The Party Of “The Struggling Masses”

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.

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3 Comments

  1. ansonburlingame

     /  October 2, 2012

    An yet, the “struggling masses” did NOT form our “more perfect union” now did they? Our country was founded by learned men that had studied governments over the centuries. They, through their intellect and courage, found a better way to move forward and thus the United States was created, by men of intellect and long study and the courage to seek a different path forward. In fact one could assert that the “struggling masses” were simply “canon foder” for those learned men, during the Revolutionary War.

    Without the “struggling masses” we would have lost our revolutionary war. But without learned men we would have had no government that made sense after that war. It would have been mob rule instead, each going after his own for a little while until we would have pleaded with England to come back and rescue us from ourselves.

    Europeans were deeply skeptical over the ability of the United States to govern effectively considering the needs of the “struggling masses”. So were the Founders. Yet they found a way using “indirect” democracy to find a better path forward for ALL Americans, not “just” the rich and famous OR the “stuggling masses” but instead ALL Americans.

    We are losing sight of that goal, a government moving ALL Americans forward, not just slices of Americans. GOP and Dems are BOTH to blame and as you point out Bryan went down in sad defeat many times to “raise the struggling masses” only at with the sacrifice of OTHER Americans.

    It can be debated forever if “trickle down” or “trickle up” catering to SOME Americans works or not. But one cannot debate the simple physics or economics that a “rising tide lifts all”. And if that “tide” is spread across the land and is “equal” then EVERYONE goes up to the same degree that the “tide” lifts ALL.

    Now look behind the Tea Party gatherings and you find some very “common” Americans asking for less government intrusion into their personal lives. You SAY they are being manipulated by “rich” men (Koch Bros. etc). Well look at OWS “struggling masses” of people. Do you see “founders” of a new way for America to govern itself in that “mob”? Well is as will alleged that OWS mobs are being pushed by labor unions, SEIU, socialist, communists and maybe even some “foreigners” involved. I would suggest that those mobs however have their own momentum created by have nots and not too much pushing is needed once they form up. Check out the mentality of “struggling masses” in the Middle East as our embassies burn as well. How does one “relate” to a country controlled by such mobs???

    Scratch the surface of this blog over time and you find the “union way” to govern America as well given the sentiments of the writer herein.

    Well go ahead but when the government runs out of money due to “union” or “stuggling masses” demands (GM anyone) I wonder who will be there for THAT bailout? For sure such “governors” will have to invade some Caymen and Swiss Banks to find any money. Or I suppose Mugabe will print some of his for “us”!!!

    anson

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  2. A good post and interesting insight into the Democratic Party’s past, Duane.

    Trickle-down economics is a proven bust for sure, and trickle-up makes sense, but only in the context of capitalistic competition. If all the world’s nations were on a fairly even basis for that competition, economics would be a lot easier to manage, but of course they’re not. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, are propped up simply by an abundance of natural resources while others, like Germany for example, survive on a strong work ethic and self-discipline. And then there’s the USA, which has both, and hence one of the highest standards of living in the world.

    I see signs on the evening news that we are beginning to emerge economically from the Great Recession. Exports are increasing, Made In America is a growing brand, natural gas production is booming, the national mood is improving. It’s too bad the election isn’t next winter because I think we are on the mend.

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    • I feel the same way about the economy. I just hope that President Romney will not be the beneficiary of the improvement.

      In any case, your point about economics being easier to manage if nations were on a fairly even basis is why the issue of “free trade” is such a difficult one to unravel. It is impossible for the U.S. to, these days, have a balance of trade with, say, China, given what they do and how cheaply they do it. Thus, should our trade philosophy reflect this asymmetric reality or simply ignore it (like we seem to do in the U.S.)?

      Duane

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