Democrats take a new look at Bryan’s populist legacy

By Chris Bragg

Broadway bon vivant and storyteller extraordinaire Damon Runyon had yet to make tracks for New York in 1908 when the Rocky Mountain News assigned him to profile William Jennings Bryan.

Runyon had to travel to Bryan’s home in Lincoln, Neb., to talk politics with the 1908 Democratic presidential nominee. Bryan wouldn’t be present at Denver’s Democratic National Convention — presumptive nominees didn’t start attending the convention until 1932.

However, after only a moment sitting on the porch of Bryan’s famous home, Fairview, the interview would take an unexpected turn.

“I am not talking politics,” Bryan flatly told Runyon.

Bryan then proceeded to quote from the Bible during the remainder of his time with Runyon.

It often hardly mattered whether Bryan purported to be quoting Scripture or talking politics, however. For Bryan, who carried the Democratic presidential banner three times, there never was much of a distinction between the two. Bryan’s populist political pursuits were almost always guided by his belief in the New Testament, and quotations from the Scripture dominated his political rhetoric.

Consider the language Bryan used to address the major issues of his three presidential campaigns. In 1896, when the debate of the day concerned allowing silver to be coined along with gold, Bryan declared famously, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross
of gold!”

In 1900, in protest of U.S. military involvement in the Philippines, Bryan quoted pacifist sections from the Book of Proverbs. In 1908, when Bryan formally joined forces with organized labor, he would declare, “I am not willing to make millions of my countrymen get down on their knees and say to some trust magnate: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’…”

When Denver held its only other national Democratic Party convention a century ago, the notion that the nominee needed to woo evangelicals ¬— as this year’s Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has attempted to do — would have been absurd.

The foundation for Bryan’s brand of religious populism lay in the 1870s and ’80s, in what historians call America’s “Third Great Awakening.” Heartland preachers such as Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch and George Herron promoted the idea that the fear of divine wrath should be replaced by a social gospel, and that politics should promote the common good.

For most of his life, Bryan’s religious beliefs reflected that view.

“Few commentators appreciate how firmly Bryan had always stuck to a pragmatic view of religion,” writes Michael Kazin, in his Bryan biography A Godly Hero. “He spent little time defending the ‘truth’ of the Bible and a good deal hailing its power to correct human flaws and solve social problems.”

Only near the end of his life would Bryan promote Biblical literalism — with tragic results. In 1924, as Bryan’s influence within the Democratic Party and his health both were fading, he was called in his role as an attorney to join prosecutors in a case concerning a Tennessee ban on the teaching of evolution.

Over the course of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, Bryan’s progressive legacy was thoroughly tarnished.

In an unusual move, defense attorney Clarence Darrow called prosecution attorney Bryan to the stand and — in an effort to persuade the jury that Genesis shouldn’t be viewed as a science text — asked him explain how, exactly, the Earth could have been created in six days.

Bryan’s response was termed “absurdly pathetic” by the New York Times, and other media around the country expressed similar sentiments.

Less than a week after the exchange with Darrow, on July 26, 1925, Bryan died in his sleep.

In his obituary for Bryan, fierce critic H.L. Mencken wrote that, “Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses.”

That the leader of the Democratic Party for a generation died so soon after Scopes helped define Bryan as a fundamentalist zealot, despite the fact that he had spent most of his life as a progressive reformer. And Bryan’s portrayal in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind — a fictional account of the Scopes trial that drew largely from Mencken’s critiques — only reinforced that view.

However, historians began rethinking Bryan’s legacy as early as 1965. Lawrence Levine, a history scholar at the University of California, wrote that year of the “misguided effort to characterize him at various stages of his career as either a progressive or a reactionary, without understanding that a liberal in one area may be a conservative in another, not only at the same time, but also for the same reasons.”

Whatever Bryan’s legacy, it remains more than an academic debate. Bryan may have rejected Darwinism, but historians say that within the twin pillars of Bryanism are clues about the Democratic Party’s evolution.

