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."
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 . . . 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." . . .
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. . .
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.