1912 by James Chace
What has changed in a hundred years? Apparently nothing.
A review by Bruce McKinney
The subtitle describes this book succinctly: 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debbs - the Election that Changed the Country. What? You weren't aware that this election foreshadows many of the conflicts we still experience today? Well this is the supposition of its author James Chace, also author of Acheson and he gains the support of the New York Times for the quality, if not the conclusions, of this work as they designated it a Notable Book in 2004. The Times describes it this way: "A lively, engrossing history that sees the presidential election of 1912 -- all four of its principals versus one another -- as setting up the conflict between progressive idealism and conservative values that has played itself out ever since Roosevelt, who had crowned Taft, rose in rebellion against his own party."
If your eyes slipped back to reread "four candidates" you are not alone because most readers will be hard pressed to recall the presidential elections that had three viable candidates: 1948 and 1968 and virtually no living American can remember the election of 1912 when there were four: Woodrow Wilson, Democrat, Howard Taft, Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive and Eugene Debs, Socialist. Some will recall that Wilson won the election.
Perhaps another way to understand why this election was particularly important is that, looking back, it can be seen to foreshadow the important ideological divides that are the norm in American politics today: big government versus small government, liberal intervention versus conservative withdrawal, the opening of opportunity to more participants versus the preservation of advantages for the establishment. Almost a hundred years have passed since the 1912 election but the issues debated and fought over then remain the fundamental issues we argue over today. This suggests that political perspectives tend to stagnate for long periods and then to shift rapidly because of gathering social forces. One can hope the next set of changes comes soon.
In 1912 Roosevelt, a Progressive who believed in big government, Wilson, a Democrat in the states rights tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Taft, a Republican and incumbent carrying on the progressive intervention of Roosevelt while succumbing to conservatives in his party and Debs, a Socialist carrying the banner for emigrants and the emerging labor perspective met in the electoral field of battle in the run-up to the election. All the important threads of 21st century politics came into view. Even women, who would not become eligible to vote until 1920, were in the final stretch of their campaign to achieve suffrage. In 1912 it was only a matter of time.
Roosevelt was as deeply committed to conservation as he was to strong central government. Both issues have now become primarily Democratic party platform staples. The Democratic Party of Wilson is now embodied in the Republican Party. It was Wilson, the southern apologist, who made his reputation as an internationalist. He sought to save the world but did nothing to ameliorate the plight of blacks, positions that today fit comfortably into the Republican Party agenda.
1912 by James Chace
America has always been afraid of interesting candidates
Taft was the man in the middle. He was neither as commanding as Roosevelt nor as dishonest as Wilson and was neither able to compete with Roosevelt for the emotional support of Republicans nor curry favor with the Democrats. Debs who received only 6% of the vote is nevertheless correctly included in Chace's analysis because he represented the emerging electoral forces that the nascent middle class would bring to American politics. In the century that has passed it is the middle class that now decides the elections. In 1912, for the first time, their views have a national voice although this voice would be stilled in 1919 when Debs was sentenced to jail for ten years by those who saw in his invective evidence of treason. It was he who, when sentenced, after recognizing his "kinship with all living beings," famously said "while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and where there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The parallels to the politics of 2005 are striking. We are still arguing over whether to save trees. We still debate whether power should rest more with the federal government or with the states. We continue to be enveloped in periodic national paranoia that leads us to attack other countries under the guise of protecting ourselves. What are most changed are two things. The first is that the middle class decides the elections so they who must be won over to secure electoral victory. The second is that the middle class, while being sold, must always be sold a bill of goods. Theirs is an empty power. They are manipulated and double crossed but always in ways that leave few fingerprints. So every four years the parties rerun the Presidential election and blame the other side for what they promised to do but somehow never accomplished. So they need another chance but this time they need a larger electoral margin because last time it wasn't quite enough.
Looking back on 1912 it wasn't pretty but it seems, while tawdry, more honest than the crappy rhetoric we hear spewing from the White House today. The President's friends and his financial supporters grow richer. Tax breaks flow through the Republican dominated Congress like a broken toilet. Neither party seems to be interested in anything except personal advantage. Somewhere in this is the America we all learned about in school but it is not the America we live in today. And day by day more Americans are killed in Iraq protecting the American businesses that directly profit from our unreasonable compulsion to control other people's oil while claiming we are making the world a safer place.
Come to think of it 1912 was better. It was tawdry but honest. Today it is just tawdry.
Mr. Chace died unexpectedly in Paris in October, 2004. As he would have wanted his voice continues to be heard. Today this book is new. In time it will be old and part of various collections. In a thousand years someone clutching their example of this 21st century incunabula will ask a dealer the value of this book and be told "It is in the reading." It will be true then. It is true now.
It is available in hardcover and paperback online and in bookstores around the world.
1912 by James Chace. Published by Simon & Schuster. 323 pages including indexes.