In 1908, three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan asked the question, “Shall the people rule?” In 2004, John Forbes Kerry told us, “Hope is on the way.” Bryan’s campaign slogan addressed the fundamental issue of politics: Who rules? Kerry’s vacuous slogan conveyed contentless optimism. The Democratic Party of Kerry, Gore, and the Clintons does not want to deal with the question of rule. An honest, detailed appraisal would disturb the widely-held but very-mistaken impression that Democrats are “the party of the people.” You know-as opposed to those rich Republicans who put the interests of their country club friends and big corporations above those of average Americans. It’s a comforting myth for loyal Democrats, but it has not been true at the national level for almost 100 years.
As Governor Jerry Brown pointed out in the 1990s, Governor Clinton not only golfed at a country club but did so at a whites-only country club, and President Clinton was a faithful frontman for Wall Street during his eight years in office. He was also the chairman, product, and sponsor of the corporate-dominated Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). From start to finish, Bill Clinton personified a politician of humble origins and undeniable abilities who put his promise and talent in the service of plutocracy. Democracy means rule by the common people. Plutocracy means rule by the wealthy. It is ironic that the Democratic Party has become so thoroughly plutocraticso much so that today the condition is taken for granted and intraparty disputes-when they occur at all-center around tertiary issues like how to market the party’s abortion stance (the stance itself cannot be debated). The plutocratic tendencies of the Democrats run much deeper than particular party leaders, however. They are grounded in ideology and history.
The primary founder of the Democratic Party was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was not perfect, but his thought was far more democratic and libertarian than most of his contemporaries. This is especially true when you consider that his peers were the Founding Fathers, most of whom were quite comfortable with monarchy and aristocracy and openly hostile toward democracy. Jefferson was not a pure democrat in the Athenian sense and his status as a slaveowner taints his image in the eyes of modern liberals and leftists. These are valid criticisms. However, true democracy was unheard-of in the 1780s, aside from the pages of history books and its small-scale practice in Switzerland and some New England towns. When it came to slavery, Jefferson did not practice what he preached, but what he preached should not be overlooked. He condemned slavery as a great evil deserving of divine judgment, and asserted that all people are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights.
Jefferson and his allies-notables like Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, John Taylor, George Clinton, and John Randolph-created a political party far in advance of most in the world, in terms of a forthright endorsement of democratic-flavored republic, protection of civil liberties, economic freedom, and aversion to war. In all of these things, it was the polar opposite of the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Marshall. Despite personal inconsistencies and political compromises, the ideology of Jefferson deserves some honor. Its inclusiveness and populism were such that it reached beyond the institutional-and un-Jeffersonian-racism of the Confederacy and Jim Crow to eventually broaden the party with the addition of Fannie Lou Hamer, Hosea Williams, and millions of others who responded not to the paternalism of the welfare state or the condescending promises of limousine liberalism but to the basic principles of human dignity, grassroots power, and equality of opportunity.
The earliest struggles within the Democratic Party over political thought and practice set the stage for later divisions. The conflict between Virginia party leader Jefferson and New York party leader Aaron Burr was perhaps more about personal trustworthiness than ideological purity, although Burr did receive the support of most Federalists in Congress during the 1800 election deadlock and was close to Senator Jonathan Dayton (F-NJ). In contrast to Jefferson’s opposition to banking and incipient capitalism, Burr helped found the Bank of the Manhattan, a company that would much later merge with the Rockefellers’ Chase National Bank. Burr was also a father of Tammany Hall, the corrupt NYC Democratic machine. Whatever the truth concerning election intrigue and treasonous conspiracy, the urban, pragmatic Burr was rather unlike the agrarian, principled Jefferson. However, President Jefferson was criticized for failing in office to live up to all of his ideals. John Randolph of Roanoke, John Taylor of Caroline, and other Tertium Quids were more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself as they complained about presidential compromises.
