There’s no doubt that 2012 will be crucial. But it will have a long way to go just to equal the election a century earlier. “The 1912 presidential election was one of those rare campaigns that challenged voters to think seriously about their rights and the Constitution,” writes Prof. Sidney Milkis in a recent research paper for The Heritage Foundation. Unfortunately, a newer understanding of rights won out that year, while the country’s view of the Constitution changed.
First, some background. By 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt had become disillusioned with his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. He launched a bid to wrest the Republican nomination away from Taft and, when he failed, he left the GOP to run under the banner of the Progressive Party. That split the traditional Republican vote, and opened the door for Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.
Milkis explains the ideas that TR espoused in 1912, and reviews how the former president promoted those ideas that year.
“As a party that embraced and went far in legitimizing new social movements and candidate-centered campaigns, the Progressive Party animated a presidency-centered democracy that evolved over the course of the 20th century and appears, for better or worse, to have come into its own in recent elections,” Milkis writes.
Indeed, the presidency now holds the defining position in American politics. Presidents are expected to “feel your pain” (Bill Clinton) . “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move,” added his successor George W. Bush . And the idea of the paternalistic president watching over his flock was reduced to absurdity during the 2008 Obama campaign. “I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car, I won’t have to worry about my mortgage,” voter Peggy Joseph explained at a rally . “If I help him, he’s going to help me.”
The Founders had designed a system where members of the House of Representatives would be the most responsive to public opinion, while the president, with a longer term and a broader base of support, would focus on foreign policy. But these days just about anything that happens earns a comment from the White House.
Then there’s the issue of rights.
Milkis writes that: “For many, rights are no longer pre-political and, therefore, a limitation on government action but instead are subject to changes in economic conditions that require leaders to guide Americans in redefining the social contract for their own time.”
The Founders had a far different take. As The Heritage Foundation explains : “Whether our rights come from God or nature, the point is the same: They don’t come from government. Government exists to secure our rights.” But 1912 altered that thinking. “Today, there is much confusion about rights. A right is not merely something you want or claim. You may, for example, want a better job, but that does not mean that you have a right to that job,” Heritage notes.
From a “right to privacy” discovered by the Supreme Court in the 1960s to the "right" to health care that then-candidate Obama discussed in 2008 , almost every issue is discussed today in terms of rights.
A final echo of 1912’s Progressivism has already rung out this year.
Milkis writes that Progressives of that era favored “pure democracy.” A key to that was “the recall of public officials, which would allow voters to remove their representatives from office before their elected term had expired.” Teddy Roosevelt even announced “he would apply the recall to everybody, including the President!”
Recalls never became a part of national elections, but they were written into some state constitutions. Hence this year’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall. California also went the Progressive route, and today’s governor is paying the price.
“Look, this is a democracy. You can find fault with it, but compared to the paralysis in Washington, at least we have an ultimate arbiter, which are the people themselves,” California Gov. Jerry Brown noted on NPR earlier this year . Brown and his fellow progressives are being hobbled by the very system they designed: They wanted government by referendum, with “the people” signing off on specific tax and spending measures. Now the state’s elected officials are severely constrained in their attempts to restore fiscal sanity. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
That’s the problem with transformational elections: even those involved have no idea how their ideas will turn out years, decades and generations down the road.