The United States presidential campaign of 1912 was, all things considered, unique in American history.
|Socialist Candidate Eugene V. Debs|
It is common to say such things about one’s subject, of course, but in this case, we believe it is warranted. It is, for example, the only campaign in which two third parties played a significant role. These were the Progressive Party, which ran Theodore Roosevelt as its candidate, and the Socialist Party, which ran Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926).
Merely to acknowledge the fact of the third parties, even their importance in the campaign, however, is to lose sight of the critical issues involved, and the underlying reasons for the prominence of the third parties in the first place. The (relatively) recent furor over the “Tea Party” and the “Occupy Movement” focuses on the radical nature of their demands, and the unusual, not to say bizarre behavior of some participants and leaders. This obscures the fact that both were reactions, and in some measure responses, to some very serious and persistent problems in society.
Something, too, was seriously wrong in America at the turn of the last century. Possibly the most serious problem, however, was that no one was really quite sure either what to do about it, or (if they knew) how to do it.
|The Panic of 1893|
The Panic of 1893 had dealt what seemed a deathblow to the American Dream. A farm or a small business (landed, commercial, or industrial capital) now appeared to be out of reach of most people. More and more people were forced to rely on wage system jobs to generate an adequate and secure income.
Wage system jobs are fine when there are jobs, wages are high, workers are treated well, and — well, any number of “ands.” The real problem with wage system jobs, however, is that they impose a condition of dependency, of effective slavery, on people who are nominally free adults. This is a clear offense against the dignity and sovereignty of the human person, and obviously not the ideal arrangement for a just society.
There is also the problem that the wage system is inherently contradictory. It is geared toward garnering as much as possible with the least amount of effort. “More for less” is the unquestioned principle of wage system labor relations.
Say’s Law of Markets, the principle derived from Adam Smith’s first principle of economics (“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”) that underpins economic activity, however, is based on the assumption that to get more, you must produce more. The ordinary way to produce more with less effort is to own the technology (the capital) that produces. “More with less” is the principle of technology.
|R. Buckminster Fuller|
If, however, workers own no capital and thus can only produce (generate income) with their labor, their natural efficiency (the human tendency to do more with less — what R. Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization”), comes into direct conflict with economic reality: the fact that technology is capable of producing with little or no human input.
Propertylessness combined with the wage system in a technologically advanced economy thereby inserts a devastating contradiction into economic life: those who are productive through ownership of capital are forced to surrender what is rightfully theirs for the benefit of others who own no capital. The principle that Paul of Tarsus laid down, that those who are not productive shall not share in the benefits of production (“he who does not work, neither shall he eat”), is transformed into the socialist dogma, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
If the Panic of 1893 had killed the dream of the average American, the Panic of 1907 did the same to the economic and political elite, or at least shook them up. The weaknesses of the financial system revealed by the degree to which wealthy and powerful individuals such as J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) had been able to manipulate the system to their own benefit proved that laissez faire capitalist ideology and the unbridled “free” market (which was anything but free for the vast majority of people) was inadequate as the economic basis of a democratic society. Obviously, neither private sector nor public sector control of the economy was acceptable, as long as that control was concentrated in the hands of a few.
For their own survival, the financial elite had to let go of some power — or, at least, seem to surrender a degree of power. As ordinary people did not have access to the means to gain property, and thus power, that meant allowing the State to have more power . . . at least until the private sector elite could control the State — precisely as Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) had recommended in his economic and political analyses half a century before. Given that, it would not make too much difference whether the capitalist private sector or the socialist public sector controlled the economy, as long as the same people controlled both the private and the public sectors.
The question in the campaign of 1912 was what to do about the increasing powerlessness of ordinary people, and the concentration of power in both the private sector and public sector elites. Five primary responses developed. There were seemingly endless variations on these responses, but we think that the following is an adequate, if broad, summary:
· The first response (meaning the first we will look at, not the first to develop, or the first in importance) was the Republican capitalist or reactionary approach. To be as brief as possible, the capitalist position was that a well-run economy and a stable political order were best achieved by having a few private citizens own the bulk of capital. The State should leave well enough alone; the free market would function automatically to bring about just results, but only if meddling government bureaucrats would stop interfering in business and let the market do its job.
|William Jennings Bryan|
· The second response was the Democratic capitalist approach. This did not differ substantially from the Republican capitalist approach. Depending on the degree of loyalty and party politics, this could mean little or much to individuals and groups involved directly in politics, but virtually nothing to public at large.
· The third response was that of the progressives, originally linked with the Republicans. As “insurgents” against the “Old Guard” capitalist Republicans, progressives were willing to accept increased State regulation, even some measure of government control, in order to establish and maintain a level playing field and keep things together until equality of opportunity could be reestablished.
· The fourth response was that of the populists, linked, off and on, with the Democrats. Populism had, by this time, become imbued with socialist assumptions and ideology, largely as a result of focusing on the demand to impose desired results instead of establishing equal opportunity so people could gain desired results on their own. The degree of government control the populists believed necessary (as opposed to regulation) was, to all intents and purposes, the only thing separating them from the socialists.
· The fifth response was that of the socialists. Socialism was split into many factions, such as the georgists, the Fabians, and the Marxists, so it’s a little misleading to lump them all together. In very broad terms, however, the program was the same for all the socialists: the abolition of private property in capital, and government control of the economy to ensure desired results.
Progressivism thereby achieved a sort of “third way” between the Democratic and Old Guard Republican capitalists, and the populists and socialists. Accounting for the confusion in many people’s minds, even at the time, progressivism was, in a sense, a reaction to the decay of populism as much as it was an insurgent movement against the reactionary elements of the Republican Party.