Very few students of history have ever heard of William Jennings Bryan, and that shows a lot about why the American identity is in crisis. Americans tend to put practicality over idealism, profits over people, and above all efficiency over values. Today, it is extraordinarily difficult to define America in cultural rather than economic terms. As depicted in the “Death of a Salesman”, the all-American anti-hero Willy Loman succumbs to suicide after having discovered the nihilism that the American Dream led him to. This is what William Jennings Bryan tried to save his country from. “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”, he exclaimed while defending bimetallism. Bryan categorically rejected the gold standard of money and asserted that it can be based on both gold and silver. Bryan lost the election to William McKinley, and America accepted the gold standard shortly thereafter. JP Morgan and Rockenfeller contributed enormous amounts of money to defeat Bryan, and this has been the golden rule of American politics since then: the voters are right on the money because the most well-funded candidate wins presidential elections in over 90% of all cases.
In the aftermath of this election, McKinley’s future successor, Theodore Roosevelt famously denounced Bryan as a candidate who could have plunged the United States into the kind of profound misery that was comparable to the fiasco that much of South America underwent at the time. Was Roosevelt’s vehement denunciation justified? If it was, do the ends justify the means? Has America been crucified on the cross of gold in order to have become the land of promise that it was for much of the 20th century? Has America lost her identity or her “soul” as Bryan would have put it, and if so, was the economic success worth the cost that the foregoing generations had unwittingly paid?
In the strictly economic sense, Roosevelt’s advocacy for the gold standard made sense. The gold standard created deflationary pressure and set up a financial system that was based on sound money, which empowered the nation to prosper at a far greater rate than other countries that prioritized wealth redistribution over growth. In keeping with Bryan’s observation about the relationship between economic growth and redistribution of income, the late 20th century economists developed a “Phillips Curve” which allowed them to gauge the inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment. Consistently with Bryan’s bimetallism thesis, economists of the late 20th century advised policymakers to increase the money supply in order to stimulate the economy and decrease unemployment.
This notion emerged as the cornerstone of the Keynesian multiplier thesis where the government willingly undermines the soundness of its monetary system in order to alleviate economic hardships. Consistently with this notion, Milton Friedman famously argued that the Great Depression could have been avoided had the Federal Reserve injected a sizable amount of funds into the economy, and this is precisely what the U.S government did in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The fact that one of the pioneers of classical economics and neo-liberal policies made this concession certainly lends credence to Bryan’s “cross of gold” comment.
The neoliberal era was defined by the government’s policy of pursuing economic growth at all costs. The consequences were predictable: the rates of violent crime skyrocketed, the culture became edgy, wealth inequalities increased, and family values declined. An eminent demographer and the author of the Fourth Turning thesis, Neil Howe, characterized this epoch as the “third turning” which was defined by the aforementioned phenomena where Americans felt confident about their personal future but were growing increasingly pessimistic about the direction where the country was headed as a whole. Ronald Reagan famously described that era as “morning in America”, as he proceeded to deregulate the markets, lower taxes, and place economic growth over social welfare. Critics urged that much of Reaganomics amounted to a complete dissolution of civil society, and when faced with these criticisms, Reagan insouciantly claimed that a “rising tide lifts all boats”, echoing Roosevelt’s denunciation of Bryan as a candidate whose bimetallism thesis would have plunged the U.S into the abyss of hyperinflation and poverty that emerged in many South American countries. The message was clear: America must choose between economic growth and social solidarity. America chose the former over the latter by electing McKinley over Bryan, and by granting Ronald Reagan a landslide victory on two different occasions.
While Reagan may appear to be the figurehead of the Washington Consensus and the aforementioned neo-liberal economic reforms that emerged in the 1980s, the Carter Administration pursued a similar agenda of market deregulation, which represented a sharp break from the Keynesian economic orientation of the Nixon administration. Between the Eisenhower and the Nixon administration, the welfare state, environmental regulation, and other issues of social solidarity received bipartisan support. However, by the time Ronald Reagan ran for president, just the opposite was the case: both Republicans and Democrats heartily endorsed neo-liberal reforms of “crucifying mankind on the cross of gold”. These policies received broad support from a cadre of elite economists from the Chicago School of thought, whose prescriptions were widely received by Latin American military dictators such as Agusto Pinochet and Jorge Rafael Videla.
Inspired by the jeremiads of the “Chicago Boys“, General Pinochet presumed that it was his patriotic duty to save his country from communism and that such salvation could only be achieved through uncompromisingly open markets that are unfettered by even the most apparently benign intrusions from the government. These ideologues saw no room for compromise and continually insisted that there was a dichotomy between a society with absolutely free markets and communist tyranny. When confronted with even the slightest criticism that they were wedded to a false dichotomy, they invoked Friedrich Hayek’s classic from 1943: “The Road To Serfdom “ As they would have it, this book was Hayek’s war effort, and he produced this work of literature when World War II was at its heyday. Milton Friedman doubled down on Hayek’s thesis, arguing that society must choose liberty over equality because societies that do the opposite must inevitably lose both, as was the case in many communist countries. It would then be a logical conclusion of this argument that Scandinavian states would invariably degenerate into communist tyrannies.
