Presidential race volatility is old news

COMMENTMarch 15, 2012 

The major national party nomination process this year has generated more than the usual comments on our quadrennial exercise in political theater. On one side is the potential re-election of America's first black president and the question of who the vice presidential pick will be. On the other, there is the most volatile jostling for attention and votes in the history of modern American politics, the Republican Party having been captured by the radical right, much to the consternation of its centrist-tending older leadership. Few are ready to predict who will be on the national ballot in November, and what the results will be.

It is somewhat remarkable that 100 years ago, the country experienced an equally volatile presidential race, with the incumbent president winning his party's nomination but losing the election badly behind two far more popular rivals, while a fourth party candidate received an eyebrow-raising 6.4 percent of the popular vote.

The country found itself then in an upheaval wrought by significant reactions to the industrializing of the economy. Industrialization made consumers of millions of Americans who had previously produced on their own much of what they consumed. It also began the urbanization of the culture, attracting people away from self-sufficient farms into the cities for managerial work and as skilled and common labor. Both phenomena created a dependence Americans had not felt hitherto.

At the top end of the profile of wealth and power distribution, magnates such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie believed neither the public nor the government had any business telling them what their economic or social responsibilities might be, or even inquiring into them.

At the bottom end, several million unskilled laborers toiled in unsafe, often dangerous, sometimes lethal working conditions with no health insurance or job security, and wages often too low to meet basic expenses.

In the middle, increasing millions striving for security and decency came to resent deeply the exploitation of themselves and the working poor by an ownership class that showed little concern for those who could not afford heat and light, got sick on adulterated food and drugs, or were condemned to work and live in inhumane environments.

In 1901 the Republican Theodore Roosevelt had emerged as the leader of a movement to redress these grievances, Progressivism. As important for what he said as for what he did, T.R. brought the power of government to bear against some of the most egregious abuses of unrestrained capitalism. Then, keeping his promise not to run in 1908, he left the presidency in the hands of his chosen successor, William Howard Taft. But Taft was weak and succumbed to the blandishments of the ownership class to rein in the reform policies of his predecessor.

As politicians can be, Taft was out of touch with the public sentiment of the nation, which supported most of the reform measures T.R. had championed. One example involved Alaska. Roosevelt's secretary of Interior had been James Garfield, son of the former president, who supported conservation of the public lands. Among other actions, Garfield had supported checks on the Guggenheim syndicate's threatened monopolistic exploitation of Alaska. But upon taking office, Taft had cashiered Garfield, replacing him with former Seattle mayor Richard Ballinger, who sided with the Guggenheims and opposed conservation.

By 1912, T.R. was livid with Taft and tried to win the Republican Party presidential nomination. He failed; incumbents who want it always get their party's nomination. So T.R. stormed out of the convention and formed his own Progressive Party, adopting as its mascot the bull moose, partly to remind voters of Taft's and Ballinger's betrayal of conservation.

Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, and when the votes were counted, Wilson won. T.R. finished second, Taft, a distant third. In 1912, the faction considered radical was on the left, the Socialist Party, led by Eugene V. Debs. Debs received 900,000 votes out of 15 million cast, a reflection of the depth of national resentment.

Franklin Roosevelt continued, and Dwight Eisenhower refused to move to rescind, much of the Progressive reform. Not until Ronald Reagan did a national party systematically make war on American Progressivism. The results this November will say something about the continuation of that war.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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