by Ralph Brauer | 12/09/2009 09:05:00 AM

It seems like the press can just never get it right especially when it comes to history. In the wake of You-Know-Who's new book tour, several publications, including the venerable New York Times, which should know better (especially if they read their own archives), are referring to the woman who guarantees to give Tina Fey a healthy income for quite some time as a--get this--Populist. The Times even ventured to compare her to none other than William Jennings Bryan!

Palin as Populist

Over the past few years I have tried to correct the misapprehensions of Bryan that still circulate among large numbers of Americans. Now the Times really messes things up with one of the most absurd paragraphs they have ever written.
Whatever else it said about America, her return brought into focus a big question for Republicans as they watched the intense reactions she generated: To what extent should they try to energize their electoral prospects by hitching themselves to the powerful but volatile strain of populism — characterized by anti-elitism and deep skepticism of government — that Ms. Palin has come to embody?

The Times goes on to provide a bizarre list of "populists" ranging from Bryan to Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace to--get this--Richard Nixon.

Sam Tanenhaus comes up with an equally bizarre list in this week's New Yorker.
Populists, from William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long through Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, have always been divisive and polarizing. Their job is not to win national elections but to carry the torch and inspire the faithful, and this Palin seems poised to do.

Tanenhaus calls Palin "the first woman to generate populist fervor on such a scale" and thus a figure of "historic consequence."

Real (as opposed to reel) Populism

Somehow in their inevitable watering down and distorting of American history, the mass media have come to endow the term "populism" with such broad meaning that it has become meaningless, in consequence rendering an important chapter in our nation's past equally meaningless and muddled. In the media's terms a populist seems to be anyone with a popular following who is not from the East Coast.

In fact, as any high school history student knows, Populism with a capital "P" was a nineteenth century political movement that advocated a very specific platform and ideology--one far from the fans of Sarah Palin. In fact, to endow Palin with a term like populist is to raise her to a level where she does not belong and belittles the accomplishments of the real Populists.

The original Populists said little about big government, but had a lot to say about their main enemy--- big business. Anyone seeking to define Populism should start with the party's 1892 platform. The preamble to the People's Party of America (the official title of the Populist party--populist was the name given to members) platform has an uncanny contemporary ring to it.
The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires. The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bond-holders; a vast public debt payable in legal-tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burdens of the people.

The 1892 platform also contained planks Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Richard Nixon and others on the New Yorker and New York Times lists of so-called populists would find hard to stand on. These included a graduated income tax, government ownership of railroads and the telephone and telegraph systems, and the demand that “all land now held by railroads and other corporations in excess of their actual needs be reclaimed by the government and held for actual settlers only.” The platform also called for a constitutional amendment to limit the President and Vice President to one term and demanded the abolition of “a large standing army of mercenaries, known as the Pinkerton system.”

As you can see, there is little in the Populist platform that Sarah Palin could support and quite a bit she would find positively socialistic.

Opposition to big government that the New Yorker and the New York Times equate with populism came with what I termed in The Strange Death of Liberal America the Counterrevolution, a Republican movement which adopted much of the anti-federal stance that was articulated in the Southern Manifesto authored by Strom Thurmond and other Dixie Congressman in opposition to Brown v Board. With Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and later the election of Ronald Reagan, Thurmond's anti-government views became the ruling philosophy of the Republican Party.
Reagan’s genius lay in taking Thurmond’s states’ rights philosophy and dressing it in respectable clothes, turning it into opposition to “big government.” What some saw as unsophisticated prejudice received a makeover worthy of one of those television shows that turns a wallflower into a magazine cover. Employing anti-government rhetoric that mirrored Thurmond, the GOP reversed the country’s perceptions about government as a force for equity and turned it into the enemy of the people. (The Strange Death of Liberal America)

Palin and Bryan

If Sarah Palin is not a Populist, is she the heir of William Jennings Bryan as both the Times and the New Yorker imply? In word, no. Actually, this comparison is even more ridiculous and dangerous than the Populist one. In their defense the two mass media giants could fall back on the muddled and watered-down contemporary understanding of populism, but in the case of comparing Palin to Bryan, the historical record allows no such leeway.

