Friday, November 30, 2012

What William Jennings Bryan And Demography Could Teach The Democrats About The Future

What William Jennings Bryan and Demography Could Teach The Democrats About The Future

Marco Rubio, the telegenic conservative supernova that some have lined up for a 2016 Presidential bid, recently got himself into a bit of hot water when asked a soft-ball question about the age of the Earth.  Rubio hemmed and hawed a bit, showing a pronounced unwillingness to opine on the subject. He settled for “one of the great mysteries.”

I thought that the approximate age of the Earth was a matter of settled science, but then again, I’m not a Republican Presidential hopeful, nor do I have to otherwise worry about appealing to my base.  But Rubio’s comment reminded me of the climactic cross examination scene in the Inherit The Wind, when Henry Drummond, frustrated by his inability to present testimony on evolution, calls to the stand, as an expert on the Bible, his antagonist (and friend) Matthew Harrison Brady.

Brady’s heart is good and his faith sincere, but Drummond leads him through a maze of contradictions that traverse the space between reality, symbols and belief.  He asks about the age of the Earth, and Brady refers to Bishop Usher’s Biblical calculation that the world was created in 4004 BC.  Drummond asks how long a day was, since the Sun wasn’t visible until the 4th Day. From there, Brady grows increasingly flummoxed, loses his way and, eventually, the support of his audience.    

“Inherit the Wind” was, of course, based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, Drummond on the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, and Brady on the three time Presidential candidate (and loser) William Jennings Bryan.

It is a sad irony that Bryan’s last few years seemed to descend into self-parody, because, at his zenith, he spoke for many millions of Americans with an ear so tuned he proudly wore the title “The Great Commoner.” He may have been the best orator of his era, equally at home in a convention hall or a revival tent.  In addition to being a Presidential candidate, he was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, a Congressman from his home state of Nebraska, and Secretary of State in the Wilson Administration, resigning because Wilson was more aggressive than Bryan’s pacifist leanings would allow. He was also a supporter of popular democracy, of the free coinage of silver, and opponent of the big banks and big corporate interests.  And a devout Christian, and ultimately, a prohibitionist, and an fervent opponent of Darwinism.

For those of us who look at the spectrum of political ideas and party identification through a modern prism, Bryan is like the duck-billed platypus, part Tea, part Evangelical, part Progressive.  But he is a quintessentially late 19th Century man of the West, a distillation of the hard life of the farmer, who had fed the Union armies, provisioned the great post Civil War industrialization, and had been left with three decades of declining commodity prices and land values.  The great political historian Richard Hofstadter said that while other politicians of that era may have sensed the feelings of the people, Bryan embodied them.

So, if Bryan is such an antique to us, so unsuited to either party, what can he possibly tell anyone about the future?  The Republicans aren’t listening. This is the party that would be recognizable to Calvin Coolidge; defiantly pro-business at the expense of everyone else, challenging the very legitimacy of any of the entitlement programs, and strongly Puritanical.  The GOP does have a plan; it’s just one that fantasizes about the Sherriff of Nottingham forming a government with Torquemada. 

The problem for the GOP, of course, is that the nation just had their opportunity to embrace that particular vision, and they rejected it.  One would think that might have chastened them a bit, but after a respectful period of at least ten days of Romney bashing (to regain their bearings) they have picked up where they left off.  The only difference is trying to decide whom to pander to for those last few swing state votes.  They have no desire to appeal to anyone beyond that. 

But, what of the Democrats?  If the GOP is the party of the 1920’s, I’m afraid the Democrats are still enamored of the New Deal 1930s.  Meaning that they may be a decade more sophisticated in their thinking, but still seventy years out of style.  If the Democrats think that the Fiscal Cliff, or the long-term economic health of the nation, can be served merely by raising taxes on the wealthy, they haven’t been paying attention to either reality, nor the most strategically important portion of their voting block, the young.

The economist and investor Jeremy Grantham has written a terrific piece, "On The Road To Zero Growth" , which postulates long term growth of less than one percent per annum, sharply rising prices for basic commodities, a declining birth rate and a reduction in real capital spending as result of a corporate “bonus culture” that emphasizes top dollars for management rather than investing for capacity and market share.

If Grantham is correct, then, in the long run, the Democrats are faced with two problems the modern GOP simply doesn’t care about.  The rising costs of commodities are irrelevant to the Mitt Romneys of the world.  Whether a gallon of gas is $3 or $30, it’s not changing their lifestyle.  But they will make a huge difference to everyone else, and their quality of life will erode.  As for the declining birth rate (which just hit its lowest level since 1920!) there simply won’t be enough younger people to support a rapidly aging population.  And the young, socially tolerant though they may be, will eventually have to turn to the party who ends or at least substantially curtails the major entitlements.  The young voter may be willing to honor some of the social contract for a period of time, but in the end, no one permanently wants to pay taxes for something they will never benefit from.

And therein lies an uncomfortable truth for the Democrats; they cannot mistake their success in this last election as an endorsement of their plans for the future; the voters do think the rich should pay more, but they are sophisticated enough to realize that’s not the entire battle.   There is a great opportunity to lead here; to be serious and to do good things for the entire nation.  The Republicans won't.  The Democrats could, but they must be both principled, and practical, and that means abandoning the comfort of dogma.

There is a powerful moment in Inherit the Wind, when Drummond and Brady meet, and Brady recalls their past collaborations.  He asks, “Why is it, my old friend, that you've moved so far away from me?”

Drummond’s reply: “All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it's you who've moved away by standing still.”

Words to think about as we stare at the abyss.