As promised, my comments at the APSA roundtable devoted to discussing Michael Kazin's biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero. An appropriate posting on this Labor Day, 2007.
A Human Hero:
On Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero
Patrick J. Deneen
I want to talk today not about Michael Kazin as an historian – I don’t think anyone can heap enough encomiums to do his historical craft justice – but as a political architect. Because – make no bones about it – this marvelous biography of William Jennings Bryan is a blueprint for the future success of the Democratic Party. It is, as a plan of attack, quite brilliant, and not a few pundits, consultants and candidates have appeared to adopt it in one way or another. A few Democrats already seem to have benefited from its message, including Senators Jim Webb and Jon Tester, and we begin to hear rumblings of a form of renewed Bryanism from Presidential candidates in both parties, from John Edwards to Mike Huckabee. But I want to raise a few questions over whether Michael’s plan – one intended fundamentally for the Democratic Party – is finally altogether faithful to the political and theological views of Bryan himself.
One of the great virtues of Michael’s book is that it chides the condescension of many contemporary liberals toward what Michael refers to as “Bryan’s People.” Ordinary folks who are relatively less well-lettered, who would be most often characterized as blue collar, who live in rural, not urban areas (now called “Red States,” also derisively known on the East and West coasts as “flyover country”), who eschew a cosmopolitan and often rootless lifestyle, and, above all, who hold a firm and abiding religious faith, are held in disdain by many East coast liberals. Michael writes in his introduction that “I wrote this book, in part, to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people. I would like to help ‘rescue’ them from what E. P. Thompson … called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’” (xviii).
A specter haunts this book, and it is perhaps above all the ghost of Richard Hofstadter – and maybe no less, the condescension Bryan received from the likes of contemporaries such as leftist John Reed and the trenchant elitist, H. L. Menken – and those intellectual heirs of these progressive liberals who preside over a particular Whiggish history of American political development. According to this story, America is a liberal nation without a feudal past or any of the traditionalisms of an older age (Hartz’s thesis looms large), and in those areas where pockets of recidivism might still persist, one can expect the slow but steady and relentless unfolding of liberal Geist which will bring peasants up to the moment. Bryan, and Bryan’s People, are relegated to the slaughterbench, or at least the dustbin, of history.
Michael, I believe, is also seeking to disabuse liberal elites from the suspicion that the heirs of Bryan’s people act in the throes of a kind of false consciousness. Michael’s book contains an implicit critique of Thomas Frank’s thesis advanced in What’s the Matter With Kansas, namely, that rural people – often evangelical Protestants – do not actually know their own interest. Michael notes that contemporary liberals cannot make much sense of the whole of Bryan’s life, and particularly how such a staunch believer in the role of State expansion aimed at improving the lives of its citizens – a basic platform plank of modern liberalism – should have become, by the end of his life, such a backward and superstitious religious hack who even denied the truth of liberalism’s patron saint, Charles Darwin! The belief that we can separate a good, young Bryan from an old, conservative Bryan (much like what is done in Plato scholarship, actually) at its core forms the basis of the Frank thesis – namely, that religious belief is epiphenomenal, a distraction from the true beliefs of working stiffs, or to put a Marxist spin on the thesis, that religion is the opiate of the masses and will dissipate in the wake of enlightenment, leaving behind only belief in the salvific powers of the State.
Michael seeks to show how Bryan’s belief in the need for a larger role for the federal government – a departure from Jefferson’s mistrust of centralization and his endorsement of a nation of yeoman farmers – in fact comports with his religious belief. Both reflect a rejection of the rapacity of “inhumane, aggressive power” (264), whether in the form of the Social Darwinism of capitalism or the Social Darwinism of evolutionary theory. In both instances, restraints on capitalism and restraints on evolutionary theory are justified in the name of the little guy. True enough.
By distancing himself from the very Whiggish elitists who dominate Michael’s profession (indeed, what academic historians write big and admiring biographies like this one nowadays?), Michael dons the denim overalls and straw hat of a populist, letting us know that he is a friend of the people. This garb is the blueprint for a resurgence of the Democratic Party, a more populist sympathy for the whole cloth of ordinary citizens, an embrace of the people as they are, not as liberal elites would wish them to be.