Much as the press was using a loose contemporary definition of populism, its comparison of Palin to Bryan seems to rely more on Stanley Kramer's melodramatic Inherit the Wind than it does on the real Bryan. Originally a theatrical representation of the Scopes Trial that sometimes heavy-handedly preached its underlying theme of opposition to McCarthyism, Inherit the Wind portrayed Bryan as an egotistical, narrow-minded rube.

The film's characterization of Bryan is still held by many Americans. Even those who do not see Bryan in such extreme terms might know that he ran for President three times, but few are aware that Bryan proposed and advocated principles and programs that essentially laid a foundation for the American Century.

These included three constitutional amendments: voting rights for women, the income tax, and direct election of senators. Bryan opposed our intervention in the Philippines as “imperialism,” defended collective bargaining and fought for a minimum wage, demanded that candidates reveal the source of their campaign contributions, proposed a cabinet position for labor, championed the idea of insured bank deposits and banking system like the Federal Reserve, attempted to implement a foreign policy based on arbitration which anticipated the League of Nations and the United Nations, and spoke out for the public financing of campaigns, government subsidizing of farm prices, an end to the gold standard, limiting Presidential terms, and the perils of a large military establishment.

There is not much in this menu that Sarah Palin would find palatable.

The Brain Factor

Like it or not, one of the implied factors in the media comparison of Palin and Bryan has to do with the perception both are/were not exactly the brightest people to run for higher office. Do a search for "Palin" and "clueless" to get some idea of what many feel about Palin's grasp of the issues. On the other hand nobody attached the label "clueless" to William Jennings Bryan.

To imply Bryan lacked intelligence is to show a total lack of knowledge of his career. To understand this, forget that he delivered all his speeches from memory or extemporaneously or that he was one of the most feared debaters of his era (contrary to the image in Inherit the Wind), and go back to Bryan's first Congressional speech, which ranks as one of the most auspicious debuts in Congressional history.

It is a far cry from Sarah Palin's stumbling press interviews, her scripted speeches, and her lack of knowledge of domestic and world affairs. Even more than “Cross of Gold,” this speech remains Bryan’s most spectacular, for it has few parallels in American history. In three hours, the New York Times proclaimed, Bryan “Jumped at once to the front rank among speakers of the House.” (“Mr. Bryan at Washington,” New York Times, July 20, 1896)

The rules allotted Bryan only an hour, but Michigan Republican Representative Julius Burrow, whom Bryan biographer Michael Kazin describes as “bedazzled,” moved to give him more time. Several times Bryan attempted to conclude only to have the crowd shout, “Go on! Go on!”

When her husband took the floor Mary Bryan anxiously looked upon a half-empty chamber, because most representatives had left the floor during one of those arcane discussions—this one on how much to spend on copies of speeches-- that still has people muttering about Congress. Perhaps Hollywood best captured the spirit of Bryan’s debut in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for like Jimmy Stewart’s famous filibuster, Bryan’s speech began as a seemingly minor matter only to strike sparks that would flame across America, with Mary Bryan playing the Jean Arthur role of gallery support, prompting him, and, if the transcript is any indication, may have even sent him information as he spoke.

Bryan’s subject was the tariff, which at that time had all the flammability as an issue that taxes do today. The Democratic Party under Grover Cleveland supported the Republican concept of taxing imports to protect business much as contemporary Democrats have shown little inclination to oppose the GOP’s call for cutting taxes. A few choice passages from Bryan’s speech illustrate how he totally reframed the tariff issue, a break with the past that helped to lay the foundation for the American Century. Instead of arguing over tariffs on particular goods, which had been the main Democratic strategy, Bryan became one of the first Democrats of his era to condemn ALL protective tariffs:
This system is sustained simply by the cooperation of the beneficiaries of a tariff, and that they are held together by “the cohesive power of plunder.”…You can impose no tax for the benefit of the producer of raw material which does not find its way, through the various forms of manufactured product, and at last press with accumulated weight upon the person who uses the finished product. ( William Jennings Bryan and Mary Bryan, Speeches of William Jennings Bryan, New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1913. pp. 3-78.)

