalism (NATO liberalism, as Dwight Macdonald put it), had a rough time in the Wisconsin primary.  He was thumped by John Kennedy, son of an isolationist elder statesman, in 1960, and defeated by George McGovern, with his “Come Home, America” slogan, in 1972.  Jerry Brown almost beat B. Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama easily beat H. Clinton in 2008 (although Obama’s anti-imperial reputation was undeserved).  Feingold honors and exemplifies this tradition.  He has opposed NAFTA, GATT/WTO, the Bosnian troop deployment, appropriations for the IMF, the Kosovo bombing campaign, Department of Defense appropriations, the Iraq War, and now the Afghanistan War.  He rejects both Republican wars and Democratic wars.

In the 2004 election, Senator Feingold ran five percentage points ahead of John Kerry in Wisconsin.  He beat his Republican opponent by a margin of 11 percent while Kerry’s margin of victory in the state was 0.4 percent.  It was not because Feingold is more conservative than Kerry.  In many ways, the opposite is true.  Feingold’s popularity in the state stems not so much from being a leftist as from being a populist.  He supports the entire range of Jeffersonian tenets, including fiscal responsibility.  (In this way, he reminds us of Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin.)  He earns the respect of those who disagree with him on particular issues because he is a man of integrity who speaks with a clear voice.  This is even true for some who disagree with his pro-choice views on abortion.

Feingold seems to occupy a safe Senate seat, but 2010 does not look like a good year for Democrats.  Even a maverick Democrat could end up as collateral damage.  It would be ashame if Feingold goes down to defeat since more often than not he is on the right side of the main economic policy, foreign policy, and political reform issues of our day.  Help keep Feingold in the Senate.  Cough up some money.

John Hostettler of Indiana could be a Feingold counterpart across the aisle if he’s elected to the Senate this year.  A genuine Republican maverick, Hostettler is a former six-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Like Ron Paul, Hostettler is a constitutionalist on domestic issues and a noninterventionist (anti-imperialist) in foreign affairs.  He opposed Clinton’s wars in the Balkans.  In 2002, he was one of only six Republican members of the House and one of only three conservative members to vote against the resolution endorsing Bush’s desire to preemptively wage war on Iraq.  At the time, he said the intelligence backing the claim of WMDs was “tenuous at best.”

Following his defeat for reelection, in 2006, Congressman Hostettler self-published Nothing for the Nation: Who Got What Out of Iraq.  The book is endorsed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who writes, “We waged war because the president wanted to do so for his own reasons. . . . Congress made an unconstitutional delegation of authority to the president and it was the most tragic such delegation ever made.  Had we listened to Hostettler at the time, we would not have done it.  If we listen to him now, we might save ourselves the pain, regret, and shame from doing it again.  For years I have known I was wrong.  Now I know why I was wrong. I’m sorry so many had to pay such a dear price for me to learn what I should have known before I took that office.”

Hostettler is a populist who has never taken PAC money, which is quite a contrast with his main opponent in the senatorial primary, former Senator Dan Coats.  Coats left the Senate in 1999, was an ambassador for a while, and then cashed in on his “public service” by becoming a lobbyist.  He worked for Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Chrysler, and other big corporations in their successful efforts to feed at the public trough.  Now he has moved back to Indiana in an effort to regain his Senate seat.  Dan Coats is a typical corporate-centrist-establishment Republican à la Bob Dole.

John Hostettler is something quite different.  He voted for Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party for president in 2008, not John McCain.  There are mavericks and then there are mavericks.  If Feingold’s blind spots on some social issues, notably his support for legalized abortion and same-sex “marriage” are too off-putting to overlook, then maybe Hostettler is your man.  He is a Bible-believing Christian who is conservative on social morality.  He supports traditional marriage and the rights of unborn children.  He was the lead sponsor of the Marriage Protection Act that passed the House in 2004 but died in the Senate.  Invoking a power of Congress granted by the Constitution, the MPA would have stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction to rule on the Defense of Marriage Act.  He opposes illegal immigration.  He supports Second Amendment rights.  He has championed First Amendment religious freedom.  He voted against NCLB on federalism grounds.  These stances have earned him the support of conservatives like Bay Buchanan, Tom Tancredo, and some portions of the Tea Party movement.

The Republican senatorial primary that pits Hostettler against Coats, and a few other contenders, takes place THIS TUESDAY, May 4.  He could use some money now.  Hopefully, he will win the primary and be the odds-on favorite to win in November.

