Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nerding out on politics: Sarah Palin's 1896 parallel

We hear a lot about Sarah Palin's all-but-certain 2012 run for the White House. Some talk is about how cataclysmic that would be if she won, or about how great that would be if she won. I personally don't feel it's worth it to play out the scenario of her winning, since I just don't see that happening. I do think it's very possible that Palin will win the 2012 Republican nod, though.

If you've ever read this blog before, or if you know me at all, you'll know that I'm not at all a fan of Palin or of the modern Republican party. All the same, I don't see the benefit to the Democrats specifically or to the United States generally if she did run a loser campaign. Sarah Palin is capable of bigger things than merely winning the presidency. Sarah Palin is a movement.

Yes, a movement. She couldn't hope to become president herself, but she could well serve to move the party toward the Christian right. It's not like a party's never been moved like this before. In 1892 a man named James Weaver became the first nominee of the Populist party, also known as "the People's Party," which felt that the Republicans and Democrats weren't doing enough to meet their needs. With Weaver as the nominee, the Populists won 22 of the 444 electoral votes up for grabs that year, entirely in the Midwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and one electoral vote in Oregon. Not a lot, no, but enough to cause America's political establishment to stand up and take notice.

In 1896, the Democrats were nervous. They weren't sure whether to stand by incumbent president Grover Cleveland or to look for a fresh face. One fresh face won them over: a rising political star from Nebraska--William Jennings Bryan. Bryan understood the lay of the land, and that the Populists were the Democrats' natural allies. Bryan snared the Democratic nomination in 1896 and pulled the heads of the Populist party with him. There were many Populists who didn't want to go along, but the die was cast: the Populist movement was absorbed by the Democrats. The Democrats didn't just pay lip service, either: they embraced the Populists' policy agenda completely. Though Bryan would lose that election, the Democratic party was strengthened considerably and changed forever.

It's true that after the Populist/Democratic merger of 1896 the Democrats only won two presidential elections before 1932 (and even then, 1916 was a very close election, while 1912 was more a Democratic year, which Woodrow Wilson would have won even if Teddy Roosevelt hadn't run.) But what's more relevent is that the Democratic party built on the Populists' progressive movement during this time, and got much of their agenda passed: the election of senators, women's suffrage, prohibition, a graduated income tax, an eight-hour workday, the abandonment of the gold standard and, eventually, Social Security. While they might not have won the White House as often as they'd have liked, their movement saw great leaps forward as a result of the Populist/Democratic union.

Once the Democrats had the old Populists at their core, they became essential to winning elections. Note that in 1904, when the Democrats nominated "goldbug" Alton B. Parker, they got crushed, since they alienated the "free money" wing (those are the opponents of the gold standard) of the party. They made the same mistake with John W. Davis in 1924 (another "goldbug,") which caused a huge defection to the Progressive party's candidate Bob LaFollette. When Bryan was the candidate (in 1896, 1900 and 1908) the Democrats tended to do better, and better still with Wilson (in 1912 and 1916,) but James Cox (1920) and Al Smith (1928) were only slightly stronger candidates than Parker and Davis. When Franklin Roosevelt came along, part of his success came from his great charisma, and part came from the dire times the country was in, but he wouldn't have had the staying power he did, Depression or no Depression, without a vision for the country to stand on, which is what the Democrats had been building for the past thirty-some years.

I think Sarah Palin might well get the nomination in 2012, but what scares me isn't that she'll get elected--I just don't see that happening. What I'm scared of is the movement she'll be fronting. Granted, if she does get elected, the silver lining at least would be that her likely disastrous term would discredit the right-wing agenda she'd push, but who really thinks that's worth four years of damaging the country. Palin would glom onto the Teabaggers, pulling the Republican party closer and closer toward a bloc of voters that believes that taxation is always bad, that government has no business providing services of any kind to its people, and that compromise on any issue is never tolerable. Whatever you think of the Republican party today, with a person like Sarah Palin in charge, it would get a whole lot worse. And if Palin manages to win the nomination and lose the election, her vision will alter the course of the Republican party for at least a generation, if not longer. American politics does not need her influence. We've got enough trouble as it is.

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