The High Tide of American Conservatism

Since the dawn of the 20th century, the United States has experienced four presidential elections in which a true liberal squared off against a true conservative. These elections took place in 1900 (McKinley-Bryan), 1920 (Harding-Cox), 1980 (Reagan-Carter) and 1984 (Reagan-Mondale). With one exception, every other presidential election between 1904 and 2008 pitted a liberal Democrat[1] against a Republican who could at best be described as centrist, but more often than not would be more accurately characterized as a big-government, moderate progressive with few real conservative or libertarian inclinations. Of the Republican bunch, T. Roosevelt, Hoover, Nixon and the Bushes were (as I have labeled them elsewhere[2]) faux conservatives who expanded the size and scope of the Federal Government in ways that surely would have appalled Thomas Jefferson.[3] Such an appellation, that is, faux conservative, also suits all of the past century’s unsuccessful Republican candidates – from McCain and Dole back to Dewey and Wilkie. The only legitimately conservative Republican presidential candidates in the last 110 years, beside the successful ones named above, were Coolidge and Goldwater.

The sole exception to all of the above, that is, the only time that two conservative candidates faced off, occurred in 1924 when the incumbent Republican president, Calvin Coolidge, took on the last conservative nominated by the Democratic Party, John W. Davis. The story of that election and the men who contested it is told in a fascinating new book, The High Tide of American Conservatism by Garland S. Tucker, III. As Tucker details conclusively, both men were bedrock conservatives, with deeply held convictions. Tucker briefly describes the post-bellum United States (1865-1900) as one of unbridled conservative philosophy. It heralded the unparalleled blooming of the most prosperous, powerful, dynamic and self-confident nation in modern world history as the US adhered faithfully to the laissez-faire, individual freedom, limited government model laid down by the Founders. Tucker explains how it was the young Republican Party that motivated and steered this development; he points out that in that era, the Democrats elected only one president, Grover Cleveland, and he was as conservative as any Republican of the time.

Matters began to change as the progressive movement – whose basic philosophy has deep European roots in Marxian socialism[4] – began to take hold in the American electorate, and especially in the Democratic Party. Their nomination of William Jennings Bryan three times was rather dramatic testimony to that fact, but the movement gained presidential power for the first time only with the ascension of Teddy Roosevelt to the office upon McKinley’s assassination. It erupted in full bloom with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, an election in which more than 95% of the total vote went to progressive candidates (Wilson, Taft, Roosevelt). However, in a reaction that would be duplicated several times over the coming century, the people were horrified by the excesses of the progressives, and they through them out of power in 1920. Harding and the Republicans returned the nation to its conservative roots. But Harding died in office and Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency. Not surprisingly, he secured the Republican nomination in 1924. And then, through a confluence of coincidences, which – as Tucker describes – revolved around Prohibition, the KKK and the League of Nations, the Democrats, at the conclusion of a hopelessly deadlocked convention – nominated a true conservative to oppose Coolidge, John W. Davis. They would never do that again.

Tucker devotes most of his book to the two men – Coolidge and Davis – and the decade (the Roaring Twenties) in which their contest occurred. Eighty seven years later, it makes for fascinating reading. Tucker has a fluid and engaging style. His prose is crisp and enlightening. His research is thorough and as one pours through the pages, one cannot help but be transported back to the Coolidge family farm in Vermont or the Clarksburg, W.VA home of Davis. Both men’s origins were in small town America and their progress through the American landscape to the pinnacles of political power trace somewhat similar paths: Coolidge’s puritanical, agrarian youth, then a stint at Amherst College, followed by a Massachusetts law practice and eventually local and national politics; Davis’ large and loving family, his formative years at Washington and Lee College, followed by a varied law practice in Clarksburg and then also into politics. Furthermore, the men’s personas were also remarkably similar in many ways: humble, gracious, unfailingly polite, solicitous of others, men of great integrity and above all, of a Jeffersonian liberal persuasion – meant in the classic 18-19th century sense of the term. Tucker writes of them with affection and the reader is hard pressed not to admire both men. The book provides an unusual glimpse into the America of four score and seven years ago and is well worth the read.

