How Bernie Sanders Has Transformed the Democratic Party

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego

William Jennings Bryan, George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, and Barry Goldwater all failed in their bids for the presidency.  But their ideas lived on and profoundly shaped the future of their parties.  According to historian Michael Kazin, Bernie Sanders is doing the same thing.

Here is a taste of his New York Times piece “Bernie Sanders Has Already Won“:

Since he began running for president five years ago, Senator Sanders and his supporters have nudged Democrats to take stands to the left of where the center of the party was when Barack Obama moved out of the White House. Every remaining candidate for president now endorses either Medicare for All or a robust public option, doubling the minimum wage, much higher taxes on the rich, legislation to facilitate union organizing and a transition to an economy based on sources of renewable energy. Even if the delegates in Milwaukee this summer choose a different nominee, they will surely endorse such policies and make them central to the drive to make Donald Trump a one-term president.

So whatever his electoral fate, the socialist from Vermont who is pushing 80 is likely to be remembered as a more transformative figure than many politicians who won an election but whom most Americans were quite glad to put behind them. Mr. Sanders wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt — but if he can’t, better to be the next William Jennings Bryan or Jesse Jackson than the next William Howard Taft.

Read the entire piece here.

H.L. Mencken and Michael Gerson?

mencken (1)

I never thought of putting these two writers together, and I am not sure they belong together, but Martin Longman tries to make some connections between Mencken’s response to William Jennings Bryan and Gerson’s response to Trump.  Here is a taste of his piece at Washington Monthly:

The main difference between Gerson and Mencken’s takes is that Gerson blames the evangelicals for following Trump while Mencken emphasized Bryan’s efforts to lead them. But, in both cases, the evangelicals were easy to lead.

Mencken remarked of Dayton’s citizenry that “this is a strictly Christian community, and such is its notion of fairness, justice and due process of law” and “what Bryan says [against the theory of evolution] doesn’t seem to these congenial Baptists and Methodists to be argument; it seems to be a mere graceful statement to the obvious….”  It’s hard not to hear the echo in Gerson’s words: “American evangelicals are significantly crueler…than the national norm…they have become involved in a political throuple with Trump and Fox News, in which each feeds the grievances and conspiracy thinking of the others. The result has properly been called cultlike. For many followers, Trump has defined an alternative, insular universe of facts and values that only marginally resembles our own.”

Mencken believed that the leading citizens of Dayton hoped that the trial would revitalize their town which had been losing population over the preceding couple of decades; “It is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah.” But what is Fox News but this exact kind of refuge?

Nearly a century has passed since the Scopes Trial and most things have changed in dramatic ways. For one, towns like Dayton, Tennessee are less likely to be as idyllic as Mencken described:

It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. If it has any bootleggers, no visitor has heard of them. Ten minutes after I arrived a leading citizen offered me a drink made up half of white mule and half of coca cola, but he seems to have been simply indulging himself in a naughty gesture. No fancy woman has been seen in the town since the end of the McKinley administration. There is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson’s drug store and debate theology….

Today, these towns are shells of their former selves, with opioid addiction more the norm than debates about theology.  In this limited sense, Gerson may be onto something when he argues that there has been a lowering of standards and moral leadership within the evangelical community. But the grievances and conspiracy thinking remain largely the same. The contempt for “fairness, justice and due process of law” is the same. The desire to be free of “the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah” is unchanged. The  “alternative, insular universe of facts and values that only marginally resembles our own” is only enhanced and weaponized by conservative media and a Republican Party that feed and rely upon it.

Read the entire piece here.

Moral Capitalism


Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin points us toward a better way:

What kind of economy do Democrats believe in? Joe Biden calls for “stronger labor laws and a tax code that rewards [the] middle class.” Bernie Sanders wants to raise taxes on the rich and guarantee every adult a job. Elizabeth Warren has a slew of plans that include giving employees seats on corporate boards and breaking up giant firms like Facebook and Amazon. Kamala Harris urges a big tax cut for ordinary families and “stricter penalties for companies that cheat their workers.”

Recent polls show that the public is increasingly supportive of proposals like these. Yet no one who hopes to become the nominee has yet come up with a larger vision that would animate such worthy ideas. And without an inspiring way to tie them together, they may come across to voters like items on a mediocre takeout menu: tasty enough but forgettable.

So let one loyal, if anxious, Democrat offer a solution: “moral capitalism,” a system that, in the words of Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, would be “judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets.”

It is a goal that, by different names, national Democratic leaders have articulated since the party first emerged almost two centuries ago. They understood that most voters liked the general idea of a market economy in which they would have a fair chance to rise, but also resented an economy that failed to live up to the rosy promises of its defenders in business and government.

