EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Newspaper accounts of the day described with shock the “enormous crushing crowds” that gathered in cities and towns (including this one) to see William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ presidential candidate of 1896, as he made his way to Pittsburgh.
The old master of class warfare did not disappoint: Paper after paper chronicled his rhetoric and the “unheard of” adulation he received from what he termed “the masses.”
The nation had been in a deep depression, with high unemployment and violent labor strikes, in the three years leading to the presidential election between Bryan and Republican William McKinley, Ohio’s former governor.
Despite the social unrest, economic uncertainty and a 90 percent voter turnout in many areas, Bryan and his class-based message failed.
Fast forward to today: President Barack Obama has decided that class warfare will be his winning message for re-election – and Bain Capital will be his code word for that message, implicitly conveying all the meanings of his greater theme.
Bain is the venture-capital firm that Republican Mitt Romney helped to create; it has invested in or acquired hundreds of companies, including Staples, Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, The Sports Authority, Toys "R" Us and The Weather Channel.
In some cases, it loaned seed money to promising entrepreneurs. It also engaged in leveraged buyouts and attempts to turn around struggling companies with new management, re-organizations and cash infusions.
Jobs usually are saved or created by firms such as Bain. However, the leveraged-buyout process often is messy, and people sometimes lose jobs in pursuit of greater profitability.
Traveling much the same path as Bryan here in Ohio and in neighboring Pennsylvania, Vice President Joe Biden has escalated Obama’s class warfare with fevered cries – “They don't get us! They don't get who we are!”
The attacks on Bain also can be seen as part of Team Obama's progressive narrative, according to Baylor University political science professor Curt Nichols. It “stresses distrust in the free market and champions greater governmental intervention in social and economic life.”
“Without care, sometimes this narrative can … promote simplistic ‘us versus them’-type views that stress conflict between the haves and have-nots” – classic class-warfare language, Nichols said.
Appeals to economic populism – pitting people against so-called “interests” – are as old as the Democratic Party; Andrew Jackson successfully used them in the presidential election of 1828.
Jacksonian Democrats never opposed capitalism, however, and most certainly did not support a stronger central government.
“It wasn't until decades after Karl Marx really got the idea going that American politics witnessed the first mainstream appeals to class warfare made by Bryan,” said Nichols.
Since Bryan remains the only major-party candidate to lose three elections, you have to wonder how well class warfare works with Americans.
This is why Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell both dismissed the argument as wrong.
What the Obama campaign misses is that the working class – white, middle-income, blue-collar Democrats – deeply resents the dependency class and will not respond positively to such rhetoric.
Successful populists such as Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt did not allow their championing of “the little guy” to devolve into class warfare.
They realized that Americans tend to view the United States as a land of opportunity and do not begrudge anyone for becoming wealthy.
The line between these two attitudes is sometimes fine. Yet class warfare has never won an election, while appeals to economic populism sometimes have succeeded.
Besides the attacks on Bain Capital, the Obama campaign appears to be using an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink appeal. Gone are 2008’s lofty appeals to “Hope” and “Change” – but what remains?
In the fashion of Chicago pols throughout history, Obama appears to be targeting his appeals to each faction of the Democrats’ coalition – women, African-Americans, big labor, young voters, gays – with values-based appeals and material offerings.
These tactics may add up to less than a complete strategy, however.
And how does his new campaign theme – “Forward” – fit into this puzzle?
Perhaps it is just a catchy phrase. Yet those who consider it another code word know that it traditionally has been part of the lexicon of the European socialist movement.
Another appeal to class warfare?