21 July 2011

How many choices are there? A lesson from 1911

By the summer of 1911, American political junkies could make a pretty good guess about the following year's Presidential election. It seemed certain that the incumbent, William Howard Taft, would seek and receive the Republican nomination, while the governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, was emerging as a favorite for the Democratic nod. The editors of the Troy Record predicted a Taft-Wilson race in their August 5, 1911 issue. For them, that would be an ideal contest because Taft and Wilson embodied the fundamental political division in the country.

Every Presidential election should be a clash between conservative and progressive interests. Each plank in the platform which opposes a plank in the platform of the contesting party should indicate the standpoint from which the organization meets the issue as progressive or conservative. Otherwise the contest is one for party names and party patronage.

Newspaper writers of 1911 wouldn't think of "conservatism" and "progressivism" as ideologies because they probably wouldn't be familiar with the word. But the Record editorial writers appeared to believe that what we call ideology redeems partisanship, which was otherwise nothing more than brand-name loyalism. Ideology had not yet become an instrument of brand-name partisanship, as it would be a century later.

By defining the terms of "every Presidential election" in advance, the Record took the familiar line that there was a fundamental and permanent bipolarchy in American politics. The conflict might be between conservatives and progressives, conservatives and liberals, or strict constructionists and loose constructionists, but it has been there from the beginning. But if the writers meant to suggest that "conservative and progressive interests" were the only available choices for American voters, their subsequent discussion of Taft's conservatism undermined the claim.

President Taft stands for conservatism. There is no use in trying to make him appear to be a progressive except in so far as every conservative who is not a reactionary is willing to advance when conditions point the way. But he does not believe in most of the modern radical steps in government until they have been tested and studied longer than they have thus far. (emphasis added)

So there were not two choices, one could infer, but four: not just conservatism, but reaction; not just progressivism, but radicalism. And as it happened, there weren't two major candidates in 1912, but four. The men weren't necessarily a perfect match for the options. Eugene V. Debs, the most successful Socialist candidate ever, would clearly play the role of the radical. Theodore Roosevelt, the former President who challenged Taft and then broke with the Republican Party, explicitly labelled himself a Progressive, though he often thought of himself as a conservative in the classic, reasonable mold, the leader willing to make drastic reforms to preserve the basic social order. In retrospect, Wilson is often also labelled a progressive, given the changes carried out under his administration (income tax, Federal Reserve, direct election of Senators, etc.), though historian Joshua David Hawley regarded him as a conservative progressive relative to Roosevelt. Wilson's racial attitudes also invite a conservative or even reactionary label from modern observers. From the progressive or radical perspective, of course, Taft was not just conservative but reactionary, the two camps perhaps not making much distinction between the options. In any event, the 1912 presidential election had probably the greatest depth of intellect among its multiple major candidates (not counting numerous other contenders) of any campaign in American history, but the nation would have been deprived of half of it had the logic quoted above prevailed. The ancient editorial illustrates the exclusionary principle inherent in Bipolarchy, admitting conservatives but not reactionaries to the contest, and progressives but not radicals. Bipolarchy in unguarded moments acknowledges the existence of other options, but insists that we are all better off with only two choices. In 1912 an ex-President and a Socialist disagreed. Who will stand up in 2012?

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