The Lessons of 1896

I mentioned previously the similarities between this year's election and the tumultuous election year of 1968. As time goes on, this Presidential contest continues to defy nearly all historical trends... but it does have a tendency to borrow bits from here and there over American history. As a smart man once said: History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

For about thirty years following the Civil War, we had a sequence of fairly unremarkable Presidents who did little to improve the lives of regular Americans. In truth, both Democrats and Republicans had their share of dirty deeds during what historians now call The Long Depression: whether it was the Southern Democrats' hard-dying of slavery that led to the essentially brokered Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (the Democrats all but allowed his Presidential win against Samuel Tilden in 1876 on the condition that Federal troops would depart the Reconstructed South) or the Republicans pivot away from radical abolitionism and Lincoln-like social justice to the pockets of big business, it's safe to say that there's a reason most teachers skip this area in high school history class: it's not America's finest moments. In the late 1800s, as the 19th century was coming to a close, you would have likely found a similar distaste for government and politicians as usual if you swept through the tenements of New York, the ranches of New Mexico, or even the farms of Minnesota. Back then, names like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan had obscene control of the American machine. Rackets like Tammany Hall bought the politicians, and in turn those politicians paid more and more toward the rich, making them even richer. Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age, where something rotten was simply covered in gold to look more pleasing. This would continue on for a few more decades, with more and more gold being ladled on top of decomposing garbage, until the entire thing collapsed in 1929.

Which is why the 1896 contest is so very peculiar: it marks the beginning of a turning point for both of America's major political parties. Democrats and Populists fused their campaigns around the ebullient William Jennings Bryan, whose fiery speeches effectively roused the rabble who were sick and tired of what they considered to be a broken system presided over by bought and paid for politicians. The country had been in economic turmoil since the Panic of 1893, and Bryan was selling some radical economic ideas to a populous desperate for anything to shake things up. Meanwhile, a businessman named Mark Hanna all but installed his man, William McKinley, into the nomination on the Republican side. All of Bryan's fire and gusto could do little to fight back the moneyed interest, and McKinley won easily on a platform of "solid money" and not doing anything too rash. As public opinion seems to slide more and more in favor of Mrs. Clinton over her opponent, it seems 2016 could be 1896 all over again.

What is important to look at, however, is what happened afterwards. McKinley, with the help of tabloid media, went to war with Spain in 1898. This not only bolstered the economy, but made McKinley look like a capable leader and secured his re-election in a 1900 rematch with Bryan. Unfortunately, McKinley's first Vice President, Garret Hobart, died in office and, in an attempt to stifle his rising star, the Republican party put that unapologetic Progressive Teddy Roosevelt in the largely ceremonial Vice President position. Chillingly, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, making those recent comments about "Second Amendment People" even more disturbing with historical context.

Roosevelt was sworn in and kicked off an era of Progressive policies from both Republican and Democratic presidents. Following another catastrophic war, however, the moneyed interests were able to win back the country just in time to drive it directly into the ground with the Great Depression in 1929.  As a final interesting note to the 1896 election, there was actually a little-known Third Party presence called the National Democratic Party, who attempted to keep the old guard of the conservative Democrats in line by running John M. Palmer and Simon Bolivar Buckner, two men pushing eighty years old. It is telling that the attempt to stop the populist and Progressive uprising in 1896 was spearheaded by two very old men who seem very out of touch; the same could be said for the old guard doing anything they can to stop Trump in 2016.

While we may seem to be at a place now in American History that seems unprecedented, the last century tells a surprisingly similar story. The biggest lesson to take away from it is this: as DFLers, we need to keep to our progressive roots. It will be a long, hard fight, and there may be temptation to take more conservative positions as the Republicans fall into disarray, but that is sacrificing long term prosperity for short term gain. We must continue to fight as a unique and Progressive arm of the larger Democratic structure and demand policies that do well for ALL Americans, and in a few short years we may see our new Teddy Roosevelt finally make good on the political revolution that has been roiling for decades. If we do not stay the progressive course, however, history could repeat itself and a surprisingly progressive and populist Republican, like TR, might just pull the rug out from under all of us.

But make no mistake: Progressivism will have its day in America, and that day is coming soon.

At Your Service,

Doremus Jessup.

The American Stew Pot

I was once told that the old idea of the "American Melting Pot" was a little... off. In reality, I was told, America is more like a stew: each of the ingredients add something to the entire ensemble, but overall retain their own structure. America is much the same, with little outposts of culture here and there because America doesn't force assimilation. Where you might see some potato or carrot, you see the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago or the Amish communities of the Midwest.

