super hanc petram

Sunday, January 30

Books: The Politics of War | Chapter One  

Note: In the four years I've been blogging, I've contributed to a number of different sites, both my own and others, but never kept a single storehouse of all my various writings. Some are clearly lost in the ether, but I hope to find and aggregate as many as I can here. Some, like those on PolState I'm content to leave where they are, but others like this one from my Daily Kos diary, I'd like to keep. There are two other posts on this book that I posted to my diary that seem to have disappeared. Not finished digging however. And I need to call Stu to get access to the FE posts. Some good pre-Iraq thinking done there as I recall.

This was originally posted to my dKos diary on January 16, 2004.

Chapter 1 of The Politics of War covers the political turmoil that confronted the two major parties from the 1890 elections through the 1894 elections. 1890 heralded the end of the strong party identity that most voters had held since the Civil War. By 1894 both parties had controlled the presidency and the congress only to be summarily and resoundingly rebuked by the electorate on election day. The turmoil was extended and affected both parties because instead of reacting to the demands for reform voiced by the electorate, the leaders of the parties fought tooth and nail against the people. This combative strategy led to the creation of the People's Party which, by 1894, was in a position to sweep away the Democratic Party almost entirely.

Until 1890 the American electorate had been, for a generation, a predictable and readily managed body of voters. In the off-year election of 1890, however, they delivered a stunning rebuke to the long-dominant Republican Party, reducing its House majority to a mere rump of 88 representatives and sweeping the party out of power in states that had gone Republican since the first election of Abraham Lincoln.

Because the people had for a generation, 'voted as they shot,' in the Civil War, party leaders had become almost totally divorced from the concerns of the voters.

The electorate's fidelity to party enabled the leaders to pursue on the state and local levels corrupt and self-serving policies in the certain knowledge that exceedingly few of their supporters could stomach the prospect of voting for the rival party. It enabled them to overawe independent-minded politicians with crushing assaults on their disloyalty to the party that had chosen to advance them. Most important, it allowed the two national parties, for almost a generation, to keep significant economic issues out of the political arena — issues that might split a party organization and weaken its hold on the voters' elected representatives.

It would be the Republicans that later (under McKinley) got economic issues off the table with Spanish-American War. Until then the leaders of both parties would stop at literally nothing to thwart the collective will for reform coming from the voters. In contrast to the Democracy, the Republican Party was the principled, liberal party that had won the civil war, freed the slaves and extended (to a certain extent) long suppressed freedoms to them, and presided over the huge industrial expansion of the late 19th century. Yet by 1890 that expansion was over and the high tariffs that had for so long protected American industry now served only to enrich the business elites that reaped the excess profits from the protectionist policies.

By dispensing corrupt tariff favors, the [Republican] party leaders expected to enjoy not only the fruits of office but irresponsible oligarchic power, the power to control the dominant party in the country.

With these self-serving considerations in mind, what the Republican-controlled Congress did in 1890 had the quality of sheer, brazen impudence. Knowing full well the political risks they were running … the Republican leaders in Congress raised the tariff rates higher than ever, deliberately bestowing on the privileged manufacturers even greater windfall profits than they had previously enjoyed. That the Senate Republicans killed a House bill to protect Negro voting rights in the South in order to win votes for the 1890 tariff only underscored the waning virtue, to put it mildly, of the erstwhile party of Lincoln.

Voter disgust led to the ouster of the party of Lincoln in late 1890. However, their replacements would prove no better, if for different reasons. Even when handed control of the Congress and the Presidency in the 1894 election, the Democratic Party would do nothing to respond to voter calls for reform. Indeed the nomination of Grover Cleveland (a politician guaranteed not to enact any kind of reform, or almost any legislation at all) led to the creation of the People's Party.

The Democracy was helpless because it was in many ways the inverse of the Republican Party. Where the Republicans were organized into a quasi-national party, the Democrats were simply a party of the opposition. That meant that Democratic politicians from different parts of the country stood in polar opposition to their ostensible co-partisans on the major political issues of the day.

In its essential, stripped-down, irreducible historic core, the Democratic Party was a mere congeries of local parties, principally a number of urban strongholds in the North and several state-ruling "rings," as they were known, in the old Confederacy. Each local party satrapy survived by making appropriate local gestures to its voters, often with scant regard for the contrary gestures made by party colleagues elsewhere.

Therefore, in order to stay a party at all the Democrats, when in power, had to attempt to accomplish as little as humanly possible. In contrast to the Republicans who refused to take action, the Democrats were unable to take action. To defend such an indefensible legislative strategy (and thus attempt to retain legitimacy) the Dems resorted to pure bluster.

Since almost any national legislative program would swiftly sunder so motley a band of political allies, the central national tenet of the Democrats was the principle of doing nothing, which party leaders often described as "True Democracy." Democrats dressed up the principle in a number of wrappings. They preached it as the very essence of constitutional rule: "states' rights … home rule" and "strict construction" of the Constitution ostensibly forbade the general goverment from doing almost anything.

It was at this time that the Republicans first adopted the principles of what would become known as the large policy. With no desire to respond to the calls for reform, party leaders decided that their course of action lay in distracting the populace from their domestic concerns. To find a national cause big enough to sweep the people into a proper jingo fury, they reached back half a century to the concept of manifest destiny and adopted it as a part of the Republican Party platform in 1892.

For their part the Democrats managed to so infuriate the populace that in 1894 they were electorally annihilated in the off-year elections.

[The Republicans] expected to ride the depression to victory anyway, since Cleveland and his party had performed the singular feat of alienating virtually every major category of voter. Even so, the results of the 1894 elections were electrifying. It remains to this day the most sweeping rebuke of any President and his party ever suffered in an off-year election. Punished by a volatile electorate, the Democrats lost a total of 113 seats in Congress. In the Northeast, the Democrats' congressional contingent was reduced from 88 to 9; in twenty-four states the party no longer had congressional representation at all. In the South, despite the Democrats' increased use of terror and corruption, the People's Party now stood on the verge of victory throughout the Old Confederacy. Whatever else lay in store for the country, the post-Civil War party system had been destroyed forever.

I hope to make the chapter reviews a little shorter than this one, but initial chapter does a great job of laying out the political turmoil that led party leaders to attempt to wag the dog. For truly, that is the only way to describe the course of action upon which McKinley would launch the country. Throughout the book, I have been most struck by the total contempt in which the populace was held by the politicians they elected. Rather than as representatives and agents of the collective will, congressmen saw themselves as rulers of the country. The will of the people was to be fought at every turn in order to hold onto the levers of power. The idea that goverment in general was in no way responsible to the people was to be developed further over the ensuing decade. People who demanded that the goverment fulfill its responsibility and be more responsive to collective will would be derided as beggers. At every turn the reforms that would be enacted were made with as little good faith as possible, and the truly principled politicians would lose many more battles than they won.

The poltical corollaries between that age and this make the book endlessly fascinating for me. I'll attempt to draw some of parallels that I see more clearly in the future, but for the moment, I wanted to lay out Karp's presentation of the facts with a minimum of input.

Daily Kos and other sites that are gaining popularity and noteriety could become that modern day muckrakers that forced the issues of reform to the surface in the early years of the 20th century. The book lays out well just how steep the uphill slope is for anyone that wishes to make things better for the majority of the people.



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