No one expected the fiery but obscure politician from a rural state to mount a serious campaign for the presidency, one that took on the national leaders of the Democratic party. In retrospect, the potential was there for an insurgent candidate to thrive. Progressive activists had cheered his earlier declaration that the party “cannot serve plutocracy and at the same time defend the rights of the masses.” Millions of Americans were frustrated and angry about an economy that seemed to benefit only Wall Street and the upper class. Still, the politician picked up few endorsements and no big contributors, and the incumbent Democratic president wanted him to lose.
Yet, William Jennings Bryan still captured the party’s nomination in 1896. Although he lost the election that fall, the Nebraskan and his avid supporters went on to transform the Democrats from a stalwart defender of states’ rights and laissez-faire economics to the champion of a government that would deploy its power to aid the great majority of Americans, then composed mainly of small farmers and industrial workers. As his party’s nominee, Bryan ran for president on two other occasions, losing each time by greater margins. But under his aegis, the Democrats became the citadel of modern liberalism we identify today with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Could Bernie Sanders accomplish a similar feat, 120 years later? Although he will not defeat Hillary Clinton—who has won hundreds more delegates and millions far more popular votes—the senator from Vermont has emulated Bryan in other ways. He galvanizes big crowds with a spirited left-wing populist appeal and has gained the loyalty of the young constituency the Democrats will need to win both this year and into the future. Like Bryan, he also challenges the party to go beyond class-conscious rhetoric to embrace policies—from universal Medicare, to free tuition at public colleges to a strongly progressive tax system—that would benefit working families and, to a degree, redistribute the wealth.
In 1896, the Republicans blasted Bryan as a socialist, a label he rejected. Sanders wears it proudly. If the Democrats seriously attempt in the near future to drive big money out of politics and commit themselves to building a larger welfare state like those in Scandinavian countries, he will have catalyzed a political sea-change as profound as that which occurred when party leaders embraced the cause of black freedom, knowing they would lose the white South for decades to come.
Yet, such a change will be as fraught with limits and perils as that undertaken by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson half a century ago. The big investors and corporate chieftains who dominate the U.S. economy—some of whom helped Barack Obama and Bill Clinton win the White House—would fight hard and skillfully against a Sandersized agenda. Unlike in Bryan’s day, most Americans depend, to some degree, on stocks and other investments. A market crash could persuade them that expensive new programs are not worth risking a deep plunge in their retirement accounts. And without a bigger and more powerful labor movement, much less a socialist one, it would be difficult for wage-earners to improve their conditions on the job or become a durable constituency for economic leveling, as they were in the middle of the 20th century. The millions of workers who went on strike and streamed into unions in the ’30s and ’40s played an essential role in making the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society possible.
An appeal focused on class inequalities also downplays other vital divisions and identities that have always roiled the body politic. Bryan and nearly all other Democrats in his day were unabashed defenders of Jim Crow. Their populism halted abruptly and cruelly at the color line. Neither did the eloquent Bryan, widely known as the Great Commoner, say much to defend the millions of common Jewish and Catholic immigrants who suffered from discrimination at the hands of his fellow native-born white Protestants.
Sanders, of course, rejects that benighted tradition, one Donald Trump has revived and updated, with his vows to deport all “illegal aliens” and bar Muslims from entering the country at all. In contrast, the left-wing Democrat advocates “racial justice” and immigration reform and condemns the high incarceration rate of African-Americans.
Yet it is not surprising that Sanders has lost primaries in nearly every state with a large black and/or Latino population. His blasts at “the billionaire class” excite white liberals and leftists more than Americans who bear the disadvantages of belonging to a minority race or endangered ethnic group. And Barack Obama is hardly the counterpart, racially or ideologically, of Grover Cleveland, the conservative president who, in 1896, called on his fellow Democrats to bolt the party instead of voting for Bryan, who had repudiated his record of smashing unions and doing nothing to aid the unemployed.
In the end, whether the Sanders campaign turns into more than a fleeting Bryan moment will depend a great deal on what the white-haired firebrand himself decides to say and do from now until November. The Great Commoner was just 36 when he made his initial campaign for the White House. More than twice that age, Sanders is unlikely to mount a second run for the office.
Bryan, who saw no reason to separate his religion from his politics, was fond of repeating a line from the New Testament: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” Sanders is an avowed secularist. But if he urges his followers to vote for Democrats up and down the ticket and then continues to propel the party to the economic left, he has a chance to be remembered as a prophet, instead of as an embittered loser.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent. He is the author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. His next book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, will be published in January 2017.