The tradition began in the 1830s when Andrew Jackson vetoed a renewed charter for the Second Bank of the United States, declaring, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Grover Cleveland renewed the offensive in his attack on the protective tariff in the 1880s, as did William Jennings Bryan in his crusade against the “money power” at the end of the 19th century, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his assault on “economic royalists” in the 1930s.

For all these Democratic leaders, moral capitalism was an aspiration for a system that would balance protection for the rights of Americans to accumulate property and start businesses with an abiding concern for the welfare of men and women of little or modest means who increasingly worked for somebody else.

Read the rest at The New York Times.

Episode 41: Populism

PodcastWith the election of Donald Trump, the term populism has returned to the political lexicon. However, while many people may use the term, fewer people truly understand its meaning and history. On today’s episode, we try to unpack the idea of populism in the American context. John Fea discusses the history of his favorite populist, William Jennings Bryan. They are joined by the foremost historian on the subject, Michael Kazin (@mkazin).

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group ( and Jennings College Consulting (

What To Do About Trump

Trump thunbs up

Damon Linker offers an interesting suggestion at The Week.  

Linker suggests that the GOP should do everything possible to deny Trump the nomination in Cleveland even it if means (and it probably will) that they will lose the 2016 election.

I will let Linker take it from here:

But wouldn’t this backfire? If the party denied Trump the nomination at the Republican convention, wouldn’t it fuel a “stabbed in the back” narrative that would inspire an even darker political movement four years from now? This was Jeet Heer’s argument in a recent smart piece in The New Republic. The Trump voters are a problem for American democracy, Heer asserted, one that can only be solved by allowing them to get their nominee and then ensuring that he’s roundly defeated at the ballot box in November.

It’s a powerful argument, but I’m unpersuaded that a general-election defeat will “solve” the problem of the Trump voters. These voters are activated now. Trump has given them a style and the rudiments of a policy agenda that they clearly prefer to the offerings from either the Republicans or the Democrats. The only way to keep those voters from flocking to Trump four years from now, or rallying around some even-worse populist copycat, is for the GOP to woo them by adjusting its platform and agenda.

That’s what both parties did after the original Populists upended American politics in the 1890s. It could happen again. It needs to happen again. And whether and how it happens will do far more to determine the future shape of the Republican Party than whether it dumps Trump this July.

In the short term, the party would most likely be wrecked. But that could well be less destructive, in the longer term, for both the party and the country, than trying to ride the Trump tiger. Exiling the Trump voters in 2016 would save the GOP from making a fatal compromise with competence and put it in a relatively strong position to run more compelling and capable post-Trump populists in the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections. America would be much better for it.

At the end of the transformation, the Republican Party would look and sound quite a bit different than it has since Ronald Reagan took it over 36 years ago. But Republicans should consider that vastly preferable to allowing Trump to remake the party in his own Know Nothing image. We all should.

Very interesting, especially the nod to William Jennings Bryan.  Read the entire piece here.

Bernie Wins in the Land of the “Great Commoner”

Tonight Bernie Sanders won in William Jennings Bryan country.   Economic populism in Nebraska is back!

Listen to Bryan take on the “business interests” in his great July 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech


If you prefer text, here is a taste:

Upon which side will 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 which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

My friends, we declare that this nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question, without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth; and upon that issue we expect to carry every state in the Union. I shall not slander the inhabitants of the fair state of Massachusetts nor the inhabitants of the state of New York by saying that, when they are confronted with the proposition, they will declare that this nation is not able to attend to its own business. It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers?

No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply, that instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial in~erests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

What is Going On At Bryan College?

Byran University

The latest in our “what is going on at…” series focuses on Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan is an evangelical (fundamentalist?) Christian college named after William Jennings Bryan and located in the same town where he attempted to defend creationism at the famous Scopes Trial.  

I have actually been to Bryan College.  In 2008 I was doing a week-long Gilder Lehrman Institute seminar in Bledsoe County, Tennessee and drove over the mountain to Dayton on an afternoon off from teaching.  I toured the courthouse where the Scopes Trial took place and then drove through Bryan’s campus.