But I have one major quibble with Tucker. He highlights the fact that the 1924 election did not at all spell the death knell of American progressivism. In particular, he describes at some length the third party candidacy of Robert La Follette who ran on the Progressive Party ticket. Tucker acknowledges that, although La Follette did poorly in the vote total, he commanded a passionate following. Tucker goes further and asserts that one of the prime consequences of the campaign was the acceptance by the Democrats of the progressive program and its ultimate rejection by the Republicans. He claims that in the years following the 1924 election, the Democrats became the party of liberals (or progressives) and the Republicans became the party of conservatives.

While La Follette’s 1924 run for the presidency fell short, it was a transformational event in American political history. The major party realignment marked by the 1924 election was significantly influenced by the La Follette candidacy. Progressive Republicans were shaken loose from their historical party moorings of more than a generation and ultimately found a home in the Democratic Party, which turned away from its Jeffersonian roots in the years following 1924. As the victorious Republicans held steady on a conservative course, the Bryan Democrats determined to guide their party leftward to claim the progressive banner.

That quote is as close as Tucker comes to explicitly claiming it, but it is clear from many other portions of the book that he believes that the election of 1924 solidified the role of the two parties in the American political future:

Since 1924, the Republican Party has generally been the conservative party while the Democratic Party has not even seriously considered nominating a conservative candidate…By 1924, progressivism was still a nonpartisan issue, with both of the major parties having sizeable progressive wings…After 1924, the Republicans remained on a rightward course, while the Democrats steered leftward; and there has been no major realignment since. The philosophy of La Follette and the Progressives was essentially that of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and now Obama, and the twenty-first century Democratic Party, while the philosophy of Davis and Coolidge was essentially that of Reagan and the twenty first century Republican Party. [And finally, as Fred Barnes sums up in the Introduction:] The 1924 race also foreshadowed the political struggle between an increasingly conservative Republican Party and an unflinchingly liberal Democratic party that has endured ever since

In short, it is Tucker’s thesis that after 1924 – and as a consequence of what transpired in that election, the Democratic Party became and remains the party exclusively of the left or liberal philosophy and the Republican Party became and remains the party exclusively of the right and conservative philosophy. In this he is, alas, only half right. While the Democratic Party certainly, increasingly became – and today almost exclusively remains – the party of the Left, the Republican Party has hardly followed the contrapositive path. The litany of Republican presidential candidates that I recited in the opening paragraph should serve as proof of that observation.

In some sense, American politics in the eighty years from 1928 until 2008 has not been a fair fight. Not only did the progressive movement come to completely dominate the Democratic Party, but as has been amply documented, it also dominates the media, the educational establishment, the legal profession, government bureaucracy, unions and the major foundations. Conservatism in America was, if not dead, then totally dormant for a generation following Coolidge until it was revived by Bill Buckley (and a few others) in the 1950s. Since then it has made agonizingly slow and fitful progress in trying to achieve equal status with the liberal, progressive movement. True, it has won a few presidential (1980, 1984) and congressional (1994, 2010) elections. But it is absolutely false to assert that the conservative movement took control of the Republican Party in any way similar to how the progressive movement captured the Democratic Party. There are some recent signs that this might be happening at last. Time will tell. But Tucker’s assertion that the election of 1924 cemented the Republican Party as the party of conservatism in America is unfortunately and patently untrue.

That quibble aside, the book could serve as an excellent introduction to the vast majority of Americans who, if they were taught anything about the era, have learned that Harding was a crook, Coolidge was an obscure, insignificant lightweight and the conservative policies of the Harding-Coolidge administration caused the Great Depression – from which the progressive movement in the person of FDR rescued the country. Three quarters of a century later we are slowly uncovering the truth – all of this narrative is a pack of lies that has abetted the hijacking of the Founders’ country by the progressive movement. Tucker’s book is one of many (e.g., that of Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man) that is helping to set the record straight.

This review also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at

[1] Except that some considered the Democratic nominee in 1904, Alton B. Parker, to be conservative.

[2] See e.g., my book Liberal Hearts and Conservative Brains,

[3] Eisenhower was a centrist who made absolutely no effort to roll back FDR’s New Deal.

[4] It also borrowed heavily from Italian Fascism, as is explained in Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism.