Now that the outcome of the primary seems considerably less up in the air than it did a month ago, the fight Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign inspired between the Democratic Party’s self-styled populists and its wonks — Paul Krugman chief among them — has lost much of its urgency.
But that’s something of a mirage. Regardless of who wins this year’s primary (or the whole presidential campaign itself, for that matter) the fault lines within the Democratic coalition that were exposed during the back-and-forth are not going anywhere. And there’s little reason to suspect that when 2020 (or 2024) rolls around, the same disagreements over tactics and philosophy won’t rise up again.
So enduring is the tension between incrementalist-elites and populist-revolutionaries, in fact, that one can see the reflection of the Clinton/Sanders split in U.S. politics as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. No one was feeling the Bern in the early 1900s, it’s true; but much like today, the reform-minded did not only argue about what to do but how to do it. And sometimes it was those latter arguments that proved most important.
With that in mind, Salon decided recently to contact Michael Wolraich, the journalist and author whose celebrated 2014 book, “Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics,” offers those with a passion for history a new way to understand the intra-left squabbles of the here and now. This interview was conducted via email and has been edited.
Assuming he ends up losing, which seems likely, has Sen. Sanders run the kind of losing campaign that is ultimately seen as victorious in a larger sense? Or is it too soon to tell?
The media tends to measure “winners” and “losers” by election results, but to understand the significance of Sanders’ campaign, we need to shake this horserace mentality.
When Sanders talks about a building a movement, he doesn’t mean boosting voter turnout the way Obama did in 2008. Election year turnout isn’t a movement; it’s a spasm. Real political movements develop over years, even decades. And when you build a movement, losing elections is part of the process.
Did the first progressives go through a period of frequently losing before they started to win?
The pioneers of the original progressive movement lost plenty of elections. After losing two back-to-back gubernatorial elections in the 1890s, “Fighting Bob” La Follette presciently declared, “Temporary defeat often results in a more decided and lasting victory than one which is too easily achieved.” He finally won his third election and turned Wisconsin into a model of progressive reform that inspired the nation.
If Sanders loses this race, he may be too old to run for president again, but his campaign has inspired young voters and blazed a trail for future progressive candidates. In that sense, he is already a winner.
Sanders gets criticized sometimes for not having much backing from the intellectual and policy elite. Was that true of populist politicians during the Progressive Era, too?
It was far worse. Establishment politicians and journalists vilified and ridiculed progressive insurgents from both parties. In the early days of the progressive movement, even moderate reformers, like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, derided the insurgents. Roosevelt called La Follette “a shifty self-seeker,” and Wilson threatened to “knock [William Jennings] Bryan into a cocked hat!” But a few years later, both Roosevelt and Wilson joined the movement, embracing the policies and tactics of the “radicals” they had previously denounced.
When you read testimonies from passionate Sanders supporters — especially from young people — do they sound at all like the “awakening” people described going through during the progressive era? If not, why not?
I don’t think the young need to be awakened. They were never asleep. The movement will be mature when cynical old centrists “wake up.”
Consider Woodrow Wilson, one of the most effective progressive reformers in history. He was a stodgy conservative until he converted to progressivism in 1910. In his inaugural address, he reflected on the awakening that he and other Americans experienced in the early 20th century:
Some old things with which we had grown familiar, and which had begun to creep into the very habit of our thought and of our lives, have altered their aspect as we have latterly looked critically upon them, with fresh, awakened eyes; have dropped their disguises and shown themselves alien and sinister.
There’s a split within the Democratic Party between those who think good policy is good politics (Paul Krugman, for example) and those who think that they sometimes diverge. Did that schism exist within the progressive movement, too?
Absolutely. We often lionize Theodore Roosevelt as a progressive crusader, but as governor and president he mainly pushed for incremental policy reforms. “I have a horror of hysterics or sentimentality,” he said. “All I want to do is cautiously to feel my way to see if we cannot make the general conditions of life a little easier, a little better.
When he couldn’t pass the bills he wanted, TR allowed the conservative leaders in Congress to water down his proposals — often to the point of inadequacy — just to get something passed. As a result, he only had a few landmark legislative achievements, and when he left office in 1908, conservatives were still very much in control of Congress.
By contrast, Bob La Follette argued that TR’s compromised bills were counterproductive. “Half a loaf, as a rule,” he argued, “dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf.” La Follette’s strategy was political. He knew that Congress would never pass the ambitious legislation he proposed, but his quixotic efforts excited the public and helped inspired a national movement.
Between 1910 and 1912, progressive insurgents toppled the conservative power structure. In the next few years, all those “radical” proposals that seemed so impossible a few years earlier finally passed.
Ironically, Roosevelt did eventually embrace La Follette’s strategy but only after leaving office. The progressive crusading TR we remember is the “Bull Moose” of the 1912 election, when he ran on a far more radical platform than he had ever considered as president.
Are we seeing a similar dynamic play out with Clinton and Sanders, with the more establishment-friendly candidate coming around to the populist point of view?
Clinton has adopted some of Sanders’ political tactics, but I don’t know if that’s because she has been persuaded by their effectiveness or because she’s trying to undercut him in the primaries. I lean toward the latter. When she says, “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she sounds more like President Roosevelt than the Bull Moose [Roosevelt] of 1912.
The truth is that it will be impossible for any Democrat, no matter how pragmatic, to get things done in the current Congress. Democrats won’t escape the current morass until conservatives are removed from power, and that requires a good politics rather than good policy.
We’ve spent our time thus far looking at the Democratic side; but would it make more sense, in truth, to apply this framework to the GOP side? I’m thinking of the role Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have played, specifically.<
Cruz, yes; Trump, no. They're both populists like Sanders and La Follette, but Trump lacks the ideological clarity and long-term strategic vision.
I often describe Ted Cruz as the ideological mirror image of La Follette (“Seinfeld” fans might call him “Bizarro Bob”). He uses the same tactics — quixotic filibusters, futile amendments, and denunciations of his Republican colleagues. Like La Follette, he is the least popular man in the Senate, which has endeared him to the public. But Cruz isn’t the only one.
Many right-wing conservatives have adopted the populist tactics of the early progressives. That’s how they advanced the conservative movement from a fringe faction of the Republican Party to the most powerful force in modern politics. Democrats may hold the presidency for now, but they’ll continue to lose state and local elections until they relearn the lessons of the progressive movement.