Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Legacy of the 1912 Progressive Party

The National Tea Party Convention will be held in April at Memphis, Tennessee.   Although the conservative insurgency held a convention last February, its heightened visibility  in 2010 is likely to lead to more ambitious efforts. 

Also last year,  tea-party activists developed an informal, grassroots-generated Contract from America platform.  The brief document specifies several general principles. 

This movement has some indebtedness to congressional Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America.  Tapping into dissatisfaction with President Bill Clinton’s policies, House Republicans used their “contract” to  pick up 54 seats.

Popular agitation inside and outside political parties has had an important influence since the 19th century.  Although chiefly characterized as a two-party system, American political history is more fluid than that designation would imply.

Major parties such as the Federalists and the Whigs are long gone.   The philosophy of parties also has fluctuated.  Early 19th century Democrats emphasized states’ rights and rural ideals.  Lincoln’s Republican party expanded the role of the national government during the Civil War. 

The direction of the Republican party was contested between conservatives and moderates for much of the last century. The so-called “Eastern Establishment” seized control in the 1940s and held it until  the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which ushered in the current period of conservative dominance of the party.

And yet, any review of 20th century politics needs to carefully look at the Progressive party and its seemingly failed effort in the 1912 presidential election.  More commonly known as the “Bull Moose party,”  this  insurgent effort lost the election but, eventually, achieved its goals.

Here’s the background.  Theodore Roosevelt, who greatly broadened the reach of the federal government and the presidency between 1901 and 1909, handpicked his Republican successor, William Howard Taft.  Taft proved to be less of a reformer than his mentor, and TR unsuccessfully challenged  him for the Republican nomination in 1912.  

Roosevelt and his followers then held their own political convention which  nominated him as the standard bearer and also produced a platform entitled  A Contract with the People.

The bitter split between Taft and Roosevelt ensured the victory of Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.  But the Progressives’ platform, a manifesto for political reform and government expansion, achieved broad success in subsequent years.

A Contract with the People states:  “This country belongs to the people who inhabit it.  Its resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.”

It  called for women’s suffrage; popular election of senators; health, safety and food standards; an eight-hour work day and eliminating child labor; stricter regulation of business; an inheritance tax; campaign reform; and other measures. 

The electoral success of third parties, including the Progressives, is spotty at best.  But third parties, insurgent movements and grassroots efforts have often had an important impact on public policy.

Dissatisfaction with the direction of the government, whether from the left or right, has a long tradition.  Because American politics is also characterized by a swinging pendulum, it is unclear whether any outside effort will be successful.  But activists are well advised to look at both  short-term goals and a long-term vision.

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