Elections, Political Parties, and Politicians
August 1, 2015
There is an unspoken assumption that popular elections and political parties go together like a horse and carriage or like love and marriage. That is, it is assumed that they belong together.
But, for a few moments, entertain another presumption, viz., that political parties and their leading politicians view elections as sailors view shoals and reefs, i.e., as dangerous and potentially destructive phenomena. Hence, elections must be navigated so “the ship of state,” with its political parties and politicians on board, will not run aground or even sink.
We have, we are told, two major political parties, both of which are embedded in our political system, but which might be more accurately seen as shipmates on a “ship of state,” navigating an often unpredictable political sea, a sea which is unsettled every few years by popular elections. As a result, both parties have a mutual interest in steadying the ship of state in order to ensure that it does not run aground or sink.
From this viewpoint, elections are always events that must be controlled, must be managed, must be navigated, and this is especially so in time of widespread popular discontent and anger. It might even be said, in fact it has been said, that the two parties collude in order to navigate such seas in the face of popular elections.
Recently, I have been reading about the presidential election of 1896, in which William McKinley, the Republican, defeated William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat, a result which many say ushered in a period of “national unity,” a period which left behind decades of “depression, divisiveness, and flashing movement.” In sum, it was a time when, “if all went well . . . would carry McKinley and the nation triumphantly into the twentieth century.” [p. 156, Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896, by R. Hal Williams]
Usually, this election and its alleged results are seen as the result of two party competition, a competition which pitted the “gold coated” Republicans against the “silver tongued” Democrats, a competition which is presented as offering the American people a stark choice between two radically different political and economic alternatives. However, one interesting aspect of this view is that it was not the view of many who were involved in politics at that time. In fact, for many, the election of 1896 had been “constructed” in such a way that any radically different alternative politics would not and could not win.
In the years preceding 1896, due to depression and other phenomena, a third party arose called either the “People’s Party” or the “Populists.” The adherents to this party sought wholesale changes in the U.S. such as free silver, an income tax, public ownership of the railroads and telegraph companies, and protections for laborers, a category that was understood to include farmers. Obviously, such an agenda threatened, to say the least, the status quo and, therewith, both of the major parties. Hence, ways needed to be devised to ensure the demise of this party and its agenda. Interestingly, in light of this need, the political debate in the nation came to focus on the issue of silver, i.e., whether silver should be used along with gold as the basis of money, thereby increasing the money that could be in circulation and making life bearable for the common people. How this came about is not as important as that it did come about, with the result that silver became the focal point of political debates and political distinctions.
As a result, the Populist party was split between those who rejected this focus on silver – they thought and said that the silver question was of minor importance to the well being of the nation and its producers, the laborers - and those who embraced it, the latter for the sake of joining the Democrats – a process called “fusion” – in order to make possible a victory in 1896. The issue was whether to maintain what some call “party purity” or to compromise, “fuse,” and thereby win the presidency with the Democrat Bryan. So the choice was presented but it was a false choice.
“On the eve of their own convention, the Populists were in trouble, and they knew it. At the beginning of 1896, they had staked everything on the assumption that neither party would endorse silver. The Republicans seemed safe for gold . . . and surely Grover Cleveland . . . could keep a silver plank out of the Democratic platform. As it turned out, the Populists guessed right about the Republicans, wrong about the Democrats . . . . After Chicago [the Democratic national convention] the Populists faced a painful choice: nominate and independent ticket and risk splitting the silver reform forces or nominate Bryan and give up a good deal of their identity as a party. Either way, they were certain to lose. ‘If we fuse,’ as one of them said plaintively, ‘we are sunk; if we don’t fuse, all the silver men we have will leave us for the more powerful Democrats.” [pp. 110 & 113]
Now, it should be noted that the radical agenda of the Populists had, by the time the election of 1896 occurred, been shut out of the process. “Either way, they were certain to lose.” Which is to say that their agenda was bound to lose either way, i.e., whether McKinley won or whether Bryan won! It can even be said that they had already lost by the time the election occurred. This is what is called managing or navigating an allegedly popular election.