Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

US Presidential Elections 1912 to 2012: What’s changed? What’s still the same?

English: Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Wondering what has changed in society and politics over the last 100 years, I looked back at the 1912 election–no time-machine jokes please. What I found was not encouraging.

Much was the same. The country was just coming out of a long recession (around two-years in both cases.) There was a lot of distrust between capital and labor, as people decried “corporate greed” and “labor violence.” In both 1912 and 2012, politicians spoke about the large wealth inequality between rich and poor, and the undemocratic influence of special interests and money in politics. The need for tax reform (also tariff reform in the case of 1912) was an issue. Moreover, both elections featured candidates repeating a call for “change.”

Turning to the candidates, the similarities end.

In 1912, there were four major candidates, all interesting figures, all with winning chances. The Republican Party, due to infighting between its progressive and conservative wings, split. Theodore Roosevelt, who had already served two terms as Vice President and President, left the Republican Convention and created his own Progressive Party, or the Bull Moose Party. William H. Taft, then, ran as the Republican candidate, although Roosevelt was clearly favored by the party rank and file. Woodrow Wilson, the popular, reform-minded governor of New Jersey, was the Democratic candidate. Finally, Eugene Debs, was the Socialist Party candidate operating on a shoestring budget but with a strong national following.

Taft had few chances, as he was becoming quite unpopular at the end of his first term as President. (He was seen as an out-of-touch aristocratic.) Debs was also not likely to win many electoral votes, especially since the major party candidates were advocating much of the reforms that working people aspired to.

This leaves us Wilson and Roosevelt to our Obama and Romney. However, because both Wilson and Roosevelt were running as progressives, both decrying corporate greed while advocating workers’ rights, it would be unfair (and perhaps meaningless) to compare the “severely conservative” Romney to either of them. In other words, Romney gets a free ride today.

On the other hand, comparing apples to apples, Obama the liberal to the two liberal-progressive candidates we can make some meaningful observations. Unfortunately, the comparisons, even looking only at experience and leaving aside achievements, are not very flattering to Mr. Obama.

Yes, both Barak Obama and Teddy Roosevelt touted “progressive credentials” and were Nobel Peace Prize recipients, one in 1906 the other in 2009. But whereas one was awarded prospectively for things he might do, Roosevelt was rewarded for ending a war and negotiating a peace between Russia and Japan in 1905. Whereas Obama served as an IL State Senator and later (a half-term) in the US Senate, Roosevelt had served in the New York State Assembly, in the Civil Service Commission, in the NY City Police Commission, as Governor of NY, as Secretary of the Navy, as colonel in the Spanish-American War, as Vice President, then as President, before he ran for office in 1912.

And Roosevelt was only 53 at the time.

Yes, both Barak Obama and Woodrow Wilson had accomplished many “progressive goals” in their respective States and both taught law and political science. But, whereas Obama was a part-time lecturer at the Chicago Law School, Wilson was a (extremely popular) professor at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan (where he was also football coach!), and finally professor and President (for eight years) of Princeton University, all before being elected Governor of New Jersey. Wilson’s two years as Governor were so remarkable that he’s often credited with revolutionizing American governorship.

Again, both Obama and Wilson are known as eloquent orators and intellectuals. But whereas Obama can deliver feel-good, sermon-like speeches, Wilson’s oratory was supposedly so impressive that his opponent, Teddy Roosevelt is reported to have said, “That Wilson. I do not know why I should be running against him.”

It seems what has changed is the caliber and experience of the candidates, while our problems are still the same.

FYI: Because Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, Wilson won an Electoral land-slide although he managed only 42% of the popular vote.
Wilson: 435, Roosevelt: 88, Taft: 8, Debs: 0

p.s. We could go on to compare the books by Roosevelt and Wilson written years before seeking office to Obama’s autobiographies, but let’s leave “Dreams” and “Hope” to Mr. Obama, who we wish might realize them someday.

Update on 1/3/2013:

Ralph Nader recently wrote his own comparison of the two elections that is well worth reading: http://bit.ly/RtMB0Z

I replied via email to him (as it was closed for comments):

Dear Mr. Nader,

Your timely piece reminds us that the early 20th century holds some political and legal lessons for or own era. I’d like to add two such reminders.

There is another side to the 1912 election, the legal side. Let’s not forget that this was the Lochner Era! Yes, Congress and Presidents of both Parties were competing to flaunt their progressiveness, but the Supreme Court was continually striking down social legislation—even going to the extreme of using the Sherman Antitrust Act to bust unions!! It was not until FDR’s second term and his famous court-packing threat that many of the era’s reforms were made effective.

Another aspect worth addressing: how did State legislatures, and later Congress, come round to supporting such reforms? In many cases it started with anti-corruption or anti-lobbying measures, such as Wisconsin’s Anti-railroad Pass law in 1899, that checked the power of monied interests. In that case, almost the entire WI Legislature and friends were accepting free transportation from the companies they were supposed to regulate.

Thanks for your work and wisdom!

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