Later in his speech hBryan articulated what would become a guiding principle for Democrats from Woodrow Wilson to John Kennedy:
Why are we right? Because, Mr. Chairman. We are demanding for this people equal and exact justice to every man, woman and child. We desire that the laws of this country shall not be made, as they have been, to enable some to get rich while many get poor.

After three hours of speaking (imagine Sarah Palin being able to talk without notes for even half an hour) Bryan did not disappoint with a conclusion that anticipates “Cross of Gold:”
The day will come, Mr. Chairman—the day will come when those who annually gather about this Congress seeking to use the taxing power for private purposes will find their occupation gone, and the members of Congress will meet here to pass laws for the benefit of all the people. That day will come and in that day, to use the language of another, “Democracy will be king! Long live the king!”

As Mary Bryan remembered it, the speech began uncertainly, but it did not take long for her husband to find his voice. As Bryan continued to speak, those in the chamber began streaming down the halls of the Capitol to summon their colleagues, their excitement testifying that something extraordinary was taking place. The New York Times, which at that time was not favorable to progressives, wrote:
The speech was like a beam of sunlight. It abounded in apt illustration. It was full of quotations, showing that the author of it had read, and occasionally there were passages that were so stirring that they quite betrayed the usually well-behaved audience in the galleries into storms of applause.

To those who had not heard him before, he was indeed a prodigy. Few men so young ever had held the House so long and so intent. His illustrations, humorous and sentimental, including quotations of poetry, were apt and they were well-delivered.

Maybe the Times should have checked their archives before they made their ridiculous comparison of Bryan and Palin. Unlike Palin, who does not seem to have much data in her head, Bryan packed his speech with enough statistics that even today these data provide an important portrait of our nation in 1892. Bryan cleverly alternated these with punchy anecdotes:
The number of sheep has continually decreased, until now if every woman in the State [of Nebraska] named Mary insisted upon having a pet lamb at the same time, we would have to go out of the state to get enough lambs to go around.

The 1892 speech is even more remarkable than “Cross of Gold” because most of the second half of it is a prolonged and spirited debate with his Republican rivals, the likes of which no one has ever seen on CSPAN, in which Bryan speaking without notes recites long passages of poetry and the Bible, quotes at length from documents such as Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures and weaves in a wide variety of primary sources including census data and economic reports.

In this speech Bryan also showed he could think on his feet with barbed come-backs to those who sought to discredit him. One exchange with New York Representative John Raines captures the spirit of that memorable afternoon. Raines was well-known for his ability to skew his opponents with rapier-like slashes that sometimes left them visibly wounded.
RAINES: I want to say to the gentleman that no trade paper was ever printed that could contain a list of all the tinplate liars of the United States.

BRYAN: I suppose that paper, then, has no biographical sketch of my friend from New York. I asked my friend from new York if we had any tin industries in this country—I have here a statement that the average price of tin plate for 1888 was $4.45 a box…The average price for 1891 was $5.68 a box…And I will place this on record as my authority that no article could be mentioned upon which the price had been increased.

For those who would disrespect Bryan by daring to compare him to Palin, that single exchange should show how absurd it is to place the two of them on an equal plane. First, note how Bryan parried Raines' thrust--and this after speaking for over an hour--with one of his own. But the real gem in this exchange is Bryan's ability to cite the relevant data with no prompting. There is no way Palin could pull this off.

The Advocacy Factor

The speech also highlights yet another important contrast between Bryan and Palin--their values and vision. If anyone out there can tell me what Palin's vision is for America please feel free to comment--and please when you do so cite something she has said, not a paragraph from a ghost-written book.

One example of the inability of Palin's supporters to focus on her vision for America comes in another Times piece, this a December 7 online commentary by Stanley Fish that favorably reviews Palin's book. In his entire essay, Fish says nothing about Palin's policies or what she believes in, but gives it a thumbs up because her book does a good job of suggesting the kind of person she is.
For many politicians, family life is sandwiched in between long hours in public service. Palin wants us to know that for her it is the reverse. Political success is an accident that says nothing about you. Success as a wife, mother and citizen says everything.

In other words, Palin's main asset is that she is s good mother. This may be commendable, but it hardly qualifies her to be President since it is a trait she shares with millions of other American women.