But I think we should notice that there’s a wee bit of a three piece suit peeking out beneath the overalls (or maybe it’s a black mock turtleneck), and it’s to be found in Michael’s unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that Bryan’s People aren’t Democrats these days, and really, haven’t been since the Scopes trial. Michael supposes, if we can inject religion into the Democratic Party platform, that Bryan’s People will come back to the Party, but doesn’t acknowledge that they haven’t exactly signed onto the Democratic Party platform since Bryan’s last electoral defeat in 1908. Most noteworthy is that it is Bryan's people - purportedly those same people who would see the lineage of Bryan to FDR to LBJ to HRC - who today decry the growth of the nanny state government. Not only has Bryan’s party left the people, but the people have left Bryan’s party. More importantly, these two things happened in a more simultaneous fashion than Michael appears willing to acknowledge. No, Bryan’s people did not immediately join the voting ranks of the Republican Party – such changes of election booth lever pulling habits are hard, jarring, and take time – but Bryan’s people withdrew from politics for a long time before voting for the other side. Writing on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death earlier this year, Ralph Reed wrote in the National Review that it took Falwell’s efforts to awaken the slumbering evangelical beast “that was in the mid-throes of a half-century of withdrawal from American civic life, a self-imposed exile that had begun with the Scopes Trial of 1925.” Bryan’s people stayed home for 50 years, and when they came back, they were Republicans.
On Michael’s telling, there is a seamless continuity between the populist activism of Bryan, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and the potential liberal activism of a President Hillary Clinton. He writes in the introduction that “Bryan was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government…. He did more than any other man – between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson – to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants” (xviii). But this account does not altogether, or even most fundamentally, comport with what we know to be the case: Bryan’s people don’t sign onto the New Deal – at least not many of his most fervent supporters. They withdraw, wounded by the liberal reception of the pyrrhic victory of the Scopes Trial, and when they emerge fifty years later, they form the core support of the resurgence of the modern Republican Party. Michael supposes that, if we can be less condescending – especially if we can invoke the faith a bit more – that Bryan’s people will see that today’s Democratic Party is the same as Bryan’s Democratic Party. But Bryan’s People never seemed to have believed that after Bryan left, and withheld their fervent support for subsequent politicians of any party until their reemergence as Republicans in the 1970s. This change of allegiance may finally have more to do with very different conceptions of the role of government that distinguish Bryan and Roosevelt (and Roosevelt’s heirs) than Michael allows, and the return of Bryan’s People to the Democratic fold may require more than a simple reinstitution of religious rhetoric in the Democratic party platform.
Bryan and Roosevelt shared an entwined political history on a common stage for many years - Bryan at the end of his political career, Roosevelt at the beginning of his – and rarely if ever did they agree. Roosevelt consistently demonstrated disapproval for Bryan throughout his career, beginning with his support for McKinley over Bryan in the 1900 Presidential election. Roosevelt supported Hoover for the 1920 Democratic nomination, writing that there would be “none better” for President. After Hoover failed to gain the nomination, Roosevelt agreed to be James Cox’s running mate – a candidate for whom Bryan could only muster tepid support, at best, and a ticket that was buried in a Republican landslide, clearly not drawing the denizens of Bryan supporters from past elections. Roosevelt supported Al Smith in the 1920, 1924 and 1928 conventions, a candidate whom Bryan consistently criticized as a puppet of the Tammany political machine and Wall Street – and a wet, to boot. In 1924 Roosevelt warmly supported the election of John W. Davis, a candidate initially opposed by Bryan until the selection of Bryan’s brother, Charles, for the Vice-Presidential slot – a selection made to prevent Bryan’s people from deserting Davis for the independent candidacy of Robert La Follette. In 1924 Roosevelt proposed a “unity meeting” of the Democratic Party, and initially opposed the inclusion of the Bryan brothers in favor of the inclusion of Bryan’s Party nemeses, Cox and Davis (it’s always easier to achieve unity when you exclude those who disagree). Shortly thereafter, in 1925, the Bryan brothers announced their opposition to the meeting and declared that they did not anticipate Eastern Democrats to play a large role in the future of the party.
And what of Bryan’s People’s reception of President Franklin Roosevelt after Bryan’s death? We can point to a few telling details: a number of the most prominent of Bryan’s supporters opposed the New Deal. James T. Patterson relates in his book Congressional Conservatives and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933-1939, that some of the strongest opposition to the New Deal came not from Republicans, but from Bryan Democrats, such as George Huddleston of Alabama. Patterson writes that these New Deal opponents were more often than not “essentially Jeffersonian Democrats” who “sought to recreate Jefferson’s vision of America: a rural nation of independent yeomen, a small government which left people alone.” Another Bryan Democrat, Burton Wheeler, opposed various Roosevelt proposals and was forthwith accused of having abandoned liberalism. These Bryan Democrats could support Bryan’s proposals for an expanded Federal government, but opposed the centralization of Federal power as it took place under Roosevelt.
Michael would appear to have flipped Thomas Frank’s theory of false consciousness: if only the Democratic Party could demonstrate that they take religion seriously, then Bryan’s people – staunch Republicans for some 30 years – will divest themselves of their epiphenomenal animus against Washington D.C. and their rhetoric in favor of devolution of power to the States and localities. The religion is real; their anti-government stance is not. Having their religious beliefs validated by the Democratic Party, the remnants of Bryan’s People would become proponents of “permanently expanding the power of the federal government” (xviii). Michael’s Bryan comes a bit more into focus, then: he is the Bryan of a refurbished contemporary Democratic Party, a Bryan who can fit well within the arguments of Jim Wallis and E.J. Dionne and Amy Sullivan, a socially liberal Bryan for our time interested in advancing social justice in religious garb. The seamless garment of liberalism can march forward, bringing progress and prosperity in its wake.
But political reality suggests otherwise. What Bryan in fact represents is a rupture in our current preconceived political dichotomy that liberalism stands for expansive big government that solves social problems and conservatism defends limited government in order to promote individual initiative. Michael attempts to tell a story in which there is a fundamental continuity from Jefferson to Bryan to Roosevelt to HRC, all under the defining rubric of The Democratic Party. But the evidence Michael himself musters militates against this conclusion. Much of Michael’s biography of Bryan documents Bryan’s own strenuous battles not (only) against the Republicans, but much more fiercely and significantly, against his fellow Democrats, including pronounced differences with the only sitting Democratic Presidents during Bryan’s adult lifetime, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson (For that reason, Michael’s narratives of Bryan’s participation in Democratic Presidential Conventions is always more interesting and entertaining than the summaries of the general elections). Michael does not entertain the possibility that the data suggests: that the continuity to be traced runs from Jefferson to Bryan to Reagan and George W. Bush, at least until 9/11/2001. This continuity lacks the easy back-tracing by means of party affiliation, and moreover, involves the added complication of how to account for Bryan’s People’s support for Bryan’s vision for a more active government and their opposition to Roosevelt’s implementation of the same – an opposition which eventually results in their reappearance a half century later as Republicans. Yet, in this instance, the evidence suggests that Occam’s razor is not always true: a more complicated explanation is sometimes needed.
What becomes evident is that Bryan’s People supported Bryan not because of his call for greater Federal intervention, but in some senses in spite of it. They supported the ends that he articulated and accepted a more active Federal government as the necessary means. By contrast, in Roosevelt (as well as Woodrow Wilson and candidates Cox and Davis) they perceived agents of the plutocracy – agents who saw the government as more of a partner to big business than did the laissez-faire Republicans, but who in large measure shared with the Republicans an agreement over ends and a disagreement over means. Gore Vidal has articulated this Bryan-esque mistrust, writing that “with Franklin Roosevelt, the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ were reversed. Because, during the short-term New Deal, he made some liberal reforms (Social Security), he was thought to be a liberal, but at heart he was a traditional Eastern conservative with a love of foreign wars.” Roosevelt was never considered to be, nor ever considered himself as, one of Bryan’s People.
