What does it mean to have been a Republican 100 years ago?
Or for that matter, a Democrat?
When you see one of these digital posters that frames Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s political views as a counterpoint to today’s Republican party … remember that Teddy did not get the presidential nomination in 1912 when this was his platform:
Roosevelt called for women’s suffrage, a federal minimum wage, an end to child labor and federal insurance that covered “the hazards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment and old age.” He wanted to create a legal right for workers to unionize “to see [that] manhood is not crushed out of the men who toil by excessive hours of labor, by underpayment, by injustice and oppression.”
Much like today, a hundred years ago big business pulled party strings.
Taft was a big-business Republican who opposed such radical notions as a minimum wage, the legalization of unions and increased regulation of business. His predecessor as president, Theodore Roosevelt, had regarded Taft as his protege and felt profoundly betrayed when Taft failed to live up to his expectations.
Republicans voting in the primaries overwhelmingly supported Roosevelt’s platform. However, despite his very poor showing in the primaries, Taft took the nomination.
Taft’s control of the party machinery secured him the nomination at the GOP convention that summer. Furious, Roosevelt and his supporters bolted and formed their own Progressive Party, with TR as their standard-bearer.
Who won the presidential election in 1912?
Wilson did, with Roosevelt coming in second. Taft, the incumbent, finished a distant third.
Wilson had experienced war as a child, growing up in the post-Confederate south, “the son of a Presbyterian minister who during the Civil War was a pastor in Augusta, Georgia, and during Reconstruction a professor in the charred city of Columbia, South Carolina.”
Yet Democratic President Wilson sounds far more today’s Republicans than Democrats. (He was pushed into politics by conservative Democrats.)
He was nominated for President at the 1912 Democratic Convention and campaigned on a program called the New Freedom, which stressed individualism and states’ rights. In the three-way election he received only 42 percent of the popular vote but an overwhelming electoral vote.
“State rights“? That’s the calling card of the Confederate south, which voted Democratic in presidential elections post civil war up right up until Reagan’s victory in 1980.
History and context
Party platforms have evolved, considerably. For example, Republicans were concentrated in the north during the days of the civil war; now they are concentrated in the states formerly known as the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s [presidential] victory came entirely from the states of the North, Midwest and far West. He failed to win a single slave state, and 10 of the 15 even refused to place him on the ballot. (source, emphasis added)
Certainly, beliefs and platforms from our history are important. But it is a fruitless exercise to criticize any current party position based on the words of one individual a century ago.
We should take those words to heart as truths, not as beacons from a political party. Words like these transcend parties:
The limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations.
That quote, too, is from Roosevelt (Teddy, not Franklin).
That century-old observation may be more true today than then given that today’s great corporations dwarf yesterday’s in scope (global) and economic impact.
Teddy would be a Democrat today and Wilson a Republican, probably.
Rather than bludgeon one another with words from the past, why not take these same words and ask: are they still relevant today? If so, what are we as a society doing to honor or dishonor them?
Certainly, a case can be made that the U.S. Supreme Court has dishonored the spirit of Roosevelt’s assertion with Citizen’s United. The amount of corporate money raised by candidates and incumbents for elected office — federal office, in particular — also suggests that Teddy was quite prescient. Eisenhower, too, (also a Republican) worried about corporate power with his famous military-industrial–congressional complex assessment.
I’d argue that today both parties are bound to big business.
How can we move beyond partisanship (party labels) and assess our political philosophy on the basis of our values?
And then, somehow, move candidates and incumbents to a place where they are rewarded for addressing matters of the soul rather than spouting soundbites?