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The 2020 Race Loses Its William Jennings Bryan

Richard Ojeda fused progressive ideas with heartland values. Can that combination stay alive in politics?

And so we bid farewell to the presidential campaign of Richard Ojeda. Most Americans, of course, have never heard of the former Democratic state senator from West Virginia, let alone had any intention to support his campaign. Still, Ojeda had things to say—one big thing in particular.

Thus it’s a bit poignant to recall that just on January 14, Ojeda resigned his legislative seat because he was gearing up to run for the White House—only to end that run less than two weeks later amidst an obvious dearth of support.

Still, Ojeda’s biography makes him an interesting figure. The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, he served in the Army for 24 years—including combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—and then came home and got himself elected to the Mountain State legislature. Then and to this day, his style has been all military; indeed, his catchphrase is “Airborne all the way.”

To Ojeda’s reckoning, gung-ho patriotism and left-activism are perfectly consistent. During his brief time in elected office, he built a staunchly pro-labor record, and early last year he was active in the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Later, he traveled to Los Angeles to support striking teachers there.

Ojeda gets around a fair amount. On November 27, in the wake of big layoffs at General Motors, he was in Michigan posting on Facebook:

I’m in Detroit at General Motors HQ. We bailed you out. We gave you tax breaks. Your workers are the reason your CEO took home almost 22 MILLION DOLLARS last year alone (295x your company’s average employee). And this is how you repay them?

In an accompanying video taken in front of GM headquarters, he said heatedly, “Fourteen thousand working-class citizens who work for this company are being laid off.” He added, jerking his thumb back at the GM offices, “These guys received a bailout to the tune of over $13 billion, and they got a tax break of another $150 million.” His chest heaving with outrage, he noted that the layoffs had caused GM’s stock price to rise 5 percent; that is, Wall Street actually applauded the job cuts.

Ojeda had more to say: “I’m going to use my platform to highlight how the working class is being treated—it’s unacceptable.” He closed with some salty talk: “These jackasses need to get their heads out of their ass and do right by the people who put them on the top floor of this building.”

Then in January, using the same fervent—some might say threatening—tone, Ojeda warned:

I often say that the elites of this nation better take care, because if we get to a place in this country where there’s only the dirt poor and the filthy rich, the dirt poor will eat the filthy rich. The teachers’ strikes are a warning shot.

So far, so good for Ojeda. He certainly seems in tune with the Democrats’ new angry mood.

Of course, there is one thing: Ojeda voted for Donald Trump in 2016. He defends himself by recalling that a) he supported Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries, b) Hillary Clinton was not progressive enough for him, and c) he regrets his Trump vote. Still, no Democrat will forget and few will forgive.

And, oh, did we mention that Ojeda was once pro-life on abortion? It probably does him little good for us to remember that in U.S. history, fiery populists have been mostly to the right on cultural issues. The most famous of these populists was the Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan. As his famous “cross of gold” speech suggests, Bryan infused the social gospel with the actual gospel—and the Bible, after all, is assuredly pro-life.

Moreover, as biographer Michael Kazin—no conservative he—has observed, Bryan’s loud advocacy for creationism was linked in part to his faith-based opposition to laissez-faire and social Darwinism. That is, Bryan felt that human dignity, under assault by capital, was best defended by the full authority of the Bible. (As for Ojeda, he has since switched his position on abortion.)

Yet even if Ojeda is no Bryanite, at least not any more, he’s still a barn-burner. In keeping with the new lefty thinking, he is happy to aim his flame not only at big business but also at affiliated “corporate” Democrats. As he told The Intercept in November:

The reason why the Democratic Party fell from grace is because they become nothing more than elitist, that was it. Goldman Sachs, that’s who they were. The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party that fights for the working class and that’s exactly what I do. I will stand with unions wholeheartedly, and that’s the problem: the Democratic Party wants to say that, but their actions do not mirror that.

It’s that critique of well-fed Democrats that brings us to Ojeda’s most likely legacy. As he said before he dropped out, he’s “a working-class person that basically can relate to the people on the ground, the people that are actually struggling,” and he’s up against “a field that will be full of millionaires and, I’m sure, a few billionaires.”

So now here’s where Ojeda’s big bomb drops—right on top of upper-crust politicians, including, of course, Democrats. It’s right there on his website: he calls it the “Service Requires Sacrifice Mission.” Let’s let him describe the sacrifice he wishes to require:

Anyone who is elected to Federal public office, or is appointed to the Cabinet, must sacrifice any net worth over a million dollars to charity of their choice (a real charity, not some family foundation run by their kids). After they retire from public office, they will collect a $130,000 pension per year. They can make another $120,000, on their own, for a total of $250,000 per year maximum for life, subject to automatic yearly cost of living adjustments.

This is undeniably a radical thought, and no doubt, say, Michael Bloomberg would dismiss it as envious, onerous, even ridiculous. Bloomberg, now a Democrat and an all-but-certain 2020 aspirant, is said to be worth $56 billion—and so, of course, he won’t be keen on Ojeda’s idea. Indeed, some presidential hopefuls well to the left of Bloomberg also might not like it: Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is worth multiple millions.

For good measure, Ojeda adds this additional platform plank: “Elected officials will have the same healthcare package options as everyday Americans.” Indeed, he goes further than that:

We’re tired of millionaires making decisions that impact our families but do not impact their own. Whether it be public schools, healthcare, housing, or banking, elected officials must be held accountable by ensuring their own decisions will impact their families as well.

It’s hard, albeit tempting, to imagine an America in which the pols had to live like the proles. To be sure, Ojeda, by himself, is in no position to make this proposed new regime stick. His vision of radical egalitarianism might simply be too explosive to merit consideration.

Yet in this era of socialist revival, many political bombs have already gone off. So it’s possible to imagine that other left-wing Democrats—such as, say, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—might take up Ojeda’s idea or something like it. After all, radical egalitarian democracy has a long history, reaching back to elements of ancient Athenian society.

For better or worse, Ojeda sits atop a rich vein of American progressive energy, most of it buried for many decades. Yet every day now, progressives are digging up old ideas and making them new again, most notably the New Deal.

So it’s likely that the Left will keep digging, looking for more political gold. Why, lefties might even unearth the sort of militant patriotism that Ojeda embodies and that William Jennings Bryan once embodied. Today’s progressive strategists may eventually remember that Bryan, back in the day, swept what are now the red states.

If all that were to happen, then Ojeda’s short-lived candidacy will indeed have meant something. And Ojeda himself is only 48.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative.  He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.



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