This country has experienced two great progressive movements: the one we are going through now and the one that started over 125 years ago. Both movements originated in the turmoil kicked up by industrial or technological revolutions that dropped unimaginable amounts of wealth in the laps of a very few Americans, creating a direct challenge to the idea of American democracy.
The question progressives faced in the 19th century is the same one as today: Can a nation say it is truly a democracy when its economic structure resembles that of an oligarchy or plutocracy?
Not at all coincidentally, one of the two frontrunning Democratic candidates, Senator Bernard Sanders, has spent most of his career studying and emulating his hero, a socialist trade union labor leader from the late 19th and early 20th centuries named Eugene V. Debs.
Senator Sanders’ fascination with Debs is well-documented, but the best way to immerse yourself in the historical bromance is to watch the short film written and directed by Sanders in 1979, entitled, Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary. Sanders’ distinctive voice is heard throughout the plodding and unsophisticated documentary, including his recitation of part of Debs’ stirring speech delivered in 1918 before a federal judge who was about to sentence him to 10 years in prison for speaking out against the war at a socialist picnic in Canton, Ohio, allegedly in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.
(It opens: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”)
Debs ran for president on the socialist ticket five times, between 1900 and 1920. He lost all five contests, though his vote totals increased significantly over time. In 1900, Debs received just 87,000 votes. By 1912, in a four-way race among Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, Bull Moose Theodore Roosevelt, and Debs, the Socialist ticket garnered 901,000 votes, or six percent of the total vote, which the winner, Wilson, won with 6.3 million votes, representing 41 percent of all votes cast. Eight years later, when Debs, still in prison from his conviction under the Espionage Act, ran against Republican Warren Harding and Democrat James Cox (both from Ohio), he collected 913,000 votes, the high-water mark for any socialist candidate for president. Debs never won a single electoral vote.
Debs, however, was not the only economic radical running against Wall Street and the Gilded Age politicians of the last progressive uprising. It is important to consider William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska congressman, known as the “Great Commoner,” who ran three times on the Democratic ticket (1896, 1900, 1908). Bryan, just 36 in 1896, captured the Democratic nomination after delivering a stemwinder known as the “Cross of Gold” speech at the convention in Chicago. The so-called silver Democrats wanted to loosen currency restrictions based on gold reserves to allow silver to be coined so that money would be more readily available to farmers and workers. Bryan’s speech ended with the epic lines: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”
Like Debs, Bryan lost all three of his attempts to win the presidency. He came closest in 1896 when he won 6,509,052 votes to William McKinley’s 7,111,607. In the election, Bryan won 22 states to McKinley’s 23 (though just 176 electoral votes to 271). In 1900, Bryan lost ground taking just 45 percent of the vote; and similarly backtracked in 1908 where he only attracted 43 percent of the popular vote.
American voters don’t like radicals, though many clearly favor disruptors.
But this does not mean the Debs’ and Bryan’s campaigns were in vain. In 1912, a more moderate Democrat, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, won and began to install the progressive agenda: a federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, the direct election of Senators, labor reforms, and eventually women’s suffrage. Further down the road, when a Great Depression threatened the nation itself, a rich millionaire from New York, Franklin Roosevelt, increased the role of government in stabilizing the economy and put in place the first social safety net in the form of Social Security.
To be fair to Sanders, Eugene Debs was a socialist when the major struggle was between labor and capital and before V. I. Lenin and his Bolsheviks would turn the ideas of Marx and Engels into not just a dictatorship of the proletariat but a brutal, repressive, murderous regime not unlike the aristocratic and autocratic Czarist dynasty they took down. Debs saw socialism as democracy, pure and simple. The power and wealth of the country should mimic the politics of a small “d” democratic state, where money and power are shared equitably among the citizens of the Republic.
So perhaps it might be that Sanders can win, but history suggests that his struggle will be a precursor to change that happens more moderately and cautiously, but inevitably. This may be the lesson of Super Tuesday.
But therein lies the problem. Neither Debs nor Bryan faced an opponent or a president that relentlessly attacked the rule of law and sought to disrupt and surreptitiously destroy the protections of free and fair elections. A century ago, there was time for change, even radical change, to take hold. Today, many think the reelection of Donald Trump could very well represent a turning point; that his presidency represents an existential threat to our government.
The question may be: is the Sanders gamble worth the cost of four more years of Trump?
James Robenalt is the author of four nonfiction books on American history and is a contributing author of The Presidents and the Constitution, A Living History. He lectures with John Dean on Watergate and legal ethics.