Bryan at the age of 36.
In 1895, the American government teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The Panic of 1893 had put millions of people out of work. As European investors called in their loans, the federal treasury was hemorrhaging gold reserves at an alarming rate. By February of 1895, not only were gold reserves down to 9 million dollars, a single investor held a bond for 10 million. One phone call and it was all over. To his dismay, President Grover Cleveland, a right-wing Democrat who had revived the party after the disaster of the Civil War, realized he had only one option. He would finally agree to meet with J.P. Morgan, had who arrived in Washington armed with an obscure law signed by Abraham Lincoln that made it legal for the federal government to sell bonds to private investors. On February 25, 1895, Morgan agreed to float the federal government a loan of 60 million dollars in gold. Soon afterwards, the markets, confident that the Cleveland administration had the backing of J.P. Morgan, began to revive.
Grover Cleveland may have “saved the economy” but he also delivered the Democratic Party into the hands of the left. In 1895 most Americans were two things, small farmers and small capitalists. As a result of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Homestead Act of 1862, land ownership was remarkably widespread and democratic, but that was changing. By 1895 many farmers were heavily in debt and in danger of losing their property. The same debased currency that terrified bankers like J.P. Morgan would have actually worked in their favor. It would have meant inflation, and for all practical purposes debt relief. Grover Cleveland became the Barack Obama of his day, the right wing Democrat who sold his country out to Wall Street. In 1896, the left wing of the Democratic Party found their champion, the Bernie Sanders of the Gilded Age, William Jennings Bryan. That July, in Coliseum Park in Chicago, the 36-year-old Bryan would secure the Democratic nomination for President on the basis of one speech.
While the Cross of Gold speech is little read today, it’s surprisingly relevant to the Democratic Party of 2020. While the debate about “free silver” and “bimetallism” has long been settled for good or ill in favor of “fiat currency,” William Jennings Bryan is remarkably lucid about the idea of “democracy,” who favors it, who opposes it, who benefits from it, and how it’s different from the idea of “socialism.” The struggle inside the Democratic Party of 2020 is not a struggle between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg. It’s a struggle between two ideas, the idea of liberalism and the idea of democracy. Indeed, while democracy and liberalism are not necessarily opposed to each other, they’re not the same thing.
Grover Cleveland, J.P. Morgan, and William McKinley, the liberals of 1895, believed in pretty much the same things that Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg believe in 2020, procedural norms, the sanctity of the markets, and American exceptionalism. Above all, today’s liberals, who are perfectly willing to overthrow the majority vote if it doesn’t go their way, believe in government by the best and brightest, not by the working class, who Republicans manipulate by narrow appeals to cultural conservatism and ruling class Democrats despise as being entirely white and entirely racist, as “deplorables.” As Anton J. Gunn, a former advisor Barack Obama and South Carolina state representative, said to MSNBC‘s Craig Melvin. “The party decides its nominee. The public doesn’t really decide the nominee.” If Gunn’s remarks provoked bewildered outrage on the left wing of the Democratic Party, it’s largely because most Americas not only believe that the Democratic Party is actually “democratic,” they don’t completely understand the concept of “democracy” itself. Thus the endless, and tedious, debates about whether Bernie Sanders is a “democratic socialist” or a “social democratic.”
If you asked the typical American liberal what he means by “democracy,” he’ll probably tell you it means something like “the people choose their representatives.” Libertarians and conservatives, on the other hand, will tell you that “the United States is a republic, not a democracy.” It’s not that liberals and conservatives really disagree on who should run the United States — they both believe that an aristocracy of lawyers, capitalists and the “best and brightest” should rule over the ignorant masses –it’s that they see democracy in terms of process, not class. Neither would abolish the fundamentally undemocratic Supreme Court, electoral college, or Senate. Indeed, many libertarians see the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of United States Senators — before that they were chosen by State legislatures — as the beginning of the decline of “the republic.” Both, however, largely agree that “democracy “means” voting. For Aristotle, on the other hand, who defined most of the political terms that survive to this day, “democracy” doesn’t necessarily mean “voting.” It means “rule in favor of the poor.” Indeed, for Aristotle, those “populist” governments in South America both liberals and conservatives in the United States agree should be overthrown by the CIA, are almost the very definition of “democracy.”