Plain's supporters appear to share Fish's view. The infamous video clip of MSNBC correspondent Norah O'Donnell interviewing Palin supporters at a Michigan book signing has been circulating all over the Internet and in emails.

If Palin's supporters seem to go tongue-tied when asked to name specific policies she advocates, few people at the turn of the nineteenth century did not know what William Jennings Bryan supported. A major reason for this is Bryan's tireless advocacy for those issues. The 1896 Presidential campaign is notable not because of the "Cross of Gold" speech but because it was the first time a candidate actively campaigned for the White House.

Bryan knew that the only way he could beat William McKinley was to take his case directly to the people. While McKinley ran what became known as the "Front Porch Campaign," Bryan embarked on a whistle-stop tour across the country. The sheer statistics of the 1896 campaign dwarf those of Harry Truman’s all-out 1948 effort: he traveled 18,000 miles, stopping in 26 states, averaged 80,000 words a day, and spoke to at least five million people.

Contrast this even with Palin's book tour, which is now laboring under the revelation that Palin does not travel from signing to signing in a bus painted especially for the occasion, but in a private jet.

Clothes Make the Man and Woman

Nothing says more about the difference between William Jennings Bryan and Sarah Palin and their underlying political philosophies than their choice of clothing.

There is little doubt that Sarah Palin loves clothes and loves to be seen in them. She wants to be a cover girl, her picture peeking out from all those supermarket magazine racks. Despite her attempts to finesse the much-discussed 2008 campaign clothing expenses controversy in her new book, MSNBC asked the question puzzling many Americans in this observation about Palin during the 2008 campaign:
Can a candidate who portrays herself as a woman of the people spend this much on clothes and remain credible?

Even during the book tour, the Palin clothing controversy will not go away. Writing of Palin's wardrobe, Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman observed:
Her mouth may be saying no to Palin for President in 2012, but her clothes are saying maybe.

Bryan, on the other hand, deliberately dressed unfashionably. His "uniform" became an alpaca coat and a bow tie.


There is one final and important contrast between Bryan and Palin that is especially germane to today's Era of Bad Feelings. During Bryan's lifetime, America experienced some of its most divisive economic, social and political conflicts and Bryan was at the frontlines of many of these. Yet despite the rancor of the times, Bryan had few genuine enemies.

The Times would acknowledge about Bryan:
He would have no enemies on the floor of the House. Search The Record during the two sessions of Congress he was entitled to occupy its pages, and not an instance can be found where he made a reply to an antagonist that would prevent him from meeting his opponent face to face in a moment after the debate.

Contrast this with Sarah Palin's famous nickname "The Barracuda." Pollster Dave Dittman, who worked for her gubernatorial campaign, told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine in 2007:
The landscape is littered with the bodies of those who crossed Sarah.

The "Sarah Barracuda" nickname perfectly captures Palin’s contradictions. Sarah is your next-door neighbor become a celebrity, a person millions of Americans believe is just like them. The Barracuda nickname embodies the anger felt by those same millions who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore.

The Antis

This is a growing and disturbing contemporary American trend, heard in the hard edged rants on talk radio and in blogs of all political persuasions. The angry rant, complete with four-letter words has become the discourse of choice for many to argue about politics. If you want to characterize this group with any of those catchy titles cluster analysts love to use, you could call them the Antis.

In interviews with Palin supporters it comes through in no uncertain terms that the Antis on the right believe Palin finally gives them a voice. But the question is how long can Palin ride that tiger?

She found out that the Antis can quickly turn ugly when she walked away from a book signing in Noblesville, Indiana (something BTW Bryan would have never done) setting off a wave of anger that had an angry crowd gathered outside her bus, some of them loudly booing her. Palin hunkered down inside the bus, refusing to come out and address the crowd. In Palin's defense her staff may have felt it was unsafe for her to confront the crowd, but the scene still leaves an uneasy feeling.

If Sarah Palin can stir up such mob-like emotions and then prove unable to control them, what will happen if her supporters turn their anger on someone else or become a real mob?

A Final Word

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the portrait Stanley Kramer painted of William Jennings Bryan was to imply he was the instigator of a mob. Inherit the Wind wanted to show what can happen when zealotry gets out of control, trying to draw a warning about the excesses of McCarthyism, but in doing so it cast Bryan in a role he never played.

