Which past president stood up most stalwartly for the anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-union principles that animate today’s conservative movement? Of course, most activists on the right would confer that honor on Ronald Reagan. However, the only Republican chief executive with a major airport named after him often governed in ways that would place him on the tiny left fringe of today’s GOP: Reagan raised income and payroll taxes, increased federal spending on domestic programs as well as the military, and avoided attacking labor unions in the private sector.
Some on the right speak kindly of Calvin Coolidge. But those who praise “Silent Cal” for cutting taxes on the rich are understandably mute about his fondness for the Ku Klux Klan, his racist attitudes toward all non-“Nordic” races, and his contempt for women who dared to drive cars, ride horses, or engage in politics. Moreover, Coolidge was no union-basher. In 1926, he signed a landmark bill which established collective bargaining for railroad workers, then a key sector of the labor force.
Ironically, the White House occupant who best represented the views that now dominate the American right was a Democrat: Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic president from the eve of Civil War to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. When Cleveland, a rotund New Yorker, was first elected in 1884, his party’s base was remarkably similar to that of the GOP today: white Southerners from all classes and white workers everywhere who did not belong to unions. The Democrat’s standard-bearer ALSO expressed doubt that any “sensible and responsible” woman would ever want to vote.
As President, Cleveland took several opportunities to denounce those Americans who, as Mitt Romney expressed it to his donors in Boca Raton, expected the government to provide them with the necessities of life. In 1887, he vetoed a bill that earmarked $10,000 to buy seed for drought-stricken farmers in Texas. “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution,” Cleveland explained in his veto message, “I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.” He then added a pithy note of pedagogy: “The lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”
In order to ensure such support would not even be affordable, Cleveland called for slashing federal revenue with a zeal Grover Norquist might envy. Gilded Age Americans paid no income tax, but they were taxed indirectly through the tariff system, which boosted prices on imported goods to benefit American manufacturers and their employees. During his re-election campaign in 1888, Cleveland and his fellow Democrats charged the GOP with supporting “extravagant appropriations and expenses, whether constitutional or not.” According to the party’s platform, “The Democratic remedy is to enforce frugality in public expense and abolish needless taxation.” Like Tea Partiers today, they asserted their “devotion” to the 10th amendment—“strictly specifying every granted power and expressly reserving to the States or people the entire ungranted residue of power.”
Although Cleveland won a slim majority of the popular vote that year, he narrowly lost in the electoral college to the forgettable Benjamin Harrison. However, Democrats renominated their conservative hero again in 1892, and this time he scored an easy victory.
To Cleveland’s misfortune, an economic depression began soon after he was inaugurated a second time, and it lasted for the duration of his term. In many big cities, private charities ran short of bread and clothing, and sympathetic local and state officials could muster more creativity than cash. The mayor of Detroit invited the hungry to grow potatoes on vacant city land. By late fall, thousands of unemployed workers were sleeping under bridges and in city parks. Others tramped along highways and railroad tracks and listened to speakers like Jacob Coxey, a wealthy Ohioan with a social conscience, who vowed to lead them on a march to Washington, “a petition with boots on” to demand public works jobs and an eight-hour day.
But the misery of his countrymen and women did nothing to shake Cleveland’s laissez-faire convictions. He refused to support any relief measure and instead urged Congress to reaffirm the gold standard, which he thought would lead inflation-wary businessmen to start hiring again. In 1894, when railroad workers stopped trains around the country in a sympathy boycott, Cleveland dispatched the U.S. Army to break the strike and persuaded a court to put the leaders of the protest in jail. His job, Cleveland might have said, was “not to worry about those people.” After all, he would “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Fortunately, most Americans soon recoiled from Cleveland’s policies and elected progressive figures like Robert LaFollette and Woodrow Wilson who believed in the value of a well-financed government.
Now, contemporary conservatives have obviously shed some Gilded Age habits. They no longer advocate Jim Crow laws or withhold federal aid to farmers who suffer natural disasters. No one on the right questions women’s right to vote, unless, that is, a woman dares to show up at her precinct without a form of state i.d. she may have to wait an entire day or more to obtain.
But at the same time, if Grover Cleveland could read the 2012 Republican platform, he would find much to smile about. The GOP calls for an offensive against both private and public unions through such measures as so-called “right-to-work” laws and a repeal of the bill, enacted way back in 1931, which requires contractors to pay a prevailing wage on federal construction projects. The party also warns that any adoption of a national sales tax (common in much of “socialist” Europe) “must be tied to the simultaneous repeal” of the federal income tax. The delegates in Tampa even voted in favor of appointing a commission to study the feasibility of returning to the gold standard. (Which is not to say that Cleveland’s support would have been unanimous: The Democrats in Cleveland’s day, as now, were pro-immigration.)
If Mitt Romney manages to win election, he will surely disregard much of his own party’s platform. (In Grover Cleveland’s day, when parties were much stronger as institutions, voters demanded a certain allegiance to positions adopted on the convention floor). If Republicans actually governed according to their own strict “free-market” principles, they would quickly lose the support of the large majority of Americans who like much of what the government does for them. But by echoing a creed that failed the nation at the end of the nineteenth century, the conservatives who rule the GOP make it almost impossible to have a serious debate about how to solve our problems in the early twenty-first. As Cleveland himself once confessed, “I am honest and sincere in my desire to do well, but the question is whether I know enough to accomplish what I desire.”
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.