Why Progressives Won the Presidency — They Had Better Slogans

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A lot of brainpower has gone into explaining the collectivist political thrust of the past century, which culminated in the election of energetic progressive presidents who steered the United States away from free enterprise and individual freedom and toward greater government control of economic and social affairs. Some analysts have traced this trend to ideological changes that go back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and extend through such influential writers as John Dewey and John Kenneth Galbraith. Others have blamed the secondhand dealers in ideas — opinion leaders such as Walter Lippmann and James Reston. Still others have emphasized how great social and political upheavals, especially the world wars and the Great Depression, fostered the general public’s embrace of collectivist ideas. All of these theories are wrong.

The simple fact is that the most prominent progressive candidates for the presidency had better slogans, and their opponents proved to be completely tone deaf in attempts to sing their own siren songs to the electorate.

Everybody knows that William McKinley was a reactionary. All the history books tell us so, and the evidence is beyond dispute. McKinley was the willing puppet of Mark Hanna, a master fixer for the plutocrats at the turn of the twentieth century. In those days, the plutocrats knew how to have a good time without agonizing over appearances. If you doubt it, just go read about Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish’s lavish dinner party for dogs at her mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. So, if Hanna was McKinley’s brain — a man who was to the American establishment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries what Jim Baker is to the American establishment of the present day — we can be sure that McKinley’s heart did not bleed for the poor and the downtrodden, notwithstanding the Christian airs he put on from time to time.

We also know that McKinley, unlike Dick Cheney, did not wear a bulletproof vest everywhere he went, which turned out to be his undoing. His assassination was hardly a godsend for the country, however, because it elevated the psychopath Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency.

Teddy enjoyed being president very much, and he wanted to keep the job. Reelection turned out to be a snap for him in 1904 because the Democrats nominated Alton Brooks Parker, a New York judge and one of the saddest-looking individuals ever to blemish the political arena. Nowadays Parker would stand no chance of such a nomination because of his lack of an appealing TV image. In 1904, however, television’s influence was still somewhat limited, inasmuch as most voters had no electricity and the television had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, even though few voters ever laid eyes on Parker and therefore may not have held his melancholy countenance against him, Teddy trounced the lackluster judge in the election.

Astute political observers saw this result coming from the campaign’s very beginning, for one simple reason: Roosevelt promised the electorate a Square Deal. Parker, in contrast, declared that he wouldn’t engage in a bidding war for votes. Taking liberties with the only honorable statement William Tecumseh Sherman ever made in his long, despicable career, Parker declared: “If elected, I will not deal.” This promise went over like a lead balloon. He carried only thirteen states, with 140 electoral votes. No one knows what happened to Parker after his defeat; but, then, no one knew what had happened to him previously, either. He goes down in history as one of the most forgettable — and forgotten — figures ever to have wasted his time running for the presidency.

Woodrow Wilson was no dummy. We know he wasn’t because from 1902 to 1910 he was president of Princeton University, and everybody says that Princeton is a high-class school. Proof of this claim resides, for example, in Princeton’s current retention of the famous pseudo-economist Paul Krugman on the faculty of its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. (If you think I’m being too hard on Professor Krugman, you haven’t been reading his columns in the New York Times.) In any event, Wilson was too smart to make the same mistake Alton Parker had made. He knew that in order to win the presidential election in 1912, he had to have a winning slogan, and so he concocted one.

Wilson trumpeted a New Freedom, which served as the umbrella under which he kept his plans for a more activist federal government out of the rain. Wilson told the voters that the old freedom had been good enough for the horse-and-buggy age, but the country had now entered a new-fangled, Model T Ford age, in which the old freedom would no longer suffice.

Wilson’s electoral opponents, the incumbent Republican William H. Taft and the Progressive Party’s Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the indignant Teddy had taken his football and signed on with a new party), made fatal missteps in their choices of slogans. Taft, a well-fed politico who topped the scales at more than 300 pounds, promptly announced that political slogans were childish and, besides, the old freedom was plenty good enough. Roosevelt, hyper-salivating to reoccupy the White House, campaigned on a proto-fascist program known as the New Nationalism, the basic tenets of which were that the country needed an energetic dictator and that Teddy was just the man for the job.

Hampered by a bad slogan or by the absence of any slogan at all, Wilson’s opponents succeeded only in splitting the majority, non-Democratic vote, enabling the New Freedom’s champion to gain office on the strength of just 42 percent of the popular vote, but 435 electoral votes, compared to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Every one of Taft’s Electoral College voters was required simply to remove the oversized bath tub he had installed in the White House.

Slogans languished after Wilson left office (actually, his comatose body was stealthily removed in the dark of night under Mrs. Wilson’s keen-eyed supervision), and the next two presidents kicked back, which was probably why the economy roared during the Twenties. One might recall however, that in those days the circus traveled from town to town to put on its shows, and the roars that so many people reported hearing during that decade may have come from escaped lions — historians are still actively debating this matter. No matter. However robust the economy may have seemed at the time, the populace clearly suffered a sort of malaise. Because energy was cheap and abundant in those days, and neither Warren Harding nor Calvin Coolidge ever suggested that citizens should reduce their heating and wear sweaters at home, the malaise apparently originated in the absence of an appealing presidential campaign slogan. Return to Normalcy was all well and good, except for English teachers, who knew that the correct word is “normality,” but it failed to inspire the masses. For some reason, political complacency has always held greater charm for the aristocrats than for the peasantry.

