“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”
When William Jennings Bryan spoke these words, it was vivid, powerful, imagery. His arms were apart as if he was nailed to a cross; his voice was full of emotion–there was no doubt he truly believed what he spoke about.
Bryan truly believed the battle for free silver was literally a battle of life and death.
Bryan was the ultimate champion for the little guy–someone who fought for the farmers, the workers, the people who were forgotten by the powerful and the elite. His “Cross of Gold” speech propelled him to the 1896 Democratic nomination for president.
His famous speech also led Bryan to become the candidate of the People’s Party (the original American Party, not the new Canadian party of the same name) for the same election. Bryan was the leader of the populist movement of his era.
The late 1800’s had similarities to the politics of today. Voters were disenchanted with political elites. Then as now, they wanted something new.
In the last few years, American voters have turned to Donald Trump; tossed out Brexit in the UK and elected Jair Bolsonaro as president in Brazil. These elections (along with elections in Germany, Italy, and throughout Eastern Europe) have all been part of a populist wave, sweeping out the old and bringing in the new.
The populist wave of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s propelled Bryan to be nominated for President three times. Governors and other legislators (both Democrat and Republican) were elected on the populist wave.
In Canada, populism became a driver in the United Farmers movement. Populism also laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and Social Credit. Again, sweeping out the old and bringing in the new.
Now, I like William Jennings Bryan: he was genuine, principled and really cared about the people he was fighting for–he was in politics for the right reasons.
However, as someone who is committed to free enterprise and limited government, I have one problem with Bryan and most of his contemporary populist colleagues. They believed more government was the answer to the
problems of the day.
The populists of today: the Ford brothers in Ontario, Preston Manning and his Reformers, Trump (and the other politicians I mentioned earlier) are from the right of the political spectrum. But not all populist are.
Populists can just as easily support big government as they can oppose it. In the 1930’s, western Canadian populism birthed both the socialistic CCF in Saskatchewan, and (eventually) the free enterprise supporting Social Credit in Alberta.
The result: in Alberta, a
province that grew to be Canada’s wealthiest; in Saskatchewan, a province that stagnated economically for more than a generation. It was not populism that caused Alberta’s success– it is what populism was tied to
that grew Alberta.
Populism is not a philosophy. Populists can be authoritarian; democratic; right wing; left wing–and even centrist. Populist movements can even change their philosophy as they evolve. Populism is not a set of values.
Populism is a way people express themselves politically when they are ignored by the powers of the day. Populism emerges when people feel the political establishment doesn’t speak for them. People want to have their own voice in the political sphere.
They want someone to deal with their problems. People want one of their own speaking for them and caring for their needs. They want solutions to their problems. Populism is back today because advocates of big government in western countries have overlooked the man in the street.
Be it uncontrolled immigration; high taxes or a struggling economy, people are questioning whether big government has the answer. That is why they have tried new political movements which challenge the big government status quo. But people have not turned to the right because they have a deep ideological commitment to freedom and smaller government.
They have voted for these conservative-populist politicians because they want answers to their problems. They want someone to care for their needs.
Bryan lost his elections; his solutions didn’t solve the problems of his day. But some of his allies on the Populist Left got elected–and the voters embraced their ideas. They offered solutions that appeared to meet the needs of the common man. That was the key then and is the key now.
Small “c” conservatives of all parties must ensure that the populist conservative movements of today actually deliver lower taxes, the increased security and a rising standard of living that people are asking for all around the world.
As populists, they need to stand for the common man. As conservatives, they need to stand for limited government and the rule of law. One without the other is failure.
Populism is a tool that can be used for or against freedom. It is neither innately good nor innately bad. It is a tool, and as a tool it needs to be used wisely.