Fate's Blueprint: The New Populism

For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

They will call it “the new Populism”, comparing Sanders in the early 2000s to Nebraska’s own William Jennings Bryan a century earlier. Bryan was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, with his surprise nomination bringing many of his “Populist Party” supporters flooding into the ranks of the Democratic party. Bryan’s nomination was in fact a populist repudiation of incumbent Grover Cleveland and his “Bourbon Democrats” (i.e., the business-allied Democratic establishment). 

Of course, Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley in 1896, but he had become well-known nationally as a fiery public orator, galvanizing his followers with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and pretty much inventing the extended cross-country stumping tour (which Teddy Roosevelt copied, Truman also exploited to great effect with his “whistle stop” tour, and which right-wing populist Donald Trump has effectively adopted as his “permanent campaign” approach to the presidency). 

The Democrats put Bryan up against McKinley again in 1900, believing their anti-imperialism stance would galvanize his populist following. And Bryan lost again. 

But by 1904, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt had been in office a few years (after McKinley’s 1901 assassination), and with his support for anti-trust activism and widespread reforms he beat the Democrats’ new “Hail Mary” conservative nominee (Alton Parker) handily, thus rehabilitating Bryan’s stature among Democrats. Because by this time, the national popular  opinion had swung toward Bryan’s/Roosevelt’s ideas, such that after the 1904 election both parties were embracing the progressive reforms that had been championed by Bryan and his populist zealots for years. (In fact Bryan was once again the Democratic presidential candidate in 1908.) 

As usual, I think history has a lesson for us here – and it’s echoed in the words of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, in a line I recently heard quoted by a brilliant man and poet at the University of Nebraska commencement. “For us,” Eliot wrote, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” With this quote, the speaker was telling the new graduates that unlike in our favorite movie endings, the good will not always be ultimately ascendant or triumphant. But that is not our shame, nor is it even our defeat. As individuals we are not responsible for the broad shapes that form the contours of the tides of history; we are not responsible for the victories of the undeserving. Rather, it is our sole responsibility to TRY on behalf of the greater good—here and now. 

Because sometimes, false prophets and immoral agendas will command the world’s stage despite the efforts of good people to contain them. Power is their only goal, so these people will then do whatever it takes, regardless of law or morality, to consolidate and cement their gains. They will then try to convince us morally inclined nobodies that there’s no use resisting their power, that we are impotent and alone in the dark, that we have lost and they have won. But there is no victory more fleeting than political victory. Immoral times produce their inevitable disastrous outcomes, yes, and then it is left to us morally inclined nobodies to pick up the pieces. But whatever the outcome this time, we will know that we, as individuals of conscience, did what we could to try to make the world a better place for all. That is our only responsibility. 

Our lives and our worth are not defined by the era we live in, they are defined by how we live in our era. Like a batter at the plate or a pitcher on the mound, or a poet with his pen: whether we are successful or not, the job is always the same. To try. 

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