The presidential election in the USA looks to be one of the most interesting since, oh, let’s say, 1912. During that campaign, there was a split in the Republican Party between the conservative wing and the progressive one, a stolid middle of the road Democrat and, yes, a viable Socialist candidate. It sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?
The Republicans had always been a troubled and troublesome party. In those days, you must remember, the Republicans were the party of civil rights (Lincoln was a Republican) and had a strong environmentalist bent (Teddy Roosevelt, who had left office in 1908, established many of the federal reserves in the west). They even were – for the times – slightly pro-labour. The Democrats were the party of the south and were hardly the progressive group they are today. And it wasn’t illegal to be a socialist – which it sort of was after the Russian revolution of 1917.
After a fractious primary campaign (one of the first as at that time only 15 states held primaries) the Republican convention resulted in accusations of corruption and vote buying. Teddy Roosevelt, returning to the campaign trail after 4 years absence, had won most of the primaries but, at the convention, he found himself outmaneuvered by sitting President, William Taft, a conservative. He eventually withdrew and took his delegates and supporters with him to form the Progressive party.
Meanwhile Eugene Debs, running a grassroots campaign (he spent all of $66,000 on his campaign) was campaigning hard for the Socialists which had won a number of local and state elections in the previous decade. He had no real hope of winning and was mostly running to help build up the party – but he did make an impact, on the race, on the other parties and on the growing labour movement.
The Democrats had nominated the somewhat stolid Woodrow Wilson, a former college professor and administrator, who ran on a campaign to essentially “make America great” though he didn’t exactly use those words. American influence was growing in the world but Wilson believed that involvement abroad, especially in in Europe – where war was imminent – would risk American interests. The Republicans were much surer – they, and especially Roosevelt, had won the Spanish-American war and wanted to assert US dominance — as a Christian nation — on the world.
The campaign was vigorous with candidates trekking across the country by train. In the end Roosevelt’s personal popularity was not enough to break the habit of the two party system. He finished a distant second as the Progressive (aka the Bull Moose Party) candidate. The Republican, Taft, suffered the greatest defeat ever for a sitting President. Deb’s socialists finished a distant fourth with 6% of the vote – the most ever, before or since, for such a candidate.
Now we can flash forward to 2016. A conservative candidate wins the nomination of the Republicans but is challenged for the right of centre vote by a more moderate independent Republican. Meanwhile the Democrats nominate a fairly stolid centrist candidate. To keep things interesting and promote the revolution, a plucky socialist decides to run an underfunded campaign from the left. Trump, Bloomberg, Clinton, and Sanders.
It’s enough to make a political junky salivate.
And that’s ten minutes.