The voice of political populism rings loud and clear this election season. We hear it from both the Right and the Left. But we have heard it before, in the elegant cadences of the late nineteenth century: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." This was William Jennings Bryan in 1896, running for president of the United States and addressing the Democratic National Convention that year.
Never mind the religious underlay of his words, or the economic debate behind them over the demerits of the gold standard for American coinage. Bryan's words stirred the hearts and minds of struggling Americans back then. They could now, too. Either of the energetic populists running for president today--Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump--could quote them effectively. Supporters would supply the meaning that fits our times.
Perfect storms, rare as they are, do repeat. Bryan was speaking in the thick of America's so-called Gilded Age. What was happening back then? A perfect storm of political, economic, and demographic disorientation for working people. Huge corporations run by the super-wealthy manipulated politicians. Captains of industry (robber barons) abused the working classes. In those years, the richest 1% owned 47% of the nation's property. The base of the economy was shifting from agriculture to industry. Farmers struggled with railroads for reasonable rates to transport their goods. Within the shifting economy, old skills lost their use. Within a generation or two, the percent of American labor involved with agriculture and food supply dropped from 80% to 2%. Workers within the rising industrial economy lived meanly, labored long hours, had little access to education or chance - despite Horatio Alger stories - of advancing. Meantime, impoverished immigrants were pouring in from southern and eastern Europe, seeking opportunity and in many cases finding xenophobic unwelcome.
Sound familiar? It should. We're in another perfect storm of political, economic, and demographic reorientation. Only now the economic shift is from an industrial to an information base. And now the immigrants are from Mexico and Latin America. (Under more humanitarian guidelines, there could be many more from war-torn Syria.) The economic disparities are as dismal as back then. As Bernie Sanders repeatedly tells us, quoting the National Bureau of Economic Research, the top 0.1 percent - that's one tenth of one percent - of American families own 22 percent of the nation's wealth.
William Jennings Bryan lost the election of 1896 to William McKinley, who enjoyed Wall Street backing. But the story of the Gilded Age does not end there. And here is where history holds out hope for resolution of our own perfect storm. For within a few years of Bryan's defeat, a leader arose who implemented what the progressive voices of protest against the injustices of the day were demanding. It was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and 26th president of the United States. Embodying the objectives of the Progressive movement, he enacted much of the legislation that Bryan advocated - breaking up huge corporations, limiting the power of campaign contributions, and protecting the average person from unregulated industry. Roosevelt's genius was to channel public frustration with government into positive political and economic change at a moment when the structure in both parties was fluid. He fought conservatives in his own party to push his agenda.
Teddy Roosevelt initiated and oversaw an era of broad political and social reform. Under his leadership, Congress enacted legislation to break the industrial monopolies, improve food and drug safety, regulate railroad shipping rates, and stop direct political contributions from corporations and unions--a law overturned by the Supreme Court in 2010. In response to "muckraking" journalists exposing corruption, constitutional amendments passed that empowered the people to elect senators directly, the government to levy income tax, and women to vote. This was the beginning of presidential primaries, whose purpose was to wrest control of presidential politics from backroom deals.
In short, the Progressive movement empowered the people. In their protests against the economic abuses of capitalism, the Progressives did not kill it, but reformed and energized it--and made America great.
If American history in the early 21st century follows the example set by Roosevelt in the early 20th, we may all hope for a bright future. The stage is set but the action is unfinished, for our update of Teddy Roosevelt is still to come. Our perfect storm of economic disparity, party instability, and demographic shift is raging. And the populist voice of William Jennings Bryan is sounding again in the speeches of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Millions have rallied around them. Just as in the Gilded Age of the late 1890s, Trump and Sanders defy the monied interests - whether they are called 1 percenters, oligarchs, party leaders, or the old fashioned fat cats -- and channel the input of We the People once again in American politics. In an improbable pairing, Sanders and Trump together are repeating the message of William Jennings Bryan.
A few quotations from their speeches make the point. From Sanders: "At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable." As though to right those moral wrongs, Trump speaks out for trade agreements that "will serve the interests of American workers - not Wall Street insiders that want to move U.S. manufacturing and investment offshore." Both candidates fault, as Bryan would have too, an ineffective Congress that has stalled on laws to help the common person. They denounce the tax advantages for the superrich, who use their wealth to buy elections.
Sadly, the xenophobia of Bryan's time is also repeating. Let's not forget that the immigrants of a century ago--Catholics from Ireland, Italy and Poland, and Jews from Germany, Hungary, Eastern Europe and Russia--helped build America into one of the most ethnically and religiously pluralistic nations on earth. Here we can correct for errors of the past. Xenophobia has been an American illness at various times. Let it not be one now. Immigrants are not stealing jobs, nor are they a threat. They are, in fact, powering the U.S. economy, not only by taking the jobs that many people won't do, but also by bringing in new energy and expertise. That has been true throughout American history. Most immigrant groups--whether Jews and Catholics a century ago, or Mexicans and Muslims today--have entered the U.S. under economic or political duress. Against the odds, they channeled their gifts into what became their new home. Thanks to immigration, America has become a model of how both democracy and capitalism can operate among a highly diverse people. And people everywhere, especially those suffering under totalitarian regimes, admire and long for this type of government for their countries.
In one way, the campaign of 1896 does differ markedly from today's campaign. The medium of the message has radically changed. Bryan did not have the Internet. And here is a paradox. The information technology that has propelled the campaigns--Twitter for Trump, smart phones for Sanders--are part of the industry that accounts for much of the job loss the candidates decry. For all that it promises, the age of information has taken a toll. Not enough of us have been trained for work in the new, digital economy. Educators worry over the social cost of new media addictions. The social media are conduits of much false, malignant, and damaging information. We don't hear so much about this from the candidates. And so to survey the full moral import of this election cycle, let's step back from it a bit.
This presidential campaign has raised hopes for a new moral leadership in America, unbeholden to moneyed interests. That is why I, as a religious leader and a Muslim at that, am writing now, to underscore the moral dimension to American political life. I believe there has always been a moral imperative in American politics. The notion that all of us are created equal with inalienable rights endowed by our creator, as Jefferson wrote and Lincoln so effectively adduced to reunite the nation, is always at work in this country.
This is a moral principle underlying not only my Islamic faith, but also Christianity and Judaism - all the Abrahamic faiths. All people are equal in the eyes of God. The party that embraces that goal will sustain and extend the greatness of America. And not just of America. For America at its best sends a global message of equality and fair play that attracts the imagination of people everywhere. It is this vision of equality that energizes the speeches of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
We have at hand, in Trump and Sanders, the populist voice of William Jennings Bryan. We await our 21st century version of Theodore Roosevelt, who will consolidate and render effective the moral energies in play.
This is who we hope to find in the 45th president of the United States. We picture a visionary leader who succeeds in crafting and implementing the necessary systemic corrections in the economic and power structures of America. The new Teddy will give the American people a fairer allotment of the economic and political power pies. She or he will embrace an American social contract that recognizes and assimilates new demographics. All the American immigrant hybrids, whether Mexican-, Asian-, or Arab- American will feel at home here. And by being at home, they will brighten the beacon America has always been to the wider world.