As Goes Michigan


MICHIGAN and Wisconsin used to contend for recognition as the birthplace of the Republican Party. Who cares about that now, since both states are fallen from grace? It was still a burning jealousy when my father took me on a Sunday excursion to the grove at Jackson where the embattled farmers, in 1854, fired the initial Republican broadside. New converts to Republicanism, because of Bryan and free silver, we bowed before the shrine with the abasement of the freshly saved. Home from this short but soulful pilgrimage, I was envied by my mates as if I had been to Washington or New York. Republicanism was so far the root religion of the state that it held even boyhood to some sort of reverence. An old Michigander, reared in that exalted atmosphere, is bound to quake and mumble as he crawls from under the 1936 landslide.

For thirty years after the first Republican meeting ‘Under the Oaks,’ no Democrat could snare Michigan’s electoral vote. The state plumped for Frémont in 1856. Cleveland broke through in 1884, and partly through again in the close election of 1892, when he secured nine of the state’s fourteen electoral votes, helped by the ‘ mugwump ’ movement. Michigan soon rallied under ‘Potato’ Pingree, first of the Republican Progressives, who won back the mugwumps. Thereafter Michigan held fast for twenty years, until the Bull Moose — mugwumps under another name — shook it loose in the three-way campaign of 1912. But, after all, that rash adventure could be explained away on the ground that Theodore Roosevelt was merely a good Republican on a rampage off the reservation. Even so, the rigid G. O. P. organization never forgave Michigan’s brilliant governor, Chase Osborn, for supporting Teddy in his drive for the Republican nomination against Taft. Revenge for that slight irregularity kept out of the United States Senate Michigan’s most brilliant political figure of that era, a man who would have been a real gift to the nation. The Republicans really lost Michigan in that year, when they declined to follow T. R.’s Progressive lead toward ‘social justice.’

It required more courage to rally from the defection of 1932, registered in a straightforward two-party test, but in which (as everyone said) there were unusual circumstances. Because of its long water boundary with Ontario, Michigan knew prohibition at its worst, and depression had pierced the state to the heart. So 1932’s result was written off as merely a distress spasm, after which Michigan would return to the fold of its fathers.

Alas, in 1936 Michigan again went resoundingly Democratic, with plenty of officeholders from Congressmen to constables. This came to pass, mind you, not in a three-way campaign or in a year of trouble and woe, but amid the hum of busy factories and the energetic motions of brisk, almost feverish, recovery. Gone is the day when Michigan can be rated safely Republican for any party wheel horse. Gone are the halcyon days when the ‘boys’ downstate could telegraph to the ‘boys’ upstate (where votes were always counted with exquisite slowness), ‘We need more votes,’ and receive in return from the Upper Peninsula the heartening query, ‘How many?’ From now on, Michigan is just another doubtful state in which Republican tradition is being smothered by Democratic realism.


The change in Michigan means something below the surface of things American. In our country, politics is usually so far behind invention, economics, industry, and sociology that its decisions seem more truly to be effects than causes. The vote barometer tells of the approaching storm, records the weather in the public mind, but those driving currents of opinion and dominion arise elsewhere. No doubt the altered political complexion in Michigan is the result, of its altered social situation. The solid Republican Michigan of the ’90s was a land of relatively small, struggling industries and a still vigorous and politically alert agriculture, with a few competent steersmen among railroad attorneys and lumber barons. Now it is the seat of mass-production industries whose chief units employ whole armies of men and women. Great fortunes have been made there and some of them have taken wings; but others will be made in due course, for Michigan continues to have a lively faith in booms. Time was when practically every Michigander shared this faith; but the collapse of the last boom finds, even in recovery, a residue of those who doubt the blessedness of the unrestrained business cycle. Because it leads in the newer technics, Michigan is worth watching. As Michigan goes economically, socially, and politically, so goes the nation. Mass politics follows mass industrialism.

For several quite obvious reasons, the ups and downs of business alternately put more into Michigan and take more out of Michigan than in the case of most other states. The automobile industry is a sponge which sucks wealth out of the whole world when the world has money to spend, and then quickly dries when orders fail. The sponge also sucks in labor and housing shortages, resulting in undigested mortgage loans. In boom times, realty loans are likely to be made, such is the infinite enthusiasm of man, on the basis of valuations which to-morrow may appear highly speculative. This is a constant in American economic history, but in Michigan a unique credit situation emphasizes the peaks and valleys of the business cycle.

Major industries in Michigan, with large reserves built from profits, seldom borrow considerable sums from local banks; if and when they borrow, they go to New York for the money, for then they want big money and cheap money for long-range programmes. As a result, commercial banks in the principal automobile cities have little or no outlet for funds on local paper of best character, with repayments certain at near dates. To get rid of the savings poured in upon them by temporarily flush workers and merchants, the banks fell naturally into financing real-estate mortgages in an amount and of a quality not consistent with sound commercial banking. In the clutch of circumstances, these loans were frozen far too solidly for the solvency and morale of alternately high-spirited and downcast communities.

Also, the nature of the automobile business contributes pressure both on the uptake and on the downswing. Cars must be sold when people want them. Automobiles are so cumbersome and costly that stocking production of finished cars at the factories for any length of time may prove fatal, and is certain to be embarrassing. If the docks cannot be cleared, hours of work must be shortened and men laid off. When orders are brisk, labor flows into the automobile country, shoves some sort of roots down, and then may be caught short by a slack spell. The strictly seasonal swing has been somewhat corrected by advancing automobile show dates from January to November; but the larger cyclical swings, which depend upon the public’s moods of affluence or thrift, as influenced by world-wide trends in politics and economy, elude control.

There is no escape from these compulsions; all concerned understand them and bear inevitable ills calmly for the sake of sharing in benefits when work is plenty. But the very efficiency and solvency of these great manufacturing companies tend to whittle employment down to minimum proportions during bad times. In such distress periods small businesses, with short reserves and in debt, commonly cut wages and prices to the bone to keep operations going at the largest possible volume, because their continued existence depends upon getting in every possible dollar. To keep the wheels moving at best possible speeds, prices, temporarily, may not cover true costs — a desperate shift, but one that does mean some sort of wages for a considerable part of the normal staff. That was the way Michigan weathered the hard times of the ’90s — on a dollar a day wages for ten hours’ work and no relief except through an oldfashioned poor law.

The well-financed giants of these days meet hard times otherwise. They trim down to skeleton staffs, operate on greatly reduced schedules, and wait for improved conditions. They may cut wages and prices somewhat, but not so much as do the small fellows under more severe pressure. The large companies are not driven sled-length into ruinous price wars; competition is sharper, particularly on packing more value into cars, but never becomes even remotely cutthroat in the market place. This is clearly a decent, safe, and dignified way to conduct a great industry. In the long run it makes for stability and quick recovery, but it also makes for sharp changes in employment figures.

When these declines start, labor is usually discovered to be deep in debt. In the old days a factory worker could hardly go into debt for more than a hundred dollars unless he was really good for it apart from his payroll prospects; after getting a month’s house rent, a week’s groceries, and a ton of coal on tick, he was through. Now he can buy anything on time installments from a suit of clothes to a house, with the result that shutdown brings to his door duns, garnishees, and replevins which fray his temper and aggravate his distress. Ordinarily he is far better found than his predecessor of thirty or forty years ago, but he is also more vulnerable. Then, industry was deeply in debt and labor only lightly; now the situation is reversed.

The net of all this is a heavy burden of unemployment in dull periods, and a growing desire for security in a society once altogether dominated by the spirit of economic adventure, but not so hopeful as of old that the next boom will solve everything. To a society so environed, social security made a clear appeal; and, if the programme works, its benefits will be felt not only by labor but also by tradesmen, landlords, and employers. As heavy taxpayers, employers must meet heavy charges for relief in their tax bills.


Republican Michigan, by and large, was a classless society, in which nearly everyone worth his salt held the same idea — to get ahead in a world where no doors were closed to ability and zeal. There the conservative American Federation of Labor was held to be Communistic, and all that its officers said in condemnation of the Soviet system could not change that deep-rooted opinion, which went right down to the grass roots and punch presses. There even a nodding acquaintance with social problems was not considered good form until recently. There an anti-syndicalism law, with plenty of teeth, covers practically any challenge to the existing social order, even that of the reactionary Black Legion.

Democratic Michigan is noticeably class-conscious at the moment, not with the blazing bitterness of 1932, but in a dogged, stubborn way. Since the political protest was the only one open, Michigan made the most of it. Industrially, both its masters and its men are open-minded and warmhearted beings who do precious little theorizing on the intangibles surrounding their work. What one puts into the pay envelope and the other takes out is to each still the most important aspect of their relationship. Because the region leaped so swiftly from a lumberman’s frontier to advanced machine-shop practice, unsuited to craft unionism, there have been few strikes and comparatively little of the formal negotiating which either avoids strikes or settles them in other regions.

An earnest and, on the whole, honest effort has been made to meet the demand for collective bargaining through company unions, and in many plants these are becoming vigorous champions of the employee interest. It remains to be seen whether they will develop the strength required to hold their members in line, or whether the company unions are the antechambers and training schools for vertical unionization on the comprehensive Lewis plan. If the company unions crash, the 1936 vote for Roosevelt in Michigan may be viewed in retrospect as approval of his labor policy by the factory workers; but I caught no such definite objective while ferreting around there during the campaign. The mounting enthusiasm for Roosevelt was more general in character and found readiest expression in the blanket phrase: ‘Roosevelt’s for the working people.’ Thus far the factory workers of Michigan have never been unionized and have never made any determined effort, by and of themselves, to become unionized. But they have always been insistent on a square deal, and are likely to step up that insistence in the future, raising their sights on what constitutes a square deal and pressing for it more eagerly.

If the Republican Party has lost Michigan for good, it has lost the nation for good, because the moods which its votes measure will be increasingly the moods of mid-America as industrialism spreads into areas now chiefly rural. If the G. O. P. is to win enough national elections to be of future consequence, it must carry Michigan in some presidential years. A party line that wins Michigan may win the country, but that which Michigan declines can hardly do so, for its Republican heredity predisposes a favorable hearing there. Of course, as long as the Solid South holds, the Democrats can sometimes win without Michigan, but the Republicans will find that difficult. There is no Solid North and no Penrose Philadelphia now to keep the G. O. P. flag flying between elections as the South and Tammany did for the Democracy in its lean years.

President Roosevelt fixed the Democratic line as ‘a little to the left of the centre.’ From that position, the master stance at this phase of the business cycle, he could go after votes on either hand, and leave his radical foes and conservative foes to destroy themselves. The President’s strategy ensured to him the liberal vote.

The liberal point of view has had its ups and downs, but is now regaining some of its old prestige and winning new converts. With the extremists in revolution and reaction revealing themselves so fully, the middle of the road seems to hold the pleasantest companions, to say the least. There will be enough of this company in America for many years to come to give them the balance of power at the polls. Consequently a realistic Republican line should be a little to the right of the centre; not far enough to the right, however, to lose touch with the relatively easygoing and hopeful middle-of-theroaders whose reason for being there is compounded of reasonable desires to avoid ditches, find safe footing, and trudge along.

By taking his line and holding to it, President Roosevelt transformed his party into a labor party — not a doctrinaire labor party, but one realistically dedicated to the interests of urban employees and dirt farmers. Such clarity on the one hand requires equal clarity on the other, if the two-party system essential to order in a vast country like this is to survive. Effective opposition to a labor party requires a party dedicated to property, which is as much a natural human right as it is a maze of possessions. Widespread ownership still characterizes America; among the liberal elements attracted to Roosevelt in this campaign were millions of owners of real and share property — millions of farmers with title deeds, millions of wage earners with stakes in homes, shares, and equities. In this campaign they leaned to the left; in another campaign they may well lean to the right, provided the alternate route offered is not too far to the right.

Events move too swiftly for to-day’s line to be a winning one even four years hence. For instance, if Roosevelt continues veering a little to the left through four more years, a valid Republican position in 1940 may not be far from the Democratic position of 1936. Republican speakers kept harping on the theme that the New Deal platform of 1936 was practically the Socialist platform of 1932; likewise they heaped praise upon t he Democratic programme of 1932 while letting their own 1936 platform severely alone. ‘Socialist to Democrat to Republican ’ is an old triple play in the political field, performed at swifter tempo now than ever before.

If this seems a cynical abandonment of principles, it is worth remembering that principles in politics are no good without votes. In the realm of ideas, I am individualist almost to the point of philosophic anarchism, but after all one must accept continuing popular movements as having weight superior to either personal or clique interests. Unless the Republican Party puts itself in the way of finding another ten million votes occasionally, it will eventually die for lack of patronage and incentive. Otherwise I feel fairly certain of outliving that once so solid temple of Republicanism which housed my youth. There simply are not enough rich and well-to-do persons to man an effective party in an electorate of 40,000,000 voters.


The brand of conservatism with a chance of winning Michigan, and the rest of the Union, back to the Republican Party requires elements beyond wealth in the present and fear of the future. Timidity is by no means all there is to caution, and money is by no means all there is to life. It is time for the party to reëxamine its foundations — pillars of freedom set in the cement of indissoluble union eighty years ago — and, after repairs in that quarter, to ask for new plans and specifications for the superstructure, with a view to deciding how the eternal principles of political philosophy can be wisely applied to the social strains and equipment of the present. How long has it been since any Republican orator, save Borah, discussed learnedly and wisely the division of sovereignty and the just relationship of the state to the individual? And who, among the leaders of his party, ever heeded Borah? Not once in this campaign did I see or hear a mention of one of the deepest fissures in our situation — namely, the fact that while the Federal Union now possesses, through the income tax, unlimited power of the purse in collecting revenue, its power to spend is under Constitutional limitation, five times applied by the Supreme Court during recent years.

I like to think of Disraeli as a type of daring conservative who would have the courage to carry Michigan. When ‘Dizzy’ examined a polity and found it sound, he did not falter in applying that polity to its full length. Thus he confounded the opposition, then quibbling over reducing property restrictions on the ballot, by plunging for full manhood suffrage, thereby giving the Conservative Party in Great Britain a new lease of life by winning for it the affection of the plain people, an affection which still clings after half a century. Perhaps some of the burning questions of to-day could be resolved with equal dispatch and profit by a Republican Party brave enough to ‘go all out’ for a fruitful and beneficial new idea, oblivious of the squeals of those who think they will be hurt by change. Let the latter be assured that change is what they are going to get in any case, and be advised to take it from their friends at least as equably as they always take it, in the last resort, from their opponents.

The road to oblivion is paved with surrenders made too late, the road to power with compromises made in time. But that road can never be trod in our day by cohorts relying too much on these musty adjectives, ‘Socialistic and ‘Communistic.’ Those verbal counters have lost their force to harrow and alarm the plebs; their scare-value has departed, and instead of fulfilling their purpose they seem to be accepted as recommendations. This does not mean that America is going red, but merely that it is growing in comprehension and judgment. Nor will the path to power be easy again for a party which is not willing to let the Constitution, a worthy document but by no means writ above Sinai, live by its own merits in an expanding society which must have breathing space. After all, the Republicans have been historically the great amenders of that document, and might well continue in that rôle. Out of the window, too, should go the old obsession for high tariffs, partly because the G. O. P. needs to approach the Solid South with clean hands in order to redress there the balance of power against Northern losses, partly because the labor element in the opposition party will take care of that protection item henceforth.

On this basis Michigan — and eventually the Union — can be won back to a conservative party, at least often enough to make conservatism again influential. If this internal readjustment of the party — in ideas, rhetoric, and strategy — comes reasonably soon, the Republican name and tradition may also be preserved to the Union which obviously has further need of the unifying strength they represent. But if the party dallies too long between Demos and Dives, there will be more need for a wailing wall than for a loudspeaker under the oaks at Jackson.