Thursday, September 4, 2008

A new "Cross of Gold"?

Could Sarah Palin's address to the Republican Convention be compared, in its political impact, to William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech?

It might -- but this might pose as many dangers as threats to the Republican Party.

This is to speak of political impact only. As Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson points out, neither party is addressing the real challenges: health care costs, entitlements and immigration.

But political impact counts too. Bryan changed his party, thus politics. Palin might have done the same thing. She certainly got Republicans excited, a feat somewhat like raising the dead. That counts for more than many thing.

Bryan was just 36 when he delivered his speech to the Democratic Convention in 1896, calling for currency to be backed by silver, rather than gold. It was 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.

More generally, he helped ignite a revolt by the older agricultural order — then still a huge slice of the population — in a revolt against the rise of industrial power. Farmers and those who felt they were being left behind coalesced behind Bryan and the resentments and fears he articulated when he concluded, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Palin's speech was a revolt against the media, the Washington elite, the intellectuals — against the knowledge elite that now dominates the economy just as the robber barons dominated the industrial economy that was swamping the agricultural sector in 1896.

Both text and subtext conveyed the message pitting the average American against the technocrats and CEOs who have really run the country for the past couple of decades. As many have written, we are in a knowledge-based economy. Palin, and those who respond to her, are challenging 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, which they have not generally been, at least since Abe Lincoln.

Moreover, this is not merely a conservative move. Take for instance an upset here in Utah's ultra-conservative Third Congressional District. Chris Cannon has represented the district for a dozen years, and garnered from conservative groups approval ratings in the mid to high 90s. But that wasn't enough. He seemed too distant, too focused on Washington. A political newcomer, Jason Chaffetz, running with no paid campaign staff, shellacked Cannon in the primary, and is the odds-on favorite to win in November.

So it is not so much a conservative shift as a populist one. It is not enough to be conservative, at least as the media and politicians usually measure it. The new Republican Party must connect with the people, not just dictating to them, but acting as a conduit for their dreams, and fears.

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

Nor is it 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.

Yet neither should the potential of this new Republicanism be ignored. Palin mocked the media, for instance, and in fact the mass media's power probably crested years ago, and may be in decline. A fast-changing world may be tearing power away from New York and Washington, and moving it across the nation.

And it may be double-edged. Here's the core revelation: the Palin Republicans (and perhaps the Chaffetz ones) won't settle for just following orders. The Republican Party can't just use them; it's the other way around.

Take immigration. Say McCain tries the old switcheroo, and passes immigration "reform" this new base perceives as "amnesty." They won't just grumble and take it. They will explode.

And the Republican Party will join the Whigs and the Populists and the Know-Nothings and all the other political parties that are now just history.

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