A gifted orator and presidential candidate once said the following:
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.
Obviously that wasn’t Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, since it was uttered in, well, 1896, at the Democratic National Convention. That’s how long Americans have been fighting the fight against trickle-down economics, and that’s how long the Democratic Party has associated itself with the masses, “those below.”
But Democrats weren’t always defenders of the low-flying hoi polloi. Before William Jennings Bryan, who at 36 became the youngest presidential candidate in history, Democrats tended to be conservative and favor a teensy-weensy government, a government so small that moneyed interests could have their way with the country.
Oddly, it was Bryan who brought the Democratic Party into the 20th century as a progressive institution. He was The Great Commoner. But he also was a fundamentalist Presbyterian, a pacifist, hater of evolution and the drink, most famous these days for an epic battle with Clarence Darrow over the teaching of evolution in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee. The fundamentalism that had stained part of his mind has also stained his reputation.
Unfortunately, Bryan is not much known for being a transformative advocate of liberalism, as The Washington Post pointed out last year:
Bryan, who saw religion as a force for progressive reform, is sometimes portrayed as a simpleton, even a reactionary, because of his crusade against the teaching of evolution as fact. Yet in many ways he was far ahead of his time. In 1896 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns in 1900 and 1908, he advocated for women’s suffrage, creation of the Federal Reserve and implementation of a progressive income tax, to name a few reforms. When Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, Herbert Hoover sniffed that it was just Bryanism by another name.
As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, representing two very different opinions about the New Deal, are getting ready for a high-stakes debate, we should remember, when President Obama takes the stage Wednesday night as a Democrat, he will be representing a party that had its compass reset by a man with faults, a man who was never destined to be president—he lost three times—but a gifted man who was destined to make the Democratic Party the defender of “those below,” as opposed to the guardian of America’s wealthy class.
Here is another excerpt from Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold speech, given at his party’s convention in 1896, but which serves always as an appeal to the spirit of the Democratic Party:
…it is simply a question that we shall decide upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight. Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question that the party must answer first; and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as described by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.