Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bryan = Palin?

To expand on earlier post:

It's becoming clearer that Sarah Palin's address to the Republican Convention can be compared, in its political impact, to William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech.

His speech to the 1896 Democratic Convention was a watershed in American politics. Bryan was just 36 when he called for silver to back currency, a way of helping debt-burdened farmers by, in effect, inflating the money supply. The delegates went into a frenzy, and he was nominated as the Democratic candidate, and again in 1900 and 1908.

He became the leader of a revolt against the rise of industrial power. Small-town America coalesced behind Bryan when he concluded, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

In doing so, he changed his party. The previous Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, had followed the Jefferson-Jackson tradition of the Democratic Party in standing for the common man -- but by reducing the power of government. For instance, Cleveland famously vetoed a congressional move to aid drought-stricken Texas farmers.

But with Bryan, the Democratic Party stood for helpings average American by deploying the power of government on their behalf.

Palin's speech is similar in pitting Alaska against Washington, Wasilla against Washington. But it also pits Idaho State against Harvard. And it also pits the old Republican Party against one that is struggling to be born.

Bryan led ordinary people against the age's elite: the robber barons, bankers, Wall Street and the politicians in their pay. Palin is the figurehead, at least, of a popular tide of resentment against the reigning axis of power in Georgetown and on K Street in Washington, Wall Street and the Upper West Side in New York, and Marin County and Malibu in California.

Some might look askance at the Republican Party's representing average folk, but, as other writers have noted, the two parties have been trading places very quietly for years. Suddenly, the Republicans are on the verge of being the party of the people.

Evidence for this is the way that the pundits, professors and liberal politicians have foamed at the mouth since Palin's nomination.

The other key indication on the changing nature of the party is that Republicans have gotten excited about their candidate. Is it possible to even imagine Republicans of previous eras getting excited? But the GOP, once the party of the frozen chosen, suddenly is suddenly doing a lot more hooting and hollering.

Palin populism is no guarantee of victory, of course. Bryan never won the presidency, of course, and ended his career in the famous Scopes trial, which won him the derision of the rising class of intellectuals.

Nor is a populist strategy a guarantee of good policy. Bryan's silver policy would have caused inflation, which in the long run hurts ordinary people more than it does the bankers and financiers, who can game the system. Palin populism may not be any better than the elitist policies it decries.

Becoming more populist is hardly a guaranteed prospect for the Republicans. It would be a big change. Bryan asked which side Democrats would be on: "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."

It's obvious which side the Republican Party has been on in recent years. It may be wondered if the party can switch gears.

Yet Republican populism appears just as the knowledge elite are under assault. The Internet has shaken the status of the mainstream media. The debacle on Wall Street shows that the money brokers are less brilliant than lucky. The frenzied reaction of the pundit-professoriate-politico axis hints that it feels the heat.

If the "Lipstick Speech" doesn't have the same ring as "Cross of Gold," historians may look back on it as a similar moment, when Palin Republicanism began its ascent.

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