Most historians agree that Bryan laid the foundation for the party’s move toward a far more progressive agenda. Some even say Bryan laid the groundwork for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and — ultimately — to the advent of the welfare state.

Either way, it’s clear that the Democrats, as a party, have rejected Bryan’s other legacy — his everyman religious fervor — in favor of a secular elitism. And that switch handed traditional Bryan voters over to the Republican Party, historians say.

“The obvious problem for liberals is that most Americans don’t share their mistrust of public piety,” writes Kazin. “Time and again, secular reformers defeat themselves by assuming that this difference doesn’t matter, that they can appeal solely to the economic self-interest of working-class Americans and ignore moral issues grounded in religious convictions.”

In his book Where Did the Party Go? (University of Missouri Press, 2006), Jeff Taylor writes that, “[The Midwest and South] began leaving Thomas Jefferson and his ideological successors in the 1910s as leadership passed from William Jennings Bryan to Woodrow Wilson. The party made its final migration into the realm of Alexander Hamilton in the 1930s with Franklin Roosevelt acting as guide. It was permanently settled in that non-democratic land by the time Hubert Humphrey joined in 1944.”

Historians often cite the third-party candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace — who ran against Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon in 1968 — as the event that landed white southern Democrats permanently in the Republican Party’s camp. Many historians say the switch sprung primarily from a split in the Democratic Party over segregation.

However, Taylor argues that the New Left’s rejection of traditional moral values actually played the definitive role in the party’s fracture.

“White Southern Democrats left the national party not so much because of its endorsement of black civil rights but because of its open rejection of populist policy and traditional morality. They may not have liked the taste of the former, but they could swallow the latter,” Taylor writes.

Historians say there are actually similarities between Bryan — who won three nominations with the support of Southern Democrats — and Wallace, who later took those voters from the party. Both Wallace and Bryan represented the values of “middling white producers” who “believed Eastern elites were harming their interests and devaluing their culture,” writes Kazin, in another of his books The Populist Persuasion (BasicBooks, 1995).

But there also were significant differences between the two.

“[Wallace’s] campaign was driven by pure resentment…Bryan, on the other hand, was a genuine idealist who spun his vision of America as a small-town democracy motivated by evangelical beliefs and preserved by a reformist state,” Kazin writes.

Meanwhile, the Midwest — the base of Bryan’s support throughout his political career — also has evolved into a solidly Republican voting bloc. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan, 2004), Thomas Frank argues that Midwestern voters routinely vote against their own economic interests in order to support Republican candidates.

Why? Because the GOP has embraced those voters’ cultural values, Frank argues, in the form of wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

“That the region’s character has been altered so thoroughly — that so much of the Midwest now regards the welfare state as an alien imposition; that we have trouble even believing there was a time when progressives were described with adjectives like fiery, rather than snooty or bossy or wimpy — has to stand as one of the great reversals of American history,” Frank writes.

Sen. Barack Obama — like the 2004 Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry — has faced charges of elitism during his run for president. After CNN’s recent “Values Forum” featuring Obama and Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, CNN commentator David Gergen said Obama’s debate performance had, perhaps, “helped to dispel the myth that he’s such an elitist and he’s arrogant.”

Whether Obama can win over evangelicals is an open question. It’s clear, however, that even if Obama disagrees with many evangelicals on such issues as civil unions and abortion, the Illinois senator will not ignore those voters — as so many Democrats in the past have done, to their peril — and is, instead, seeking common ground.

Not coincidentally, he’s seeking that commonality in the social gospel preached by Bryan.

“Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Martin Luther King Jr. — indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith, they also used religious language to argue for their cause,” Obama wrote in a July 10 editorial in USA Today, entitled “Politicians Need Not Abandon Religion.”

“If progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice, the need to think in terms of ‘thou’ and not just ‘I,’ resonates with all Americans. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of America’s renewal.”