Up Salt River

In the nineteenth century, it was a dreaded destination, a fabled place where presidential candidates found themselves fighting for their lives.  It was Salt River, a tantalizing, semi-mythical waterway whose treacherous shoals were known to be the ruination of great leaders and their parties.

As the election season advances, do we not owe it to history to contemplate the legions who have met with disaster on this journey?

Cartoon showing Zachary Taylor rowing his opponent Lewis Cass up Salt River

Salt River was, to begin with, a real place: a small, winding tributary of the Ohio River originating in the wilds of Kentucky.  Before railroads, the Ohio was the main cross-country route for reaching the eastern cities.  To go up Salt River was to leave a broad waterway, which steamboats plied daily carrying hundreds of passengers, and end up in the middle of nowhere on a dead-end stream.

Add in the fact that the state of Ohio was even then known as a “king-maker,” and you can understand how the Salt River became synonymous with political oblivion.  Judging from these old prints preserved at the Library of Congress, political cartoonists had a field day with this theme.  Salt River became the setting for betrayal and folly of all kinds.  Above, we see Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor rowing his Democratic opponent Lewis Cass up Salt River.  The expression on Cass’s face shows that he knows what fate awaits him.  He is resigned.

Political cartoon showing Martin Van Buren and others attempting to cross Salt River

Here, presidential candidates of 1848 attempt to cross Salt River to reach the White House.  Martin Van Buren (who often figures in these Salt River fantasies) is shown piggybacking on the shoulders of his son, John, a popular figure whom many expected to equal his father in fame one day.  And the other men, submerged and in danger of drowning?  These are Van Buren’s rivals, including Horace Greeley.  On the bank sits a Greeley ally, who declines to save him.

Cartoon showing James Polk and his Democratic allies sailing up Salt River

This 1844 cartoon shows candidate James Polk and his Democratic Party allies.  Polk was a dark-horse candidate who many sensed would cause trouble for his party. (They were right.)  Perched on the edge of a dingy that a steamboat is towing, he towers over his party’s elders, who are oblivious to the disaster looming.  They believe that they are still on the Ohio.  Polk, knowing the truth, isn’t worried.  Equipped with the body of a long-legged wading bird, he’s perfectly capable of reaching safety.  Alone.  While Van Buren blithely expresses delight at being near “the headwaters of navigation,” Polk, noting the water growing shallow, prepares to take off.

At times, Salt River could become positively crowded with victims, as in 1854, when the Democrats routed the Whig Party, a defeat that spelled an end to the party for good.  Here, the Democrats drive their Whig opponents into the briny river with malicious glee.

Looks like fun, doesn’t it?  Salt River, anyone?

Cartoon map of Salt River showing its hazards and un-navigability(Courtesy Library of Congress))


All images courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division
of the Library of Congress

(top to bottom):
Rowing Him Up Salt River (1848)
Fording Salt River (1848)
Polk & Co. Going Up Salt River (1844)
Terrible Rout & Total Destruction of the Whig Party in Salt River (1852)
A Correct Chart of Salt River (1848)
Click on any title for more information.

Is the Republican Party Dying?

The question is in the air, so why not ask it?

I think the answer is no.  But the question is out there because the Republican party is badly divided, in a way that many of us have never seen.  As a historian, I think that maybe this is what a party looks like when it’s beginning to go.  Like long ago when the once all-powerful Federalists petered out and ceased to matter nationally (circa 1820); or when the high-minded Whig Party gave up the ghost, startlingly soon after getting Zachary Taylor into the White House (circa 1850).  Or when the Democratic Party split in two on the eve of the Civil War, its members suddenly riven over slavery.

Parties do die, of course; but no major party has died in a very long time.  Our 20th-century parties are much hardier and more redoubtable institutions than were their counterparts 150 years ago.  That, in itself, is an argument against the Republican Party disappearing.

The GOP has a big problem, though.  Its conservative wing is weakening the party, in the sense of compromising its appeal to moderates.  This is something I’ve written about several times.  Over the past five years, the GOP establishment made a couple of costly mistakes, as when John McCain chose his “game-changing” running-mate, or when the Republican leadership decided to embrace the uncompromising Tea Partiers rather than cut them loose.  Had the Tea Party been treated as a distinct third party, the limits of its appeal would have become evident, and by now it would have been dead.  Instead, in the aftermath of the mid-term elections, congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner proclaimed that there was no difference between themselves and the Tea Party, with the consequence that the Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

It’s a problem the party itself could solve, and perhaps it will.  It could enforce some kind of ideological discipline through the instrument of the party platform or disavow some of its members who, in their fervor, have assailed some of the country’s most sacred national principles, such as the separation of church and state or the independence of the judiciary.  These are not creations of a particular party; they are features of our Constitution that the Founding Fathers labored to establish and that we have a duty to take seriously, and even revere.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that spatial and social segregation is a factor perpetuating the moderate-conservative divide.  Remember those maps Richard Florida did a few years ago, showing that people of higher education and means were becoming geographically concentrated in particular areas of the US, along the coasts, and near cities?  This type of migration, along with increased social stratification, has produced a country where people of different types no longer live together or interact as they did formerly.  The social relationships so fostered were politically moderating.  Instead, we see the demographic divide being replicated in the results of recent Republican primaries, resulting in a protracted struggle between Mitt Romney and his conservative-backed rivals.

