Summary: To see what we have become, look at what we once were. Today we look at a scene from our past, when America politics was something other than a spectator sport, centered on made-for-TV spectacles — and our politicians more than cardboard cutouts with good hair. We look at William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech.
- About our political conventions
- The Cross of Gold speech
- About William Jennings Bryan
- Articles about our party conventions
- For More Information
(1) About our political conventions
Our political conventions have become social events at which our ruling elites, minor and great, meet to socialize — renewing their interconnections and reestablishing group harmony. Conventions also provide a spectacle of wealth, power, and glamor to impress the masses. Politics, in the usual sense of the word, seldom intrudes. This explains the emphasis on mawkish sentimentality and displays of patriotism. The outsize role of candidates’ families (a recent development). The absence of real public policy debate. And the exclusion of serious political actors like Ron Paul (party-poopers).
This results from the narrowing differences between the two parties, as Obama has shown. In many Obama continuation or expanded Bush Jr’s economic and especially foreign policies. There’s a large body of research by a wide range of independent agencies showing this (eg, Stratfor in August 2009). Another way to see this, less analytical but more vivid: neocons have praised Obama’s policies more strongly than has the Left. And both parties debate agree that our social welfare systems must be reduced, but differ only on how much.
But these similar policies makes building partisan enthusiasm difficult. So both parties demonize their opponent.Bush Jr was Hitler. Obama is a foreign Moslem. And our conventions become song and dance acts, unconnected to the actual policies of the Republic (many of which our leaders dare not state openly).
While our elections were never conventions of philosophers, they were once hotbeds of partisan debate at which vital issues of policy were thrashed out. Our politics had real public involvement because we demanded that it be so. And we can do so again, if we muster the will to do so. This is not a partisan issue, but one on which both Left and Right can agree. Perhaps through such issues we can restore the America-that-once-was. The issue here is not whether we have a gold monetary standard, but if we can banish the present phantom debates of lies and evasions and rebuild a working political system for the United States.
After the experience of Team Obama, who has broken most of the pledges he made during the 2008 campaign, Democrats should agree. After the horrifying saccharine spectacle in Tampa, Republicans can agree. All that remains is to decide and act.
(2) An Excerpt From
William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech
to the Democratic National Convention, 9 July 1896
… But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman.
The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer.
The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.
We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen.
It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.
We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!
The gentleman from Wisconsin has said he fears a Robespierre. My friend, in this land of the free you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.
They tell us that this platform was made to catch votes. We reply to them that changing conditions make new issues; that the principles upon which rest Democracy are as everlasting as the hills; but that they must be applied to new conditions as they arise. Conditions have arisen and we are attempting to meet those conditions.
They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here … They say we passed an unconstitutional law. I deny it. The income tax was not unconstitutional when it was passed. It was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for the first time. It did not become unconstitutional until one judge changed his mind; and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind.
The income tax is a just law. It simply intends to put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find a man who is not willing to pay his share of the burden of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours.
… If you will read what Thomas Benton said, you will find that he said that in searching history he could find but one parallel to Andrew Jackson. That was Cicero, who destroyed the conspiracies of Cataline and saved Rome. He did for Rome what Jackson did when he destroyed the bank conspiracy and saved America.
… Now, my friends, let me come to the great paramount issue. If they ask us here why it is we say more on the money question than we say upon the tariff question, I reply that if protection has slain its thousands the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If they ask us why we did not embody all these things in our platform which we believe, we reply to them that when we have restored the money of the Constitution, all other necessary reforms will be possible, and that until that is done there is no reform that can be accomplished.
Why is it that within three months such a change has come over the sentiments of the country? … Ah, my friends. is not the change evident to anyone who will look at the matter? It is because no private character, however pure, no personal popularity, however great, can protect from the avenging wrath of an indignant people the man who will either declare that he is in favor of fastening the gold standard upon this people, or who is willing to surrender the right of self-government and place legislative control in the hands of foreign potentates and powers.
. . . Here is the line of battle. … Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country; and my friends, 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.
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.
… If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands 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.
(3) About William Jennings Bryan
Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Bryan (1860-1925), attorney, Democratic and Populist leader and magnetic orator who ran unsuccessfully 3 times for the U.S. presidency (1896, 1900, 1908). His enemies regarded him as an ambitious demagogue, but his supporters viewed him as a champion of liberal causes. He was influential in the eventual adoption of such reforms as popular election of senators, income tax, creation of a Department of Labor, Prohibition, and woman suffrage. Throughout his career, his Midwestern roots clearly identified him with agrarian interests, in opposition to those of the urban East.
In recognition of his role in securing the Democratic nomination for Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Bryan was appointed secretary of state the following year. Despite his diplomatic inexperience, he made a distinctive contribution to world law by espousing arbitration to prevent war. Bryan convinced 31 nations to agree in principle to his proposal of new treaties that would provide a “cooling-off” period of one year during which a question in dispute could be studied by an international commission. In the meantime, World War I broke out. An avowed pacifist, Bryan resigned over Wilson’s second note to Germany (June 8, 1915) protesting the sinking of the Lusitania. Nonetheless, he urged loyal support of the war when it was finally declared.
For more information see Wikipedia.
(4) Articles about our party conventions
- “The Anti-intellectual Presidency“, Lim, Elvin — presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, 27 August 2003). Published in expanded form as The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush.
- “Why News Organizations Spent Millions At The RNC“, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed, 31 August 2012
- “An Infantilizing Speech“, Noah Millman, American Conservative, 31 August 2012 — He did so because he knows us so well.
- “Stop talking about your grandpa!“, Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Salon, 2 September 2012 — “Republicans like to talk about their humble roots in order to disguise their true upper-class ideology”
- But they won’t: “What Democrats Should Be Talking About at the DNC“, Charles P. Pierce, blog of Esquire, 4 September 2012 – That would be politics.
(5) For more information
To see all posts about this topic go to the FM Reference Page Politics in America – and the 2012 Campaign
To see what we once were, compare the current election campaign with these excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and the Federal Papers, mass-marketing politics of America-that-once-was: A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008.
Recent posts about the Grand Old Party:
- Whatever You Do, Don’t Read This Book!, 24 August 2012 — Review of The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats became useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted
- Two vital lessons from the election so far, about lies and force, 29 August 2012
- At the Tampa Convention Right & Left display our great illness: Tribalism, 2 September 2012