This seminar examined the critical election of 1912 and its legacy for American politics and government. This was the climactic battle of the Progressive era that arose at the dawn of 20th century, when the country first tried to come to terms with the profound challenges posed by the industrial revolution. The election’s significance follows in large part from the historical importance of the Progressive Party. Led by ex-president Theodore Roosevelt the most important figure of his political time it was joined by an array of crusading reformers who viewed “the Bull Moose” campaign as their best hope to advance a program of national reconstruction. The Progressives promoted an ambitious program of economic, social, and political Reform “New Nationalism” that posed profound challenges to constitutional government and provoked an extraordinary debate about the future of the country. The party’s dependence on its celebrated candidate, and, more broadly, a plebiscitary form of democracy would ultimately rob it of the very organization it needed in order to survive after Roosevelt. Yet the Progressive Party’s program of social reform and “direct democracy” has reverberated through American politics, never more so than in 2008, with Barack Obama appealing to similar principles.
The morning session focused on the election itself, a four cornered contest for the constitutional soul of the American people. Besides Roosevelt, the campaign included Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Governor of New Jersey, who was elected president; William Howard Taft, the incumbent Republican President; and Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate. All four candidates acknowledged that fundamental changes were occurring in the American political landscape, and each attempted to define the Progressive era’s answer to the questions raised by the new industrial order that had grown up within the American constitutional system. Special attention was devoted to the Progressive Party, which was the driving force in the election, and its attack on “natural rights” and limited constitutional government.
The afternoon session considered the legacy of the election for American politics and government. We explored how the 1912 campaign affected, not just progressives and the Democratic Party but also conservatives and the Republican Party. Tracing the wayward path of progressivism through the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Reagan Revolution, we considered whether contemporary political developments represent a contest between different strains of progressivism.
Sidney Milkis is the White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics and Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the American presidency, political parties and elections, social movements and American political development. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate students, he regularly gives public lectures on American politics and participates in programs for international scholars and high school teachers that probe the deep historical roots of contemporary developments in the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party Campaign, and the Transformation of American Democracy (Kansas University Press, 2009) is his latest book.