Woodrow Wilson Casts His Ballot

Woodrow Wilson Casts His Ballot, 1912 (Courtesy Princeton University Library via Flickr Commons)

I’d been looking for an excuse to write about Woodrow Wilson when Monday’s presidential debate, with its exchange over “horses and bayonets” and the WWI navy, came along especially to encourage me.

An interesting cache of photographs put online by the Woodrow Wilson Library includes this one of Wilson casting his ballot in the presidential election of 1912.  Wilson, then governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate for president, won the election in a landslide.

The photograph, with its mesh ballot receptacle, handwritten records, and air of social intimacy, casts doubt on some time-honored political verities.  How free and fair were the elections conducted with this “technology”?  Did our elective process, so often derided as “broken,” really work better in an earlier day?

In 1912, most black Americans were barred or discouraged from voting.  Community norms and party interests inflected how election rules were applied.  Until the ‘Australian’ ballot was universally adopted, casting a vote was a social act, not granted any privacy.  And party loyalty was the grease that kept the machinery running: for much of the nineteenth century, “voting” typically meant nothing more than delivering to the poll a ballot that your party had already completed for you.

Wilson’s ascent coincided with a move toward a more participatory democracy.  In 1912, US senators were still elected, not by the populace, but by the state legislatures.  A Constitutional amendment changing that would be ratified the next year.  The nominating conventions of 1912 were historic, because they were the first to include delegates chosen, not by party operatives, but by popular votes cast in the nation’s first presidential primaries.

*     *     *

A scholar-statesman not unlike Barack Obama, Wilson, a noted professor of political science and former president of Princeton University, spent just two years as New Jersey’s chief executive before catapulting to the presidency.

His path to the White House was more than a little unlikely.  The 1912 election pitted him against three other candidates: the Socialist Eugene Debs, incumbent President William Taft, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, the latter two representing the Conservative and Progressive wings of the Republican Party, respectively.  Only deep divisions within the Republican Party enabled Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor, to succeed.  Wilson had been a dark horse in the fight for his party’s nomination, triumphing over the favorite, James Beauchamp Clark, a popular House Speaker, in the eleventh hour.

Wilson’s agenda was progressive and sophisticated, but the fractious political environment prevented him from realizing many of his cherished visions, dealing him some notable humiliations instead.  In 1913, John McCutcheon drew this cartoon drubbing Wilson’s first-year performance, yet in the succeeding years Wilson presided over many liberal reforms (e.g. women’s suffrage) and fiscal innovations (e.g. the income tax) that shape our political landscape today.  While Wilson’s approach to the Great War was adroit, he suffered a rebuke heard round the world when a Republican-controlled Senate jettisoned US participation in the new League of Nations and refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.  (Unbelievably, Wilson was the first US president to make an official trip abroad when he traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty in 1919.)

Image: Wilson voting in New Jersey, from this source.

Stephen Colbert on the recent attacks against the 17th Amendment here.

A Great White Nation of Self-Made Men

The Republican National Convention created a strange impression, painting a peculiar picture of the US economy and its citizens’ woes.  Not only the present was distorted, but history, too.  I listened carefully to what the speakers and party-sponsored commercials praised, and compared it to the nation and the realities I knew.   There was a huge gap between the two.

America is at a cross-roads for many reasons, among them the fact that several enormous historical advantages we’ve enjoyed are waning.  The nation that once enjoyed an immense over-supply of land and relative scarcity of labor has matured into a nation where resources are becoming more precious and the population is more and more exposed to underemployment and fierce competition.  Global change is reinforcing the trend.  Yet rather than acknowledge or adjust to the change, Republicans have decided to dismiss it and argue that a flawed president is to blame.  Only bad people stand between us and the restoration of the nation’s former glory.

No credit was allowed to the great federal structure that allowed us to flourish in the first place, nor to the amazing natural inheritance that sustains the US—superior natural resources that should be husbanded rather than squandered or spoiled.

The vast historic role of the state in nation-building went unacknowledged—was belittled, even.  Rand Paul jeered at the idea that infrastructure investment creates prosperity, insisting the opposite was somehow the case.  Try telling that to the great 19th-century railway magnates, who depended entirely on land grants and laws enacted by Congress to create their lines.  Or to the era’s land-speculators, who knew that towns would grow mainly where railroads were placed.  Or to the first telegraph companies, whose networks piggybacked on the railroad rights-of-way that federal legislation had so thoughtfully made.  Without the federal government, states would have built useless networks of dead-end roads.

