No two times or elections are identical. But American pasts loom large as the 2016 presidential election takes shape.
On the Democratic side, the contrast between Progressives and Populists is on full display. The Republican side is combining the flavor of Dixiecrats and George Wallace with opposition to the policies of the most accomplished Democratic presidents of the last hundred years.
Bernie Sanders may say that he is the true progressive, but Hillary Clinton is more like Progressives from the turn of the 20th century. Progressives were reformers, not revolutionaries.
While Progressives cared about money in politics, this concern was aimed both at corrupt urban political machines and monopolistic businesses. Wherever Progressivism sprung up, Main Street business people were involved because they wanted competent, effective government. Among the fruits of the Progressive movement were professional city managers and administrators, policy studies and statistics to track policy outcomes, the civil service, and objective exams to get into job pools.
Professionals and middle-class people who wanted government to work constituted a solid chunk of the Progressive movement. Progressives saw government as a potential force for good, and they supported new agencies and regulations improving the safety of food, prescription drugs and working conditions.
Progressives’ axiom was good government. Getting things done meant paying attention to people with expertise and skills. Hillary Clinton, a certified policy wonk, is a Progressive.
Bernie Sanders is a Populist, with a dash of American socialism.
Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. One of his heroes is Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist Party candidate, although Debs was to the left of Sanders. A portrait of Debs hung in Sanders’ Burlington mayoral office, and Sanders once narrated a half-hour audio record about Debs’ career. Debs attracted large crowds to hear him speak and, in the 1912 presidential election, he won 6 percent of the popular vote. He opposed the U.S.’s involvement in World War I. Debs started as a trade unionist and a fierce opponent of Gilded Age plutocrats. He later came to believe that adequate change was not possible without socialism.
Sanders’ views also resemble the Populists. Unlike the urban Progressives, Populists rallied farmers and workers in the Midwest and west against Wall Street and monopolistic capitalists who controlled rail lines for shipping and processing goods.
Populists created political parties like Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party that elected governors, U.S. senators and representatives, and a majority of state legislators. This is different from Sanders, who says he will create a political revolution by prompting lots of people show up to vote for candidates like him. Sanders, though, is running his own presidential campaign and isn’t raising money for Democratic candidates, trying to help progressives in primaries, or building a broader movement.
The top Republican presidential candidates stand against the key policy accomplishments of most accomplished Democratic presidents of the last century — Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama — with a dash of xenophobia reminiscent of independent candidates from 1948 and 1968.
Roosevelt enacted the most popular government program ever, Social Security. Except for Trump, the Republican candidates want to reduce Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age.
Johnson passed Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts. Republican candidates want to reduce health programs and let states make their own cuts. While voting rights had bipartisan support for decades after Johnson, Republican candidates support recent state laws states that shrink voting by low-income people, mostly black and Hispanic.
Obama reduced the number of Americans without health insurance by 14 million. He passed laws with strong consumer protections and limits on the financial sector and achieved international agreements on climate change and the Iranian nuclear program. Every Republican wants to repeal all these policies.
Trump’s xenophobic comments toward immigrants and Muslims have gotten the most attention, but Ted Cruz endorses similar views. And Marco Rubio, who is often portrayed as a moderate Republican even though he was the darling of the Tea Party when he was elected to the Senate, recently criticized President Obama for simply visiting a mosque.
This xenophobia is reminiscent of the 1948 run of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and the 1968 candidacy of George Wallace, although today’s Republicans certainly do not espouse racial segregation as these candidates did.
American pasts hang over the 2016 election. As the novelists William Faulkner taught, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
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