Politico’s Ben Smith thinks he smells a link between gold and populism, but asks why Glenn Beck’s populism likes gold while William Jennings Bryan’s populism didn’t want to “nail mankind to a cross of gold.”
My visceral answer is: duh, the Reagan coalition of visceral, populist conservatism with economic “conservatives,” a.k.a. free market, capitalist types. This actually goes back further, identifying America’s greatness with her economic prosperity, and the Cold War identification of America with capitalism. So it all comes together for a nice nostalgia of national identity/greatness and a supposedly time-honored principle of our country. And of course gold now comes into the capitalist equation through an Austrian infusion of government anti-interventionism. Not that I am against this unity, but that’s how it came together.
One reader, however, posted a different thought on Ben Smith’s blog: “To a salt of the land populist, gold land and guns represents [sic] self sufficiency.” Thanks to the mononymic “Mike” for bringing up this point, because I don’t think I’ve fully explored it.
To what extent is conservatism identifiable with self-sufficiency? The root of self-sufficiency certainly involves an ability to comprehend the world, an essential piece of the character of conservative thought (along with other forms of thought). The self-sufficient community or nation is the one that develops the strongest national identity. Case in points: early modern England, America, historical China. The feeling of dependence, the inability to comprehend the world, and the feeling of unknown forces are certainly conditions the soul evades.
As I’ve indicated, it’s not only the conservatively-disposed who do this. However, history bears evidence that especially the conservatism of crowds – populism – seeks to reassert order. William Jennings Bryan is a prime example. He appears at the explosion of the modern capitalist system in America, and the displaced farmers (displaced in how they view themselves in the world) are trying to reassert something. Gold/silver is merely the issue that they latched onto. In order to comprehend, the farmers needed to apprehend something – they needed to feel like they could do something to touch the whole system.
American postwar, traditional conservatism rails against the idea of the individual as self-sufficient. The community must be regained, and so must the dependencies on which society becomes society, on which co-habitation becomes family. However, there has been a very healthy strand of personal-rights individuality that runs through some of this conservatism. Peter Viereck has done this explicitly by tying the conservative impulse to humanistic thinking. Others have been more implicit in trying to understand not only community, but also the individual’s apprehension of it.
I think this is the starting point in understanding self-sufficiency and conservatism, as we learn our lessons from William Jennings Bryan and Glenn Beck: comprehension is necessary for humans to accept order and perhaps therefore universals. But for the individual to do so, he must be in contact with that order. When his apprehension is incomplete, alienation may drive him to try to control that order out of desparation.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.