As the most electrifying speaker of his time--and perhaps in all of American history--it would have been very easy for Bryan to become the head of a mob. That certainly was at the root of the fear he inspired in the tycoons of the Gilded Age who worried that Bryan would lead a crusade against them that would turn violent.

Given the tone of an era characterized by two Presidential assassinations, pitched battles during the Homestead, Pullman and other strikes, the incendiary rhetoric of various radicals, and a sensationalistic and partisan press that makes Faux News look tame, such fears are understandable. Yet the irony is that for all the plutocrats' worries about the mob, Bryan disdained mob politics as much as they did.

Bryan was well aware of his ability to move a crowd. After the "Cross of Gold" Bryan would write in his memoirs, “The audience acted like a trained choir.” Yet he never incited a crowd in the fashion of prairie firebrands such as "Sockless Jerry" Simpson or Mary "Yellin" Lease.

The question is whether Sarah Palin will show the same restraint. If not, we may learn what happens when millions of people go rogue and America turns rouge.

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 12/09/2009 10:30 AM:

Lovely bit of debunking and discussion, but I have a qualm. Not about your depiction of Bryan or the contrast with Palin (though I have the same reservations about belittling her intelligence that I had about Bush: given what they do accomplish, it's actually unlikely that they're average or below average on most reasonably neutral tests of intelligence, and underestimating them politically is suicidal), but about the term "populist."

You're right, obviously, that the original Populists are very different from the neo-Confederate populists of the mid/late-20c, but we have a tradition of using the same term for both. Like "liberal," the term shifts meaning over time, whether we historians like it or not: "To the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs. " (Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft, p. 34.) I do think Palin could be profitably compared to Huey Long, George Wallace, etc. and to do so would put her into a much more appropriate context, technologically, politically and programaticaly. We might have to begin distinguishing between the original "big P Populists" and the broader, vaguer "small p populists."


Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 12/09/2009 9:41 PM:

I agree with you re Palin's intelligence. Perhaps a better analysis would be that her command of the issues is lacking and it doesn't seem to bother her or her supporters.

As for populism, there is of course a huge literature attempting to define the original Populists that is still evolving. There are some fascinating recent books and papers focusing on single communities that help us to better understand the genesis of the People's Party. Unfortunately in a blog there is not the space to go into this that one would have in a journal article.

That being said, I still believe that if we no longer hold the term to its original meaning then what does it mean? I think it is as important for historians to prevent slippage of meaning as it is for scientists to prevent the watering down of the meaning of evolution or relativity.

The core of populism was that it was anti-big business. In this sense Long might fit, but not Wallace. I think we need another term for those who are anti-government. Palin is trying to position herself as the latest incarnation of anti-Washington feelings that in former eras spawned ideas like nullification (her visible support for the Alaska secession movement makes for an interesting parallel). In Strange Death I termed this anti-Washington movement Counterrevolutionaries in that their core motivation is to roll back the New Deal.

This is where the definition issue becomes important because if the media successfully tag Palin as a populist rather than a Counterrevolutionary it has the power to alter public perceptions dramatically. She becomes a "champion of the people" instead of someone who is closer to William McKinley than William Jennings Bryan.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 12/10/2009 12:14 AM:

I'm not sure you can, even with careful definition, get around the fact that journalists and pundits are going to use the term for anyone who seems to be running a "speak to the people" campaign that makes elites nervous. I'm all for historians carefully defining and using terms in their proper contexts, but when Wallace and Long get called populists in the 50s and 60s, that's another proper context in which historians need to address the term and use it properly. Unless you're saying (and I'm not an Americanist, remember: I'm speaking out of a fair bit of ignorance) that the term populist isn't used for them by contemporaries, but later by journalists/historians.

That said, I'm all for finding a new term for Palin. I don't think, honestly, that "counterrevolutionary" is going to catch on -- if you start labeling the New Deal as revolutionary, you're probably going to help the counterrevolutionary movement -- but you're right about the New Deal being a key issue. Neo-Hooverites has been tried, I think.

Why don't we call her what she is: a hypocritical theocratic authoritarian libertarian?

Nah, that's not going to catch on, either.