At the 1896 Democratic convention, a backwoods, religious no-name rose to speak. “Great cities,” argued William Jennings Bryan, “rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
The reaction of the crowd to Bryan’s gospel of populism was electric; delegates stood on chairs to cheer and throw their hats. The reaction of elites in the great Northeastern cities was less enthusiastic. A New York Times headline referred to the convention as a WILD, RAGING, IRRESISTIBLE MOB. Elite opinion on Bryan was eventually summarized by H. L. Mencken: Bryan was a “peasant come home to the barnyard.”
Bryan never won the presidency in three tries. But his populism transformed the Democratic Party and informed the New Deal, making him perhaps the most influential presidential nominee never elected to office.
The closest I have ever come to witnessing a Bryan moment was Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention—the triumph of another backwoods, highly religious populist. Palin praised the honesty and sincerity of small towns; pressed her credentials as a hockey mom, member of the PTA and small-town mayor; and railed against the “Washington elite,” “power brokers” and (a little close to home) “reporters and commentators.” If hats had been in style, they would have been thrown.
The response in some quarters to the selection of Palin was sneering. An Obama spokesman immediately called her the “former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign-policy experience.” But claims about the importance of experience are inherently complicated for both parties in this election. If Palin’s governing résumé is thin, Barack Obama’s is thinner. If Palin’s lack of experience is meaningless, Obama’s case to be commander in chief is strengthened.
But the accusation here is not really that Palin lacks experience; it is that she lacks the right experience. She attended the University of Idaho, entered a beauty contest, joined the NRA and a church where people speak in tongues and was elected to govern a state with few Starbucks. Obama rose quickly from Columbia to Harvard Law, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and joined the most exclusive club in America, the Senate. Even with no governing experience, he can claim what might be called “elite experience.” And this is enough for elitists.
Both the conservative tradition and the liberal tradition contain elements of elitism, along with elements that oppose it. Traditional conservatism, with its British, aristocratic roots, has often maintained that the “best men”—people of property, education and accomplishment—should govern. But modern U.S. conservatism has generally been a populist revolt against liberal cultural and political elites.
Liberalism is also divided on elitism. Progressivism put great faith in modern bureaucratic techniques and in educated social engineers who would implement them. But modern liberalism, influenced by leaders such as Bryan, also has a strong strain of populist trust in the wisdom and decency of common people—a belief that simplicity is not always foolishness, just as sophistication is not always wisdom.
Presidential historians count experience as one possible contributing element to presidential success—but there are others. “Experience matters,” historian Robert Dallek has said, “but its importance is terribly overstated.” Predicting the ideal combination of background, skills and values in a successful president—or VP—is no easy task. And it cannot be argued that elite experience is somehow the key.
Americans who support Palin are not fools, peasants or theocrats. They have reasons, which elites may not agree with, but cannot dismiss. Many are attracted to her because she embodies the values of the American West, which they find superior to the values of coastal elites. This was part of the appeal of Goldwater and Reagan—a log-splitting, range-riding conservatism that emphasizes freedom. (Palin adds moose hunting to the list.) It’s not irrational or simplistic for voters to prefer candidates who reflect their deepest values.
To others Palin represents a different kind of feminism—feminism without liberalism. Many women seem enthusiastic about supporting a woman leader who struggles with the balance of work and family, takes on the old-boy network and yet rejects the agenda of the National Organization for Women. And Palin appeals to many voters as a pro-life symbol, with a family—including a son with Down syndrome—that exemplifies a culture of life. Elites may dismiss this as trivial or backward. But there’s no deeper question of political philosophy than this: whom do we count as a member of the human family and protect as our own? Palin welcomed a disabled child—the kind of child often targeted for elimination through eugenic abortion. It’s not irrational for Americans to support a candidate who is willing to protect the weak.
Bryan, it turns out, also criticized eugenics—particularly the sterilization of the mentally disabled. His defense of the common man led him to oppose a social Darwinism in which “the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.” But the sophisticated Mencken supported eugenics—and was an anti-Semite with a demeaning attitude toward women, African-Americans and working-class whites.
Elitists can be badly wrong. Populists can be resoundingly right. It is values that often make the difference.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.