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Echoes of William Jennings Bryan in the 'Tea Party' debate

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 23, 2010 12:10 PM

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In the Boston Review, William Hogeland counsels liberals not to dismiss the 'Tea Party' movement as a surge of know-nothing-ism and thinly disguised prejudice. Both the left and the right have their share of moronic extremists, he argues; the charge of extremism cannot explain away the concerns of populists, whether of the right-wing or left-wing variety.

In fact, he continues, the conflict between today's liberals and today's Tea Partiers mirrors, in many respects, the tension between late-19th- and early-20th-century leftist populists and progressives (i.e., the "liberals" of their day). Progressives mocked the "sheer lowbrow idiocy" of the populists. Meanwhile, the likes of William Jennings Bryan dismissed the coastal elites, much as Sarah Palin does today with her constant invocations of "the heartland" (despite living somewhat north and west of same). Typical Bryan riff:

Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose--those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds--out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead--are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak.

Hogeland concludes:

[H]istory suggests that American populists' rejection of liberalism is a matter of principle, not of interest. Liberalism has long defined itself from a position of expertise and wisdom that it justifies as meritocracy, and for which it keeps reflexively congratulating itself. Whether lampooning populist farmers as rank yokels, or giving way to a thrilling panic about coast-to-coast violence, or patronizing millions of people’s supposed misguided tropisms, or even, like [the Harvard professor and New Yorker writer Jill] Lepore, subjecting right-wing enthusiasms to the reflective, nuanced consideration identical with today’s high-quality journalism, liberal claims to a monopoly on knowledge may be even more undemocratic than conservatives’ policies for distributing wealth upward. In America the deadlock between liberalism and populism may be unbreakable.
He hardly offers a solution to the impasse, but his analysis is worth reading in full.


Palin precursor?
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