For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”
In 1980, Ronald Reagan and the corporate media introduced us to “supply side economics,” an old idea they marketed as a new concept. According to “supply side economics” if you lowered taxes on the very rich, they would invest in the economy and that wealth would “trickle down” to the working class. I still remember going to a Bible Study as a freshman at Rutgers in 1983 — the only time cute girls talked to me back then was to invite me to Bible studies — where the group leader carefully explained to us that “if you give 10 bucks to a poor person he’ll spend it on booze but if you give a responsible investor 1,000,000 dollars he’ll build a factory and then 100 workers would each get a 20 dollar bonus on Friday and be able to buy two bottles of booze.” For William Jennings Bryan the very opposite was true. If you invested in the working class that wealth would “trickle up” to the rich.
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
For William Jennings Bryan, the class struggle centered on the debate between the Gold Standard and bimetallism. For Bernie Sanders, the key issue is “Medicare for All,” the idea that if we get rid of private insurance companies — the lawyers, bankers and lobbyists who stand between you and your doctor — that if we replace multi-millionaire insurance CEOs with middle-class government bureaucrats, health care would become cheaper and more widely available. Both liberals and conservatives look at the idea of “Medicare for All” with horror. Their kids, who attend “good” public schools before going onto the Ivy League, become those lawyers, bankers,and lobbyists who run private insurance. They don’t want to send their kids to Harvard only to see them make $150,000 dollars a year as a government employee. For profit, private health insurance is as important to the “meritocracy” as the gold standard was to J.P. Morgan.
While Bernie Sanders may at one time have been a socialist, these days he is, as his supporters argue, a “social democrat,” someone who believes in capitalism but capitalism with a strong federal government to limit the power of the corporations and advocate for the working class. The main difference between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who also favors stringent government regulation of big business, is that Sanders also favors mass popular involvement in government. Warren, by contrast, like the rest of the Democratic Party establishment, believes in rule by the “best and brightest,” Harvard Law professors like herself. Sanders supporters argue that the person going into the Democratic National Convention this Summer with the most votes should be the nominee. Warren is open to the idea of a “brokered convention” where the super delegates, elite Democratic Party politicians and lobbyists, make the decision on the second round of voting.
William Jennings Bryan, in turn, while a contemporary of Lenin and Frederick Engels, was a democrat, not a socialist or even a “democratic” socialist. Unlike Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders, Bryan was a principled anti-imperialist. He thought the United States should stay out of the affairs of other governments, resigning as Wilson’s Secretary of State in 1916 after it became obvious that Wilson intended to enter the war on the side of the British and French. He did not believe, however, in proletarian revolution. Rather, Bryan wanted to revive the old Republican, “Republican” with a large “R,” ideal of free soil and free labor, Lincoln’s belief that unlike old Europe, the United States was not bound by traditional class hierarchies. William Jennings Bryan and Abraham Lincoln both believed that every American had the chance to be a successful capitalist. Bryan didn’t think that capitalist were oppressing the workers. He thought that big capitalists were oppressing their fellow capitalists, that J.P. Morgan and Grover Cleveland had successfully mounted a coup that had destroyed the republic.
But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world. We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen.
William Jennings Bryan would go onto lose the election of 1896 to William McKinley largely because in spite of his constant protests that he had nothing against Massachusetts, New York or the east coast, he saw the class struggle in narrow terms. Get rid of the gold standard, base the currency on a mixture of silver and gold, and the small farmers of the Midwest would save their land, and as a result, save Jeffersonian democracy. The industrial proletariat of the northeast, however, had no economic interest in seeing more inflation and cast their lot with McKinley and the Republicans. Bryan would go onto lose the Presidency two more times before he finally ended up as a laughing stock arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes Trial. Indeed, after the mass of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe entering the factories in the 1890s had cost him the election of 1896, Bryan progressively retreated into an ever more narrow-minded Protestant fundamentalism and nostalgia for the America of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.