This post is adapted from remarks delivered at a special GAGE Colloquium on “The 2012 Presidential Election in Historical Context.”
While American democracy is often prosaic, from time to time it gets caught up in an ongoing battle between progressivism and conservatism. Elections, such as 1912, 1936, 1964 and 1980, ask voters to choose between profoundly different visions of the nature’s future, raising such fundamental questions about the nature of rights and the meaning of the Constitution. This election year seems to promise, or portend, another surrogate constitutional convention. President Barack Obama and the Democrats and Mitt Romney and the Republicans have invoked and drawn inspiration from the election of 1912, the origins of the contest between Progressivism and Conservatism that has reverberated through our own political time.
Last December, President Obama took up the mantle of Progressivism in an address delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas – the same site where in 1910 Theodore Roosevelt delivered the important “New Nationalism” speech that launched his final election battle, as the standard bearer of the Progressive Party, which he famously dubbed the Bull Moose campaign. Although TR did not win the election, the Bull Moose Campaign had the best showing of any third party before or since, garnering 27.4% of the electoral vote, and spearheaded a three-decade progressive advance against the “gilded age” Republican Party– and its “stand pat” defense of industrial capitalism – culminating in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s triumph of 1936. The Progressive Party introduced the idea of economic rights, including national health care, and promised to advance the rights of African-Americans, immigrants, and, especially women. With his December 2011 speech, Obama sought to ensure that he first term would not be judged on his record alone, but also would make clear the historic differences that divided Democrats and Republicans. A “ruthless pragmatist” during the first three years of his presidency, he now echoed TR’s Bull Moose Campaign in seeking to rediscover the message of hope and change of his 2008 campaign – and to set the tone for his re-election.