WASHINGTON – The most fateful, unanswered question of the 2016 campaign: Is this a populist moment in America?
It certainly sounds like one. The “establishment” is so universally despised that one wonders who is left to comprise it. A putsch might find only empty offices. Outsiders with no political experience dominate the Republican field. Hillary Clinton has rapidly lost ground to an endearing but unelectable ideologue. A revolution seems to stir.
But then Donald Trump proposes a less fiscally responsible version of Jeb Bush’s tax plan. And Clinton, in the sober light of morning, remains the prohibitive favorite for the nomination of her party.
Is populism set to prevail in American politics? The term itself is famously difficult to define. In one way, historian Michael Kazin told me, it is a “language, a way of talking about the people and the elites.” It doesn’t really matter if the elites being savaged inhabit Wall Street or the Department of Education. By this measure, we are near the triumph of rhetorical populism. But it is more loud and annoying than revolutionary.
Yet populism also has a meaning rooted in American history. At its best, it is the movement of common people whose interests are ignored in times of economic stress and transformation. In the 19th century, this group was (initially) farmers in the South and West who, in the aftermath of a serious recession, carried large amounts of debt and faced rising prices for transportation and supplies because of monopolies. Activists created economic cooperatives, formed third parties (including the People’s Party) and ran slates of candidates. The movement gained support among laborers and small-businessmen. Its demands were serious and structural: freer money, direct election of senators, federal insurance of banks and regulations on the stock market.
This form of populism, nurtured in third parties, took over the Democratic Party at a specific moment: when William Jennings Bryan rose to speak at the Chicago Coliseum in 1896. “Burn down your cities and leave your farms,” Bryan told the Democratic convention, “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 in the country.” Bryan demanded a release from the gold standard – “thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” – and stood silent, arms outstretched, in a cruciform pose. The New York World described the response: “Everyone seemed to go mad at once … the whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult – hills and valleys of shrieking men and women.”
Bryan ended up winning the Democratic nomination three times. He was a populist in the anti-elitist sense, pitting, according to Kazin, “the producers against the non-producers.” But Bryan held a moral vision not far removed from that of Pope Francis – economic reform rooted in the Social Gospel movement, what Bryan called “applied Christianity.” He resisted the social Darwinism that characterized some of his liberal critics (such as H.L. Mencken). Bryan had his blind spots, but he tied economic progressivism to the values of rural, religious America. Bryan was American populism’s decent heart.
Where, in the current party structure, does Bryan’s combination of economic populism and religious traditionalism reside? It is an approach that might appeal broadly to Catholics, to evangelicals seeking a new model of social engagement, to voters who want to escape ideological conformity. But traces are hard to find in either party.
Democrats remain dominated by a belief in technocratic planning and a faith in experts that may be called progressive but can’t be called populist. The party’s ethos is determined by government managers and the academy. Bryan, if referenced at all, remains a figure of fun, representing all that is backward about small-town America. Bernie Sanders is more of a social democrat than a populist in this sense. He wants America, in essence, to be more like Denmark, which is hardly a populist goal.
Trump is the utter negation of this form of populism. He is more like Huey Long in his swaggering imitation of a strongman. He is more like the Know-Nothings in his conspiratorial nativism. This is populism gone to moral seed.
The economic stresses of our time are different. But a rising tide does not lift all boats. Many have lost homes and savings. Our political system is closed and polarized. There is a populist longing. There may be a populist opening. But who will be the populist candidate?
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.