Still, a greater danger was to the “right” of Jefferson. The Democratic-Republicans-as members of Jefferson’s party came to be called by historians-who were the purest expositors of the 12 tenets of Jeffersonianism were those who had been Anti-Federalists in 1787-88. They opposed adoption of the new Constitution because they saw it as counterrevolutionary with its strong executive, aristocratic judiciary, and push for centralization. From Paris, Jefferson favored the Constitution but was concerned about its lack of a bill of rights and its failure to limit presidential terms. James Madison was a much more enthusiastic supporter. While Federalist Papers co-authors Hamilton and John Jay went on to co-found the electoral Federalist Party, Madison joined his friend Jefferson in founding the rival party. Despite their personal closeness, there was always a substantial ideological distance between the two men. As historian Richard K. Matthews has pointed out, Madison was far more Hobbesian and aristocratic than Jefferson. To use a modern term, he was an elitist. Seeds of corruption were present in the Democratic Party from its earliest days: the pragmatism of Burr, the elitism of Madison, the unaddressed issue of the enslavement of human beings, and the compromises that come from human nature and the allure of power. If Jefferson had not swept out Federalist policies during his terms to the satisfaction of the Quids, this was even more true of his successors, Madison and James Monroe. The “Era of Good Feelings” that characterized Monroe’s last term was a period in which party rivalry was dead. The Federalist Party disappeared because its overt elitism was unpopular and Democratic-Republicans essentially adopted the Federalist program. During his twilight years, Jefferson condemned this amalgamation of parties: “The Federalists…have given up their name…and have taken shelter among us and under our name, but they have only changed the point of attack.” It was a dangerous and undesirable development, in his opinion.
Popular leader Andrew Jackson and party manager Martin Van Buren revived a purer form of Jeffersonian ideology in the 1820s. This cleaning of the house created a rival faction (New Republicans) and, eventually, a rival party (Whig). Jackson was Jeffersonian in most, but not all, of his policies. He lacked Jefferson’s sense of ethnic inclusiveness, suspicion of executive power, and respect for the “Quaker doctrine” of peace. Weaknesses notwithstanding, the three presidential terms of Old Hickory and Old Kinderhook were characterized by expansion of popular sovereignty and opposition to the monied interests. But it was a short-lived revival of early American liberalism. By the mid 1840s, plutocracy, slavocracy, and career-minded professional politicians had a stranglehold on the national party. August Belmont of New York City was the U.S. representative of the Frankfurt-based Rothschild banking house. He became a leading influence within the party through his financing of Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Pierce and Buchanan were pro-slavery northerners. Belmont himself was linked to the slaveholding aristocracy through his wife’s uncle, Senator John Slidell (D-LA). Belmont was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1860 to 1872 and was a sponsor of presidential candidates Stephen Douglas, Thomas Bayard, and Grover Cleveland. Cleveland’s two terms in the White House interrupted Republican presidents but did not interrupt Republican policies (for the most part). President Cleveland had particularly close ties to a rising wielder of financial and industrial power: J.P. Morgan & Co. One of Cleveland’s closest political associates, William C. Whitney, was a business partner of a new magnate: John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil.
Following in the footsteps of Jefferson and Jackson, and aligning himself with the growing People’s (Populist) Party, little-known Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska sought and gained the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination. It was a repudiation of Cleveland and the party establishment, members of which either “sat on their hands” or openly supported opposition candidates in the general election, thus contributing to Bryan’s defeat. Gathering like-minded liberals around him, Bryan more-or-less led the national party from 1896 to 1912. Historian Carroll Quigley refers to Bryan’s ascendancy to party leadership in his classic treatment of twentieth-century power, Tragedy and Hope: “The inability of plutocracy to control the Democratic Party as it had demonstrated it could control the Republican Party, made it advisable for them to adopt a one-party outlook on political affairs, although they continued to some extent to contribute to both parties and did not cease their efforts to control both.” Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Bryan took white supremacy for granted. In almost every other way, however, Bryan was a progressive force who represented the best of Jefferson’s thought. His 1896, 1900, and 1908 campaigns were ultimately unsuccessful but he reached millions with his message of democracy and peace, and he sponsored many liberals who had previously been shut out of party leadership by plutocracy and professionalism. Bryan almost singlehandedly turned imperialism into a serious political issue of the day as he made his opposition to overseas conquest the centerpiece of his second campaign.