I am guessing that the Bryan campus is a lot less peaceful these days than it was on that warm summer afternoon in 2008.  According to a large group of student protesters, it appears that the Bryan administration has been clamping down on faculty who do not hold to a strict creationist view of human origins.  Here is a taste of an article from the Chattanooga Times-Free Press describing the student protest:

Dozens of students tied strips of black fabric to their arms to highlight the sadness on campus.
And at a morning chapel service, the last of the year, students stood up to announce their discontent and that Monday would be a day for students to speak out.
The student response came after weeks of controversy sparked by a February change to the school’s long-held statement of belief that embraced a more narrow view of creation. But issues on campus, professors and students say, go much deeper.
Many are upset over the secrecy and urgency that surrounded the clarification, leaving some professors little time to find other jobs if they couldn’t sign the revised statement. And many say the campus has been defined by distrust and division for weeks.
Some of you may recall that a couple weeks ago we reported on similar student unrest at Cedarville University in Ohio.  Like Bryan, the problems there also seem to be related to a powerful president who is trying to move the university away from mainstream evangelicalism and toward a more restrictive brand of fundamentalism.
As I read about what is going on at Bryan and Cedarville I can’t help but wonder what this says about the generational divide between college-age evangelicals and the more conservative baby boomer (or older Gen X?) evangelicals who are running some of these Christian colleges. Evangelical young people seem to be rejecting the strong-handed approach to leadership that has long been a hallmark of fundamentalist and some evangelical institutions.  As administrators at places like Bryan and Cedarville tow the fundamentalist line on issues such as gender, inerrancy and creation science, their students seem to be moving in another direction.  
I am a historian.  I am not in the business of making predictions.  But it would not surprise me if many young evangelicals start to vote with their feet and seek a college education at schools bounded by a more generous and open Christianity that celebrates the theological, social, and political differences that exist in the larger evangelical community.
Or perhaps, as my friend Kurt Peterson has noted, places like Bryan and Cedarville ARE the evangelical mainstream.  

William Jennings Bryan on an Ideal Republic, 1908

From the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox<!–

  • Recording Title

    An ideal republic
  • Author

  • Speaker

  • Genre(s)

  • Category

  • Description

    Political address
  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 16168
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

  • Recording Date

  • Place of Recording

    Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Size

  • Duration

  • Notes

    Recorded in Bryan’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Victor ledgers note that the address is taken from Taft’s “speech of acceptance at Indianapolis in 1900.”

Why Populists Hate Liberalism and Have Always Hated Liberalism

For whatever reason, today we have wondered a bit out of our comfort zone here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Yet I find all the stuff our there on Progressivism to be so interesting I can’t stop posting about it.

William Hogeland has a very thought-provoking piece at the Boston Review on the populism of the Tea Party and how the movement’s disdain for liberalism is not unlike the disdain for liberals that characterized the populism of the late nineteenth century.

Populists have always attacked “the elites’ dismissal of ordinary people’s judgments, determinations, and desires.”  Hogeland warns us not to fall into the same trap as Richard Hofstadter and others who simply dismissed the populists as “paranoid” and “anti-intellectual.”

He concludes:

…history suggests that American populists’ rejection of liberalism is a matter of principle, not of interest. Liberalism has long defined itself from a position of expertise and wisdom that it justifies as meritocracy, and for which it keeps reflexively congratulating itself. Whether lampooning populist farmers as rank yokels, or giving way to a thrilling panic about coast-to-coast violence, or patronizing millions of people’s supposed misguided tropisms, or even, like Lepore, subjecting right-wing enthusiasms to the reflective, nuanced consideration identical with today’s high-quality journalism, liberal claims to a monopoly on knowledge may be even more undemocratic than conservatives’ policies for distributing wealth upward. In America the deadlock between liberalism and populism may be unbreakable.

Palin is No Bryan. But is She a Populist?

It appears that Sarah Palin’s book tour is over. As I write this Going Rogue: An American Life is ranked #2 at I have not been following the tour closely, but it does look like she drew some large crowds at bookstores across the country. We will now all wait and see what she will end up doing in 2012.

Ralph Brauer at Progressive Historians has a nice piece on the media’s propensity for comparing Palin’s current popularity with the late nineteenth-century populism of “The Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan. Brauer reminds us that Bryan’s brand of populism opposed virtually everything that Sarah Palin holds dear:

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.

While I agree fully with Brauer that Palin is not a Bryan-era Populist, I am not sure I agree with Brauer in his insistence that Palin is not a “populist.” Brauer’s wants to judge all contemporary “populists” based on whether or not their views conform to the platform of the original Populist Party. This is an admirable attempt to get Americans to think historically, but twentieth-century populism has proven to be a very large ideological tent–a tent that includes both Bryan and Palin.

Brauer takes some pretty hard shots at the New York Times and its book review editor Sam Tanenhaus (describing the Times as “absurd” and Tanenhaus as “bizarre”) for including Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace among the ranks of twentieth-century populists. But there are many esteemed historians of populism who would agree with the Times and Tanenhaus.

Consider this piece by Michael Kazin, the country’s leading authority on populism. Kazin laments the fact that liberals have allowed conservatives to co-opt populist rhetoric, but if I read him correctly he seems to be suggesting that conservatives such as McCarthy WERE populists in the sense that they have appealed to the concerns and fears of ordinary people.

Palin is no Bryan, but she is certainly a populist.