So, the people felt an immense sense of relief when Franklin D. Roosevelt gained the Democratic nomination in 1932 and proceeded to make his pitch for a New Deal. It was scarcely necessary to count the votes in November, because besides the fact that nearly everybody was unemployed, bankrupt, or living in dread of soon joining the ranks of those who were, Herbert Hoover made the elementary mistake of campaigning on the slogan Same Old Deal. He told the voters that what was good enough for their grandparents was good enough for them, too, by God, but the booboisie wasn’t buying any crap about the Good Old Days this time around.

Hoover lost in a landslide, and his name became a byword for do-nothing policy in the face of an economic debacle — an injustice to this worthy if dour man because in truth his excessive activism, in raising income taxes, increasing tariffs, propping up nominal wages, and taking countless other wrong turns, had much to do with transforming the recession of 1929 into the Great Contraction of 1929—33. But who knew? The people at large hated him because he had administered poisonous medicine to them by the pint when they wanted it by the gallon.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s many years as president, he knocked down a series of hapless challengers who had the cheek to run against him. Of course, every one of them failed for want of a decent slogan. In 1936, Alf Landon thought it was easier to stay home and relax than to waste his time in futile campaigning and sloganeering. His instincts were sound: he won only two states, with 8 electoral votes, compared to FDR’s 523, prompting Democratic ringmaster James Farley to quip: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” In 1940, Wendell Willkie blundered by disdaining an effective slogan and, instead, associating himself with his rural Indiana roots, prompting New Deal hatchet man Harold Ickes to deride him as a “barefoot boy from Wall Street.” The public’s amusement with Willkie’s “common man” gambit was minimal, and so was his share of the electoral votes. In 1944, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey made the fatal mistake of having a mustache rather than a good slogan. He probably erred as well by remarking to a room full of journalists that the people would be crazy to “change horses in the middle of the stream.”

Harry Truman was a New Dealer, and he proved his mettle by seizing one company after another under the pretext of national emergency, by supporting the continuation of wartime price controls, and then by campaigning for reelection in 1948 under the banner of the Fair Deal. (Recall that all successful politicians live by the adage, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”) Truman’s witches ultimately let him down, however, and after he sent thousands of Americans to be needlessly slaughtered in Korea on his personal say-so, he ended his presidency as perhaps the most unpopular president of all time — until the present one, that is. The passage of time has been kind to old Harry, though. Historians understand that no matter how lamebrained you and your administration may have been, your presidential legacy will be magnificent so long as you had a good campaign slogan.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a huge hero, having spent the war in relative safety in England while his troops were getting acquainted with the German 88′s on the Continent. But, hell, they also serve who only send others to die. So the electorate rolled over and played patsy for him in 1952 and 1956, even though Eisenhower’s slogan was the infantile “I like Ike.” As they say, nobody ever lost an election by underestimating the voters’ intelligence.

By 1960, however, the people had become restive. They longed for a leader. We know they did because Jack Kennedy’s campaign staff said so. Those dirty tricksters also said that Jack was the right man to lead the people bravely onto a New Frontier. By that time, only extremely superannuated people could recall that the old frontier had been a mighty unpleasant place, owing to the insects, predators, poor housing, shortage of fresh food, and absence of central heating. But the idea of a New Frontier had a romantic ring, and the voters are nothing if not fools for love. So they narrowly elected Kennedy, after his daddy helpfully fixed the vote in a few key precincts. The handsome, witty young president seized the reins of power with great élan and soon thereafter urged the horses nearly over the nuclear brink. On second thought, maybe electing an ambitious young man with limited experience and an excess of testosterone was not the century’s best idea.

Still, New Frontier was a splendid slogan, clearly better than Great Society, but this latter one was good enough for a rude, crude, hyper-ambitious politico who had pulled himself up from his hardscrabble Texas roots by sheer will, vote tampering, and ample funding from his buddies at Brown and Root. Well, hell’s bells, a man’s got to go along to get along, don’t he? Politics is not a garden party, after all. A good slogan’s essential at election time, but once in office a politician has got to do some deals if he intends to get anywhere in life. Lyndon understood: he started with nothing, spent his life in politics, and ended up with millions. One might wonder, how’d that happen?

After LBJ left the stage, the age of great collectivist slogans went into a deep sleep. Some said it was dead, but the coroner has not yet completed his investigation, so a definite conclusion would be premature. Anyhow, the next Democratic president assured us with his usual sincerity that the age of big government was over. Since then the government has grown by leaps and bounds, but never mind. It’s always in a good cause, especially if you’re on the receiving end of some of the loot. And if the voters ever decide that the present system is not meeting their needs, all they have to do is to vote for the next candidate to come along with a really, really good campaign slogan.

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Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.

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