When conservatism reigned

Ray Hartwell Contributor
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Just imagine how different our national predicament might be today if the leaders of both major political parties favored limiting the power of our central government, lowering taxes, enabling individual initiative, and opposing public employee unions and crony capitalism, while the “progressives,” who favor government takeovers of key industries, higher and more redistributive taxation, and ever more powerful unions in the public and private sectors, were a distinct minority with little influence.

In such a world, might we recover more rapidly from recession? Would unemployment drop, industry flourish, and prosperity spread at all socioeconomic levels? In fact, these very things happened in our past. Wouldn’t it behoove us to learn from this history? And if the pursuit of “progressive” policies to address a subsequent recession produced prolonged stagnation — which also happened — wouldn’t we benefit from knowing that as well?

Happily a very readable new book brings this history into focus in a fashion that should inform our thinking about issues that have challenged our nation before, and challenge it still.

In his excellent book, The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, Garland Tucker provides a fresh and timely perspective on the last election in which both major parties nominated what today we would call “conservatives,” candidates committed to limited government, low taxes, and individual liberty. Ever since, Tucker posits, “the Republican Party has generally been the conservative party, while the Democratic Party has not even seriously considered nominating a conservative candidate.”

Tucker’s historical analysis is well researched, objective and informative, his prose lucid and succinct. One comes away from this book with a newfound appreciation for the period and the lessons it holds for the current day, and also with genuine admiration for Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis.

Davis and Coolidge were principled men of exceptional character, of scrupulous honesty and integrity. Tucker deftly capsules their formative years and their formidable later accomplishments. The parallels are striking. Both came from small towns, Davis from West Virginia and Coolidge from Vermont. Both were profoundly affected by tragic deaths of loved ones. Both had strong conservative values instilled by close families, later reinforced by influential professors at their small liberal arts colleges — Washington and Lee (Davis) and Amherst (Coolidge).

As for the political parties, Tucker provides a cogent overview of their origins and fortunes in the decades after the Civil War. The Democrats, historically “a coalition of disparate groups,” faced the continuing challenge of finding a candidate who could “hold the South” while gaining enough votes among “Midwest farmers” and in “urban centers with heavy immigrant populations” to win an electoral majority. Dominant nationally after the Civil War, the Republicans saw themselves “as the voice of political stability, American business, and strength at home and abroad.”

Late in the nineteenth century, “progressive” elements gained influence in both parties. Tucker traces the candidacies of William Jennings Bryan, the progressive Republican presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and the further expansion of federal power under Democratic president Woodrow Wilson.

By 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War, the country had entered a severe recession. A backlash against Wilson’s policies led to the election of Republican conservative Warren Harding and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge.

Harding (who died in 1923) and then Coolidge, together with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, cut government spending, lowered the highest tax rates, and took more than a quarter of taxpayers off the rolls altogether. Their policies “fostered unprecedented economic growth.” Unemployment fell from 6.7 to 3.2 percent, with GDP growth at a robust rate of 4.7 percent.

As the election of 1924 approached, prosperity was widespread. The public credited President Coolidge for this welcome turn of events. He easily won the Republican nomination.

By contrast, the Democratic convention showcased the party’s deep divisions over the nationally strong “Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition, progressivism, and farming issues.” A stalemate between leading contenders was finally broken on the 103rd ballot, when the exhausted delegates nominated a compromise candidate — the former solicitor general and ambassador to England, John W. Davis.

A third party movement that year saw renegade Republican senator Robert LaFollette run on the Progressive ticket, proposing policies called “radical” by both Coolidge and Davis. Although nominally a Republican, LaFollette’s campaign targeted agrarian reformers of both parties along with labor activists and socialist sympathizers in urban areas.

The outcome was never in doubt. Coolidge won in a landslide. Significantly, LaFollette’s candidacy hurt Davis far more than Coolidge. This foreshadowed the future course of the Democratic Party.

Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s vice president, easily defeated Al Smith in the 1928 election, riding the wave of prosperity set in motion by his predecessor. But after the 1929 crash, Hoover did not follow the successful Coolidge-Mellon formula, but instead “greatly increased government spending” and “increased tax rates.”

In 1932, the Democrats adopted a “relatively conservative platform.” Davis, in a New York Times article entitled “Why I am a Democrat,” made the case for FDR and against Hoover by saying:

Any nation that continues to spend more than it receives is headed for inevitable disaster; neither a nation nor a man can find solvency by borrowing; neither he nor it can spend its way into prosperity nor beg itself into comfort . . . If the Democratic Party is successful it will balance the budget . . .

Once in office, however, FDR and the new Congress moved quickly to empower the central government and exert control over the economy.

Reading this, one cannot but note that the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama has seen and raised the heavily criticized spending policies of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, quadrupling the national deficit and radically expanding the regulatory reach of Washington. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s “deja vu all over again.”

Tucker explains that, although the parties’ realignment was not completed overnight, after 1924 the Democrats “remained on a consistently leftward tack.” To this day — and today more than ever — they are the party of more powerful and intrusive central government.

Similarly, while the Republicans “did not conclusively embrace conservatism until 1964 and did not bring it back into the White House until 1980,” they have become the party of limited government and greater individual liberty. And Tucker notes that the Coolidge-Mellon prescription for “curing” a recession, lower taxes and less spending, worked in the 1920s and again in 1980, while after 1932 higher taxes and greater spending led to prolonged stagnation.

Tucker concludes by inviting the country, in our current economic crisis, to “consider the lives, the words, and the warnings of two of America’s greatest conservatives, John W. Davis and Calvin Coolidge.” His engaging book provides substantial support for this invitation.

Garland Tucker is the chief executive of a publicly traded finance company. Although I’ve not seen him in the decades since we were college classmates, he has obviously enjoyed a very successful business career. And how fortunate for the rest of us that he also maintained a lifelong interest in history.

Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and Washington lawyer who was awarded the John W. Davis prize on graduation from the law school of Washington and Lee University.