In the previous posting on this subject, we discovered that the Republican Party had split into reactionary and progressive factions. The reactionary faction, the “Old Guard” Republicans, were the social and economic élite who had come into the Grand Old Party following the Civil War when it was the only game in town, the Democratic Party having been discredited.
Those who styled themselves “Lincoln Republicans” who did not turn Democrat (as did, for example, the agrarian socialist Henry George, the former Catholic-turned-spiritualist/New Age guru Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, and others), tended to favor the progressive cause as embodying the spirit of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
As for the Democrats and others. . . .
The Candidates: Wilson and Bryan
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.
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. (John Maynard Keynes, “The Works of Bagehot,” The Economic Journal, 25:369–375 (1915).)
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.
|William Jennings Bryan|
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.
. . . 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.”
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
|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 — 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.
The Candidates: Eugene W. Chafin
|Eugene W. Chafin|
Eugene W. Chafin (1852-1920), the Prohibition Party candidate, was born in East Troy, Wisconsin and worked as a lawyer in Waukesha, Wisconsin from 1876 to 1900. He was the Prohibition Party candidate for Congress (Wisconsin) in 1882 and (Chicago) in 1902, for Attorney-General of Wisconsin in 1886 and 1900, for Governor of Wisconsin in 1898, and for Attorney-General of Illinois in 1904. In 1908 he was appointed to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States and in the following year moved to Arizona. While in Arizona he ran for that state's United States Senate Seat.
Chafin was the Prohibition Party candidate for President of the United States in the 1908 election and 1912 election receiving 253,840 and 207,972 votes, respectively, approximately 1.5% each time. He also ran as the Prohibition Party candidate in the U.S. Senate election in Arizona in 1914.
The Candidates: Arthur E. Reimer
|Arthur E. Reimer|
Arthur E. Reimer (1882-1969), the Socialist Labor Party candidate, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his law degree at Northeastern University in Boston in 1912. He had been a member of the Socialist Labor Party of America since 1898. In 1905 he joined the International Workers of the World (“the Wobblies”) but left in 1908 to form the Workers International Industrial Union (WIIU).
He was the Socialist Labor Party’s presidential candidate for the 1912 election. His running mate was August Gillhaus of New York, who had been the SLP’s candidate for President in the previous election, that of 1908. Riemer criticized Debs for Debs’s piecemeal approach to reform and declared a need for revolutionary change. Reimer and Gillhaus received 33,070 votes in the 1912 campaign. In 1913 and again in 1914, Reimer ran for Governor of Massachusetts on the SLP ticket. Reimer was again named the SLP's Presidential candidate in the 1916 election, his running mate being Caleb Harrison.