One of the five most influential Democrats in American history was from Nebraska, but even though he, more than any other person, shaped the constructs of the Modern Democratic Party, we would find him completely unacceptable as a Democrat today. William Jennings Bryan was not only our Party’s nominee for President three times and personally chose Woodrow Wilson to be our nominee in 1912, he dominated Democratic Party politics for over a quarter century. But even though he did so many monumentally good things for our Party and nation, the sad reality is that he was an unapologetic racist and outspoken denier of science.
As a Congressman from the first district of Nebraska, Bryan was the youngest man ever to win the nomination for President of a major political Party. He accomplished this feat by reaching out to the common sense of the people, and transformed the political consciousness of America from laissez-faire capitalism to looking out for the interests of the ordinary American.
Bryan began his quest to include the little guy in governmental deliberations 125 years ago. Before that, government was rarely focused on the individual. He changed all of that. Today, many of the things we take for granted, were just liberal dreams back then. The progressive income tax; food and drug regulations; the direct election of U.S. Senators; initiative and referendum; the right for women to vote; corporate regulation; anti-trust regulation; banking and securities regulation; Federal Deposit Insurance; the minimum wage; limiting work to an eight our day; the right to strike and form unions; agricultural subsidies; Federal funding of infrastructure like highways, bridges and tunnels; and much, much more were all ideas that he helped to make a reality.
He united coalitions of average folks - farmers, working people and women - into a unified political force that changed everything. He started the fight to end gender discrimination. He was a fierce anti-imperialist. He wanted to institute public funding of campaigns and ban corporate influence in politics. He paved the way for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. He dreamed of a better world and went a long way to making it happen.
Unfortunately, there are two heart-wrenching blemishes on his life that cannot be glossed over. Like almost every Democrat of the day, he was an avowed racist and supporter of Jim Crow. Southern whites made-up a large portion of his political coalition, and he moved in unison with their sentiments throughout his life. He was also an outspoken denier of science as it relates to Creationism and the teaching of Darwin’s theories on evolution. Thanks to Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s Inherit the Wind, for all time, he will be the doddering old fool who defends the literal interpretation of the Bible.
I have to admit to an evolution in my thinking. When I began, I was completely dismissive of Bryan’s accomplishments, because of what I saw as his unforgivable failings. How could he be so stupid, so thoughtless, so wrong? But then I realized that forgiving him for his racism was no more possible than forgiving history itself. Forgiving him for his faith is even less rational. He was a man of his times, and we should not ignore the amazing contributions of his life because of his failings. Our 21st century eyes are 20/20 today, but how will they be viewed in the 22nd or even 23rd century?
We all learn as we go. Bryan never won the Presidency, but his ideas reshaped America. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination, but very well could do the same. That’s the fight in our Party today and throughout democracy. Shall we push the envelope and lose, or compromise and win? It's never an easy choice.
Genuine change is unimaginably difficult. It is one thing to change a law but changing the hearts and minds of the people can take generations. One thing I’ve learned in my lifetime is that as unrelentingly foolish as We the People can be, we are remarkably capable of eventually getting to the right answer. As long as we're truthful with ourselves and others, as long as we stand firmly on principle, and as long as we don't give up, we'll get there.
Photo courtesy of wikipedia.com.