“Just a few short years ago we Americans knew what we were doing: making the world into one big likeness of ourselves. We had the experts; we knew how it was done. Our policy operatives would deradicalize here and regime-change there; our economists would float billions to the good guys and slap sanctions on the bad; and pretty soon the whole place was going to be stately and neat, safe for debt instruments and empowerment seminars, for hors d’oeuvres in the embassy garden and taxis hailed with smartphones. Democracy! Of thee we sang.
Now we stand chastened, humiliated, bewildered. Democracy? We tremble to think of what it might do next. …
The anti-populist tradition came into its horrific own during the 1896 Democratic National Convention, when working-class unrest appeared to triumph in the person of William Jennings Bryan, then a young former congressman from Nebraska, who won the presidential nomination on the strength of his oratory against the gold standard. Bryan talked a lot like a Populist, and a short while after the Democratic convention, the Populists nominated him as well. To the Establishment, there could be no doubt about what this signified: one of the nation’s main political parties had been captured by radicalism, and the shock was as great as that of a stock-market crash. Before 1896, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic questions had been small; the two parties orbited each other within a tight system of limited government, gold-backed money, and friendliness toward big business. Bryan’s nomination signaled this arrangement’s collapse.1
The country was in a recession that year, which was the inescapable theme of the campaign, but the candidates addressed it via the proxy issue of the U.S. dollar. Democrats and their Populist allies blamed the deflationary gold standard for the unhappy fate of farmers. William McKinley and the Republicans believed the gold standard to be the central pillar of civilization itself, and regarded the threat to dismantle it as a deadly peril. The Republicans were wrong on this issue, but nevertheless they prevailed. They contrived to crush Bryan’s challenge and, in so doing, to build a lasting stereotype of reform as folly. The word with which they expressed that stereotype: “populism.”
Let us open the Judge magazine of August 8, 1896, to get a glimpse of how respectable Americans regarded the radical threat. Judge was one of the country’s premier humor magazines, with several large, beautifully drawn political cartoons in each issue. The rest of its pages typically featured grotesque caricatures of blacks, Irish, Jews, immigrants, and farmers. Between the jokes at the expense of these subordinate people, one could also catch glimpses of the demographic for whose amusement the chuckles were collected: refined, upper-class whites—people of manners and education and bank accounts—saying witty things about the burdens of good taste.
With this particular number of Judge, however, it is clear that something terrible has happened: the usual tone of genial mockery has given way to panic. At the magazine’s center is a foldout illustration of stark American disaster, brought on by a gigantic figure labeled populism. This colossus is rustic and tattered, but we are not meant to laugh at him: he glares with predatory eyes, he is armed with a brace of pistols and knives, he wears a Phrygian cap—the liberty cap of the French Revolution—marked anarchy, he wields the torch of ruin, and he towers terrifyingly over his fellow Americans. From this monster flee the sort of tidy white people who made up Judge magazine’s readership: banker, capitalist, honest citizen, respectable democrat. One of them cowers on the ground beneath Populism’s onslaught; another clutches his head in disbelief. “Has It Come to This!” blubbers the caption.
This was the Democracy Scare, 1896 version: our system was unraveling, with society’s worst elements rising up against its best. Similarly frightful images appeared that year wherever people were dignified and accomplished together, always expressed in the vocabulary of hysteria and hyperbole. Populism wasn’t merely menacing “norms”; it was bringing the country face-to-face with anarchy and repudiation. …”
“Of course, this isn’t the only time America has found itself with high levels of polarization. One other period of partisan conflict holds strong parallels to our current moment: The 20-year period between 1876 and 1896, also known as the period between the end of Reconstruction and the end of the Gilded Age. Like now, every presidential election during those years was narrow, and control frequently shifted back and forth between the two parties. Partisan loyalties were also high, both in the electorate and in Congress.
That said, there are key ways in which that period is different than today. First, the partisan loyalties on display were largely holdovers from the Civil War, i.e., the South voted solidly Democratic once the Reconstruction period ended, and the North (excluding New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) voted solidly Republican.
Additionally, the two parties didn’t actually stand for all that much — a stark contrast from today’s politics, where the major parties have distinct policies on a host of national issues. Rather, the substance of national partisan conflict largely had to do with competing tariff policy visions and how best to exploit political spoils and patronage. But this began to change as economic power concentrated in the Northeastern U.S., and hard economic times hit farmers in the Western U.S. And a new third party, the populist People’s Party, cropped up as a result. It won several Western states in the presidential election of 1892, too, which was significant as many of the newly added states in that region challenged the overall delicate balance of power.
But partisan allegiances during this period were getting weaker, not stronger, so the election of 1896 offered a kind of reset, as the parties’ old Civil War divides no longer mapped neatly onto the new economic ones. Democrats, split between their East Coast establishment wing and their populist Southern and Western wings, went with populist factions, nominating Williams Jennings Bryan, but they ended up losing much of their East Coast constituency as a result. The Republicans and their nominee, William McKinley, were, in turn, victorious, and with his presidency began a new period in American history. …”
It wasn’t “fascism.”
We obviously survived and made it out alive.
Note: Monsieur Z has a new video out on a hypothetical Huey Long presidency which I am throwing in for good measure. It only goes to show that populism has always been a feature of American politics.