Going forward, this balkanization will assure the conservatives of continued strength in Congressional races, governorships, and state legislatures.  Whether this mix of conditions will serve the Republican Party as a whole well in the years ahead remains to be seen.

RELATED AND NEWER:
Susan Barsy, The Incredible Shrinking GOP, Our Polity, November 2012.
Ryan Lizza, “Can The GOP Save Itself?“, The New Yorker, March 2012.

Fiscal Policy is Not Economic Policy

One of the strange features of the period we are living in is that discussions of fiscal and monetary policy have pretty much preempted a more direct examination of structural problems in the American economy.  These topics have become our obsession, precluding direct debate about what sort of economy we want to be.

Perhaps because Americans are phobic about the idea of having a larger economic vision, we do not talk about how we would like the various parts of our economy to function together for our greatest well-being.  Instead, we talk about monetary policy (the Fed and the money supply) and fiscal policy (the role of government as a taxing and spending agent), as though getting these two parts of the equation right will, in themselves, produce a national economy that is prosperous and serves the various needs of the citizenry.

Perhaps it’s inevitable, because these are the two parts of our vast economic system over which officialdom can hope to exert control.  Almost occluded is the whole world of work—the whole world of enterprise—, the aggregate shape of which should always be our main point of reference.  Anti-statists though we are, we focus on government action more than on what American workers and companies are actually doing, or on the cultural and practical developments that could help them continue more happily, successfully, and harmoniously.

Instead, all roads lead back to the government, the federal government, which, as the economy has grown, so too has it, grown to be a huge economic agent, one so huge and complex that citizens can scarcely apprehend its many functions.  The government’s role as an employer—as a regulator—as a consumer—is massive.

Readers of this website have noted already that, while public discussion of government spending often focuses on social benefits distributed to the ill, the poor, and elderly, the government gives mightily to other economic actors, whether in the form of tax breaks, farm subsidies, employment, military spending, or other government contracts, forming a great gift-cycle that is myriad and so circular!  Because, of course, we pay our part for all of these things.  It’s all so different from the days, long long ago, when there were no income taxes, and the government’s main functions were running the P.O. and sending farmers experimental seeds!

Notwithstanding the benefits that might follow from keeping our sights trained on creating opportunities for American labor and improving the character of our own economic activities, we are entering a period when fiscal policy will remain at the center of public consciousness, where more and more attention will be trained on issues of taxation, and on tax reform itself, of all things.

Federal Revenues & Expenses as a Percent of GDP, 1981-2012

Image: from this source

RELATED:
The Map of Federal Benefits
Help Understanding the Federal Budget
Eduardo Porter, “A Nation With Too Many Tax Breaks,” New York Times, 14 March 2012.
GRAPHIC: “Who Gets the Breaks and Benefits,” New York Times, 14 March 2012.
Tracy Gordon, “What States Can, And Can’t, Teach the Federal Government About Budgets,” Brookings, March 2012.
GRAPHIC: “Government Spending by Level, as a Percentage of GDP,” Brookings.

Off-Beat Graphics

Detail of HistoryShot's "History of the Political Parties, Part I)

Writing about critical elections made me aware of how difficult it is to describe all the different political parties that have existed in the US over time.  So I was fascinated to discover this firm, called HistoryShots, that makes some pretty remarkable graphical representations.  The one that caught my eye is a snaky-looking thing showing the tortuous history of the political parties, but there are others with titles like “The Genealogy of Pop and Rock Music”  and “The History of Dow-Jones Industrials.”

I love a good visual!

The Political Animal at Rest

Production still of Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason

Aristotle conceived of us as political animals, attaining complete fulfillment only through participation in political life.  If true, this interminable campaign season should be one of our happiest times.

Thrilled as we may be with the eat-drink-politics character of the weeks unfolding, we must be on guard: some 235 days remain before the general election.  Political animals are highly sensitive, and have been known to be susceptible to sudden mood swings.  For such high-strung creatures, political engagement 24/7 simply isn’t healthy.

