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Draft Bernie: A Historical Precedent

Photo Credit: Nigel Clarke

Progressives are a political faction without a home. The Democratic party appears determined to stamp any hint of progressivism out of their canon, seen again this weekend in their rejection of Keith Ellison as DNC Chair and naming of Obama-era holdover Tom Perez to the position.

At this point, the acceptable political spectrum in the United States does not adequately reflect the desires of the electorate. Many feel they are not represented by the corporate Democrats, or whatever you call the disaster that is the Republicans.

There are some who seek to build a home for Progressives; a third, independent, and explicitly Progressive political party. Certainly, in a country with such an entrenched political establishment, this would be a monumental task.

The trump card (excuse the pun) of those who seek to create this home for Progressives can be summed up in two words: Draft Bernie.

If Bernie Sanders, statistically the most popular political figure in the country, were to be enlisted to lead this theoretical third party, its chances for success would increase dramatically.

There is, for a movement to Draft Bernie, historical precedent. Just over a century ago, Progressives unhappy with the existing political spectrum in the United States sought to create their own third party.

In doing so, they sought to Draft Teddy.

The Face of The Progressive Movement

At the turn of the 20th century, the Republican party was, for the most part, the party of corporate interests, Wall Street, and the industrial tycoons. Operating within this framework, Teddy Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was somewhat stunning. From the early stages of his political career, Teddy railed against systemic political corruption – which had benefited his party as much as any – and the power of corporations – who funded his party – and supported a wide number of additional Progressive causes unpopular with the establishment power structure.

His success came, in large part, from taking his message directly to the people; their power as Teddy’s buffer from political retribution.

In 1900, as then New York Governor Roosevelt’s message was resonating with a country entering into a Progressive golden age, the Republican establishment sought to remove him from the spotlight by nominating him for the mostly irrelevant position of Vice President. When President McKinley was assassinated the next year, the horror in the context of tragedy experienced by the country as a whole was distinctly different than the horror felt by the establishment power structure as Teddy was elevated into the role of President.

By 1908, Teddy had served the remainder of McKinley’s term, won the (re)election in a landslide, and, through force of personality and his motto of “speak softly, and carry a big stick,” won Progressive victories on multiple fronts. In the process, he had become not only the most popular political figure in the country but the face of the Progressive movement.

At that point in time, the rule stipulating a President serve only two terms was unwritten rather than official, and people across the country urged Teddy to run for another term, since his first had not been elected or complete.

Following through on a promise he had made in 1904, that he would not seek re-election in 1908, Teddy declined to run and instead headed off to hike through the wilderness of Africa for a year. He felt confident that the Progressive movement would be in good hands moving forward with his ally and close friend William Howard Taft set to win the presidency as his successor.

The Establishment Darling

William ‘Big Bill’ Taft plays two roles in this story; that of Barack Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton.

Like Obama, Taft was entrusted with Progressive momentum when he assumed the presidency; its guardian and champion in government. But Taft, like Obama, possessed a strong and measured legal mind, a judicial mindset which not only made both men more susceptible to the corporate arguments of the establishment representatives they most associated with as President, but meant that they lacked the ideological fire, the arrogance of conviction, to be effective champions of a grassroots movement. While they both spoke softly, the failed to carry the “big stick.”

Slowly and surely Taft would abandon the Progressive movement, rolling back Roosevelt’s achievements and returning the Republican Party to its corporate base.

As Teddy made his way back from Africa, snaking slowly through Europe on something of a tour of world capitals and world leaders, he began to receive letters from political allies and friends detailing Taft’s turn and imploring Roosevelt to re-enter the political arena when he returned.

Here, Taft plays the role of Hillary Clinton; the establishment’s favored candidate, rejected by the grassroots of their own party. One can imagine similar conversations taking place in Paris, 1910 and Vermont, 2015; Progressives feeling rejected and excluded from their party, upset at being forced to vote for either a staunch corporate candidate or the other party, neither of which represent their interests, imploring Teddy, or Bernie, to run.

When Teddy finally returned to the United States, the crowd crammed into every street and open space surrounding New York harbor where his ship docked was said to be among the biggest ever assembled in the country at the time.


Photo Credit: Punch Magazine (1912)

A Rigged Primary

After some initial reluctance, much of it due to disbelief that Taft’s reversal of course could be so complete, Teddy decided to run for the Republican nomination. In doing so, he was challenging a man who was not only the sitting President but an immense establishment candidate portrayed as an inevitability.

Interestingly, this was to be the first election to use a public primary process. Previously, the party apparatus had selected the leader at a convention, similar to systems in Europe or Canada. At this stage of its infancy, primaries were not held nationwide, but in only 13 states. Due to his enormous popularity, Teddy obliterated Taft, winning 9 of the contests, often by landslide proportions. He lost only North Dakota, when he had not fully entered the race, New York, then, as now, a stronghold of establishment power and corruption, and the home states of Taft and fringe candidate Robert La Follette.

As Teddy crisscrossed the country giving speeches and participating in debates, seemingly everywhere at once, Taft stayed quiet and relatively unseen in Washington D.C. But this is not to say that Taft was resigned to defeat. Rather than campaign amongst the people, Taft, like Hillary a century later, would rely on allies and minions to maneuver in the back rooms of power.

By the time the convention to officially select the nominee came around, rumors had spread that establishment Republicans were intending to disregard the will of the people and steal the nomination from Teddy using unelected delegates. This led the convention to be a somewhat contentious affair, with protests, chants, cheers, hisses, and the occasional brouhaha.

When the dirty deed was done — Taft named nominee — Teddy’s supporters stormed out of the convention hall, vowing to be heard from again.


Photo Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images (2016)


Draft Teddy

By the second decade of the 20th century, the noise being made by the Progressive movement in the United States was at a fevered pitch. Progressive organizations across the spectrum of issues were gaining in membership and influence, and Progressive politicians were rising to varying levels of prominence. What was needed was a face of the movement, not only to eloquently and charismatically elucidate the message but to announce that, politically, Progressives were not fucking around.

As today there are those who seek to #DraftBernie to lead a Progressive party; in 1912, Progressives sought to #DraftTeddy.

Of course, Teddy would be “drafted,” becoming the leader of a new Progressive party, aptly named ‘The Bull Moose Party’ after a quote Teddy gave following his being shot – “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose” – before a speech (which he finished before receiving medical attention).

Collaborating with other prominent Progressives on his campaign, Teddy’s message exceeded the bounds of mere progressivism and moved to the realm of revolutionary. He condemned political corruption and a corporate-funded political process (campaign finance reform) and advocated for women’s suffrage, public referendums on major issues, nationwide primaries, worker’s rights, a “living wage,” and a system of social health insurance (universal healthcare). Predictably, the establishment power structure, led by the mainstream media, portrayed Teddy as a dangerous radical, even going so far as to question his mental fitness.

When election day came, Progressives were dealt both a shocking victory and a modest defeat. In one of the most incredible political upsets in the history of the country, a so-called radical from a third party defeated the sitting President and establishment darling by four points. But while Teddy defeated Taft, their overlap in voters allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency.

Draft Bernie

The easiest critique when considering the merits of creating a Progressive third party goes something like ‘In 1912, all that did was split the vote and let Wilson win easily.’ Today, this would mean victory for the debacle that is the modern Republican party.

But when examining implications, there is more to the story than this.

By not only defeating but humiliating, the sitting President and the establishment power structure, Progressives announced to the populace and those seeking elected office that they had arrived as a political force to be reckoned with.

Consider that the Woodrow Wilson who campaigned in 1912 (as opposed, perhaps, to the one who governed) was, in the context of the Democratic Party at that time, considered a Progressive. Compare this to the portions of Donald Trump’s campaign message which resonated in the Midwestern states most crucial to his victory; the rejection of corporate trade deals, infrastructure investments, specifically in rural and inner city areas, and the condemnation of America as global policeman. These are all Progressive positions.

Though not elected President, Teddy’s popularity and the success of the Bull Moose party, alongside the destruction of the establishment favorite Taft, slanted the national political spectrum towards the Progressive agenda. The inception of the Department of Labor and women’ winning the right to vote both happened under Wilson, further contributing to a Progressive golden age of trust-busting, challenging the power of corporations and political corruption, worker’s rights, environmentalism, and so on.

People ask the questions: Could Bernie Sanders have defeated Trump in 2016? In a level primary playing field, or a national election, could he have defeated Hillary?

Perhaps the more important questions are; can Bernie beat Cory Booker in 2020? And what would that mean for the Progressive movement?

Written by Nigel Clarke

Writer and notorious vagabond. From the frozen north. Follow Nigel on Twitter @Nig_Clarke.

Nigel Clarke is a Writer for Progressive Army.


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Draft Bernie: A Historical Precedent