Bernie Sanders’s Campaign is Over, But His Populist Ideas Will SurviveRoundup
tags: politics, populism, Bernie Sanders, William Jennings Bryan, 2020 Election
Robert Mitchell is the author of "Congress and the King of Frauds: Corruption and the Credit Mobilier Scandal at the Dawn of the Gilded Age" (Edinborough Press, 2017); "Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver" (Edinborough Press, 2008). Follow on Twitter @historygeek58.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suspended his campaign for president, clearing the way for former vice president Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee and likely deeply dividing Sanders’s devoted supporters and even his advisers.
Some advisers and supporters will probably cheer the move, seeing it as a way to avoid a debilitating party feud that could hurt Biden in the fall campaign against President Trump. Others, however, wanted to see Sanders take his fight to the Democratic convention to give his supporters a chance to “vote for that alternative vision,” in the words of top Sanders ally Larry Cohen.
By making this choice, Sanders spotlighted the dilemma that often faces populist insurgent movements: Do they make peace with the political establishment, seeing it as the most likely path to bring their ideas into mainstream American politics, or do they hold out, focusing on building their movement’s strength? The populist People’s Party faced just this quandary in the summer of 1896 as delegates met in St. Louis for the party convention.
Four years earlier, the People’s Party had reached unimaginable heights. Meeting in Omaha over the July 4 weekend in 1892, it unfurled a party platform calling for government ownership of the railroads, a graduated income tax and an inflationary approach to monetary policy to lift the burden of debt and bankruptcy crushing many farmers and ranchers.
The Omaha Platform advanced the populist belief that “the powers of government” should be fully deployed to eradicate the “oppression, injustice and poverty” that flourished across the country. As its presidential candidate, the party nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa, a veteran of third-party politics who had served three terms in the House of Representatives.
The establishment press reacted with scorn. The Democratic St. Paul Globe mocked the Omaha Platform’s “perfervid rhetoric,” while the New York Times called it a “strange document” whose “proposed remedies for the alleged evils are as crazy as the statement of the evils.” The party would carry no state “whose population is not made up of ‘cranks,’” the Times predicted, but Weaver proved otherwise. Taking the then-unusual step of campaigning across the country, Weaver led the People’s Party to victories in Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho. It was the first time a third party had earned votes in the electoral college since 1860.