Bring Back the Mugwumps

During the late 19th century, a handful of Republican reformers earned the scorn of their party by standing up for their ideas—which went on to triumph. Today’s conservatives would be smart to follow their lead.

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.

Nobody ever proved Blaine crooked, but he was widely believed to have engaged in shady business dealings and to have accepted large personal gifts from corporate benefactors. A contemporary cartoon depicted him as “the tattooed man,” with the names of his manifold scandals stamped on his body. Blaine’s imposing mansion still stands near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Even at 19th-century construction prices, he could hardly have afforded to build it on a senator’s salary. His house in Augusta, Maine, which he owned at the same time, is now the governor’s mansion.

Despite everything, most reformers had remained loyal to the Republican Party throughout the disappointing postwar years. The Blaine nomination, however, was one outrage more than they could swallow. The Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland, had won a reputation for honesty as the mayor of Buffalo and then the governor of New York. Cleveland supported civil-service reform, the gold standard, and free trade—the great causes of the reformers. As a block, they did something almost unimaginable in those days of white-hot partisan feelings: they broke with the party of Lincoln to support the nominee of the party of Jefferson Davis.

The editor of The New York Sun, Charles Dana, mocked these party-switchers as Mugwumps, a name he apparently took from an Algonquian Indian word for an important person—self-important was what Dana ironically meant to say. Other critics, less polite, drew them as absurd cartoon characters with their “mug” on one side of the fence and their “wump” on the other. Their opponents sneered at them as “hermaphrodites.” (The word homosexual had not yet entered the English language.) The boss of the New York state Republican Party, U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling, who detested Blaine, nonetheless complained, “When Doctor Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities of the word reform.”

In a tensely close election, who can assess what impact the Mugwumps had on the course of history? Cleveland won New York’s 36 electoral votes—and thus the presidency—by the razor-thin margin of 1,149 votes out of the 1,167,169 cast.

The 1884 party-switchers lethally damaged any ambitions they may have held for elective office. (Some who shared the sympathies of the Mugwump circle—notably Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge—had been more prudent, and endorsed Blaine.) But over the succeeding decades, the Mugwump causes would one by one prevail.

The reformers wanted an end to patronage hiring in the civil service. In the 19th century, almost every job in federal, state, and local government, all the way down to the clerks and messengers, turned on Election Day. For hundreds of thousands of Americans, an election was not a vote on the issues, but a referendum on a single urgent question: “Shall I keep my job?” The system conscripted every government worker—and everybody who hoped to become a government worker—into the machinery of the parties and compelled obedience to the party bosses. Beginning with the Pendleton Act of 1883, federal civil servants—and later state employees—were granted tenure for office so long as they competently performed their jobs. Over the next quarter century, the old patronage system and its accompanying kickbacks to the parties dwindled away.

The Mugwumps wanted the United States to resume free trade—not only as a matter of good economics, but also because they had witnessed how the switch to protectionism in 1861 had turned Congress into an auction house for industrial favors. The United States cut its high tariffs for a tragically brief period in 1913, but adopted free trade as a permanent policy after World War II.

The Mugwumps wanted to end congressional manipulation of the currency. They got their wish in 1900, when the United States wrote the gold standard into law, and in 1913, with the founding of the Federal Reserve. They also wanted secret ballots, printed by the government, not the parties, and effective measures against vote-stealing and ballot-stuffing.

Yet this record of success has gained little applause. The historian Richard Hofstadter memorably denigrated the Mugwumps as snobbish, blundering goody-goodies:

The typical Mugwump was a conservative in his economic and political views. He disdained, to be sure, the most unscrupulous of the new men of wealth, as he did the opportunistic, boodling, tariff-mongering politicians who served them. But the most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses … The Mugwump was shut off from the people as much by his social reserve and his amateurism as by his candidly conservative views.

Hofstadter certainly had a point. Henry Adams in particular was an unappealing snob, brilliantly lampooned by Henry James in a short story. (Planning a party with his wife, the Adams character says, “Let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President.”) But if the Mugwumps were wrong to be offended by the use of the wrong fork, they were right to be offended by the abuse of slogans and the manipulations of loyalties to distract voters from the real issues of national importance. The Mugwump spirit is the spirit that says: “Enough. I refuse to be exploited by those who seek to misdirect my ideals to their advantage.”

Partisan affiliation nowadays carries less meaning than it did 125 years ago. Our divisions are more ideological and cultural than political: Red State versus Blue State, conservative versus liberal, religious versus secular. Yet today, again, many of the causes that seem to most agitate Americans on either side of these divides—like abortion and racism and reverse racism—seem frozen in time, left over from the culture wars of three and four decades back. Spend an evening watching cable news, and it’s a whole prime-time lineup of bloody-shirt-waving.

For people on my side of the aisle, the conservative side, the ancient causes seem especially distracting. Twenty-first-century America abounds in problems that ought to galvanize a modernized conservatism: excess government debt, onerous taxation of savings and investments, a dangerous overinvolvement of government in banking and finance, increasing dependence on energy from unfriendly sources, immigration policies that degrade the average skill and productivity of the American workforce, the strategic challenge from an emerging Chinese superpower. How are we to develop answers to these problems of tomorrow if in our minds it is forever 1969?

The causes that animated the Mugwumps are tinged with sepia. But the demand those reformers articulated should resonate as loudly today as ever it did: it is the demand for a politics based on realities, not phantoms.