Because of this post and P.M. Prescott’s comments on it, I was reading again about the populists and William Jennings Bryan when I came across this page, which not only has the text of Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, but also an audio recording of Bryan himself giving excerpts from it. The recording is from 1921, 25 years after he first gave the speech at the Democratic convention. Apparently, it was such a big hit, he gave it many times. His performances of it are even mentioned in the book East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I recently read.
It’s funny; I’ve studied the Populists and WJB a fair amount, and considered myself pretty familiar with the Populist party and the issues of the time. But there is something about actually hearing him speak–even if it was a recording made much later–that really brings the reality of it home to me. Makes it seem more real, in a visceral way. That sounds corny, but it’s true.
As for the speech itself–can you imagine a politician today giving such a speech? It’s brilliant rhetoric, but it uses so many big words and complex concepts. I bet a lot of people would tune out.
As I’ve said several times, I don’t think Romney will win the election, because he isn’t as likeable and charismatic as Obama. But people ask: “he could win, though, right? There’s a chance? There is not, as John McLaughlin might say, ‘absolute metaphysical certitude’ of his defeat?”
McKinley represented the business interests of the city and Bryan represented the poor farmers—the populists. Bryan embarked on a tour of the country; McKinley stayed on his front porch and let the people come to him. Bryan was youthful and exciting, McKinley had more money. Indeed, McKinley’s campaign created the modern form of campaign finance: convincing businesses to give you money by telling them your opponent will be bad for them.
It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Wow! It sounds like Pat Robertson speaking on behalf of Occupy Wall Street! This sort of thing was what enabled the Mckinley campaign to convince business that it was worth their while to give lots of money to the cause of preventing Bryan’s election. And, evidently, it worked. As the chart here shows, 1896 had by far the most campaign spending of any campaign in history as a percentage of GDP.
So, there is Romney’s blueprint: have more corporate money on his side than Obama and hope that will see him through. There is some reason to think this could happen, given the Citizens United decision and the rise of so-called “Super-PACS”. It could, I repeat, could happen.
However, there are lots of reasons why I think 2012 is not 1896:
No radio/television/internet in 1896. These technologies are a force multiplier for charisma. If they had existed in 1896, Bryan would probably have won.
Bryan was not the incumbent President. Incumbency gives someone an advantage in that they are not only some guy running for President, but actually the President of the United States. Even if unpopular, the office gives the occupant an automatic degree of authority and respect.
Romney isn’t as good at campaigning as McKinley.
Obama is more friendly to the business establishment than Bryan was. Ask around among the disappointed progressives and you’ll see that they can only wish Obama would give a “cross of gold”-style speech.
I’ll allow that there is a slim chance Romney could win, but I still do not think it is likely.