Even America’s private enterprises might have remained small had it not been for the protection that early Supreme Court decisions gave them.  Without such protection, all corporate entities would have been stymied, including those that built the nation’s first roads, bridges, and schools.

The Republicans committed other disturbing elisions.  I listened to the praise for families; I admired the attractiveness of Jenna Ryan and Ann Romney; their picture-perfect children were impressive, too.  The world of the 2012 Republicans is a world of stay-at-home mothers who don’t need to worry about limiting their family size or figuring out how to feed an additional mouth.  It’s a world where there’s plenty of time for charity, because the fortunate people in it somehow have plenty to spare.  And that’s good, because in this Republican world, government help is bad.  All we want, Paul Ryan tells us, is to be left alone.

Absent was any acknowledgment of the demographic trends of the last several decades, which have seen the rise of delayed child-bearing, increased family limitation and planning, and the rise of two-career couples working outside the home.  The party celebrated its female members—but these women apparently never needed a student loan, never needed protection from workplace bias, never needed family planning or contraception while single.  One must suppose this, because the Republicans have been active in opposing, attacking, and weakening the structure of support that has enabled more American women to gain education, control reproduction, contribute more to the family economy, and earn decent livings.

Without such support, how are young women supposed to take care of themselves and their families?  Implicit in the worldview paraded at the convention is that marriage in itself provides wives and mothers with adequate financial protection.  Yet the number of women living the dream that the beautiful Republican spouses embody is painfully few.

The Republican convention’s treatment of race was perhaps most astonishing.  The party sought to promote itself as a “brand” friendly to minorities, despite the fact that it has been working hard in states such as Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to raise voting requirements, restrict early voting, and redraw districts in a way that make it harder for minorities to vote or gain representation.

I was agog at efforts to depict President Obama as a lazy, do-nothing character who did not understand struggle, success, or hard work.  It was a “dog-whistle” portrayal of a super-high-achieving guy that played off of deeply engrained racial stereotypes.  The topper came when Clint Eastwood re-imagined the president as someone who was anti-social and vulgar, enacting a racist fantasy (perhaps unwittingly) at the close of his imaginary dialogue with the president by encouraging the crowd to chant “Make My Day.”  We all know what happens to low-lifes who dare to mess with Dirty Harry.

It was a shameful spectacle spelling a new nadir for the G. O. P.

RELATED:
The Map of Federal Benefits, Our Polity.

Moment of Truth for GOP’s Conservative Wing

‘Be careful what you wish for’ is an old saying.  For nearly a generation, social conservatives have been pushing to reorganize American life around their strict vision of the world, an effort that has received a boost in recent years when the kindred Tea Party emerged.  The two movements, which could never have achieved majority status on their own, are poised to score a significant victory in their quest by seizing control of the Republican Party.  Moderate Republicans, who have chosen a strategy of accommodation and appeasement, are facing the destruction of their party from inside.

A minority grows bold
Conservatives are betting that their views are a majority: that’s why they are uninterested in compromise.  That’s why they’ve conducted vigorous state-level efforts to dislodge moderate Republicans from Congress, a dreaded process moderates refer to as being “primaried from the right.”  Conservatives have ousted moderates because they believe they don’t need them.  Now, with the Republican convention going on, the moderates’ position is growing more embarrassing, as their status as captives of the right becomes clearer every day.

Romney’s success in the presidential primaries should have been a caution to conservatives: a reminder that moderation is still a more more marketable quality than any of the varieties of conservatism that Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum were peddling.  Despite the vast media attention these conservatives received, their pull at the polls proved paltry.  Yet the pull to the right is so inexorable that Romney, once nominated, felt compelled to choose a conservative running mate, when he might have been better served by choosing a seasoned moderate Republican who knows something about foreign policy.

Moderate Republicans lack a leader who can demonstrate control
There is no moderate Republican strong enough to restrain the conservative wing and demonstrate that moderates remain firmly in control.  Figures like House Speaker John Boehner have struggled unsuccessfully to marshal conservative forces and yoke them to an efficacious national agenda.  But conservatives, enjoying their power, won’t compromise.  The Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

The party platform is a humiliation for moderates
The Republican party platform is the new humiliation—a socially retrograde document that moderates must attempt to explain away.  Virginia governor Bob McDonnell took a stab at it last night, when he tried to convince Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour that the party’s platform represented only ‘the grassroots’ but wasn’t really a binding statement of what all Republicans believed.  Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers also appeared on the show, disavowing Todd Akin’s comments on ‘legitimate rape’ as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘wrong’ while trying to minimize the implications of such views and the fact that many in her party harbor them.  McDonnell also tried to dismiss the objectionable planks by claiming they were ‘small issues’ and just a ‘small part’ of what Republicans believe.

As moderates’ influence wanes, chances increase that the right will destroy the GOP
Yet if these opinions are not representative of the Party, why couldn’t party leaders keep them out of the platform?  Signs of ideological strain within the GOP are mounting, again raising the question, “Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?”—a question I explored here several months ago.

The November election represents a moment of truth for conservatives and the GOP.  At that moment, we will discover whether conservatives’ assumptions are right: whether the backward-looking vision they espouse is one that a national majority cherishes, too.  And if they are wrong?  They will have destroyed the Grand Old Party in pursuit of their dreams.

RELATED ARTICLES:
S. Barsy, Bring Back The Platform, Our Polity.
S. Barsy, Should Leaders Who Can’t Govern Their Party Govern the Country?, Our Polity.
S. Barsy, 2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II), Our Polity.
A. Nagourney, A Party of Factions Gathers, Seeking Consensus, New York Times.

A President Without a Party? Americans Elect

Have you heard of this?  Americans Elect is an online method for nominating and electing a president without the aid of a party.  It’s an intriguing if problematic experiment that’s gotten a lot of press this election season.  Thomas L Friedman praised it as a well thought-out initiative that could demolish our “two-party duopoly.”  As late as last week, an enthusiastic Douglas Schoen of The Daily Beast proclaimed “it’s not too late” for Americans Elect to produce November’s winning ticket.  (Wikipedia identifies Mr Schoen as a paid consultant for AE.)  Supporters expect AE’s momentum to build in the next few months, as the remaining Republican candidates are winnowed.

The idea of Americans Elect is so seductive.  Just visit its website: it’s as simple and pristine as a new Apple computer.  With its childlike graphics and cheery colors, it makes politics seem so uncomplicated and straightforward.  You will be walked through the steps of political participation.  All you need to do is supply your email address (every trust relationship begins with that these days), check a few boxes regarding your political values, fill in the blanks regarding your favorite candidates, and—wah-la!—you have circumvented everything you loathe about the parties and pushed the country one step toward a brighter future.  Or have you?

The premise of Americans Elect is that “the voice” of “the people” is being distorted and disregarded, and that the nation will be better off if we eliminate all political intermediaries.  Americans Elect aspires to get rid of parties (which it pictures as impeding the rise of the best leaders) by crowd-sourcing the nominating process and the (snakier) task of platform-building.  Leave behind the mess of face-to-face politicking!  We can achieve a better outcome impersonally, with the aid of quantification and the newest technology.  This is the gist of Americans Elect’s appeal.

To my mind, AE’s fails to identify our system’s real demons.  We do not need “more democracy.”  I’m not sure we even need better leaders.  We do need better ideas and a reining-in of excesses in the way political candidates and partisans campaign.  In the meantime, Americans Elect is a legitimate expression of frustration: a way for voters to threaten the security of the Democratic and Republican Parties, which have turned into such behemoths that it’s hard to imagine how to supplant them or get them to change.  The difficulties of creating a competitive new national party are daunting.  It could be done, but it hasn’t—not for the last 150 years.

Nonetheless, isn’t building that party better than embracing the alternative Americans Elect is offering, which is to elect a president dependent on—nobody?  Whose only debt is to the electorate, considered abstractly?  Parties constrain the executive by placing him or her under obligation to a brokering community.  Historically, presidents have been constrained—in a good way—by a large community of peers, who are party statesmen.  Americans Elect aims to create an executive untrammeled by any such obligation.  “Pick a president, not a party,” its slogan proclaims.  This atomized notion of leadership would make the Founding Fathers, who were all members of the political elites of their states, turn in their graves.

Will AE be the wild card of 2012?  And what kind of ticket will it field?  Despite its non-partisan stance (apolitical, really), Americans Elect must itself become a party or fail.  Even as it effects a technological end-run around this eventuality, outside forces require its transformation from the virtual to the real.  The process has begun already.  The organization has been engaged in a massive signature drive (using paid organizers) so that, once its presidential ticket has been selected, its choice will appear on ballots nationwide.  Meanwhile, questions regarding AE’s personnel, financing, field operations, organizational status, and lack of transparency are swirling.  No matter how they are resolved, this intriguing experiment forces us to think again about why we need parties and the work we count on the parties to do.