The Great Commoner was not afraid to confront Hamiltonian conservatives within his own party. Until the day he died, he named names and used his influence to try to prevent the nomination of plutocrats (usually unsuccessfully). Referring to former President Cleveland, Bryan wrote, “He secured his nomination in 1892 by a secret bargain with the financiers; his committee collected from the corporations and spent the largest campaign fund the party ever hadHaving debauched his party he was offended by its effort to reform and gave comfort to the enemy.” He opposed the influence of August Belmont’s sons, Perry Belmont and August P. Belmont. Refusing to meet with Perry in 1899 to reconcile the Bryan and Cleveland wings, he told him, “No party advantage is to be derived from political communion between Jeffersonian Democrats who stand on the Chicago  platform and the Republican allies who masquerade as democrats between campaigns in order to give more potency to their betrayal of democratic principles on election day.” In 1912, Bryan introduced a resolution at the Democratic national convention opposing the nomination of any presidential candidate linked to August Belmont Jr., John Pierpont Morgan, Thomas Fortune Ryan, or any other “member of the privilege-hunting and favor-seeking class” and demanding withdrawal from the convention of any delegates “constituting or representing the above-named interests.” Ironically, at that same convention, Bryan inadvertently allowed leadership of the party to slip into plutocratic hands through his support for Governor Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson was a Hamiltonian elitist known to be an enemy of Bryanism until he successfully masqueraded as a democrat in 1912. Bryan was fooled. President Wilson paid public honor to Bryan by appointing him as Secretary of State, but he made an end-run around the cabinet officer by using State Department Counselor Robert Lansing to pursue his important objectives. Bryan resigned in protest when Wilson’s pro-war aims became apparent in 1915 and he later criticized Wilson for stacking the new Federal Reserve Board with plutocratic members. Wilson’s embrace of a warfare-welfare state and his open alliance with Wall Street during World War I became the model pursued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt two decades later. Bryan continued to oppose Big Money domination of the Democratic Party in the 1920s, but his criticisms of James Cox, John W. Davis, Al Smith, and FDR tended to fall on deaf ears. Roosevelt was an anti-Bryan Democrat from his earliest years as a politician. FDR was beloved and respected by millions of average Americans in life and death because of his Jeffersonian reputation, not his Hamiltonian record. In fact, Roosevelt repudiated almost every single tenet of Thomas Jefferson’s thought. He stood for armed empire abroad and centralized government at home. A practitioner of the corporate state, he flaunted the partnership between big government and big business. This is the FDR legacy and every Democratic nominee since 1948 has been in the FDR traditionnot the Jefferson, Jackson, and Bryan tradition.
Referring to the post-New Deal era, historian Quigley notes, ” [The] Eastern Establishment was really above parties and was much more concerned with policies than with party victories. They had been the dominant element in both parties since 1900″ (excluding the Bryan interregnum). Harry Truman governed the country with the assistance of a small group of Wall Street “wise men” such as Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and Averell Harriman. Two-time Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson was a corporate attorney and a director of the elite Council on Foreign Relations. Quigley points out that John Kennedy, with his Harvard connections and support for Britain in the late 1930s, belonged to the Anglo-American Establishment despite his Irish Catholicism. Lyndon Johnson had a folksy-to-the-point-of-crude personal demeanor, but he was in the southern Bourbon tradition not the southern Populist tradition. He was Corporate America’s best friend in the mid 1960s. Jimmy Carter was groomed by David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank and the Trilateral Commission to be the 1976 nominee of the party.
There were genuine, unequivocably liberal Jeffersonians in positions of lesser power during these years. Today, they are obscure figures but they are worth noting to establish that there was an alternative, albeit much-weakened, tradition within the middle ranks of the party. During the New Deal and Fair Deal years, there were Governors William Murray (OK) and Charles Bryan (NE), Senators Thomas Gore (OK), Burton Wheeler (MT), David Walsh (MA), Bennett Champ Clark (MO), Edwin Johnson (CO), and Glen Taylor (ID), and Congressman Jerry Voorhis (CA). Novelist Gore Vidal is the namesake and grandson of Senator Gore, who began his career as a Texas Populist, became a supporter of Bryan in Oklahoma, and ended up on FDR’s enemies list.