The reality is that the opposite is far more plausible. Barrington Moore famously said: “no bourgeois, no democracy”. While the Chicago Boys deserve credit for having recognized that a country needs to achieve a certain level of economic growth in order for its middle class to flourish, what they overlooked is that the ongoing growth of excessive inequality can undermine the integrity of democratic institutions. That is one reason why American democracy flourished during the “Great Compression” when the middle class widened between the 1940s and the 1970s, but it has been steadily becoming less democratic in recent years. When William Jenning Bryan ran for president, America was at the apogee of the Gilded Age, and it had already undergone the extensive economic growth that was needed in order for the vibrant middle class to emerge which secured the nation’s democratic foundations. Hence, it appears implausible that Bryan’s populism would have plunged the nation into the kind of poverty that was at the time common in South America. Yet, could the same be said about Allende’s Chile?
Even if it were the case that Chile’s economy hadn’t grown enough to secure a middle class sufficiently large to set up an enduring democratic polity, the U.S administration crucified the Chilean citizenry on “the cross of gold” by putting economic policy ahead of the will of the people. While it is doubtful that Allende’s ill-conceived economic policies would have dealt a lethal blow to South America’s oldest democracy, it is certain that the U.S foreign policy of putting economics over humanity did exactly that. The same could be said about the COVID policies of many Republican governors and their supporters who demanded to reopen the economy before vaccines were widely available. In a similar vein, the U.S government remains resolute in its support for the privatization of healthcare and education with little regard for the quality or affordability of the services that their citizens receive. While American medical and academic facilities are ranked as being the best in the world, the US faired poorly on the social progress index because of how prohibitively expensive these facilities are.
In a similar vein, the chimerical agglomeration of Christianity and capitalism remains a uniquely American phenomenon. In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that the Presbyterian pioneers of American capitalism who ushered in the Gilded Age subscribed to a Calvinist interpretation of Christianity, which led them to believe in predestination. In light of this worldview, they believed that one must demonstrate his salvation by displaying the fruits of the spirit, and the best way to do that was to demonstrate industriousness, which manifested primarily in financial success. In the ensuing decades, the Protestant Ethic had been deeply embedded into America’s collective consciousness and the secularized version of it continues to define the modern American identity. It matters little whether a Chinese immigrant speaks English fluently, and his knowledge of American history is only relevant if he intends to apply for citizenship. Even in that case, knowing as much as a fourth grader would be enough to pass the exam. What truly determines if he can uphold an American way of life is whether he can purchase a luxury car, own a home in an upscale neighborhood, and send off his children to an elite university.
Today, the American identity remains in deep crisis as our nation struggles to define itself in a manner that goes beyond conspicuous consumption. In the aftermath of the 9/11 acts of terrorism, President George W. Bush urged Americans to fulfill their patriotic duty by shopping as much as possible. By doing so, he underscored the fundamentally economic nature of the American identity at a time when Americans had to come together as a nation in order to confront a foreign enemy. With this utterance, Bush unwittingly conceded that it was only possible to define the American identity in economic terms, and recent Gallup polls support that notion: over half of Americans derive their identity from their job. In contrast to countries in Europe and South America with clearly defined national identities, the United States does not have an official religion or official language, and first-generation immigrants are at a loss to explain to their parents what makes them distinctly American other than their interest in reality TV or Monday Night Football.
William Jennings Bryan has been widely maligned as the attorney who was on the wrong side of the “Scopes Monkey trial” where Clarence Darrow famously debunked him as a scientific illiterate. His bid for presidency ended in failure on both occasions, and as General Patton famously declared that “America will not tolerate a loser”, it seems that Bryan deserved to have been consigned to the ash heap of history. While it is easy to remark how Bryan’s views on evolution were misguided, and that his economic policy did not stimulate growth, it is difficult to overlook the sincerity of his plea for a fundamental American identity that goes beyond the gloss of the American Dream. To this day, America struggles to find her identity, and the attempts to revive the “Know Nothing Party” have not brought any honor to Trump or his supporters. Their nativist conception of America as a White nation is too restrictive to accurately represent the broad variety of true Americans who pledge allegiance to no other country. Furthermore, a significant percentage of Americans believe that a core part of their national identity consists in their ability to accept people from different walks of life, and this is true of even Trump supporters.
For all his flaws, William Jennings Bryan was a paragon of tolerance. Despite his prejudicial attitude toward African-Americans which was common at the time, he vehemently denounced evolution because Social Darwinists used it to justify their eugenics schemes that harmed Blacks. As a Biblical Literalist, Bryan believed that women had a duty to be subservient to men, but he vigorously advocated for women’s suffrage. His fundamentalist religious beliefs led him to join the temperance movement, but he nonetheless bought beer for his supporters. In stark contrast to modern politically correct progressives who urge their followers to like the LGBTQ crowd, Bryan understood the true meaning of tolerance: to respect the rights of those who do not share our beliefs. When the Wilson administration declared war on Germany, Bryan resigned as Secretary of State in protest. At the core, he believed in democracy, and this conviction led him to the conclusion that Americans were not obligated to support a war that they didn’t believe in. As an ardent democrat, Bryan campaigned for antitrust legislation, arguing that in a true democracy, the strong should not tyrannize over the weak. Today, all such pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears in a country where a person of limited means is stigmatized as a “loser” while financial achievement is seen as the hallmark of “success” as if the American way of life were game akin to monopoly.
Categories: History and Historiography