Last week we took a brief look at the Republican and Progressive candidates during the presidential campaign of 1912. After all, when it was first formed the Progressive Party was simply an offshoot of the Republican Party, whatever it has become in the century since its founding. Today we look at the Democrat and Socialist candidates . . . which also used to be somewhat more differentiated than they have become over the past century or so.
The Candidates: Wilson and Bryan
|William Jennings Bryan, "the Great Commoner."|
The populist William Jennings Bryan had been the acknowledged leader of the Democratic Party ever since the presidential campaign of 1896. As the party had not managed to gain the presidency in that time, a change was clearly needed. The party chose New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University.
They could not have picked anyone who less epitomized either populist or progressive ideals. Wilson was an elitist, a capitalist of the old school. His philosophy of government was taken directly from Walter Bagehot, as Wilson’s 1885 doctoral dissertation, Congressional Government, demonstrates.
|Wilson, student of Bagehot|
Bagehot, who despised America and its institutions, greatly admired the totalitarian philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Perhaps not surprisingly, Keynesian economics, in development at this time, also relied heavily on Bagehot’s elitist political economy and complete dependence on past savings to finance new capital formation — which mandates concentrated ownership of capital.
Wilson’s record as a leader left much to be desired. As president of Princeton he had, after an initial period of some success, instigated controversies that devastated the university, leaving “a deep scar on the University that did not heal for many years.” Wilson had tried to centralize all power at the university directly under his control, claiming, “he was fighting for democracy.” As the historian Arthur S. Link (1920-1998), an authority on Wilson, commented,
[The controversies] highlighted grave defects in Wilson’s character and quality of leadership — for example, his unfailing habit of converting differences over issues into bitter personal quarrels, his proud and unyielding stubbornness, and his inability to work with the opposition.
|Bagehot, student of Hobbes|
Wilson’s claims to be supporting democracy were not necessarily hypocritical. His understanding, and possibly his definition of the term, derived from that of Bagehot. As we will see later, Bagehot’s concept of “democracy” was that the financial and economic elite should rule for the benefit of the “lower” orders, which presumably are inherently incapable of taking care of themselves.
Fortunately for the Democratic Party, the principal capitalists were all Republicans of the Aldrich stripe. Wilson’s original campaign plan seems to have been to attack the Old Guard as Republicans, rather than as capitalists. This allowed the party to disavow Bryan’s rather soft socialism, Wilson being a harsh critic of Byron’s brand of populism.
A harsh critic, that is, until it became increasingly clear that popular sentiment demanded reform, and the standard conservative line of either party was unacceptable. Wilson had begun by speaking in generalities and vaguely of the need for reform, concentrating on the tariff. This made Wilson as unelectable as Taft, whom many assumed (quite rightly) to be sitting in Aldrich’s pocket.
At all cost Wilson’s strategy and image had to change (his tactics and personality continued to leave people cold), or the progressive Democrats and the populists would desert their party as the progressive Republicans had split from theirs. All three groups would go to Roosevelt, handing the Colonel a landslide victory. Fortunately for Wilson’s campaign, “His political convictions . . . were never as fixed as his ambition.”
|Roosevelt, the man to beat.|
In other words, Wilson was driven by the desire for power, and could easily adjust his public position to whatever was required to attain it. Wilson continued to talk about the tariff (a moribund issue), but had the charismatic Bryan do his campaigning for him in the Midwest, where Roosevelt had been gaining a large measure of support.
The Candidates: Eugene V. Debs
Including Debs, the Socialist Party of America’s choice, among the list of major candidates in the 1912 campaign, might come across as something of an afterthought or a footnote. That is unfortunate, for Debs’s participation in the campaign is notable on two counts.
One, it was the first — and last (until we see what happens with Bernie Sanders) — time that an avowed socialist candidate managed to gain so large a share of the vote. While finishing a distant fourth behind Taft, Debs garnered nearly a million popular votes, although no electoral votes.
Two, the fact that a socialist could do so well in the presidential election demonstrates as nothing else could the dire situation of the country. Most Americans despised outright socialism as un-American. They had, however, come to accept a large part of the socialist platform under different names, especially since the Panic of 1893, and the effective end of “free” land under the Homestead Act. This meant that capital ownership would in the future as a rule be reserved to those rich enough to save, or lucky or skillful enough to manipulate the system to their own advantage — and the socialists were quick to capitalize on the resentment this caused.
 Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 8.
 John Maynard Keynes, “The Works of Bagehot,” The Economic Journal, 25:369–375 (1915).
 Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, op. cit., 9.
 Ibid. Oddly, Link later goes into raptures about Wilson’s leadership.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 10.
 Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 185-192.