Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Populist Uprising—Then and Now

Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

Does this sound familiar? A president, famed for populist theatrics, who actually fears rocking the boat and makes alliances with Wall Street and with old-money families. A cadre of activist journalists whose ability to shine light on unseemly secrets stirs public outrage, but not always at the right targets. A single reckless financial operator gambles with somebody else’s money, single-handedly blowing a hole in America’s economy, but faces no consequences.

It cannot be coincidence that Michael Wolraich’s history of America’s so-called Progressive Era sounds almost exactly like Obama’s Presidency. The conditions that ultimately shattered the 19th Century political machines have resurged today, and the same potential for radical change (“radical,” from the Latin radix, root) seethes beneath placid public compliance. Wolraich simply serves to remind readers that such conditions exist, and the populist revolution brewing has precedent.

In 1904, the two major American political parties lacked core ideology. People lined up behind geographic and ethnic alliances, and parties basically existed to distribute patronage plums. Republicans controlled Congress, and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt swaggered across international awareness. But old-style bosses distributed connections parsimoniously, keeping money concentrated and influence locked. Government remained basically ignorant of brewing provincial discontent.

President Theodore Roosevelt
Out of Wisconsin came firebrand Governor, later Senator, Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” La Follette. His successful brand of incendiary populism fired jaded voters, seizing Wisconsin’s Republican Party from machine bosses. He advocated such subversive tactics as direct primaries for Senatorial elections, getting dark money out of politics, and calling legislators out by name for their voting records. By simply naming and shaming electors, he threatened to overturn longstanding political privilege.

As Wolraich’s novel-like political storytelling unfolds, these two political lions stake respective territory, threatening everything the other finds sacred. Roosevelt used threats of anti-trust action to limit moneyed interests, but seldom flexed real muscle. He actually rubber-stamped JP Morgan’s monopolistic practices when it served larger purposes. TR couldn’t understand Fighting Bob’s willingness to challenge powerful movers and start ideological fights he knew he couldn’t possibly win.

Fighting Bob, by contrast, sees legislative debate as subservient to larger political goals. Kick-starting large battles fired public sentiment, and losing could have better long-term consequences than winning. To Fighting Bob, as Wolraich puts is, half a loaf really was worse than no loaf whatsoever, if such compromises blunted public appetite for necessary fights. Fighting Bob’s first priority was not to win incremental bargains, but to generate public outcry for genuine reforms.

Senator "Fighting Bob" La Follette
Journalists Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker loom large in Wolraich’s narrative. Both believed their job was to hold public officials accountable to the voting public. Government officials and super-capitalists had conflicted relationships with newspapers: they’d feed information when it served their interests, then disclaim journalists later. TR managed to alienate Baker, his sometime ally, when it served political goals to disparage “muckrakers.” This embodies TR’s chameleon-like political skills.

Such skills became important in 1907, when a “robber baron” attempted complicated financial maneuvers to corner America’s copper market. When his schemes imploded, and he sanctimoniously refused to eat his debts, investors ran on Manhattan banks, and the infection soon spread nationwide. Washington lacked tools to stanch the bleeding, and the GDP contracted eleven percent overnight; without JP Morgan’s quick negotiating, Wall Street’s discussion could’ve been complete and disastrous.

Though Wolraich makes parts of this history sound disturbingly familiar, other parts are chillingly different from today. One of TR’s populist foes, Dixie Democrat “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, combined reformist populism with frankly appalling racism. Wolraich avoids mentioning race much, but white privilege and in-group protectionism simmer beneath this narrative (see Ian Haney López). That isn’t directly part of Wolraich’s thesis, and he pulls focus carefully, but it’s sometimes inevitably visible.

Wolraich tells his story with deliberate current-day motivations. He describes how American politics, which looked very different in the early 20th Century, realigned itself along now-common ideological lines, assuming a modern attention on voters. He also spotlights how the conditions that precipitated populist outrage in the pre-WWI years mirror today’s political and economic circumstances. If today’s politicians want to avoid creating another Fighting Bob, they’d better start paying attention.

Though the Tea Party positions itself as today’s insurgents, and aims to undo Progressive Era reforms, it precisely recaptures Fighting Bob’s tactics and political ethos, picking doomed fights to prolong public outrage and constantly revitalize its revolutionary character. Wolraich’s writing combines history and journalism, creating a century-old story that rings with modern urgency. Reading his story, contemporary audiences will face, page after page, the shock of very modern recognition.

No comments:

Post a Comment