What makes America so great is that we don't force the whole stew into a blender, because any cook can tell you trying to put hot stew into a blender will just make it explode. If you must blend a stew, either wait for it to cool down or use an immersion blender. It may take longer, and you actually have to plunge into the thick of things, but at least there won't be an explosion. You can't expect the stew to go by your timeline or your personal wants, unless you want boiling liquid on your ceiling... and maybe some people do.

So you have your ingredients, and you prepare them: you first partially cook some of the ingredients with a little oil, add what will become the gravy, and leave it on to cook for a long time. If you're patient, you have an amazing dish... but what if someone looked at that stew pot and said "I bet I can do it better" by gussying it up? What if someone saw a perfectly delicious, if humble, dish and decided it needed more? What would being greedy in this kitchen get you?

Let's say this person wants to add a buttery crust to the top of this stew, making it more like a Great American Pot Pie. Now, there's nothing wrong with a pot pie, in theory, and I'm sure we all appreciate a good crust/gravy combination. The only problem is that the crust is going to take some time to make, so you'll have to try to speed up the cooking on your filling to make up for it. So you take the 90% on the bottom and turn up the heat. In making this crust, you had to cut some of the butter out of the stew beneath. Now, the meat or the vegetables get burned, but that's okay, this person says, because the crust will make it all worth it. It'll be so decadent, such a sight to be seen, that everyone will forget if the stuff underneath it is slightly burnt.

There's just one problem: in this person's quest to make the curst the envy of all, he added too much butter. To be blunt, the upper crust is too rich. As a result, putting in the oven will yield disaster: the crust will fall apart, and the stew underneath will boil up from the bottom, only hastening the destruction of the upper crust. Soon, instead of a tasty treat, you have an oily mess because the ingredients weren't distributed properly. In this person's quest to make something that looked super cool and fancy, it all ended in mushy, burnt nastiness.

So don't always try to re-invent the wheel. Make sure your Great American Stew Pot gets enough oil, and don't send it all to the top. If you must have an upper crust (and you can, that's okay) make sure you make it of strong stuff, and go easy on the richness. It might turn out to be a teeny bit tougher up there on the top, but it's worth it to not have an underneath on fire and an upper crust that can't support its own weight.

It's a recipe for disaster from the get-go, no matter how badly you want it to succeed. I know that sounds a little harsh, but it needs to be said, because when you have soggy, oily mush on top of burned filling, no one wins and, if you leave it the heat in long enough, hoping that will help re-form the upper crust... then everything winds up burned in the end.

At Your Service,

Doremus Jessup

The Spring, Refreshed

If all you care about this November is whether or not your person “wins” or “loses,” then head on down to the dog track. Politics is not about winning and losing. It’s not about the glory or the satisfaction. I know it sounds hard to believe, but there used to be a time in this country, not too long ago, where politics was actually about helping people.
-Helping people is making sure they can go to the hospital.
-Helping people is making sure they can go to school.
-Helping people is making sure they don’t go hungry.
-Helping people is making sure they have a roof over their heads.
-Helping people is making sure they have what they need to not only survive, but thrive.
It’s not about you. It’s not about your success or your defeat. It’s not about your personal satisfaction. Times have gotten so tough for so many Americans that we are now talking about satisfaction writ large. In our Constitution, it says this country exists to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Ourselves… AND our posterity.
None of what you, personally, want matters anymore. It never should have mattered in the first place. It’s about all of us. It’s depressing that the country has to be rocked by instability, crisis and the advent of fascism for this integrity to return to our political discourse, but now that it has you will see an entire generation rising, and the sons and the daughters are beyond your command. They demand that things be done differently… and, oddly enough, it’s the way things were done for their parents, or their grandparents, before the specter of Watergate forever killed two generations’ perceptions of government.
We’re ready to believe again. We’re ready to stand up for what we believe again. We believe in America: unabashedly, uncynically, unrepentantly.  We were told great stories of the America where our parents or our grandparents grew up: income equity, social mobility, and moving ever-forward toward a just and peaceful future. We want that future, because we were told it was meant to be now. We understand that it can’t happen overnight, but we are appalled at how far things have fallen back from where they were, and now, with almost nothing left to lose, we are willing to fight and claw our way back onto equal social footing with the other prosperous nations of the world.
I will end this with the words of John F. Kennedy, the Baby Boomer Bernie Sanders, as he took office for the first time in 1961:
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge—and more.

At Your Service,

Doremus Jessup