By comparison, Bryan’s emphasis was upon defense of a way of life in localities, a defense particularly of agrarianism, of local self-governance and regional autonomy. Bryan did not seek to promote industrialism and the growth of capitalist uniformity; rather, his emphasis was upon the preservation of life on the land and all that implies, as one sees in a quote from a speech cited by Michael, in which Bryan declares “that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile 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 in the country.” Farms are more fundamental, more real, than the “progress” represented by city-life. Bryan opposed the wholesale transformation of the nation in the name of growth, productivity and efficiency, whether it was done by the means of laissez-faire capitalism – as was believed to be the case by Republicans – or the Galbraithian construction of “The New Industrial State,” a course pursued by Wilson and Roosevelt.
Michael, then, would concentrate on the differences of the means between today's Democratic and Republican parties, and not the similarity of the ends - and for that reason, misses the vital distinctiveness of Bryan on the American political landscape. Bryan’s support of a more activist government is not pursued on behalf of advancing the purported benefits of an industrializing nation, but in an effort to slow it down if not stop it altogether, to use the power of government to preserve localism and to combat uniformity. One sees this, ironically enough, in Bryan’s continued involvement in the creation and implementation of the Federal Reserve (yes, that Federal Reserve!). Upon shepherding the creation of the Federal Reserve – an institution now devoted to one objective: economic “growth” (that favorite word of John Dewey) – Bryan proposed that its board include a farmer, a wage earner and a small business owner. With the inclusion of these figures one perceives the essence of Bryan’s resistance to the liberal vision of societal transformation in the name of efficiency and progress. These are the folks who we now know are “made redundant” by unmitigated economic growth, discarded by industrial farming, “downsized” by outsourcing, and driven out by “everyday low prices” – in short, who have suffered under the current reign of our Federal Reserve. Bryan affords a singular voice of opposition to the broader liberal goal of wholesale transformation of society in the name of Progress. This resistance is deeply reflected in his embrace of the powers of government – of common weal – to resist the encroachments of brutal efficiency and narrow financial calculus, of short term profit-making and the transformation of every material and human feature into a resource; one sees this resistance behind his stance against imperialism as the burden of the superior nations to “improve” the backward races; and one sees it again in his efforts to obstruct the introduction of Darwinian winner-take-all competition into the school curriculum, a curriculum Michael shows had the aim of “improving” the races through eugenics. And, in all these instances, this resistance is born of Bryan’s anti-progressive theology, his acceptance of the doctrine of original sin and his rejection of the idea that any human institution can create – in the words of both John Dewey and Walter Rauschenbusch – “the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
Michael is at times promiscuous with his use of the word “progressive,” applying it equally to Bryan as well as to Wilson, Roosevelt and later Democrats. However, what distinguishes Bryan from those later Democrats who prove to be of little appeal to Bryan’s People is that Bryan resists the idea of Progress. He is an ameliorist, yes, but not a proponent of Progress. He rejects the millennial visions of the likes of Dewey and Croly and their New Republic operators Wilson and Roosevelt, in holding that the life of simple farm labor is a good life deserving of defense, and that the world should not be given over to a purported course of Progress that will remake nature and mankind alike toward the end of purportedly achieving political redemption. Bryan defends diversity – and hence, eschews the monistic idea of single form of political perfection – based upon the different forms and courses of human life and local folkways and the variety of God’s manifold gifts to humanity. He thus assumes the mantle of a fierce prophet against efforts to “improve the race,” to make all of mankind akin to Gods. Bryan could not be a defender of a permanently expanded government which sought to heal the wounds of humankind, because such expansion without limit would eventually devour everything in its maw, would seek to blot out God Himself (or, more likely, become “the God that Failed” surrounded by its piled corpses), and surely destroy humankind in its wake.
More can and should finally be said about whether Bryan’s People have been correct to see in the contemporary Republican party’s defense of localism and its condemnations of an all-encompassing government the rightful inheritance of Bryan’s mantle. Without suggesting that they are subjects of false consciousness, we can all too easily perceive the devil’s bargain that has been struck by Bryan’s People with the very plutocrats against whom Bryan railed, a political bargain nearly as Satanic as that forged by Bryan with racists of the Deep South. But, we do wrong if we don’t see in that alliance a longing for another America, the America of Bryan’s imagining, the America that is not and perhaps never was and may never be, but which remains a fervent wish for the true believers who still number themselves among Bryan’s People.