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1924 Presidential Election



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"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." -Barry M. Goldwater, July 17, 1964.

The trio of Presidential elections in the 1920s are best remembered for how uneventfully overwhelming the victories were for the Republican Party, as the oft-glamorized Roaring Twenties handed Republicans three straight victories in 1920, 1924, and 1928. It's too easy to lose these three elections in the flappers, jazz, and runaway markets of the era as names like Harding, Coolidge, Davis, Cox, and so forth become trivia points (how many before today that Franklin D. Roosevelt ran as James M. Cox's running mate for Vice President in 1920, 12 years before he successfully ran for President?). 1924 is, by extension, the height of electoral anonymity, featuring a President best known for saying as few words as possible and two other candidates largely passed into history except for those of us, such as yours truly, with a vested interest in the subject.

But every election as big as President matters to the people at the time, and their effects ring out long after the candidates and figures have been forgotten.

In 1924, Calvin Coolidge and the Republican Party had returned to a height of power lost during the Wilsonian years but gained following the end of the First World War and the small recession resulting from it. The economy was improving rapidly, the average American's lifestyle was climbing higher, and the Democratic Party was on the retreat. Even after the Teapot Dome scandal under President Harding, the Republicans had recovered in part due to the President's death and thus the assumption of the Presidency by Coolidge. But within, the party and the country itself broiled with conflict.

Race riots, bombings, and lynchings were still common in the 1920s as the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence under new the new leadership of William J. Simmons following the 1915 release of Birth of a Nation (helpfully screened in the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, the fucker), and by 1924 reached a membership peak of 1.5 to 4 million members, between 4 and 15% of the eligible population. Besides being anti-black in their bigotry, the Klan focused on anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Communist, and anti-immigrant campaigns as well as those who pushed against Prohibition and for the sexual openness that the Roaring Twenties are known for today. In 1921, not long before this election, a mass anti-black mob stormed "black wall street" in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and burned it down to the point of using airplanes to drop bombs on the district below. Recorded deaths were 36 with 183 serious injuries, but exact figures are unknown.

Former liberal Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge reacted with weakness. He let his secretary remove black Republican leaders in the south appointed by the President, for they were not able to be elected due to the corruption of the southern states, in the hopes of winning over white southern voters, and his platform did not condemn the Ku Klux Klan despite calls from his party to do so. While Coolidge had spoken positively on equal rights for black Americans and signed the right of citizenship for Native Americans on reservations that year, his actual policy fell far short at a time when it was most needed and the country was sharply divided.

The Democrats did no better. John W. Davis, while at least condemning the KKK on the campaign trail in 1924 (more than Coolidge did, notably), was a Democrat in favor of poll taxes and against federal lynching laws in his time as a representative from West Virginia, and would even attempt to defend separate but equal school policy as a lawyer well into the 1950s. The Democrats who had won great swaths of the north and even notable black political thinkers and leaders in 1912 had been chased back to the south.

And, thus, cowardice. The KKK was at its height, the Democrats could not agree to even lightly condemn them besides Davis himself—who policy-wise didn't act as a friend to those the Klan targeted—and Coolidge took the opportunity to stand for nothing and put out no risk for any reward. And why not, int he end? He won in a landslide, and very likely would have anyway. Northerners were not swayed by Davis' lightening of his campaign rhetoric and for all of Coolidge's conservatism on the subject, much of the south swung back to Democrats from 1920. Frustration over the Republicans and Democrats on their conservatism and refusal to adopt more party-wide platforms helped fuel the candidacy of Robert M. La  Follette, Sr., and discontent swelled within the ranks of each party.

And we come back again to the future. What we do in the moment ripples outwards and effects far from where we see. Perhaps Coolidge taking a harder stance on race and other civil rights of the day wouldn't have done much or even lost him the election, but we do know what happened when he didn't. In 1932, after 4 years under Republican President Herbert Hoover, the country turned massively to the Democrats under Franklin D. Roosevelt and his economic system to get them out of the Great Depression. But more than that, black Americans began voting for Democrats in larger numbers than seen before, as economic interest can, at times, come first.

This, in turn, helped lead to the 1948 Democratic National Convention in which Hubert H. Humphrey, then Mayor of Minneapolis and later Senator-turned-Presidential candidate, urged the Democratic Party to "get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." Sixteen years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law and, a year later, signed the Voting Rights Act even as southern Democrats left the party in protest or voted against the party.

If the Republican Party, at the height of its power in the Roaring Twenties and in a deeply divided country in which to be in the north was to be Republican and to be in the south was to be Democrat, had taken a harder stance on civil rights and economic interests for black Americans, perhaps the sides would be flipped today. We won't ever know, but 1924 can't help but live on as missed opportunities, as more progressive party platforms missed by single votes.

What of, then, Robert La Follette and his Progressive Party? Was it all a waste? For that, I don't think I could say yes. While he managed to win only one state, La Follette's Presidential candidacy exposed a sore in the side of both the Republican and Democratic Parties with progressive voters who desired change and new movements beyond the conservative party platforms and leaders who continued to move the big two down the road towards the Great Depression. La Follette's candidacy brought about a great alliance of socialists, union members, farmers, urban laborers, and all other sorts of progressives and those who wanted change on a ticket with former Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler that helped drive home the bipartisanship of his candidacy. These alliances would prove harder to break than the party itself, and persist even after the death of Robert La Follette Sr., in 1925.

The Progressive Party of Wisconsin would continue to be a dominant force in Wisconsin throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s until eventually fading back into the Republican Party there. Burton K. Wheeler, like Robert La Follette, Jr. and California Progressive politician Hiram Johnson. And to this day, the Secretary of State of Wisconsin, since 1982, is Douglas J. La Follette, a descendant of Robert. The alliances that La Follette's run were built on, often between farmers and labor unions, continued in state parties such as the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota and the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. The North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota founded by the Nonpartisan League continue to operate today, and the Nonpartisan League was joined with North Dakota's Democratic Party to form the North Dakota Democratic–Nonpartisan League Party, which operates to this day. In Minnesota, the Farmer-Labor Party had a larger hand in state politics for decades before joining the Democratic party in the 1940s to form the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, which similarly still operates, with control of the state house, both Senate seats, the Governorship, and all other executive office at the time of this writing in April 2019.

1924 was a boring Presidential election to look back at and read about in a vacuum, but the effects it had stay with us today, and the choices made then could have easily changed the world we have now. We cannot afford to forget what choices were not made and paths not taken as much as those that were which arrived us at the world we have now if we are to make better ones and arrive at a brighter future.

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