Democratic mavericks from the 1950s through the 1970s included Senators Wayne Morse (OR), Ernest Gruening (AK), William Proxmire (WI), Harold Hughes (IA), and James Abourezk (SD), and House members Bella Abzug (NY) and Wright Patman (TX). In 1964, Morse and Gruening cast the only two votes against the Vietnam War-endorsing Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Proxmire embodied the full range of Jeffersonian ideology, including frugal government. Hughes was a truck driver who entered politics and ended up as both an evangelical Christian and liberal Democrat (his near-pacifism precluded him from running for president in 1972). Abourezk was so good that he was a true Senate radical. Abzug, with her ever-present hat, was a plainspoken crusader for justice. Patman was in Congress from the 1920s to the 1970s and was the only House Banking Committee chairman in history to object to Wall Street control of the Federal Reserve System. Fannie Lou Hamer was not a professional politician, but she stands as a shining example of courage as leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In James Forman’s book The Making of Black Revolutionaries, you can read how the MFDP was sold down the river at the 1964 national convention by Humphrey, Mondale, and a group of LBJ-fawning hacks who favored instead a delegation of segregationists.
The extent of the populism and independence of Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern is questionable. They were mavericks to a degree throughout their careers, but they were also, for the most part, in the mainstream FDR tradition. McCarthy was a longtime ally of Hubert Humphrey and a friend and supporter of Lyndon Johnson for most of the ’60s. He opposed the Vietnam War relatively late. McGovern was a Kennedy Democrat, not an agrarian populist or left-wing radical. In some ways, their 1968 and 1972 campaigns represented co-optation of the Jeffersonian-oriented New Left and Counterculture movements. Advocates of black power, women’s liberation, and peace were channeled into electoral politics and made use of by professional politicians. The early support of McGovern ’72 by such stalwarts of the Vital Center as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith suggest that the campaign was not as radical as it appeared from a distance. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns followed this same pattern. Still, the themes expressed by these efforts were enough to draw disfavor from the powers-that-be. Party leaders crushed the populist-sounding insurrections and formed the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Democratic Leadership Council to keep the McCarthy-McGovern-Jackson wing of the party in its placeone of virtual powerlessness.
Howard Dean, a mainstream politician with no claim to being truly populist or anti-war, sparked a similar reaction among the Clinton crowd in 2004 with his grassroots fundraising and shoot-from-the-hip style. Jackson and Dean eventually cut deals with the very power structure that helped to destroy their campaigns. They were willing to sell out their supporters for a seat at the table of power. This was not the case with McCarthy and McGovern. Perhaps it was McCarthy’s erudition or Catholicism that made him an odd duck after 1968, but for whatever reason, he never returned to the safety of politics-as-usual. McGovern’s populist father and upbringing in South Dakota may have kept him slightly off-beat compared to the Washington norm. Although he did not end up as “eccentric” as McCarthy, he is still the most radical Democratic nominee of the past 50 years. Bill Kauffman’s recent article about George McGovern is interesting: http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_01_30/article.html .
Today, few nationally-known Democrats are willing to step outside the Clinton/DLC fence of propriety. Jerry Brown has mellowed or changed during his years as Oakland mayor. Despite saying some excellent things, Al Sharpton seems to be a graduate of the Jesse Jackson school of self-promotion. Congresswoman Barbara Lee cast a courageous lone vote against the open-ended War on Terror but she is not widely known. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was deposed by party leaders in a 2002 primary because she was simply too astute and honest, she returned a couple years later with her integrity intact, and she is now known primarily as the woman who hit a Capitol Hill policeman because he didn’t recognize her new hairdo. Senator Russ Feingold may well seek the 2008 nomination. Will he win? Not likely! He is a great senator who often stands alone. He openly criticizes the DLC and defies party leaders. He would probably make an outstanding president. But regardless of grassroots Jeffersonian sentiment, Feingold is swimming upstream in a party dominated by Hamiltonian plutocrats and imperialists. We all heard their deafening silence in response to his proposal to censure Bush for breaking the law on domestic wiretapping. These are the same leaders who ignored John Murtha’s Iraq-withdrawal proposal, voted to extend the Patriot Act, and knifed Paul Hackett of Ohio.
In Bryan’s day, J.P. Morgan, T.F. Ryan, and the Belmont brothers were usually calling the tune because they were paying the piper. During the past 20 years, it has been people like Pamela Harriman, Felix Rohatyn, Dwayne Andreas, Robert Rubin, Nathan Landow, Steven Rattner, and George Soros. The end result is the same: we hear a musical echo of Republican politics when we listen to the Democratic bigwigs. When voting for president, I prefer a choice, not an echo. I haven’t completely given up on the Democratic Party, but my faint hope is tempered with much realism. What are the odds that the party will nominate a Jeffersonian for the White House when an unambiguously pro-People, anti-Power Elite candidate has not been selected since 1908? 100-to-1? Year upon year of elitist ideology, layer upon layer of party bureaucracy, dollar upon dollar of corrupt cash, name upon name of false heroes would have to be undone for such an eventuality to occur. This is what leads some to join the Green Party and other parties, or to drop out of the system entirely.
Electoral politics is not the only way, and sometimes it’s not even the best way, to change the world. We would all do well to possess at least a small measure of anarchism. Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, Watchman Nee, George Orwell, Dwight Macdonald, and Dorothy Day can teach us something valuable. This is not to say that we should never enlist in political campaigns at whatever level. But when working within either major party, we should be realistic about our hopes. Was there ever any reason to think that Dennis Kucinich was going to end up in the White House? No. Who rules? It’s not Kucinich-friendly types. To loyal Democrats who wish to “recapture” their party, I say this: It is not enough to go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for inspiration. He was part of the problem, not part of the solution. Go back to William Jennings Bryan. I’m speaking of a Bryan leavened with the social egalitarianism of Hamer. FDR led to the Vital Center of Schlesinger, Truman, and Humphrey. Humphrey was a father of neoconservatism. Strange as it may sound, George W. Bush is in some ways an ideological descendent of Hubert H. Humphrey. That’s true for Bush’s budget-busting statism and it’s true for his Wilsonian foreign policy. Who do you think the neocons are exactly? They’re Hubert Humphrey-Henry Jackson Democrats with some Trotskyite seasoning on top. Meanwhile, DLC leaders are spouting the exact same line: They evoke the “muscular internationalism” of Truman, Humphrey, and Jackson. Their favorite senators are Lieberman and Clinton. That’s our supposed choice. Humphrey Democrats or ex-Humphrey Democrats.
Despite their elitism, DLC leaders are smart enough to recognize that Bryan populism is a double-edged sword in today’s political context. In his Washington Monthly review of A Godly Hero (Michael Kazin’s interesting new biography of Bryan), DLC policy vice president Ed Kilgore notes, “The common neopopulist prescription of using economic ‘populism’ to trump cultural ‘populism’ sets one aspect of Bryanism-and the weaker aspect at that-against the other. Telling working people who care about cultural issues that they are expressing displaced anger over their legitimate economic grievances is condescending at best and insulting at worst and is entirely alien to Bryan’s kind of populism. Moreover, it’s an odd kind of populism that cannot accept ‘the people’ as they actually are: complicated creatures with a mix of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ views” This is insightful and honest criticism of the perspective of both Kazin and Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?).
The DLC’s response to the dilemma is to reject both kinds of populism. Its leaders want neither a single-payer healthcare system nor protection of the unborn, neither a political system free of corporate control nor an educational system free of the exclusive teaching of atheistic evolution. Liberals who admire Ralph Nader emphasize economic populism. Conservatives who admire Pat Buchanan emphasize cultural populism. The populism of Bryan was complete. It included support for grassroots democracy, opposition to corporate monopoly, skepticism of entangling alliances, and belief in traditional Christianity. It may be that this robust populism is too strong of a drink for modern populists to swallow. Regardless, it remains a flavor pleasing to a majority of Americans. At the very least, this fact is worth considering by those of us who still find something of value in the political process.
JEFF TAYLOR is a political scientist in Minnesota. His book, Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy, is being published by University of Missouri Press in July 2006. For details, see: http://popcorn78.blogspot.com