Home 2016 elections Bernie Sanders as the 21st Century William Jennings Bryan (other than the...

Bernie Sanders as the 21st Century William Jennings Bryan (other than the Scopes Monkey Trial)?


I was reading The Hill this morning, and the latest column by progressive Brent Budowsky caught my eye. According to Budowsky, while it’s now clear that Bernie Sanders won’t be president…

[He] can change the course of American history and make the central point of his political revolution the law of the land by creating a People’s Political Action Committee to elect a wave of progressives to Congress, create a liberal Supreme Court majority, reverse the heinous decisions in the Citizens United case and against voting rights, and ignite a surge of small-donor grassroots democracy for America.

Not bad, eh? I’d just add “elect a wave of progressives to state legislatures and governor’s mansions all over America.” How would this be done? Budowsky argues that the People”s PAC “would combine the luminous achievements of the Sanders small-donor movement with reinforcements from leading progressive lights such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren….[and] stars such as George Clooney, who supports Hillary Clinton but admires Sanders and fervently believes in small-donor democracy.”  Budowsky believes that the PAC “could raise between $200 million and $300 million from small donors, increase the strong odds that Democrats regain the Senate, give House Democrats a powerful election boost and promote Democratic unity with a higher purpose.”

Is this realistic? I don’t know. But if Bernie Sanders really wants a revolution in this country, he should keep working to make it happen, and creating a PAC to promote progressive ideas and candidates across the country sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

One more interesting point in the op-ed is Budowsky’s comparison of Sanders to William Jennings Bryan, “the progressive populist who first ran for president in 1896 against the corruptions of the Gilded Age and was opposed by the oligarchs of that age. Bryan did not become president, but he paved the way for the historic progressive populist triumphs of Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Now, of course I could do without Bryan’s opposition to Darwinian evolution and some of his other “out-there” ideas (including his support for Prohibition). Still, paving the way for the Square Deal and the New Deal ain’t chicken feed, to put it mildly!

The bottom line is that I wouldn’t want to see Sanders simply exit the stage, never to be heard from again, after Hillary Clinton is nominated. For starters, we need Sanders to stump enthusiastically and energetically for Democrats up and down the ballot this fall. After that, we need Sanders to continue pushing progressive change in this country, to build his movement, and to make sure that all his efforts – and the huge movement he created – don’t go to waste. Come to think of it, Sanders and his followers could be of great assistance right here in Virginia, where next year we have an election for governor, LG and AG, plus the entire House of Delegates. It would be great to have a bunch of Sanders supporters running for House of Delegates, and for Sanders’ People’s PAC to help elect Gov. Northam, a Democrat LG and Mark Herring as AG for a second term. Just a thought. 🙂

P..S. Here’s more background on William Jenning Bryan.

William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was an American orator and politician from Nebraska, and a dominant force in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as the Party’s candidate for President of the United States (1896, 1900 and 1908). He served two terms as a member of the United States House of Representatives from Nebraska and was United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1915). He resigned because of his pacifist position on World War I. Bryan was a devout Presbyterian, a strong advocate of popular democracy, and an enemy of the banks and the gold standard. He demanded “Free Silver” because he believed it undermined the evil “Money Power” and put more cash in the hands of the common people…

In the intensely fought 1896 and 1900 elections, he was defeated by William McKinley but retained control of the Democratic Party. With over 500 speeches in 1896, Bryan invented the national stumping tour in an era when other presidential candidates stayed home. In his three presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on Democrats to fight the trusts (big corporations) and big banks, and embrace anti-elitist ideals of republicanism. President Wilson appointed him Secretary of State in 1913.

  • Elaine Owens

    The first election I enthusiastically threw all my efforts into was the Howard Dean for President campaign in 2003-2004. Like Sanders, Dean appealed to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, to young voters, to those who had not been active politically before. Almost all of Dean’s money came from small grassroots donors, and the campaign pioneered the use of the internet to fundraise and to organize. Dean’s idealism fired up his supporters much as Sanders has fired up his. When it became obvious Dean wouldn’t get the nomination, the Dean for America organization morphed into Democracy for America, a PAC dedicated to electing progressive candidates at all levels of government. It still exists and I still support it. However, it has never become the force of change we all envisioned for it, not even after Howard Dean served admirably as head of the DNC for a while and created briefly the “50-state Strategy.” Likewise, the Obama campaign morphed into Organizing for America and then Organizing for Action. Neither group has been particularly effective in bringing about change. I wish I could believe that the Sanders presidential campaign could be better at bringing about change, but the very makeup of its grassroots activists (many of whom mirror the Dean activists) make me very skeptical. I am more hopeful that Elizabeth Warren in the Senate can be that “William Jennings Bryan” voice. Frankly, she has the economic knowledge, the ability to be an extremely effective speaker and debater, and the intellect that Bernie Sanders lacks.

  • Adam Shapiro

    Sanders is nothing like Bryan, unless you really cherry pick points of comparison to suit your case. First of all, you can’t separate the “Cross of Gold” Bryan of 1896 from the Scopes trial Bryan of 1925. He’s the same person and he’s driven by the same moral and political impulses. Secondly, Bryan was 36 when he was nominated for President – he had decades ahead of him to build the kind of populist/progressive movement he advocated. Finally, Bryan was the ultimate Party facilitator, saving the Democrats from completely fracturing after the 1924 nomination debacle. Sanders has only recently even been associated with the Democratic party, and he’s shown zero interest in doing anything to grow the party or unify it (except to unify it around his own candidacy.) He doesn’t campaign for other Democrats, and won’t use his fundraising network to support them. None of this is to say that either Bryan was right or wrong in 1890-1920s or that Sanders is right or wrong now. Just that the comparison is trivial.