One hundred years ago this week, a dramatic Republican National Convention prepared the ground for the transformation of American democracy. On June 17, 1912, the celebrated ex-President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a dramatic speech that that encouraged his political followers to walk out of the Convention, maintaining that the Republican National Committee and President William Howard Taft defied the will of the people and stole the nomination of the Grand Old Party. Since April, Roosevelt had warned of a walkout should the Old Guard of the party defy the clear intention of the Republican primaries that year – the first time popular primaries played an important role in a presidential election. Having been denied the Republican nomination, in spite of trouncing President Taft in these contests, TR bolted the Republican Convention and summoned a new party to “stand at Armageddon" and “battle for the Lord.” Progressive followers of TR left the convention on June 22 and reconvened in Chicago's Orchestra Hall to endorse the formation of a national progressive party.
The 1912 presidential election was a rare campaign in which voters were challenged to think seriously about their rights and the Constitution. Four impressive candidates engaged in a remarkable debate about the future of American democracy. In particular, each candidate tried to grapple with the emergence of corporations embodying a concentration of economic power that posed fundamental challenges to the foundations of the decentralized republic of the 19th century. Although Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate who was elected president, contributed significantly to this surrogate constitutional convention, in a real sense, the most important exchange was between TR and Taft.
That the 1912 election registered, and inspired, fundamental changes in American politics owes, above all, to Roosevelt’s Progressive party campaign. The party was joined by an array of crusading reformers who viewed Roosevelt's campaign as their best hope to advance a program of national transformation. TR’s campaign pioneered a new form of “modern” politics – one that would eventually displace the traditional localized democracy, which had dominated representative government in the United States since the beginning of the nineteenth century. His crusade made universal use of the direct primary a cause célèbre; assaulted traditional partisan loyalties; and championed candidate-centered campaigns. Indeed, it advocated a direct relationship between government and public opinion, facilitated by the recall, initiative and referendum, including popular referenda on court decisions, and a more majoritarian constitutional amendment process. It also took advantage of the centrality of the newly emergent mass media and convened an energetic, but uneasy coalition of self-styled public advocacy groups. All of these features of the Progressive party campaign make the election of 1912 look more like that of 2012 than that of 1908.