The use of historical precedent often times ignores the nuances of the event that is being used as an example. Take for instance the popular comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. The two are alike in that they are wars in which the United States fought; yet the nature of the conflicts could not be less similar.
But, the presidential election of 1896 and the election of 2004 have a number of major parallels.
In 1896, the United States was struggling to define its place in the world. The slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire sparked debate over America's humanitarian responsibilities. And whereas expansionism had been an unquestioned aspect of American foreign policy in the early nineteenth century, the prospect of expansion in Cuba through intervention in the Cuban civil war (which was estimated to have killed almost a quarter of the island's population) became a passionate campaign issue, as expansionists and anti-expansionists argued over the morality of an imperialistic foreign policy. And in 1896, America was occupying a foreign country rich in resources. That country was Hawaii.
In 1896, the economy was coming off a crippling recession. The markets were down, unemployment soared, and the economic debate was, as it is today, dominated by taxation. The previous year, the Supreme Court had ruled the progressive tax an unconstitutional assault on property rights; the incumbent party (the Democrats in this case) was subsequently criticized for its failure to tax high earners and regulate big business.
And in 1896, a single controversial issue irreconcilably divided the country: the mineral standard for American currency after the contraction in the gold supply. William Jennings Bryant, the Democratic nominee, supported a silver standard for the dollar; to the Republican supporters of William McKinley, this was tantamount to theft, as the inflation of the dollar (silver was in vast supply in those days) would threaten the intricate system of borrowing and lending that supported the economy of the late nineteenth century.
It is worth noting that this issue faded from the public conscience soon after Bryan's defeat. Historians now believe that the currency issue was simply a flashpoint for the polarity of the times; indeed, things became so bad that newspapers wrote of a "new sectionalism," creating a parallel between the political bitterness of the 1890s and that of the old "sectionalism" that eventually led to civil war.
Yet the national crisis of conscience seemed more and more absurd with every successive year of the McKinley administration. What did America do right? We resisted the urge to elect a populist to the highest office in the world.
Some more history
Today, similar to 108 years ago, the United States has been forced to choose between a man of dubious vision and a man of ignominious populism. In 1896, and again in 1890, William Jennings Bryan, with his opposition to imperialism, flat income taxation and central banking, fell into the latter category. Now, in 2004, Kerry has campaigned on similar topics of broad appeal to the working class, casting his opponent as an unabashed panderer to the interests of oil companies, drug companies, defense contractors and big business in general.
During his first term (his second was cut short by an assassins bullet in 1901), McKinley used American troops to end humanitarian disasters in Spanish-controlled Spain and British-controlled China and successfully established independent China as a free trade zone. These actions stabilized the world, helped the U.S. economy, expanded the United State's influence in world affairs and severely limited the influence of Europe's two greatest imperial powers.
Today, India holds many of the same economic opportunities that China had 108 years ago; according to Congressional Quarterly Researcher, India will export $50 billion in technology by 2008 and currently has a middle class roughly equal in population to that of the entire United States. Kerry's protectionist policy on outsourcing certainly satisfies the minority of workers in the tech service sector that could potentially have their jobs outsourced but will, in the long run, threaten our ties to a country that is on the way to becoming an invaluable economic partner of the United States.
Indeed the outsourcing debate is a microcosm of almost all populist economics. Populists claim that anything that helps big business harms the worker, but the health of big businesses benefits the working-class employees of those businesses through wages, benefits and pensions, which are often stock options in the company they work for.
Expansion into Puerto Rico and Hawaii were issues every bit as polarizing as our present military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan; however the voters realized that that the assertion of American power and the strength and resolve in areas of international affairs were two of the greatest assets a president could bring to the job.
Kerry, like Bryan 108 years ago, brings neither. Indeed, in his book A Call to Service, Kerry writes, "In contrast to the dangerous mix of isolationism and unilateralist that characterizes the Republicans, [I support] speaking from a position of strength on international issues-the multilateral cooperative tradition of democratic internationalism forged in the course of two world wars and the cold war." Kerry views foreign policy in the context of multilateralism and internationalism; the populists of the 1890s viewed it through isolationism.
By 1900, isolationism seemed an absurdity after America's successful military and diplomatic campaigns in Cuba, China, Nicaragua (McKinley used the threat of military action to protect American interests there), Hawaii, Guam (another target of expansionism) and to a certain extent the Philippines (which were ceded to the United States by Spain after the war in Cuba) tipped the balance of power in the early twentieth century. "Democratic internationalism" is by no means absurd. But to base an entire foreign policy on "democratic internationalism" when so many recent successes in American foreign policy, including economic sanctions against Cuba, the unilateral demand for negotiations to end the Bosnian civil war in 1995, the invasion of Panama in 1989 and our ongoing support for the State of Israel, have been fundamentally unilateralist, would be simply myopic. And it is simply erroneous to assume that America can "speak from a position of strength" while ceding at least some of its diplomatic power to other countries.
Indeed, Kerry believes in internationalism so adamantly that The Washington Post quoted him as saying in 1994, in respect to the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Bosnia that, "If you mean (American soldiers) dying in the course of the United Nations effort, yes, it is worth that. If you mean dying American troops unilaterally going in with some false presumption that we can affect the outcome, the answer is unequivocally no."
There is a word for scaring the working class with stories of abusive big business (which, ironically, pays the salaries of most members of the working class) and for pursuing a foreign policy downplaying America's ability to assert its self: populism. Bush, like McKinley 108 years ago, promises us a visionary plan for the revival of our economy and peace overseas. Recently the columnist David Ignatius compared the Bush administration's overthrow of Saddam Hussein to the revolutionary sparks that led nineteenth century Europe towards democratic and social reform. Today, there are four times more democracies in the Middle East than there were four years ago, as Bahrain, Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq provide hope that democratic ideals can thrive in the Middle East. Change in the Middle East is well under way, thanks to the administration of George W. Bush.
Bush is also in the process of moving our country further towards an "ownership society" where low taxation and personal savings can eventually replace government handouts. Kerry has criticized Bush for recommending a plan for privatizing Social Security that would cost taxpayers over $2 trillion during the transition of Social Security from government to private control. But at least Bush has presented a plan that will provide for the permanent solvency of Social Security by eliminating the program's dependency on taxpayer dollars. This is the kind of thinking that does not permeate with the majority of America, which thinks that government control is the only guarantee of the survival of Social Security. But populism will not prevent the run on Social Security that may doom the system during the next several decades. Again, in the realm of reality, populism fails.
Previously, I referred to Bush's vision for the world as "dubious." Bush's vision is limited by his shortcomings as an individual and as a leader, and his hesitance to admit and rectify past mistakes should worry Democrats and Republicans alike.
But consider this: Lewis L. Gould, a history professor at the University of Texas, wrote that "McKinley was a President who acted decisively in going to war with Spain, asserted great presidential authority over his cabinet and generals and understood the link between foreign markets and national prosperity." If history teaches us anything, it is that strong, resolute leadership and a worldview that might reject certain popular opinions in lieu of strategic long-term goals trumps any defects in personality. That is why it is imperative that America elect George W. Bush on November 2nd: because we, as a nation that is now mired in a crisis of conscience, cannot afford to embrace the popular route while disregarding the necessary one.
Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »