The Lives Of The Parties


The 1896 election turned out to be pivotal. Bryan was the last Jacksonian, a political liberal and a religious conservative who truly believed that the voice of the people was the voice of his fundamentalist God. He ran an impassioned speaking campaign built primarily on a single Populist proposal—namely, to spread wealth by permitting the unlimited coinage of plentiful silver at an artificially high fixed ratio to gold. The sixteen-year-old Vachel Lindsay remembered being thrilled at a Springfield, Illinois, rally by “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan/Candidate for President who sketched a silver Zion.”

The rest of the country was not so enchanted. Outside Bryan’s rural strong- holds in the South and West, Republicans convincingly argued that a Bryan victory would ruin credit and commerce and k forever destroy the country’s manufacturing prosperity. Workers, as well as farmers dependent on urban markets, believed it. William McKinley won a huge victory, and Republicans totally dominated the federal f government for the next decade and a half.

Two fresh landmark political truths had been established. One was that American voters now equated their fortunes and prospects with continued industrial health, and therefore job security became and almost always remained the dominant issue in their decision every four years on which party to entrust with the key to the White House. The other lasting truth was that the Republicans had repositioned themselves for a new generation, not as the Grand Old Party of Union and freedom but as the party most friendly to business.

But not without argument. Dealing with business, big and small, was at the top of the new twentieth-century agenda, and Republican “progressives” battled with “standpatters” to rein in irresponsible industrial leadership. It is easy to forget that Republicans like George Norris, Albert Beveridge, and Robert La Follette were among the first to campaign for regulating the railroads, clipping the wings of high finance, and rescuing the public domain from developers who grabbed with both hands. Other Republicans fought for laws to promote industrial health and safety, to protect the weak among workers, to make post-frontier democracy humane and fair. Theodore Roosevelt seized the spotlight as the prime example of a Republican progressive. As President from 1901 to 1909 he gave reform supervisibility, only to see conservatives seize the party helm again during the administration of his successor, William H. Taft. The old guard had—and would thereafter keep—the top hand in the GOP. When TR tried to win the nomination for another term in 1912, their forces at the convention blocked him out.

The Democrats meanwhile had their own intraparty battles. There were the Bryanites, there was a cadre of conservative Democratic lawyers and bankers who sometimes got to name the candidate (like Alton B. Parker in 1904), and there were the leaders, often Irish, of the urban Democratic machines that flourished among the huddled masses of new immigrants. The three groups battled so relentlessly that Will Rogers later liked to remark: “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.”


The machine, refined by constant testing and experience, was the greatest artifact of the golden era of American two-party politics, a mighty Americanizing and urbanizing force. At the neighborhood level it relied on an army of workers who garnered loyalty by helping the otherwise helpless to find jobs, get emergency food and fuel, and cope with landlords, courts, and licensing bureaus. On this foundation of free coal and turkeys and attendance at weddings, wakes, bar mitzvahs, and balls (plus some outright fraud in the count when necessary), a deliverable vote was built for the organization’s nominees to become aldermen and assemblymen and judges. The machine boss then guaranteed that these officials would approve whatever legislation, franchises, tax abatements, and court decisions were desired by the corporations with which he did business. The whole operation was lubricated by graft. “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em,” said one Tammany officer, George Washington Plunkitt, of his part in the system. It provided at both ends—social service for the poor and the removal of impediments to growth for rich entrepreneurs—but at a whacking cost in money and fairness.

The long-range effects of the political revolution of the New Deal are still felt, but after World War II nothing was ever quite the same again.

While machine politics were often associated with big cities and Dem- ocrats, Republican state (and some urban) machines worked in comparable ways, firmly slamming the door on outsiders with new ideas. For that reason they became the target of the political prong of the progressives’ attack on the ills of democracy. The system of privilege, they argued, could be broken only by opening the system to thoughtful citizen participation through such devices as direct primaries to replace power-brokered conventions, secret ballots to prevent intimidation, or the initiative and referendum to allow voters, by petition, to have a say on issues that got buried in boss-dominated legislatures. The progressives had abiding faith in the power of informed opinion. Enact the direct primary, La Follette argued as early as 1897, and “intelligent, wellconsidered judgment will be substituted for unthinking enthusiasm, the lamp of reason for the torchlight.”