Happily, their forebears have created a magnificent canon of diverting novels and movies, whether about campaigning and the presidency, or about Washington, government, paranoia, political eras, or the political bug more generally.  Just the other day, I saw a love story set against the unlikely backdrop of the G8.  Pastimes for the political?  There are endless possibilities.  Not all are great works by any means: some are fantastic, some hard-hitting, others irreverent or downright silly.  But they speak to a political animal’s recreational needs by furnishing an excuse to think about politics by other means.

Walter Brennan in Frank Capra's 1941 film, "Meet John Doe"

Today’s recommended diversion: Meet John Doe (1941), an old chestnut by Frank Capra that seems tailor-made for our times.  With its Depression-crazed characters struggling in the grip of an all-destroying capitalism, the film reads like something straight out of Occupy.  Gary Cooper is Long John Willoughby, a down-and-out ballplayer who, for the sake of 50 dollars, agrees to become “John Doe,” a symbolic everyman he knows to be a journalistic fraud.  Barbara Stanwyck is journalist Ann Mitchell, scheming to make John Doe a sensation out of professional vanity and for the sake of keeping her job.  Both become better humans as they struggle against D.B. Norton (is that D.B. for Dollar Bills?), an oil-turned-newspaper baron intent on controlling politics and public opinion.  Walter Brennan nearly steals the show as Willoughby’s sidekick “the Colonel,” a fellow bum who is the moral center of the movie.  His classic warning against “the heelots” is a must-see.

Meet John Doe is in the public domain.  You can watch it immediately in its entirety via YouTube or the Internet Archive.  Go for it.  Because you know what?  The real thing’ll still be there in a few hours’ time.

Image (top): Publicity still for Meet John Doe
with Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason,
from this source.

Image (bottom): Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe,
public domain.

New ‘Critical Elections’ Page

Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson, McKinley, FDR, & Reagan

So many readers come to my site looking for “Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections” that I have moved this essay to its own new page, where it’s easier to read in its entirety.  It can be accessed by clicking on the permanent new “Critical Elections” link on the main menu, above; or click here.

On the new page, the recap of our six critical elections has been combined with an analysis of the 2008 election to form a single piece, as originally intended.

Thanks to everyone who has visited the site–I enjoy writing for you.

New Democrats

One of the strange things about the Democratic Party is that it’s only had two major ideological phases in its very long life.  In the first phase of its life—from 1828 to 1932—it was the party of less government, states’ rights, and laissez-faire.  In the second phase—dating from 1932 to the present—it’s been the party of big government, activist government, and more dedicated than the Republicans to the rights of the people.

Even though the Democratic Party is full of good people who believe they have right on their side, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Republican Party is more vinegary, more organized and interesting.  Perhaps because long ago the Democratic Party believed in “letting everyone be,” its members (and I’m talking now about its ordinary members, not about leading Democrats) tend to let the Republicans hog the spotlight and get away with all kinds of outrageous things.  The Democratic Party plays defense, but as a whole its members are not organized and energized to PREVAIL in defining the character of our political life.  This is why we are always focused on the Republican Party, with its weird leaders, its mama grizzlys, its Bible thumpers, its dark strategists like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.

This is a shame, because it’s obvious that there is a lot of work the Democratic party, root and branch, could be doing.  If Democrats thought like Republicans, they would be out there in the vast “red” districts of the South and West, working to strengthen their base by reminding voters of the true civic traditions of this country.  They would be active in school districts, where the Republicans are rewriting history with misleading textbooks and charter schools.  If Democrats thought like Republicans, they would be busy trying to capitalize on Obama’s considerable star-power by tossing out their old ideas and fashioning a new ideological message, around which a vast army of moderates and independents could rally.

Instead, despite the palpably weak condition of the Republican Party, most Democrats are sitting on the sidelines, just laying bets on whether or not Obama will manage to squeak through and resigned to the prospect of losing more seats in Congress.  Yet this is a time when the Democrats (given a more can-do mentality) could have been on the offense, mobilizing to make substantial gains in both Congress and state governments.

It’s funny, because you can see Obama trying to articulate some of the elements of a New Democratic ideology.  But, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is a task that “takes a village”: reshaping a party’s message is too big a job for any one person.  You can see big Bill off on the side, like the party’s guardian angel, doing his “smart government” thing.  It may be a little more retro than I’d like, but he, too, is trying to get the Dems to move to new ground.

The Democrats may be approaching a tipping point, where they flip a switch—choose to leap into the present—and articulate a crystal-clear “New Democrat” ideology.  If I had my way, that ideology would embrace not just the green, but the local.  It would emphasize smart, rather than big.  It would pioneer a decentralization of the federal government.  And it would tout an economy based not on continued global expansion, but on the shrewd husbandry of our own great national and human capital.  It would be far more protective, more civic, and more inward looking.

This is just one vision, and there’ve gotta be many.  So, to all you New Democrats out there, I say: Get talking.

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