American Conservatism's Apogee

The 1990s saw an explosion in books from historians attempting to rehabilitate the legacies of various maligned Presidents, such as David McCullogh’s Pulitzer prize-winning biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams.  But only so many Presidents are worthy of rehabilitation; it quickly reached the point that George Pendle could write a satire of the genre (The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President) without it being immediately obvious from the title and subject that it was intended as such.

The 2000s saw a similar explosion of books attempting to rehabilitate presidential campaigns, rather than presidents.  David Pietrusza’s award-winning 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents is perhaps the best example of these books, which seek to pluck Presidential election years from obscurity and explain why they deserve closer historical attention.

Garland S. Tucker’s The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Elections seeks to occupy a middle ground between these various types.  It serves up a compelling account of the 1924 elections, but also seeks to produce a revisionist biography of two often-overlooked presidential candidates: Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis.

This attempt to find a middle ground between genres produces, perhaps unsurprisingly, middling results.  The “good” happens to be “very good.”  Tucker, the President and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, successfully weaves together an enjoyable narrative of the 1924 elections, capturing a sense of the times and allowing the reader to understand what drove those campaigns.

Tucker’s thesis can be deduced from the book’s title: The 1924 elections represent the apogee of American Conservatism.  Republicans nominated their incumbent, Calvin Coolidge, who had conducted one of the most conservative (at least as we presently understand the term) presidencies in twentieth century American history; it served in many ways as the model for the Reagan Presidency sixty years later.  Coolidge reduced income tax rates across the board by 25 percent – these were later known as the first supply side tax cuts.  His 1924 budget request was the smallest since World War I.  And during a rise of what Tucker terms “a bewildering modern secularism,” Coolidge hearkened back to “a mythic America of honesty, hard work, thrift, and religion.”

Against such a Republican candidate, one might expect the Democrats to have turned to a more liberal nominee.  But, as Tucker explains, the Democratic convention deadlocked between the more liberal candidate, New York governor Al Smith, and the candidate of the conservatives, William Gibbs McAdoo.  Tucker provides a fascinating chronicle of how that convention progressed, eventually nominating Davis on the 103rd ballot.  Davis, as it turned out, was equally as conservative as Coolidge, if not more so, meaning that liberals were left without a candidate.

Enter Fightin’ Bob LaFollette.  The Wisconsin Senator had hoped to be the Progressive candidate for president in 1912, but was pushed aside for Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1924, Roosevelt was dead, and LaFollette was called upon to lead the Progressives.  They had every reason to be optimistic about that year: Unlike 1912, the ideological split was plainly between two conservative candidates.  With the conservative base split, LaFollette hoped that he could unify the progressives and succeed where Roosevelt had failed.

But it was not to be.  Tucker describes the changes that America had undergone since the 1912 election, which made a Progressive victory impossible. Weary from two decades of progressive experimentation and disillusioned by the aftermath of World War I, America had shifted rightward.  The result was what one might expect under such circumstances: the two conservative candidates won an astonishing 83 percent of the vote between them.  Tucker contrasts this with 1912, when three progressive candidates won a combined 77 percent of the vote.

Tucker is at his most successful when arguing that 1924’s real importance comes as a result of its position at the end of an era.  It marked the last election where both parties would nominate conservatives, and the last election before 1964 where the conservative wing of either party would triumph at a convention.

Tucker claims that the political coalitions of the future begin to take form in 1924 – he notes that at a regional level, the combined Progressive and Democratic vote for President usually approximated the Democratic vote in the region.  There’s a risk of an ecological fallacy here, but given how things played out, Tucker is on fairly solid ground.  Four years later, the Democrats nominated a candidate who could bring Progressives and working class voters into the Democratic fold, but not conservatives.  Four years after that, FDR held all of these voters together, and the New Deal coalition was born.

This is an important observation that has received little scholarly attention, and it is a fairly original interpretation of an election that is frequently dismissed as an aberration.  If we are going to use FDR as an icon of coalition-building, it is important to understand that his coalition came to be over an extended period of time, and didn’t suddenly emerge in 1932.  We should likewise appreciate that history is not an inevitable march of forward progress (at least as Progressives define it), and that America really did once lurch from an overwhelmingly liberal society to an overwhelmingly conservative one in the space of a few decades.

But while there is much “good” in this book, there is also some “not so good.”  In large part, that “not so good” is found when Tucker turns from attempting to describe the importance of the 1924 election to attempting to rehabilitate Coolidge, Davis, and to a lesser extent, Harding.

When I was in college, revisionist histories tearing down beloved historical figures and historiographic artifices were all the rage.  They all suffered from the same flaw: So intent were they in defying the conventional narrative that they overlooked much of what that narrative had to offer.

I mention this only because Tucker, perhaps ironically, falls into the same trap when writing about his subjects.  Coolidge almost does no wrong; we learn about his “succinct, commonsense language,” about how people “trust[ed] and like[d] the plainness and nearness” of Coolidge, and about how his veto of the McNary-Haugen Farm Bill contained a “forceful characterize[ation]” of a “radical” bill.

These positive attributes of Coolidge certainly deserve more attention in histories of his administration.  But consider Coolidge’s advice to Herbert Hoover, as quoted by Tucker: “[I]f you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”  This practically cries out for some exploration of Coolidge’s culpability – if any – for the trouble that crashed into Herbert Hoover seven months into his term, otherwise known as the Great Depression.  In particular, should Coolidge have taken further steps to alleviate the farm crisis that pushed the Depression along, such as signing McNary-Haugen?

Harding receives a less thorough treatment, but Tucker asserts that he retained “tremendous popularity.”  Did he?  We lack polling data for the time, but the fact that Republicans lost 77 seats in the 1922 midterms seems to suggest otherwise.  Tucker also claims that Harding would have dealt with the perpetrators of the Teapot Dome Scandal had he lived, and that his own hands were clean.  These claims are not unfounded, but they are the subject of historical controversy and deserve more than a few sentences.

When discussing Davis, the book borders on hagiography.  The chapter introducing him is entitled “The Most Perfect Gentleman,” and this sums up Tucker’s views of the man.  We learn of his precocious, brilliant mother, who was a “painter, poet and pianist.” We learn of his studies at Washington & Lee, his development of a conservative legal philosophy, his term in the House, and his time as Solicitor General under Woodrow Wilson without really seeing any shortcomings at all.  As for his Presidential run, he was an “attractive, experienced and competent candidate.”

Of course, he also received 29 percent of the vote.  Tucker writes this off as the result of a good economy, and that doubtless played a role.  But a “competent” candidate certainly would have tacked leftward to ward off the third party challenge and to unify the party, and an attractive one probably could have at least mimicked Alton Parker’s showing in the 1904 elections.  Davis’s commitment to conservatism is presented as principled, but it could equally be called stubborn and arrogant.

Davis’s post-candidate career deserves a more thorough look at well.  In particular, Davis found himself arguing the wrong side of one of the more critical cases in United States history: Brown v. Board of Education.  This cries out for a critical interpretation, but once again, Davis’s actions are seemingly taken at face value and presented as a principled stand for state sovereignty and stare decisis.  Again, Davis is overlooked by history, so the decision not to dwell on his shortcomings are understandable.  But at times they are just completely overlooked, or needlessly minimized.

This is altogether a fine work, perhaps best suited for the student of history not already familiar with this election.  The sections on the election itself are important – and even groundbreaking in some respects.  As for the candidate descriptions, they are fine, and not inaccurate.  But the cautious reader should probably approach these subjects with a more cynical, jaundiced eye than that which Tucker applies.