They say history is written by the winners, but in the United States, at least, that is not true. Losers like the Confederacy, the 1930s Communists, and the 1960s New Left have received good press. Winners like the great industrialists of the 19th century and the American conservative movement of the 1970s? Not so much.
Of all American history’s unloved winners, however, few have attained the unpopularity achieved by the 19th-century political reformers disfigured by the ludicrous label “Mugwumps.” So it may seem more than a little strange for me to suggest that they are exactly the group to whom American conservatives should turn for inspiration in the age of Obama.
The justification for my seemingly bizarre suggestion will take us pretty deep into many students’ least favorite chapter of American history: the four decades between the Civil War and the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. Stick with me. The lights of contemporary relevance will switch on, one by one.
If you could visit a big political rally or convention in the 1880s, you’d discover a party system unexpectedly reminiscent of today’s. Then as now, partisanship was intense. Then as now, partisans lived in closed worlds. They read only the newspapers that confirmed their respective prejudices, lived in towns and neighborhoods that tilted overwhelmingly to one party or another, celebrated different sets of heroes, and disdained different villains.
You think Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann talks harshly? Listen to this campaign speech from 1880:
Every man that tried to destroy the Government, every man that shot at the holy flag in heaven, every man that starved our soldiers, every keeper of Libby, Andersonville and Salisbury, every man that wanted to burn the negro, every one that wanted to scatter yellow fever in the North, every man that opposed human liberty, that regarded the auction-block as an altar and the howling of the bloodhound as the music of the Union, every man who wept over the corpse of slavery, that thought lashes on the back were a legal tender for labor performed, every one willing to rob a mother of her child—every solitary one was a Democrat.
That was Robert Ingersoll, one of the most famous orators of his day, stumping for the Republicans. Think of him when people tell you that today’s political discourse has sunk below the standards of the hallowed past.
But the politics of the 1880s resembled our own in another way—a way that makes the ridiculous Mugwumps suddenly seem very relevant.
The political fury of the 1880s was a strangely empty fury. The issues that most enflamed Americans in those days were left over from two decades before: the issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction. On practical, immediate questions, the two parties hardly differed: they were both equally irrelevant to the problems of the day. The opening plank of the 14-point Democratic platform of 1880 pledged continuity with the great traditions of the party’s past, without ever specifying what those traditions were. Four more planks fulminated against a federal panel’s decision in the 1876 election to award 20 disputed electoral votes—and thus the presidency—to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. The only unambiguous point in the platform was the 11th: a call for a ban on all Chinese immigration. That was also the clearest point in the Republican platform—the main difference being that the Republicans preferred to ban Chinese immigration by negotiation with China, rather than by unilateral U.S. action.
From our contemporary point of view, the most urgent and contentious issue on the national agenda in 1880 would seem to have been the condition of the freed slaves of the South. Yet here, too, the two parties had reached an understanding: no more federal intervention to protect the political or civil rights of black Americans. The former abolitionist James Garfield felt more personal sympathy for black Americans than any other president from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt. Yet even he, in his inaugural address, could say only that black Americans had been “surrendered to their own guardianship.” The freed slaves were abandoned to the mercy of their neighbors as utterly under Republican presidents as under Democrats.
This highly ritualized approach to politics, this pretense of great disagreement, is familiar in our own time. A quarter century ago, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale offered Americans substantial policy alternatives. In 2010, by contrast, we see the parties hammering each other over differences barely more perceptible than those of 1880. Republicans rage against the Democrats’ bailouts, takeovers, deficits—yet all three commenced under George W. Bush, not Barack Obama. Almost every concept in Obama’s intensely controversial health plan has at one point or another been advanced by a senior Republican, from Bob Dole to Mitt Romney. I type these words having just watched Fox News’s Glenn Beck liken President Obama’s call for voluntary national service to something out of Maoist China. Obama’s service program barely differs in form, content, and rhetoric from Bush’s program, which in turn was almost identical to the program created by the elder President Bush in 1989.
Reading a speech like Ingersoll’s—or listening to today’s talk radio—you almost wonder whether strident rhetoric, then as now, functions more as a substitute for policy differences than as their expression.
Don’t misunderstand: North versus South, Catholic versus Protestant, farm versus city, property owner versus laborer, old-stock versus immigrant, white versus nonwhite—these divisions and many others incited mistrust, anger, and hatred. It’s just that these divisions did not much translate into party policy. If you were a northern Protestant, you were probably a Republican; if you were a northern Catholic, you were probably a Democrat. Yet on practical questions, the two parties converged on almost exactly the same answers, like two fiercely competitive cola manufacturers arriving at almost exactly the same formula.
A ferocious but highly choreographed politics, intensely felt but also remote from the concerns of everyday life: that was American politics 125 years ago, and in many respects it is American politics today. And that was the politics against which the political reformers of the 1870s and 1880s struggled.
Mostly northeastern, well educated, and comfortably affluent, these reformers formed a type that has always rubbed Americans the wrong way: a self-conscious political elite that claims to speak for the public good. The names of some Mugwumps still resound in American history: Carl Schurz and Henry Adams, Mark Twain and Charles Eliot Norton. Others, such as the civil-service reformer George Curtis, have gone brown with age. Famous or not so famous, they had to make the political decision of a lifetime in 1884, when the Republican Party nominated for president one of the most tainted men in Washington: Senator James G. Blaine.