Doris Kearns Goodwin on Populism Then and Now

Oct 22, 2015

There's more than a century between the candidacies of William Jennings Bryan and Bernie Sanders, but history is still repeating itself when it comes to the elections of 1900 and 2016.

"The Industrial Revolution was creating that same gap that the technological revolution has expanded. There was a sense of dizzying inventions that were being made, that the pace of life was speeding up. People were moving from the farm to the city, so it was a disorienting age much like our own. So that was really the spur for the populist movement."

Goodwin says Sanders is a populist in this vein.

"So far he has been able to mobilize a large group of people coming out to see him that feel they’re part of a revolution. They feel like they’re part of a movement rather than simply just voting for a candidate. And then if he can keep doing that, that he creates that public sentiment that can bring the change and force action in Congress."

But that type of grassroots movement has had major constraints in the recent past.

"The problem, when you look at it historically, is that that happened too when Obama was elected. There was a feeling that he had created a citizen army and it would bring about change. And he certainly did bring about a lot change in those early years of his presidency but then Washington got frozen and public sentiment was not able to push in at it anymore. So the question is how long lasting does that citizen energy go after the election is done?"

In this River to River interview, host Ben Kieffer talks with Kearns Goodwin about the 2016 election