This divide we are currently experiencing in our country is, for those of us truly observant of the political history, one which has roots that go far
back into our nation’s past. It is quite unique to the fabric of American politics, which should overall make us proud, but has done better than
anything else to divide us into camps and essentially, tear us apart. This divide has culminated in assassinations, extremism, and violence every time
it boils to the top.
To simplify the divide let’s put the American people into two groups; Populists and Progressives. Easily we can observe this political polarization
throughout our history but the most vivid is that of the late 19th and early 20th century. During this era we witnessed the rise and fall of political
factions along with the realigning of our national politics. On the Progressive side were Republicans, they were seen as the establishment, well
educated, wealthy, and elite. The other side was the Populists who were Democrats; they were seen as the angry masses, usually uneducated, poor, and
The major issue for these Populist Democrats was the East Coast Establishment which had run politics for decades by that point. They were upset with
the Bourbon Democrats such as Cleveland and Parker who were cozy with big business and did little if anything in the interest of common folk across
the West (at that time the Midwest). After the Panic of 1893 and the ensuing financial crisis which led to a Republican pickup in the US House of
Representatives so large it has never been eclipsed (+130) the Democratic Party was in shambles. When the 1896 party convention occurred in Chicago a
fiery orator, William Jennings Bryan, wooed the convention in his favor overwhelmingly with his “Cross of Gold” speech.
Bourbon Democrats, basically laissez-faire anti-imperialists were in favor of the maintaining the gold standard which the Populists detested. They
demanded 16:1 with the re-introduction of silver into the currency supply so as to create inflation to assist the farmers; it was known as
bimetallism. Many believe a conspiracy was afoot known as the ‘gold ring’ where all the top businessmen and bankers of the world were engaged in a
conspiracy to control everyone. These Populists ended up winning control over the party platform and shifting the Democratic Party in their favor.
Although at this time they were economically left-wing the same cultural ideas were present. The sense of an overwhelming establishment run by
wealthy, educated, and controlling Progressives who were running this country from the East Coast against the interests of the people at-large. Their
plan was to strip away this power and hand it over to the individuals and their communities.
An important Progressive leader, William Allen White, wrote a parody of the anti-intellectualism of Populists, specifically in Kansas:
We have an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the state house; we are running that old jay for Governor.
We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatic who has said openly in a dozen speeches that ‘the rights of the user are paramount to the
rights of the owner’; we are running him for Chief Justice, so that capital will come tumbling over itself to get into the state. We have raked the
old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop-skirt who has failed as a businessman, who has failed as an editor, who has failed as
a preacher, and we are going to run him for Congressman-at-Large. He will help the looks of the Kansas delegation at Washington. Then we have
discovered a kid without a law practice and have decided to run him for Attorney General. Then, for fear some hint that the state had become
respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, we have decided to send three or four harpies out lecturing, telling the
people that Kansas is raising hell and letting the corn go to weeds.
At the time Progressives were a type of left-wing economically that can only be understood looking from the era. But it is basically the same as the
Progressives today, little has changed over time. And while during that period Progressives and Populists were almost on the same economic page the
cultural differences between the two then, as is now, was so vast any comparison is lacking. They each had specific goals in mind and needs to be
fulfilled. Theodore Roosevelt is a clear example of the Progressives then; a trust-buster, cultural pluralist, and all around cultural ‘elitist’
that the Populist absolutely loathed.
Polar opposite of Roosevelt sat Bryan, the man who all around signified the hopes, aspirations, ideals, and values of the Populists. He, much like
Palin and her “don’t retreat, reload” quote, demanded an all-out war with the Progressive establishment:
We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have
petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked
when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!
Alone, that quote above would sum up the fight many, if not almost all, in the Tea Party feel and aspire to win. While the economic message may be one
of polar opposites the cultural and moral backing of the message is the same. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at two maps.
1896 Presidential Election Results – William Jennings Bryan (Democrat) and William McKinley (Republican)
2008 Presidential Election Results – Barack Obama (Democrat) and John McCain (Republican)
What would be a far better comparison would be an election fight between a Tea Party Republican and Barack Obama. But that has not yet occurred so
this is the best we have. Regardless the comparisons are striking. It is almost a complete reversal of the election results and why? Because the
Democrat was seen as the one who believes in the aspirations of what they considered the ‘true Americans’ who resided in the countryside, were
deeply religious, and very much so angry at the Progressives.
Now I would like you to read the following link completely and from it you will have a far better understanding of what I am talking about, the
historical divisions between Progressives and Populists, along with the other interesting information.