A Senate contender who has attracted more attention this year is Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Many FPR readers are probably familiar with Dr. Paul, an ophthalmologist.  He’s a son of the more famous Dr. Paul, who is an obstetrician, member of the House from Texas, presidential candidate, and folk hero.  While John Hostettler is primarily a populist, Rand Paul is primarily a libertarian.  He is a citizen-activist who founded Kentucky Taxpayers United.  Like his father, he supported the anti-establishment candidacy of Governor Reagan against President Ford back in 1976.  He worked for his father’s Libertarian and Republican races for president in 1988 and 2008, respectively.  In November 2008, Rand Paul wrote in his father’s name instead of voting for McCain.

Never having held a political office himself, Rand Paul seemed like a longshot when he got into the Senate race last year after maverick Jim Bunning decided to retire.  The anti-politics-as-usual mood among the people and the rise of the Tea Party movement have taken Paul to frontrunner status in the primary race against a corporate lawyer-turned-professional politician.  Polls have shown him to be consistently ahead of Kentucky’s secretary of state, who is backed by both the state and national GOP establishment (e.g., Mitch McConnell, Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani).

Paul began with a built-in national base of support among admirers of his father.  His campaign has emulated the Ron Paul ’08 money bombs, raising lots of cash from small contributors through the Internet, including a $434,000 gain during a 24-hour period in August 2009.  The corporate fat cats and favor-seeking class primarily fund his opponent’s campaign.  By trimming his sails a bit and packaging his message in a more mainstream fashion, Rand Paul has expanded his appeal beyond libertarians.  He has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Steve Forbes, Beverly LaHaye, and Jim Bunning.  He’s pro-life and conservative on other social issues while openly opposed to the Iraq War and Patriot Act.

Sons of prominent politicians do not always live up to the promise implied by their name.  They can be disappointments to admirers of their fathers and either unable or unwilling to successfully extend the paternal legacy.  This was true in the cases of William Jennings Bryan Jr. and Robert Taft Jr.  It was not true for Robert La Follette Jr. and Barry Goldwater Jr.  I don’t think it will be true for Rand Paul.  Although he has waffled or flip-flopped on some issues that ruffle mainstream conservative feathers, thereby gaining wider support, I believe he would be a strong voice for strict constitutionality, individual liberty, and social morality if he wins the Senate seat.

Rand Paul has the potential to be another Hiram Johnson or Burton Wheeler in DC.  Even if he is outvoted on most issues, keep in mind that the ability to obstruct is greater in the Senate than in the House.  A single member of Congress can accomplish much more in the Senate, making use of the filibuster and holds, and being able to vote on nominees and treaties.  So a Dr. No among the elite 100 would be more powerful than the Dr. No among the more-plebeian 435.

Paul is running ahead in the nomination race, and if he wins the primary he will be the favorite to win in November, but we shouldn’t be complacent.  Let’s spread the wealth and send his campaign some money.  The primary election is in two weeks: May 18.  Rand Paul may be the best we’ve got among possible newcomers to Washington.

If you want to think locally and if you believe that charity begins at home, consider Greg Varner of Alabama.  First off, he’s one of us!  Yes, a regular reader of Front Porch Republic.  He’s the real deal.  Varner is running for the state senate to represent a portion of northeast Alabama.  Our state could use more legislators in Montgomery who care about the common good and honest governance.  Varner is an attorney who is making his first run for office.  He earned his law degree from Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson.

Varner may be an underdog.  He has the support of the incumbent Democratic senator, who is retiring, but he faces a former senator in the general election.  Greg Varner is a Democrat, but he’s an Alabama Democrat, which means he’s pro-life and pro-marriage.  On his website, he writes, “Because I propose a new vision for Alabama which emanates from our common convictions, I hope to bridge party lines as a conservative Democrat.  We must recognize that neither major political party has a monopoly on ‘righteousness’ and neither party exclusively represents Christians.  Faithful Christians can and do work within each party.  I am committed to the causes dear to many of you: protection of the unborn, preservation of traditional marriage, safeguarding of religious liberty, and conservation of the Second Amendment.  Many of my convictions, though, concerning public justice, solidarity, and stewardship are more closely aligned to the principles of the Alabama Democratic Party.”

I urge you to go to Greg Varner’s website (http://govarner.com) to see a real-world example of FPR values in the political arena.  Take some time to read the thoughtful essays he has penned under Issues.  There aren’t many candidates who quote T.S. Eliot and Abraham Kuyper on their web pages.  The great thing about Greg is that he’s not a fringe candidate.  He has a real chance of winning.  Please consider donating some money.  Remember that every dollar in a local election goes much further than in elections at higher levels.

So there you have it.  Four candidates whom I support this year.  A “liberal” and three “conservatives.”  As Bill Kauffman says, it’s a mistake to “inter persons and ideas in the coffins labeled ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’”  Labels often mislead more than enlighten and they have been integral to the divide-and-conquer strategy that has hindered populists, libertarians, and moralists for generations.  I’m not rich but I’ve managed to send my favorite candidates a little something.  All of us can probably spare the occasional $100 to offset the influence of Big Business and Wall Street.

There are other good candidates out there, some of whom may not have as much electability potential as the four detailed above but you never know.  The people are in an unhappy mood this year.  They might go for some dark horses.  I’ll briefly give you some Republican examples in U.S. House races.  There’s B.J. Lawson of North Carolina (NC4).  He’s in a rematch with a Democratic incumbent.  Dan Eichenbaum, also of North Carolina (NC11), is facing an incumbent Democrat but it’s a competitive district in a Republican year.  Katherine Jenerette of South Carolina (SC1) is hoping to replace a retiring Republican congressman in a competitive district.  Adam Kokesh of New Mexico (NM3) is, like Jenerette, a military veteran.  He has been active with both Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Tea Party movement.  The Democratic incumbent seems to have a safe seat, but electoral lightning could strike.

Former Congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona is challenging John McCain in the senatorial primary.  It would be nice to see McCain booted out of office by his own party, but I can’t support Hayworth because he’s too pro-war and too reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh for my taste.

If you don’t like my choices, find your own.  No candidate is perfect.  Augustine and Tocqueville, Lewis and Solzhenitsyn aren’t on the ballot this year.  Even Wendell Berry isn’t running.  Russ Feingold was my first choice for president in 2008 but he decided to forgo the race so I backed Ron Paul instead.  Ultimately, I voted for Ralph Nader.  I’m strongly pro-life but two of my three favorites were pro-choice.  It’s difficult to find a political figure who consistently upholds the sanctity of human life.  In the 1970s, there was pro-life Senator Harold Hughes, a liberal Democrat from my home state of Iowa, who was anti-abortion and anti-war.  From the 1970s through the 1990s, you had Senator Mark Hatfield, a liberal Republican from Oregon who was also opposed to both abortion and war.  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), another pro-lifer, joined Hatfield as the only two anti-war Republicans in 1990 on the eve of the Persian Gulf War.  Sad to say, both Grassley and the retired Hatfield backed the Iraq War twelve years later.

Today, Congressman Ron Paul is consistently pro-life.  So are Rand Paul and John Hostettler.  Russ Feingold is not but at least his pro-choice position is principled.  He’s no flip-flopper, as is the case with so many big-name Democrats since the 1970s.  Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) was a prominent right-to-life peace advocate until he caught the presidential bug in 2004.  He’s still a good guy, in many ways, but I lost some respect for him when he made that deal with the devil.  As if the party establishment would ever allow the nomination of Kucinich for the White House, regardless of how enthusiastic he waxes about “freedom of choice”!  Representatives Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Jim Oberstar (DFL-MN), and former House Majority Whip David Bonior (D-MI) have been more faithfully anti-abortion and anti-war.

Maybe you’re too pure to sully your hands with electoral politics.  That’s okay.  There are other ways—sometimes better ways—to change the world.  But unless you’re a doctrinaire anarchist, you ought to consider contributing some cash.  We shouldn’t complain about socialists and charlatans in power if we’re not willing to fund alternatives.  We shouldn’t bemoan the power of big money if we’re not willing to utilize the power of small money.

William Jennings Bryan broke with the front porch campaign tradition by personally waging an active campaign all across the country in 1896.  He did have a front porch, however, and he returned to it in between campaigns.  He went back home to Lincoln, Nebraska.  It was from this unlikely site that he edited The Commoner and did what he could to lead the national Democratic Party in the right direction.  Even when he wasn’t on the campaign trail, he traveled extensively, especially on the Chautauqua circuit, but he always returned to Fairview, his home.  He stayed in Nebraska until late in his life, when his wife’s ill health forced a move to a warmer clime.  They relocated to Florida.  Bryan had a sense of place that he never lost, regardless of how famous and influential he became.  He made mistakes, his style was homespun, and he thrice failed to win the highest office, but he was a true statesman.  In most cases, sincere public servants are motivated not primarily by personal ambition and not only by an abstract interest in representing the people.  They are also motivated by a desire to help bestow a community as good or better than the one they’ve known to the younger members of their family.  That’s the type of politician we need today.

As an academic and intellectual, as a purist and writer, I understand the aesthetic aversion many of us have to practical politics.  There are also sound theological reasons for taking politics with a grain of salt.  But, in the end, power is going to be wielded in this world by someone.  Why shouldn’t it be wielded by good people rather than bad people?  Why shouldn’t we work for better laws rather than worse laws?  Why shouldn’t government operate on behalf of the many rather than the few?  Refined contemplation and cynical passivity must give way, at least sometimes, to active involvement.

As I’ve said before, we need people + power, grassroots + government, pressure from below + action from above.  As for We the People, at some point we have to get off our front porches, or stop being transfixed by our screens, in order to recover our republic.  This is never easy.  The decline of social interaction and civic engagement by Americans during the past sixty years makes it even more difficult.  But it is possible.  One small step is to put our money where our mouth is.  Get out that checkbook.  Click on that PayPal button.

(ABOVE: Bryan and his family are pictured on their front porch in 1896.  This was the day he was notified of his nomination for president by the Democratic National Convention.)

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  1. The fly in the ointment here is Hearst’s support of Bryan. Hearst likely supported the old bloviator because he knew Bryan would be a good shepherd for the so called “commoners” he held the banner for. Hearst , PR man for making the most of the Battleship Maine’s explosion…he would never had contributed a dime to Bryan if he was not assured that Bryan was on board with the Imperial Project. The commoner, as exemplified by todays Fox News Commoners are generally willing sunbeams for the Imperial Project brought to you by our global freebooters.

    Mencken was saucy in more ways than one but he was a quick judge of people.

  2. Though Mencken was confident in his derision for the booboisie, to label him as simply a misanthrope and an elitist is un-sporting. His trenchant criticisms held the weight they did because he hated to see the public duped and led by sharpies who did not deserve the public’s trust. Had he not had fond feelings for the public, he would not have been so persistent in his good hitting averages regarding their failings.

    He was hardly an elitist….sucking his stogie, drinking his beloved Baltimore Beer and editing magazines for a thinking public. He gave many a non-elite writer their first shot. Was he skeptical of grandstanding Christians and sometimes dark in his humor? Sure but this does not make him an elitist misanthrope.

    Though there may be some policy differences between eras…there remain definite xenophobic similarities when observing…from several paces off, Hearst and America and Fox and America. There is a definite sector of the public that is easily enflamed by paranoia and the idea of their life being taken over by events beyond their control…..both real and imagined.

  3. Bryan in 1896 might have been good, especially if he paved the way for LaFollette, but even better would have been if the People’s Party had not ditched their own independent platform for Bryan’s oratory. Then the fragile inter-racial coalition might have held, Tom Watson might not have become a racist, James Vardaman might never have had a chance to pose as a populist… what if Eugene V. Debs had accepted the People’s Party nomination, in which case they might not have turned to Bryan? Debs and Watson in 1896? LaFollette in 1904? And someone who would have kept us out of war and wouldn’t have expanded Jim Crow in 1912! Black disfranchisement and separate seating on urban rail cars might never have happened.

    The Hearst endorsement also gives me strong doubts. I have a sense that Bryan learned what was right by the end of his life, but looks good mostly in hindsight. As for “Remember the Wind,” Bryan was simply wrong on that issue, both because he was flying in the face of increasingly well established facts, and because there is no reason to doubt God just because it turns out he took his own good time creating us a little differently than our ancestors imagined. But a fool he was not.

    For this year, I would like to see a lot of Democrats AND a lot of Republicans dumped. My rule of thumb would be, if your congress rep or senator has been in office twenty years or more, vote for a challenger. Of course this allows me to vote for Feingold one more time. By 2016, he should either be retiring or really running for president. I think I’d like him better than Huckabee, who looked good until he sucked up to Ken Copeland for campaign cash in 2008. On the whole, I’d like President Obama to have a reasonably supportive congress when the dust settles, but a changed congress we can believe in.

  4. Note: This comment was originally posted as a follow-up to D.W. Sabin’s “The fly in the ointment” comment. His “Though Mencken” comment was a response to what I write below.

    You’re right, Trobius, about Rand Paul’s young age of 13 in 1976. Still, I think it counts. I became a political activist at the same age. In Paul’s case, he was at the Kansas City convention with his father, who was chairman of the 100-strong, 100-percent-for-Reagan Texas delegation. He had a front row seat when it came to establishment and anti-establishment politics. I’m sure it left an impression.

    Yes, Mencken did a number on Bryan’s reputation. It’s too bad. The caricature of Bryan as a boobish moron that was painted by Mencken and, later, by Inherit the Wind, slanders the real Bryan. He was not an ignorant and emotional fanatic. This quickly becomes apparent if you read his writings and speeches. Mencken reminds me of Tom Fleming. Both are great writers who tend to be on the attack, confidently and caustically. When they’re correct, it’s great. A pleasure to see some knave being dressed down, getting his comeuppance. When they’re incorrect, it’s annoying and even silly. So I can relish what Mencken wrote about FDR but I realize he was wrong about WJB.

    The central problems Mencken had with Bryan were philosophical and theological. Bryan was a populist; Mencken was an elitist. Bryan admired Tolstoy; Mencken admired Nietzsche. Bryan was a Christian; Mencken was not. Mencken had libertarianism in common with Jefferson but not populism. He was anti-democratic because he could not reconcile popular sovereignty with popular stupidity. So he sank into misanthropy and elitism. It’s ashame because Menken is commendable in other ways, including his wonderful ability to see through cant.

    I don’t agree that Hearst backed Bryan because he saw him as a pliant tool to promote imperialism. That doesn’t explain why Hearst helped him in 1896–two years before imperialism became an issue. It’s true Hearst helped engineer the war with Spain, but even Bryan initially supported it because he believed its primary aim was to liberate Cuba from imperial rule. When it became obvious that the McKinley administration planned to substitute the waxing empire for the waning empire in the Caribbean and Pacific, Bryan soured on the war and remained a foe of imperialism for the rest of his life.

    Bryan can’t be compared to Roger Ailes, nor his supporters to those who follow the Fox News party line. Quite the opposite. On the eve of World War I, Bryan was working overtime to keep us out of that mess, and he was warmly received by his anti-war, anti-empire supporters, including those in the South. Southern Bryanites in Congress were among the leaders against war (e.g., James Vardaman of Mississippi, William Kirby of Arkansas, Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, William Stone of Missouri, Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, George Huddleston of Alabama, Jeff McLemore of Texas).

    Hearst opposed every particular of the Imperial Project after 1898. He backed Bryan in 1900 when he ran on an overtly anti-imperial platform. He opposed U.S. entry into WW I. He opposed the League of Nations. He opposed the World Court. He opposed U.S. entry into WW II. The Swanberg biography and the collection of Hearst’s own words, edited by Coblentz (William Randolph Hearst: A Portrait in His Words), show this to be the case. He was an old-fashioned Jefferson Democrat who cared about America…as republic not empire.

    Of the candidates for Congress this year, mentioned above, John Hostettler unfortunately lost in the senatorial primary in Indiana. B.J. Lawson won in North Carolina, but he faces an entrenched Democratic incumbent. We can only hope the voters in his district will be in a mood to throw the rascals out come November 2. Rand Paul continues to poll well and has just picked up endorsements from Jim Dobson and Jim DeMint, making a Jacobite trio with Jim Bunning in support of Paul.

    I notice that Greg Varner of Alabama cites not only Eliot and Kuyper but also Chesterton (http://govarner.com/issues/develop-a-dragons-den/).

  5. Response to D.W.:

    I don’t think Mencken was “simply” a misanthrope and elitist, but those were among his unfortunate tendencies. He had far better traits as well.

    In the intro to the book H.L. Mencken on Religion (Prometheus), the editor writes, “Mencken’s views on religion are intimately tied to his political philosophy. Throughout his career . . . he reiterated the opinion that ordinary people are incapable of grasping the complexities of the world around them. To be blunt, they are too stupid to have an intelligent opinion on religion, science, society, or even politics, so that the every principle of democracy (by which Mencken really meant universal suffrage) is a farce and a tragedy.” That’s elitism. It’s an honorable, if incorrect, view that goes back to Plato and includes Machiavelli, Hamilton, and Nietzsche.

    The fact that the man smoked cigars and drank beer makes him no less an elitist. It’s hard to imagine how a Nietzsche enthusiast could be anything else. Elitism is an ideology, not a personal style. He edited magazines for a “thinking public”–the operative word is “thinking.” He saw that as a very small proportion of the people, which, conveniently enough, included himself. It’s the few vs the many, and he sided with the few. There are other social critics who pointed out human foibles and needled the high and mighty without resorting to contempt for the masses and Social Darwinism. Dwight Macdonald, Mark Twain, and Jesus Christ come to mind.

    Mencken is marvelous on some things, but he has little to teach us about the Great Commoner for an obvious reason: He scorned the common people so of course he scorned their champion as well. With his anti-Christian and anti-democracy prejudice, how could he approach Bryan with objectivity, let alone receptivity?
    At the Scopes trial, Bryan was right and Mencken was wrong. It’s interesting to contrast Mencken with Darrow. Darrow voted for Bryan in two elections, supported W.R. Hearst for president at the 1904 Democratic National Convention, and backed Hearst’s candidate in 1908. He was an acerbic social critic himself but he never lost a genuine affection for average Americans, regardless of race or region.

    You may be right that Mencken cared about the public in some sense even though he often blamed the victim as well as the victimizer. Maybe he was so hard on the common “dolts” because he was frustrated with their inability to stop following fools and failing to pursue their self-interest. He supported La Follette for president in 1924. He was probably attracted by LF’s iconoclasm and truth-telling but if he didn’t have at least a little populism in him, he wouldn’t have been able to stomach voting for a champion of popular sovereignty.

    I agree with you about xenophobia and paranoia, but Hearst and his group should not be equated with the Fox crowd. The former were sincere; the latter, at the management level, are cynical. Several paces off they do look alike, but they are not the same upon closer inspection. A better modern analogy is with Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork-wielding partisans. Also, xenophobia does not go along with the Imperial Project. It’s in the opposite camp. Buchanan, who is often accused of being a xenophobe, wrote the book on the subject: A Republic, Not an Empire. “Xenophobes” like Hearst and Buchanan are anti-imperialist because they believe in America First and they genuinely cherish a sense of community and tradition here, rather than wanting to distract ourselves overseas or dilute ourselves by mass immigration at home. Hence their objections to foreign wars and open borders. Empire inevitably produces multiculturalism.

    DWS, We probably aren’t going to agree on this but I’ve enjoyed the exchange. And I appreciate your defense of H.L. Mencken. When he was right, he was great. A slash-and-burn style for men and subjects deserving to be slashed and burned.

    Good to hear your perspective, Siarlys. I like your alternate history, with its maintenance of the biracial coalition, although Debs running in 1896 would have meant that Bryan would have lost by an even bigger margin. There’s no way Debs himself could have won. And there is a reason Debs supported Bryan that year. He considered him to be not perfect but at least good and he was the only good candidate with a real chance of winning the presidency. I, too, hope to see a lot of incumbents kicked out. Bennett of Utah is a good example.

  6. A great conundrum of American politics (and of the recent British election) is the question, do I vote for what I truly believe, or for the least bad among the likely winners. Eugene Debs, during the period when he ran as Socialist candidate for president, responded to this dilemma “I would rather vote for something I want, and not get it, than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.” It is certainly true that Bryan stood a better chance of winning in 1896 than anyone running on the Populist ticket.

    However, the fusion of the People’s Party ticket with the Democratic Party ticket destroyed the Populist movement, permanently. Arguably, it may have begun the long slow slide toward associating progressive politics with the Democratic Party, by no means a firmly established connection even as late at 1932, and not an entirely beneficial trend.

    Bryan’s platform, whether by his own wishes or because he was limited by the party that nominated him, conspicuously did not offer the most important demand that brought western (Republican-leaning) and southern (Democratic-leaning) populists together in the first place. What made a national third party essential was the demand for federal sub-treasuries in every state, offering low-interest loans to farmers, freeing them from dependence on “the furnishing man” or “the advancing man” or simply “the Man,” with exorbitant interest charges and fudged books for credit at the store. I wonder whether electing Bryan would have been worth the cost of ending the independent movement.

    Large numbers of African Americans still voted in the southern states up until about 1900 — the collapse of the People’s Party, and the manner in which black votes had been manipulated by the Democratic Party regulars in fending off the Populist challenge — had a great deal to do with whipping up hysteria for a full blown set of Jim Crow legislation. Again, was electing Bryan worth that price?

    I also wonder how Rob Paul got to be considered a populist. No doubt he is a thorn in the side of the political establishment, and I think that is what draws him a certain level of support — its a drama we all get a kick out of. But Paul emphatically advocates crucifying mankind once again upon a cross of gold — something neither Bryan nor Debs nor Watson nor Weaver would have given the time of day to. The original populists were not “anti-government.” They sought to restore the use of government as an instrument of the people in their struggle against monopolies. A good deal of the mess we are in now is not the result of too much government, but of government either asleep at the wheel, or in bed with the enemy.

  7. Siarlys, You’re right, of course, that there were differences between the PP and DP, with the latter being more pragmatic and compromised. I do know that the 1892 and 1896 Populist platforms called for the creation of postal savings banks as an alternative to private, commercial banks. Under Bryan’s leadership, the 1908 Democratic platform endorsed such banks, provided they had decentralized deposit and investment.

    Ron Paul clearly belongs to the populist wing of the Republican Party. He’s a conservative populist, which is only one variety nowadays. In Bryan’s day the people were not divided into two ideological camps (partisan camps, yes, but Dem populists and Rep populists frequently cooperated with one another). Also, Paul is not only a populist; he is also a libertarian (first and foremost, perhaps). But the populism is there. Support for and from Main Street, rather than Wall Street. A non-interventionist foreign policy. Allied with the unwashed masses of true believers rather than the professional politicians and country club favor seekers.

    Weaver, Bryan, and Paul, and their constituencies, are similar in many ways. All are Jeffersonians, believing in “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” As a member of Wilson’s cabinet, Bryan foolishly helped push the Federal Reserve Act through Congress, but he earlier strongly opposed the Aldrich Plan for centralized, New York-based banking, and he soon had second-thoughts about the Federal Reserve. In 1921, he publicly accused it of being “the tool of Wall Street.” So Ron Paul’s anti-Fed crusade would have resonated with Bryan and his movement.

