Thursday, August 11, 2011

Comments on the book, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country

My book club met last night to discuss 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country by James Chase. The election was quite unusual in that Woodrow Wilson (the Democrat( was elected with under 42 percent of the vote, Theodore Roosevelt running for a third party (the Progressive, or the Bull Moose) was second in popular vote with 27 percent, William Howard Taft (the Republican) received 23 percent, and Eugene Debs (the Socialist) received an unprecedented and unmatched 6 percent.

Progressivism may have reached a high mark in this election with Roosevelt running formally as a progressive, Wilson including many progressive elements in his campaign, and Debs if anything to the left of the progressives. I guess that this represented a spirit at large in the country in which many people would have been concerned with the desperate working conditions suffered by many people and the recurrent serious recessions. This was a peak in power of the trusts which monopolized many industries, and indeed of the power of big finance in New York that could form trusts which demolished competition. Indeed, all the candidates seemed to offer platforms that emphasized the need for government to regulate the trusts.

The book focused not on the problems faced by the country so much as the process of politics during the election. (Only Roosevelt and Debs come off in the book as primarily concerned with the welfare of the nation.) Wilson is described as portraying himself as far less conservative than he really was, while allying himself with William Jennings Brian -- who held quite different political positions -- the kingmaker who turned the Democratice convention to Wilson's favor. In the time when primary voting was something of a straw poll not binding on delegations, Taft sewed up the party machines and the Republican nomination; it seems likely that the bosses were more concerned with their own power and the welfare of their financial backers than with ideology or the welfare of the public. Indeed, I inferred from the book that Roosevelt may have been largely motivated by his own pride and his desire for the limelight.

Looking back after nearly a century, it is clear that the world was about to enter World War I, that the United States would play a key role in that war and in the peace negotiations. Chace suggests that had Roosevelt been elected rather than Wilson the outcomes of the war and peace negotiations would have been much different, the evolution of Europe different after the war, and even that World War II might have been averted. Yet, the book suggests that there was very little attention to foreign policy during the campaign, with an emphasis on domestic policy. Politicians seemed unable to foresee the key problems of even the near future.

The book's title describes the election as changing the country. While Chace is not very positive about Wilson, he accomplished a number of things such as the creation of the Federal Reserve system and the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the trusts. His administration introduced the income tax and began military preparations in advance of entering World War I, and of course entered the war. I was impressed by how much more prepared the United States was for the war as a result of things put in place by the Wilson administration.

Yet the eight year Democratic administration, which followed many Republican administrations, was followed by three more successive Republican administrations. The election marked a local high point of socialism and the progressive movement. Certainly there has been long term trends in United States history eliminating slavery, reducing racism against African Americans and Indians, and improving the welfare of industrial workers, and enfranchising women. Yet many of the improvements came during and after the Depression.

The question came up as to the modern counterpart of the progressive movement of 1912. That movement was responsive to the impact of the industrial revolution, to the huge and misused power of the trusts, and to the horrendous problems of workers and the poor, and today/s society is quite different than that of 1912. However, it was suggested that the increased concentration of income and wealth in a small economic elite and the worsening economic conditions and social conditions experienced by most Americans have led to a modern progressive movement, albeit one with much less widespread support than that of the progressivism of 1912.

We also discussed the concept of "national interest". Why, for example, was it in the national interest for the United States to enter the war on the part of the Allies in World War I? Of course, one aspect of the answer is that the pro-war factions succeeded in convincing a majority of the public that the war was in the national interest. On the other hand, the Zimmerman telegram which offered German support to Mexico were Mexico to declare war on and invade the United States (as unrealistic as that proposal seems) clearly implied a national interest to not be invaded. We went on to question to what degree the national interest was in fact threatened in other more recent military interventions.

I note that after World War II, genocide came to be seen in international law and by many Americans as a situation which also demanded military intervention by those nations strong enough to protect those threatened by extermination. The failure to have intervened in Rwanda rankles.

In general, the book seemed easy to read, well written, and interesting, describing a period about which many of us knew less than we wanted to know. While the author might have been well advised to explicitly acknowledge the limitations of his ambition in this short book, it was probably a wise decision to focus on the political machinations of the election in a short book rather than trying to tackle a more holistic discussion of the period (which would have necessarily involved a much longer and probably a much more difficult and confusing book).

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