Wilma Jennings Bryan

Great political speeches, like great political movements, own the past and the future. They successfully call upon the traditions and resources of a specific society to solve current problems. The prominent speakers at the Republican convention didn’t seem to me to manage this reconciliation. I’ll try to take them one at a time, and start with Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech because it was so interesting.

Despite its radically different policy conclusions, Palin’s speech reminded me of nothing more than William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” address to the 1896 Democratic convention. It had, at root, the same wellspring of rhetorical power. We are an almost unimaginably wealthier country now, and our politics has therefore become somewhat more post-materialist. The source of Palin’s defiance is now as much psychological as purely monetary. But the impulse is the same: the small, the rural, the local, and the traditional are mocked when not ignored by the cosmopolitan, coastal mercantile elites. They demand a voice, and assert that they are the bedrock of the country.

As Bryan put it:

…our great cities rest upon our broad and great 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 of the country.

As Palin put it:

A writer observed: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.” I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.

I grew up with those people.

They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America who grow our food, run our factories and fight our wars.

They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.

And then:

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown.

And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a “community organizer,” except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.

We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco. …

I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment. And I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.

But here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people.

This argument is deeply moving; not to everyone exactly, but to lots of people, including me. Bryan lost three presidential elections, so the other guys got to write the history books. But of course losing three times means that he won the nomination three times, which is excellent evidence that he spoke for a good fraction of the American people of his time. But it was a shrinking part of the country. As one key indicator, when Jennings was becoming an adult in 1880, about 50% of the U.S. population was farming; by 1930, shortly after he died, it was down to about 25%. Today, it is about 2%.

Jennings was reacting to the industrial revolution occurring all around him. This sweeping technological / economic change produced enormous flux in social, political and family relationships, and his search for permanence was emotionally understandable. One of the most painful things about markets is that they often make fools of our fathers. Sharp operators with an eye for the main chance often outperform those who carefully learn a trade and continue a tradition. This is especially true in times of rapid change, such as those occurring a hundred years ago, and those occurring today.

In the end, though, accepting his broad program would have meant opting out of the modern world, and no real electorate would do that for long. With the exception of the self-consciously Progressive Woodrow Wilson, the Republicans owned the presidency for the 36 years from 1897 to 1933. It required the political genius of FDR to invent the modern farmer-labor coalition that delivered Democratic political dominance for the next 30 – 40 years. Note that this required reconciling two groups that had typically been seen as antagonistic: Jennings’s shrinking percentage of rural voters, and the growing constituency of industrial laborers. Reagan’s ability to achieve realignment in 1980 arose from the relative decline of these voting blocks and the changing economy and world position of the United States, combined with the commitments of the Democratic Party to the arrangements that had worked so well for them for decades.

Today, tens of millions of Americans are conservative traditionalists. These people form a huge block that can be a major component of a governing coalition. But like farmers a hundred years ago, this is a shrinking part of the population. While psychological and religious commitments can be maintained, at some level of abstraction, in a wide variety of circumstances, the occupational categories and other objective attributes of day-to-day life that tend to create political interests are changing as rapidly as they were a hundred years ago. We are as fully committed to the Information Revolution today as were to the Industrial Revolution in 1896.

I wish that some of the social, moral and political implications of this were not so, but it is usually wise to segregate our hopes from our expectations. I think this is why Peggy Noonan – who seems like the first person you would go to for intelligent analysis of a Republican political speech – said this about Palin’s address:

Which gets me to the most important element of the speech, and that is the startlingness of the content. It was not modern conservatism, or split the difference Conservative-ish-ism. It was not a conservatism that assumes the America of 2008 is very different from the America of 1980.

It was the old-time conservatism. Government is too big, Obama will “grow it”, Congress spends too much and he’ll spend “more.” It was for low taxes, for small business, for the private sector, for less regulation, for governing with “a servant’s heart”; it was pro-small town values, and implicitly but strongly pro-life.

This was so old it seemed new, and startling. The speech was, in its way, a call so tender it made grown-ups weep on the floor. The things she spoke of were the beating heart of the old America. But as I watched I thought, I know where the people in that room are, I know their heart, for it is my heart. But this election is a wild card, because America is a wild card. It is not as it was in ’80. I know where the Republican base is, but we do not know where this country that never stops changing is.

Conservative traditionalists require advocates within any party that would represent them, and if Sarah Palin plays this role, fair enough. But successful national political leaders need to synthesize disparate interests. This is why it always seemed so fatuous to me to criticize the Republican coalition of 1980 – 2000 as containing groups with sometimes conflicting interests. All governing coalitions manage this; it’s one reason why perceiving future trends, and then envisioning and creating a coalition that can manage them is an act of supreme statesmanship. Mistaking Sarah Palin, at least based on her convention address, for such a leader would be a terrible blunder.