    Yes, the Populists and Bryan Democrats wanted to use government as an instrument of the people, but we shouldn’t exaggerate the point. It was a largely negative, corrective approach. Nothing like the statism of TR, WW, or FDR. Primarily consistent application of anti-trust laws to restore competition and free enterprise. Far from state socialism, which Bryan explicitly condemned. Overall, Bryan was not a “government asleep at the wheel” regulator; he was a “in bed with the enemy” populist. So is Ron Paul.

    Congratulations to Rand Paul on his victory in the Kentucky primary. Hopefully he will win in November and help to extend the populist legacy within the GOP into the future. The 1976 Republican National Convention was mentioned above. Ron Paul’s national anti-establishment credentials were in evidence in Kansas City. The Texas and California delegations were the bulwark of the Reagan effort at that convention. Under Paul’s leadership, the Texas delegation was so conservative that it was the only state to give a majority of its votes to men more conservative than Robert Dole when voting on the vice presidential nomination. Senator Jesse Helms received 43 from Texas, Senator Dole received 26, and Governor Reagan received 9, among others. Independent and populist to the core. “Don’t Tread on Me.”

  8. The contradiction between Ron Paul the gold advocate and W.J. Bryan the silver champion is more apparent than real. Keep in mind that Bryan supported a monetary policy of bimetallism. He wasn’t opposed to the gold standard; he wanted the restoration of the traditional gold-and-silver standard. Demonetization of silver in 1873 and repeal of the purchasing clause of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 were opposed by Bryan and the Populists not only because the new financial policy depreciated the value of farm products, but because it symbolized domination of the U.S. government by an Anglo-American banking syndicated headed by J.P. Morgan, August Belmont, and the House of Rothschild. Criticism of elite bankers, symbolized by the Fed, is one reason RP calls for a return to the gold standard. Bryan supported silver and gold. He did not support fiat money with no hard currency backing.

  9. Well reasoned and well worded as always Jeff. On the whole, I’m pleased that Paul won the Kentucky Republican primary. Whether I would vote for him over his Democratic opponent in the fall — if I lived in Kentucky — is an open question. Paul’s win is as much a revolt against George W. Bush as against Barack Obama, against the Republican congressional leadership as against the Democratic majority in congress. I suspect that Paul would be more congenial to the promise of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign than the current Republican leadership, as well as many Democrats. Rather than saying “Hell no, we don’t want you to get credit for anything with the voters,” he seems like a man who would say “Look, these are my principles. Sometimes, I’m going to vote down your programs, which often are in direct contradiction to what I believe. But, if you have proposals for work the American people really need their government to do, and you accept some reasonable accommodation of how I believe they can be fairly and constitutionally accomplished, we can talk about it.”

    The acid test, in my view, is whether he would support stringent financial regulation, whether he would vote for something close to reinstituting Glass-Steagall (a revolt against Bill Clinton as well as Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan). I am very, very leery of Kerr-McGee libertarianism, which serves as a front for the right of artifical persons (corporations) to do as they please, running rampant over real live persons (citizens) denying our government the power of intervening to promote the public welfare and insure the blessings of liberty to live flesh and blood people.

    I don’t mind seeing Robert Bennett fall, although I’m pretty sure I would NEVER vote for either of his Republican rivals. I wouldn’t mind seeing John McCain go down in the Republican primary — not least because it would cut Sarah Palin down to size. (Her guiding principal appears to be pure narcissism, not good government.) I’m happy that Arlen Spector failed in Pennsylvania, and I WOULD vote for his Democratic opponent over what Pennsylvania Republians have to offer.

    As to gold and silver, I am skeptical of the notion that they have much more reality to them as currency than federal reserve notes. I am old enough to remember when paper currency said “silver certificate.” In and of themselves, gold and silver are not special. They have to be dug out of the ground, like iron and coal and limestone. Only a subjective set of desires makes them valuable, and only long tradition makes them “money.” When the price of gold fluctuates from $250 an ounce to $1200 an ounce, one can hardly say that they are stable, although they may protect against inflation by rising with the value of money, and its easier to sell gold to buy bread than to sell your home for the same purpose. The essential point is that there be enough money in circulation to allow farmers, working families, small businesses, to stay afloat and flourish, and not allow a cabal of large financiers to control the supply. Remember when the Hunt brothers tried to corner the market on silver?