RELATED:
Newsweek
article by Andrew Romano
Wikipedia entry on Americans Elect
Comments re. Americans Elect on Fred Wilson’s blog AVC

Bring Back The Platform!

Political textile advertising the Republican ticket of McKinley & Hobart (1896)
1896 textile proclaiming the principles and candidates of the Republican Party.
Courtesy Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons.

I get tired of the politics of personality, and when that happens I find myself wishing that the party platform was still an important part of American politicking.  Back in the day, the platform was a formally arrived-at set of principles that all the party’s candidates “stood upon.”  Platforms had “planks”, and these were “hammered out” at the same conventions where party delegates settled on a presidential nominee.  Being on the platform committee was a big deal, and sometimes battles over planks were as suspenseful and heated as the question of who the party’s nominee would be.  The platform was important, because it was binding and because it charted a course for the party.  During the long period in our history when most Americans never so much as glimpsed the people they were electing, platforms gave citizens another, perhaps more reliable, way to identify not so much with a candidate, as with a party.

Buttons advertising the 1896 Democratic ticket
Campaign buttons advertising the stands of the 1896 Democratic Party.  Nominee William Jennings Bryan ran on a platform of reform and a silver-backed currency.  So-called “silver bugs” hoped to triumph over the “gold bugs” of Wall Street.
Image courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons.

The parties still have platforms, but they’re unimportant today.  At least as far back as Eisenhower, parties began fudging on their platforms, in the belief that bland compromises would maximize the votes their candidates could snag.  The platform received another blow in the television age.  When the networks began live coverage of the conventions, they decided that the platform was boring.  Why give air time to such a tedious process?  As for the parties, they worried that strife over the platform would embarrass them and make them look iffy.  So the platform was eventually removed from the stage.

Too bad, because platforms efficiently accomplished many important ends, and, today, increased reliance on them could carry many advantages.  For instance:

1. Platforms make best use of the ideas floating around within a party.  To create a compelling platform, party members must consider what interlocking set of ideas will best serve their larger interests and aims.  In what amounts to an exercise in “wholesale politics,” pols pause to consider how to make their stands palatable to the voting majority.  In such an exercise, Democrats might be forced to consider, for example, how their desire for greater equality and opportunity could be made to gibe with the smaller, more efficient, government Americans crave.

2. Platforms differentiate between dominant and minority views.  This sort of clarity is badly needed in the Republican party, where extreme views, whether social or fiscal, are in danger of tearing the party in two.  Platform debates create an opportunity to air and resolve some potential sources of strife before party members take office, and provide a definitive gauge of when a minority view has gained enough traction that all members of a party accept and endorse it.  Does the GOP as a whole really want to embrace the balanced-budget pledge that some members have signed?  Does it really want to repeal universal health care?  Oppose same-sex marriage?  If so, put it in the platform.  If not:

3. Political minorities know who they are.  By establishing which are minority views, platforms enhance party discipline and make it clear when individual politicians are deviating–not just on the stump but when governing.  Rather than allowing political minorities undue influence, as we do today, we should be encouraging them to form their own distinct parties, thus forcing them to confront the weakness of their position vis-à-vis the voting majority.  The Republican Party has made a terrible mistake in allowing its conservative wing so much influence, when it has been clear since at least 2008 that American voters as a whole abhor ultra-conservative views such as those that Rick Santorum has been articulating.

4. Platforms constrain the executive, while making the job of president easier.   Historically, the president has been styled as the “standard-bearer” of a party.  Up until the time of Teddy Roosevelt, it was understood that the president was a party figurehead, who, besides carrying out his constitutional duties, would faithfully adhere to a course of action that his party had already articulated and communally endorsed.  The presidency requires independent judgment and action, of course, but, as we have seen in the Obama administration, chaos results when the president gets too much ahead of his party and insists on acting as an engine of change.  Party platforms promote smooth governance because, through them, the president and his party’s representatives in Congress are bound to a mutually agreed-upon set of ideas and to what are judged to be attainable goals.

Overall, an emphasis on shared ideas could mitigate our increasing preoccupation with individual actors and their opinions.  Our political system demands that majorities organize themselves and act harmoniously, and it requires leaders in the legislative and executive branches who can acknowledge and embrace their interdependence.  Platforms, by emphasizing what is mainstream and attainable, contribute to the achievement of these aims.

McKinley Campaign Poster
1896 poster envisioning the consequences of the Republican Party’s protectionist platform vs. that of the Democrats, which called for free trade.  Note how nominees are depicted as flag-bearers who will advance what a whole party believes.
Courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons.
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