WASHINGTON – What America feared above all was the growing concentration of wealth and political power. A Republican alliance with big business had flooded election campaigns with torrents of money, and it threatened to reduce — if not eliminate — whatever influence ordinary Americans had with their elected officials. Wall Street and the oil industry wielded outsize power and received commensurate criticism.
America in 2012?
To be sure, but also America in 1912. And what’s profoundly depressing is that three of the four presidential candidates in the campaign 100 years ago confronted the challenge of corporate and financial power more forthrightly than do our candidates today. (A good guide to that century-old election is “1912,” by the late James Chace, the longtime managing editor of Foreign Affairs.)
The incumbent in the 1912 race, President William Howard Taft, wasn’t one for confronting corporations, however. Taft was a big-business Republican who opposed such radical notions as a minimum wage, the legalization of unions and increased regulation of business. His predecessor as president, Theodore Roosevelt, had regarded Taft as his protege and felt profoundly betrayed when Taft failed to live up to his expectations.
Though Roosevelt had already served nearly two full terms (as vice president, he had ascended to the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley) he challenged Taft for the GOP nomination. He proceeded to wage probably the most radical campaign ever run by a major-party candidate. Roosevelt called for women’s suffrage, a federal minimum wage, an end to child labor and federal insurance that covered “the hazards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment and old age.” He wanted to create a legal right for workers to unionize “to see [that] manhood is not crushed out of the men who toil by excessive hours of labor, by underpayment, by injustice and oppression.”
T.R. didn’t stop there. He also wanted to create a national industrial commission with “the complete power to regulate all the great industrial concerns engaged in interstate commerce.” Such a commission could set wage standards and even set prices on commodities like oil.
A crazy platform for a Republican candidate? Republicans didn’t think so. The party held presidential primaries in 12 states that year. Roosevelt won 1,157,397 votes to Taft’s 761,716, while Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, running to Roosevelt’s left, won 351,043. Combined, Roosevelt and LaFollette almost doubled Taft’s vote, but Taft’s control of the party machinery secured him the nomination at the GOP convention that summer. Furious, Roosevelt and his supporters bolted and formed their own Progressive Party, with T.R. as their standard-bearer.
The Democrats also nominated a progressive, though one not nearly so progressive as Roosevelt. New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, like Roosevelt, favored legalizing unions, but, taking his cues from attorney Louis Brandeis, he favored letting the states, rather than Washington, deal with issues such as child labor and overtime pay. A weak-government Jeffersonian to T.R.’s strong-government Hamiltonian, he excoriated Roosevelt’s plans to regulate the great corporations, preferring instead to break them up through antitrust lawsuits. The candidate of the white South, Wilson vehemently defended segregation, while T.R. spoke in favor of black rights.
Taft, demoralized by Roosevelt’s evident popularity, didn’t campaign much that fall, though the GOP machine waged an energetic effort on his behalf. Socialist candidate Eugene Debs found that Roosevelt had appropriated many of his platform planks. Bolstered by the nation’s leftward shift, Debs crisscrossed the country, advocating not just workers’ and women’s rights but also nationalizing major companies.
In the end, thanks to the split in Republican ranks, Wilson won, with Roosevelt running second. Taft carried just two states (Utah and Vermont), while Debs won 6 percent of the popular vote — the highest share ever for a socialist presidential candidate. In the century since, many of the reforms the Class of 1912 called for have been adopted, if still not fully.
Women and racial minorities have the vote, though today’s Republicans seek to suppress minority turnout. We’ve enacted federal old-age pensions and medical insurance, though only for some. One hundred years later, we still don’t have federal insurance for long-term care.
Collective bargaining is legal, though some of today’s Republican leaders have sought to ban it for public employees. The Supreme Court, however, has overturned the century-old ban on corporate campaign spending that Roosevelt had championed. The Republican Party of 2012 mixes Taft’s economics with a latter-day version of Wilson’s antipathy toward minority rights.
But what’s missing from both of today’s parties is the kind of full-throated assault on corporate power that Roosevelt, Debs and sometimes even Wilson made 100 years ago. What’s missing is Roosevelt’s demand that government counter that power.
“The limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations,” Roosevelt said in September 1912. With wealth and power again concentrated at the top, that’s a sentiment that today’s political discourse sorely lacks.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.