Friday, August 17, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, 1912

Just finished Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy by Sidney M. Milksis. The thesis is perfectly encapsulated in the title. In waging a presidential campaign of ideas over party, Theodore Roosevelt ushered in a new era of issues and personality-based elections. Parties were the clear loser in this new model. Institutional notions like loyalty and balance of faction became superseded by adherence to ideas. Natually, Miksis does not see the Progressive Party as a quixotic campaign of a retired pol, but a movement waiting its fulfillment. Progressives across the spectrum had gone on record in favor of a new political regime, one that sought to restrain the hands of the machine and replace the smoke filled room with an enlightented citizenry using tools of open democracy. Theodore Roosevelt certianly marched forward of Taft and Wilson in calls for primaries, referendum, and the like. One of the most interesting things about this campaign is how little Roosevelt stumped on his own past experience as president. Psychologically, this seemed to give him more space as an underdog and outsider (always the sweet spot in American politics), but it really was about chosing the direction of the country for the next generation. If the Progressive Party was more a baby in need of a midwife than it was Roosevelt's vanity campaign what happened after 1912? In addition to Roosevelt's abandonment, its constant infighting among diverse constitiuents, amd the Great War, one must add the progressive's strong belief in a candidate focused election, meaning they had no stomach for the gritty business of building a political party.

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