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S5:E9 Populism

S5:E9 Populism

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William Jennings Bryan was a Populist

Populism is a tricky subject. We use it these days as a slur, but populism can be a useful phenomenon. History professor and author Michael Kazin says that populism is an important tool when it comes to regulating power. In the late 1800s, railroads and banks were out of control. Industrialists like John D. Rockefeller had uninhibited control of their markets. Rockefeller believed in social Darwinism and didn’t mind using dirty tactics to undermine his competition.

The origins of the Populist Party

The Populist Party sprouted out of frustrations women had with the political machines of their day. Republicans and Democrats were not yet willing to accept women and the issues they cared about. Women were slowly becoming a force within politics, but neither party had the guts to accept them. So women and others decided to form their own party. But in the election of 1896, the Populist Party was worried about a split vote. They worried that if they were to run a candidate of their own then they might split the vote. So the Populist Party backed Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan was a man of God. He quoted the Bible extensively, talked about the example of Jesus. But he was soundly defeated by the Republicans and William McKinley. He had only about 4% of the budget of his opponents. The story of Bryan is an interesting one because it contains the building blocks of fundamentalism.

Discussion Questions:

  • What is a populist?
  • Can you name some populists?
  • What are the advantages of populism? The drawbacks?
  • How are Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders similar?
  • William Jennings Bryan was one of the first presidential hopefuls from a major party to tour the country. How has this shaped American politics? Why do we like to see politicians in our home states?
  • What do populism and fundamentalism have in common?
  • Do you think that fundamentalism relies on strong figures as populism does? Why or why not?

Helpful Resources:

  • “A Godly Hero” and “What It Took to Win” by Michael Kazin
  • Library of Congress collection of Chautauqua materials
  • Bernie Sanders Clip from C-SPAN
  • Elizabeth Warren Clip from C-SPAN
  • Donald Trump clip from C-SPAN
  • Article about Mary Lease
  • “These Truths” by Jill Lepore
  • Library of Congress collection of McKinley/Bryan campaign materials. It’s worth searching the site in general for images from both of them.
S5:E8 The Gold Standard and the Great Depression

S5:E8 The Gold Standard and the Great Depression

How the gold standard made the Great Depression much worse

The Great Depression. Some say that it was caused by a failure of the stock market. Well… that’s not all. Jacob Goldstein, host of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and author of “Money: the Truce Story of a Made-Up Thing” joins us to discuss the role the gold standard played in making the depression what it was.

A run on the bank

Here is why the gold standard made the Great Depression much worse. Simply put, the panic of 1929 caused people to run to the bank and demand their money back in the form of gold. We were on the gold standard back then and you could literally go to a bank and ask for them to get your money in gold. But banks were running out! There was only so much gold on hand because banks don’t generally keep 100% of their money in the vault. And banks (for the ease of our understanding things) “create” money when they do loans. So it was possible for a bank only to have a certain percentage of their loans backed by actual gold.

The Federal Reserve Raised Interest Rates

This created real trouble. If the banks ran out of gold, they’d go broke and have to close. So the Federal Reserve decided to raise interest rates. Raising interest rates gives people an incentive to leave their money in banks because then they get more interest. BUT it also made it harder for people to borrow money or refinance their existing loans. Which put a huge crimp on the American financial system. In order to keep gold in the banks, the Fed had to hobble the loan industry. That meant that businesses couldn’t get loans to help with payroll, and people looking to start a business couldn’t get the money they needed. And the economy froze.

That is why the gold standard was bad for the economy. Preserving it meant sacrificing the loan industry.

Helpful Sources: