By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
XIV. The Triumph of Reaction
The Republican tidal wave was remorseless, washing over even such heretofore Democratic strongholds as Tennessee, thus breaking the Solid South for the first time since Reconstruction; New York, where the otherwise-popular Governor Al Smith - running a million votes ahead of Cox -- was still ousted from office; and Boston, where Irish-Americans were deeply antagonistic to the thought of Irish independence being decided by the League of Nations - where England had six votes. (For similar reasons, Democratic Senator James Walsh of Massachusetts developed a strange laryngitis during the campaign that inhibited his ability to speak on behalf of the Cox-Roosevelt ticket.)2
The north end of Boston was no happier - Italian-Americans resented Wilson's attempts in Paris to prevent Italy's post-war incursion into Central Europe, and voted accordingly. And German-Americans, another traditionally Democratic vote, were also unhappy with the ticket, thanks to Governor Cox's proud and often-mentioned record of anti-German legislation during the war. (Despite the popular convention now, there is no evidence that new women voters backed the Harding ticket in markedly greater numbers than men.)3
The outcome was so decisive that neither of the Democratic candidates took it personally. "It was all inevitable," Governor Cox wrote Harold Ickes after the returns were in. "Therefore, we must face it with the right sort of philosophy":
There was never a time that I did not recognize the tremendous odds against us, but frequently I felt that there was some evidence of returning fervor of the war. It is nothing more nor less than the manifestation of human nature. The fact that the landslide operated everywhere the same is the best evidence that the conditions made the same play upon human emotions.4Now that the "reactionary forces will have such power, prestige, and patronage" in the Republican Party "that there can be little hope of principle over-riding expediency in that organization," Cox expected to see "a breaking down of party lines" in the years to come, and he had "every hope that the Democracy will be the means of promoting true progress…The crowd that is in control believes in reactionaryism. The interests behind them are emboldened by what they will convince themselves to be a protest against progressive movements."5
Ickes was inclined to agree. "The pendulum swung just as far as it could," he wrote Hiram Johnson. "It will have to come back and I confidentially expect it to come back before long. I simply can't conceive of the possibility of a man without either character or ability making good as president of the United States." Regarding his own apostasy in voting for Cox, Ickes claimed he hadn't "any regrets for the position I took during the campaign. On the contrary, even in the light of the results on Tuesday, I would do exactly the same thing again. We are suffering from a political disease that has to run its course, but that it will run its course I haven't a particle of doubt."6
Although he now signed his letters "Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ex V.P., Canned (Erroneously reported dead)," Cox's running mate was similarly philosophical. Roosevelt attributed the overwhelming Harding victory to the "tidal flow of discontent and destructive criticism" that followed the end of the great conflagration. "Every war brings after it a period of materialism and conservatism," he argued. "[People tire quickly of ideals and we are now repeating history." FDR predicted to his running mate that Democrats would be now out of power until a serious depression occurred. Until then, it could be a bumpy ride. "Thank the Lord," he confessed to a friend, "we are both comparatively youthful."7
Like Roosevelt, Senator Hiram Johnson also blamed the war for the ascendancy of Reaction. The war "has set back the people for a generation," he told one journalist. "They have bowed to a hundred repressed acts. They have become slaves to the government. They are frightened at the excesses in Russia. They are docile; and they will not recover from being so for many years. The interests which control the Republican party will make the most of their docility." But unlike Franklin Roosevelt, Hiram Johnson was no longer a young man. "In the end, of course," he concluded, "there will be a revolution, but it will not come in my time." "During our generation," he told another, "it cements in power the old standpatters. It is the end of Progressivism." He would spend the next several years fighting off serious depression - One observer deemed him "a pale fat man, moping in and out of the Senate."8
Reading the election results specifically as a repudiation of the League, Senator Johnson's Irreconcilable comrade in arms, William Borah, was much happier about the Harding landslide. "We won a great victory for our country," he exclaimed to one constituent. "It can hardly be underestimated in its import and its far-reaching effect provided we gather the fruits of victory." But, to Borah, now was not the time to forsake vigilance. "[Y]ou know General Grant once said something to the effect that the true test of military genius was the capacity to avail yourself of the fruits of victory…You will see now a scheme cooked up by Wall Street attorneys which will be advertised as a new and perfectly safe scheme [to enter the League.] Let us be on our guard."9
Also content with the process of the election, if nothing else, were progressive suffragists who saw women for the first time exercise the franchise in balloting booths all across the country. Meeting three weeks after the election, representatives of ten of the largest women's organizations - including the League of Women Voters, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Consumer's League, the Women's Trade Union League, and the American Association of University Women - convened in Washington DC to begin planning for the next steps forward. "No such body of unselfish citizens has ever before made itself articulate," announced Maud Wood Park, chair of the LWV. "The members of Congress are apt to forget that good government is desired. They hear so much from the self-seeking, rather than the average citizen." Achieving suffrage was only the beginning - To add women's voices to politics, and to begin the process of changing government for good, these organizations agreed to form the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC), which would become one of the most prominent and feared lobbies of the next few years.10
Borah and the WJCC founders were some of the only progressive minded individuals to draw a silver lining from the Harding boom. Most agreed with William Howard Taft that the election results had made progressives politically irrelevant - "[I]t prevents," Taft chortled with glee, "their exercising that instrumentality of blackmail with which they love to manifest their nuisance importance." "Reaction is in control today, both in the politics and in the sphere of public opinion," lamented Father John Ryan in January 1921. Nonetheless, The Survey responded to the Harding landslide by reiterating all the progressive planks the Republican candidate had committed to, in his Social Justice speech or otherwise. Harding, The Survey reminded its readers, had declared himself "in favor of trade unionism and collective bargaining":
On October 1, he came out in favor of a Department of Public Welfare…At the same time he said he favored the eight-hour day for women, the living wage, the extension of the activities of the Children's Bureau, and that he desired to see the government take the lead in proposing legislation for the protection of women and of the national health. Senator Harding also stated his desire to see lynching stamped out by federal action. He has stood for an executive budget in the federal government.11The Survey notwithstanding, most observers did not look as favorably at the prospect of progressivism under Harding, and many progressives seemed to lapse into despair. "What a God damned world this is," William Allen White confessed to Ray Stannard Baker. "I trust you will realize that I am not swearing; merely trying to express in the mildest terms what I think of the conditions that exists." For his part, Baker had already succumbed to depression during the campaign. As he confided to his journal, his "former silly illusions" were gone, and he "now ready to begin at the bottom."12
W.E.B. Du Bois was also among the disgusted. "Never have the American people endured such a Presidential campaign," he argued in The Crisis. "[T]he major parties were all fog or reaction," while "the third parties have made a singularly spiritless campaign:
And the Black Man. He had no chance. He was less than free and more than a slave. He was a machine - an automatic registration mark for the Republican party. He could not be otherwise. From the day Woodrow Wilson shamelessly betrayed his black supporters of 1912 to the day when the flippant Cox of Ohio built his Ohio campaign on the cheapest brand of 'nigger'-hatred, the black American had but one political choice or mission: to defeat the South-ridden Democratic party. He could not even think of taking an off-shot at the Millennium by voting Socialist or Farmer Labor - he must defeat the Democrats.For Oswald Villard and The Nation, Harding's election -- "the Triumph of Reaction" -- showed "the country is bound and delivered to the Republicans. They may work their sweet will upon us and interpret the verdict as they see fit." On the bright side, the magazine argued, the election results showed that "the effect of the women's vote was just what everyone but its most ardent opponents and its most fanatical supporters knew it would be - slight indeed." In other words, the election proved that "men and women are much alike in their opinions and prejudices," and it was heartening to see the franchise extended to "all the men and women of the country, even though it may sometimes result in the election of a Harding." Otherwise, however, the results made it abundantly clear that "for liberals there is a long road ahead before the United States can be ranked as a politically progressive nation."14
"The chief distinguishing aspect of the Presidential campaign of 1920," Herbert Croly wrote similarly in TNR, "is the eclipse of liberalism or progressivism as an effective force in American politics." A despairing Croly thought that "various progressive groups are no longer sure or clear about what they want. They do not know how to get what they want; nor are they willing to pay the price…Their political futility is born of the equivocal meaning of American liberalism, its failure to keep abreast of the best available social knowledge and its inability to interpret candidly the lessons of its own checkered career." Now, "the hodge-podge of factions and sects which remain of the progressive movement know neither their own minds nor the dangerous world in which they live."15
Croly's young editorial partner, Walter Lippmann, ascribed the defeat to "the final twitch of the war mind" and "because the Democrats are inconceivably unpopular." (Otherwise, he told his friend Graham Wallas, "there would be cause for profound discouragement with universal suffrage.") Surveying the mindset of progressives several months later, after Harding's inauguration, Lippmann told Wallas "there's no use pretending that the atmosphere is cheerful here. It is not. The hysteria has turned to apathy and disillusionment in the general public, and cynicism in most of my friends. "I feel that we shall not have much immediate influence in America for perhaps a decade," Lippmann told Wallas. "[B]ut I'm not discouraged because we can use that time to reexamine our ideas."16
For his part, Woodrow Wilson issued no public statements of any kind, although his private secretary, Joe Tumulty, proclaimed that "[i]t was a landslide, it was an earthquake." Wilson deferred the writing of the usual Thanksgiving Day proclamation to his Secretary of State. The following month, the American Minister to Norway officially accepted Wilson's Nobel Peace prize. His daughters, his cabinet members, and his friends tried to rouse him from despair, but the president was inconsolable.17
One day, Ray Stannard Baker joined the president and his wife to watch a new film that had been made of the president's trip to Europe, when Wilson had been feted by kings and adored by millions. As the film ended and the room went dark, Baker remembered, "[a]ll that glory had faded away with a click and a sputter." In a memory that would haunt Baker for years to come, Wilson said not a word the entire time, and then simply, silently, painfully got up and walked out of the room. When Edmund Starling, one of Wilson's Secret Service men, told the president that a friend of his, a Mr. Barker, would still follow him into battle wherever he went, Wilson said "Tell Barker I thank him, but there is nowhere now to go."18
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Bagby, 154, 130. "The Triumph of Reaction," The Nation, November 17, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2889), 548.
3. Bagby, 154, 130, 160. Capozzola, 193.
4. Cox to Ickes, November 10, 1920. HLI, Box 30: Cox Correspondence.
6. Ickes to Johnson, November 5, 1920. HLI. Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
7. Murray, The 103rd Ballot,, 3.Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 366.
8. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 45. Richard Coke Lower, A Bloc of One: The Political Career of Hiram W. Johnson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 159, 162.
9. Borah to John W. Hart, November 5, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Idaho.
10. Jan Doolittle Wilson, The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 1.
11. Lowitt, 135. "What Else Must Be Done to Make This a Livable World?" The Survey, January 1, 1921, 505. W.L.C., "The Republican Victory," The Survey, November 13, 1920, 247.
12. Noggle, Into the Twenties, 190. Even H.L. Mencken, once his initial cynic's joy at witnessing such a colossal cock-up subsided, looked grimly to the future. "Mere snickering at the snarls and whorls of Gamalielese will soon pall," he wrote, "[I]t will presently irritate and then it will bore. Far better a Roosevelt with his daily mountebankery or a Wilson with his weekly appendix to the Revelation of St. John the Divine. These boys kept the ball in the air…But all Gamaliel promises is a few more laughs, and then an illimitable tedium." Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 46.
13. "The Unreal Campaign," The Crisis, December 1920 (Vol. 21, No. 2), 55.
14. "The Triumph of Reaction," The Nation, November 17, 1920 (Vol. 111, No. 2889), 548.
15. Herbert Croly, "The Eclipse of Progressivism," The New Republic, October 27, 1920.
16. Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, 170.
17. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 3. Smith, 159-163.
18. Smith, 159-163.
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