He assumed the leadership of the Democratic Party quickly, with the captivating power of his oratory. His followers screamed, waved their arms, and rallied to his call that,
“This community is ready for healing.”
A young lawyer from a Midwestern state, some said he was too young, too inexperienced, to become the President. Others said that youth was needed to bring real change.
He hadn’t served enough time in Congress, some said. He needed seasoning. But his supporters were not dissuaded. They were mesmerized when he said,
“Destiny is not a matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.”
In retrospect, it was that speech he delivered before the Democratic Party convention that launched his political career toward his party’s presidential nomination. His was a new voice for a party that needed one.
He lured a population hungry for change, and susceptible to a message that attacked the rich for taking advantage of poor Americans. Addressing the international scene, he spoke against what some called “imperialism”.
His audiences responded with what one reporter likened to a thundering artillery barrage.
Not all in his own party were enthusiastic about his rapid ascendency to power, but that didn’t stop the rolling wave of populism that he rode, driven by his speeches delivered across the nation.
Major targets for his criticism were the influences of big business and big banks over the markets and monetary policies that, he said, favored the wealthy over other Americans.
His candidacy transcended politics-as-usual; he didn’t hesitate to employ biblical oratorical motifs. At times, his campaign took on the righteous tone of a religious crusade.
“This is not a contest between persons. The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. I come to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty – the cause of humanity.”
Delegates to the Democrat Party convention were swept up by the power of his language. And, with wild enthusiasm, they nominated him for the Presidency of the United States of America.
He promised change.
Does this refer to Barack Obama? Partly. But long before him it described…
William Jennings Bryan, a 36-years old former congressman from Nebraska, called “the boy Orator of the Platte,” born in Illinois in 1860.
Bryan would be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908, in three unsuccessful attempts to be elected President.
Bryan was a Populist. The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote,
“Populism was the first modern political movement of practical importance in the United States to insist that the federal government has some responsibility for the common weal; indeed, it was the first movement to attack seriously the problems created by industrialism.” (The Age of Reform)
The siren song of populism can be heard across the American political scene from time to time. It seduced the votes of a majority in 2008. We wait to see if the song still lures a majority in 2012.
Whatever the outcome of the November 6th election, the mission of the Tea Party Movement will not lose importance going forward. It will gain importance.
A populist movement will emerge again somewhere in America’s future, perhaps the near future, because too many Americans neither know their nation’s history, nor the fundamental meaning of its founding.
Consequently, you can count on this:
It will happen again.