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.
But Roosevelt's campaign as the Progressive Party's candidate went beyond reforming the political process. It was rooted in a belief that the constitutional structure of American government – with limited federal power and a judiciary striking down economic regulations as violations of “natural rights” – simply could not cope with the realities of a 20th-century industrial order. Only federal power, in the form of regulatory bodies and laws, could match the power of the corporations and trusts. “Our aim,” he argued, “should be to make [the United States] as far as possible not merely a political, but an industrial democracy.” In the name of industrial democracy, the party platform included proposals for national regulations and social welfare that would not be enacted until the New Deal. In fact, with respect to certain measures, most notably national health insurance, the Progressive Party prescribed core commitments that remained unfulfilled until our own political time. President Obama has frequently pointed out that Roosevelt was the first president to champion a national health care plan. But this did not happen during his presidency, when his reform ambitions were far more modest. Rather, TR gave voice to them during the 1912 “New Nationalism” campaign when he was out of power and scrambling to catch up with a surging popular movement. In words that TR drafted, the Progressive platform pledged “the protection of the home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment, and the old age through a system of insurance adapted to American use.”
TR’s Bull Moose campaign championed the “modern” presidency as the institutional means to a full blown social insurance state. Public opinion, Progressives argued, now buried by inept presidents and party bosses, would reach its fulfillment with the formation of an independent executive power, freed from the provincial and corrupt influence of political parties. The executive, TR said in a beguiling phrase, must become the “steward of the public welfare.” This idea of forging a presidency-centered democracy was highly controversial – especially its planks calling for popular referenda on court decisions and an easier method to amend the Constitution. But TR’s campaign was even more controversial than the Progressive platform; it championed an unvarnished majoritarianism. Toward the end of September, he announced in a speech at Phoenix, Arizona that “he would go even further than the Progressive party platform [in promoting the recall of public officials]; he would apply the recall to everybody, including the President.”
TR’s defense of “pure democracy” infused his campaign with deep constitutional significance. It seemed to challenge the very foundation of republican democracy underlying the U.S. Constitution. Namely, that the space created by institutional devices such as the separation of powers and federalism allowed representatives to govern competently and fairly and that the task of representatives was not to serve public opinion, but, rather, “to refine and enlarge the public views.” TR’s Progressivism threatened to sweep all intermediary institutions off the stage: to usher in a cult of personality – or as the Progressive political scientist Charles Merriam candidly put it, “a democratic caesarism.”
In the face of Roosevelt’s powerful challenge to the prevailing doctrine and practices of representative government in the United States, the burden of defending constitutional sobriety fell most heavily on President Taft. Although not uncritical of prevailing partisan practices, Taft considered parties a vital part of a “well adjusted” form of American democracy. In fact, Taft insisted, the Progressives’ attack on representative institutions called forth a new understanding of Republican conservatism. His was a “progressive conservatism,” Taft claimed. His desire to subordinate private power to law made him a progressive; his insistence that public power respect the law made him a conservative. “The real usefulness of the Republican party,” Taft argued, “consisted in its conservative tendencies to preserve constitutional government.” Offering no guide other than that of “executive discretion exercised for the good of the public,” Roosevelt’s progressive democracy amounted “to nothing but the establishment of a benevolent despotism.”
Taft and Wilson, as well as most Democrats and Republicans, were surprised that Roosevelt's provocative campaign for pure democracy was so well-received in many parts of the country. Communicated directly to voters through a newly emergent mass media – the independent newspapers, popular magazines, audio recordings and movies that Progressives used so skillfully – the Bull Moose campaign resonated especially well in the fastest growing areas of the country, which best represented America’s future. Unlike Taft’s legalism, the Progressives’ pledge to remake the Constitution from a lawyer’s document to a platform for “Bold Persistent Experimentation,” as Franklin Roosevelt would later characterize progressive democracy’s mission, promised to empower the president, as the steward of the “whole people,” to meet the imposing domestic and international challenges of modern America.
Despite Taft’s indictment that the Progressives threatened to trash the Constitution, it was not Roosevelt, but Taft who suffered a humiliating defeat. TR won 9 of the 12 primary contests, including a decisive triumph over Taft in his home state of Ohio. In the general election, Taft won only 2 states (Utah and Vermont) and 23.2% of the popular vote. In contrast, with the formidable Roosevelt as its candidate, the Progressive Party won over 27 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes. No third party candidate for the presidency has ever received such a large percentage of the popular vote or as many electoral votes as TR did. In fact, had the Democrats not responded to the excitement aroused by TR and the Progressive Party and nominated their own Progressive candidate – and it took 46 ballots before Wilson won his party’s support - Roosevelt might have been elected to a third term in 1912 as the head of a party and movement dedicated to radical reform.
Although his most radical proposals would never be implemented, TR’s strong showing, and his dominant presence in that campaign, signaled the birth of a modern, mass democracy in the United States, one that placed the president, whose authority rested in national public opinion – rather than Congress, the States, or political parties – at the center of American democracy.
In fact, Woodrow Wilson, whose “New Freedom” campaign was much more sympathetic to the decentralized republic than TR’s New Nationalism crusade, felt compelled, or saw the opportunity, as president to govern as a New Nationalist progressive, and, in so doing, began a transformation of both the Democratic Party and American politics.
Sid Milkis is Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at the Miller Center, and White Burkett Miller Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Carah Ong, PhD student and research assistant to Dr. Milkis in the Miller Center's GAGE program, contributed to this entry.