    I am, I suppose, a more “left” than “conservative” populist. I appreciate what John L. Lewis was able to accomplish under cover of the New Deal, and his prescience in breaking with Roosevelt rather than lead labor into permanent dependence on the Democratic Party (which the CIO, and then the AFL, did anyway). I try to work within the boundaries of being politically libertarian, economically socialist, and culturally conservative, recognizing that there are inherent conflicts in those three positions. (E.g., I view Roe v. Wade as primarily a personal liberty issue, you view it as to a great extent a state’s rights issue. I don’t find much populism in “state’s rights,” which is about the right of a state GOVERNMENT to do as it pleases. State and local governments can be just as corrupt and tyrannical as the feds.) I am leery of the populist banner being hijacked by the Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens Councils (or Conservative Citizens Councils), and of the tendency of “Main Street” to be “populist” only because medium size local businessmen aspire to be just as dominant as the Wall Street crowd, but haven’t yet been admitted to the club. They tend to oppose minimum wage laws and occupational safety and health laws (e.g. Massey Coal Co.) as much as the big boys, or more.

  10. Thank you, Siarlys. We’ll probably never agree completely on abortion, but I do understand why you support Roe and it makes some sense to me even though I can’t go along with it in the end. Other factors trump my libertarianism on that issue.

    Like you, I am also more of a liberal populist and can identify with your self-description as “politically libertarian, economically socialist, and culturally conservative.”

    I agree with assessment of Rand Paul as being less partisan, which is a good thing. I, too, like much of what John L. Lewis was trying to accomplish, including his break with FDR and resistance to WWII.

    Amen to “The acid test, in my view, is whether he would support stringent financial regulation, whether he would vote for something close to reinstituting Glass-Steagall . . . I am very, very leery of Kerr-McGee libertarianism, which serves as a front for the right of artifical persons (corporations) to do as they please, running rampant over real live persons (citizens).” Yes! Well put.

  11. I won’t respond directly on “strong voice for social morality,” because that was our host’s turn of phrase, so it is his privilege to do so. I firmly support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I admit I’ve had to give a lot of thought to the constitutional framework within which a private business could be imposed upon in this manner. Superficially, if I don’t like you, why should I have to let you into my restaurant, no matter what the reason? Go eat somewhere else! So I am not reflexively shocked that Rand Paul asked the question. Nor do I reject out of hand his follow-up explanation, that this matter was settled when he was two years old, and he does not advocate opening it up again.

    One legal precedent I’ve recently read is that in English Common Law, it was already well established that the proprietor of a public house, or a common carrier, or of any business serving the public, had to serve anyone who came in. That went along with the right to bodily throw out anyone being disruptive or abusive, and I’ve seen Greyhound drivers throw people off the bus by the side of the road for the safety of other passengers, or at the next station.

    To the extent that state laws had countenanced, encouraged, cultivated, or mandated racial segregation in specific, congress did have authority under the fourteenth amendment to insure that each state provided all citizens equal protection of the laws — and racial segregation had a clear track record of providing unequal facilities based on race.

    Then there is the authority of congress over interstate commerce. There is legitimate ground to differ as to the scope of that authority. I applauded the Supreme Court’s Lopez and Brzonkala decisions that it is not the business of Congress to pass criminal statutes about carrying guns near schools or provide a civil remedy for rape, on the grounds that crime casts a pall on commerce, or threats to school children infringe on education which will have an impact on their preparedness for employment. Some areas really are still reserved to the states. Still, most commerce, as commerce, really is interstate in nature these days, and congressional authority has to therefore be more extensive than it was when most commerce was intrastate in character. That’s why the National Labor Relations Act, and federal minimum wage laws, apply even to businesses that don’t have branches in multiple states.

    Finally, since our national culture and laws for so many years fostered a climate of racial exclusion, there is a reasonable duty to undo that damage. Hypothetically, in a truly post-racial future, we could relax such laws, on the ground that any eccentric preferences of a business owner really are personal eccentricities, and s/he will pay a modest price in the marketplace for them. How will we know when we are in a post-racial future? Well, if we have to ask the question, we probably aren’t. When we are, we won’t even stop to ask.

    I’m not at all sure I will be disappointed if Paul’s opponent wins the general election. I’m not overwhelmingly impressed by him. But, simply raising the question does not mean he’s a racist, or needs a lesson in morality.

  12. I am not for or against anyone I just want to know the truth.

    Why is President Barack Obama willing to go along with Quantitative Easing (aka printing money)? If it truly harmful to the United States of America, and its people?Then isn’t he obligated by his oath of office and his love for his family to do something to stop the Federal Reserve from continuing this process? When the Fed is printing money (aka Quantitative Easing)and it is harmful to the USA and the dollar, is this the same as counterfeiting?

    Is the real truth that the Fed is printing money and hording it, until they force us into deflation, at witch time commodities, real estate, gold,silver all the things that we should buy to hedge inflation, will go south and the dollar will be king once again. And the Fed will have all the dollars.

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