How Populism Dies

Populism is all the rage in American politics now because of the success of Donald J. Trump Sr. (R-Florida).

Politicians, pundits, and intellectuals on both left and right are calling themselves “populists” but what is populism? The best definition of populism I could find comes from the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.

Mudde believes populists divide society into two groups. Those groups are the “pure people;” the authentic ordinary people who represent the nation’s values, and the “corrupt elite.”

Essentially, the populists see the pure people as the soul of the nation and the corrupt elite as an alien force trying to destroy the country and the pure people. Generally, populist politicians portray themselves as champions trying to protect the pure people from the corrupt elite.

Populism American Style

Accordingly, American populists view politics as a battle between the pure people in the heartland and the corrupt elites of Wall Street, Hollywood, Washington, Silicon Valley, and Harvard.

Thus, we can classify both U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) as populists. For instance, Trump speaks of draining the swamp in Washington. Likewise, Sanders promises to protect ordinary Americans from the billionaire class.

Interestingly, neither Sanders nor Trump offers an original program. Instead, Trump and Sanders are appealing to old American traditions that date back to the Revolution.

Indeed, there have been many populists in American history, but only one of them; President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), formed a lasting political movement. Notably, Trump presents himself as Jackson’s modern successor.

In contrast to Jackson; the founder of the Democratic Party whose style dominated American politics for decades in the 19th Century, most American populists’ fame and influence is short-lived. Historically, most American populist movements flare out after a few years.

William Jennings Bryan’s Populism

Notably, two influential populists dominated American politics in the early 20th Century. However, neither of those figures founded a lasting political movement.

Those populists were William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska) and President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York). Bryan and Roosevelt took distinct paths to populism.

William Jennings Bryan

Bryan was a minor political figure, a former Congressman from a small state, who saw populism as his ticket to fame and fortune. Bryan used widespread anger at a corrupt elite (the Robber Barons) and income inequality to position himself as the champion of the common man.

In particular, Bryan portrayed himself as the champion of traditional, rural, white, Christian, and small town America. Bryan’s message was that a corrupt elite of wealthy tycoons, immigrants, and intellectuals from New York City threatened the real America.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Populism

In contrast, Roosevelt was a sitting president who found he had no Congressional support for his program of reform and trust busting. To get support, Roosevelt made a direct populist appeal to the American people.

Roosevelt’s message was that America needed a powerful government to protect ordinary people from the corrupt elite. In contrast to Bryan, Roosevelt focused his messaging on reform, regulation, and trust busting.

Unlike Bryan, a small-town lawyer, Roosevelt was a member of the corrupt elite. TR was a wealthy intellectual, a native New Yorker, and a Harvard Man. Strangely, one of Roosevelt’s goals was to stop growing concentrations of wealth and power from corrupting the elite.

To explain, Teddy believed the Robber Barons’ enormous fortunes corrupted all American institutions, including elite institutions. Hence, one of TR’s goals was to smash those fortunes and the corporations that made them.

Populism was one political strategy Roosevelt used to further his goal of destroying the Robber Barons. Unlike Bryan; who viewed populism as an active ideology, Roosevelt thought populism was just a means to an end.

However, Roosevelt’s populism became a political movement that led to the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party of 1912. Interestingly, Roosevelt became more radical after he left the White House in 1908. For instance, TR began advocating an American welfare state with a Social Security System and single payer health insurance.

The Failure of Populism

Ultimately, both Bryan and Roosevelt and the movements they created failed.

Bryan captured the Democratic presidential nomination an unprecedented three times (1896, 1900, and 1908). However, Bryan suffered three embarrassing defeats in the general elections.

Ultimately, Bryan made his peace with the Democratic establishment and settled for the token position of U.S. Secretary of State. However, Bryan left that job because of his opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s (D-New Jersey) entry into World War I.

After leaving the White House, Roosevelt found himself with little influence. TR tried to regain that influence with a presidential run in 1912. Finding himself blocked from the Republican nomination, Roosevelt made an unsuccessful challenge on the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party ticket.

In 1912, Roosevelt became the only third-party candidate to beat a major party standard bearer President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio). Ironically, Roosevelt lost the election to the lackluster Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey). Wilson’s platform was a watered-down variation of TR’s progressivism.

By 1916, Roosevelt had returned to the Republican fold and reestablished himself as a loyal party man by supporting the nomination of Charles Evans Hughes (R-New York). At the time of his death in 1919, Roosevelt was preparing another Presidential run as a Republican in 1920.

The Fall of William Jennings Bryan

Bryan survived until 1925. The aging Bryan sought the Democratic nomination in 1924 (28 years after his first presidential run in 1896) and went nowhere.

By the time of his death. Bryan had become a vulgar joke because of his simplistic and reactionary cultural conservatism. In particular, Bryan became a laughingstock for his involvement in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Interestingly, Bryan became politically irrelevant because he stuck to his populism. Bryan’s message of ordinary America under siege by the corrupt elite resonated in the chaotic and depressed 1890s. That message sounded silly amid the prosperity and upward mobility of the Roaring Twenties.

One problem Bryan faced was that a new generation of Americans viewed cities as playgrounds and places of opportunity rather than hotbeds of sin and corruption. A greater threat to Bryan was growing middle class prosperity, which made his message that the rich rigged the system against ordinary Americans a hard sell.

Bryan’s irrelevance shows how populism fails. To explain, Bryan’s message needed certain circumstances; such as growing income inequality and widespread distrust of capitalism, to achieve wide appeal.

Why Populism Fails

Bryan’s populism failed because it was inherently negative. Instead of a positive program Bryan offered attacks on gold, robber barons, blacks, Wall Street, immigrants, cities, evolution, and much else.

Hence, Bryan’s popularity did not give rise to a political movement. Instead, that fame created a personality cult centered on Bryan himself. There was no movement or ideology, only Byran. Thus Bryan’s crusade resembles today’s Trump phenomenon, which is a reactionary personality cult.

In contrast, Theodore Roosevelt offered a program of positive political action. For instance, Roosevelt promoted reforms; welfare programs, unionization, and regulation of industry, designed to make life more comfortable for ordinary people.

Hence, Roosevelt gave those who disagreed with his thesis of a corrupt elite reasons to vote for him. Conversely, Bryan required followers to adopt his whole political program.

The Limits of Populism

The first Roosevelt failed because other politicians who lacked his bombastic and disruptive personality stole his political program. In particular, the soft-spoken Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) presented himself as a kinder and gentler TR who was less scary.

Ultimately, voters wanted Theodore Roosevelt’s program but not TR himself. Remember, TR was scary, Teddy was blustering and bombastic.

However, both Roosevelt I and Bryan demonstrate the limits of populism. In the long run, populism attracts attention, but it cannot create permanent political change, viable institutions, or lasting political power.

Thus, I think neither Trump nor Sanders will achieve permanent change. However, either man could clear the path for somebody who can. Notably, Teddy and Bryan cleared the way for Wilson’s two successful presidential runs (1912 and 1916) and that president’s successful reform program in his first term.

History shows populism fails, but it can lead to lasting reforms.