Edmund Morris: The Tea Party Last Time

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Edmund Morris is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Beethoven. This fall he will publish the third volume of his Roosevelt trilogy.]

The past may be a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley famously observed, but at least one of its landscapes — the political scene on election eve, a century ago — looks familiar to this time traveler.

Having ridden, in a sense, on the campaign train of Theodore Roosevelt, as the former president barnstormed in behalf of Congressional candidates in 1910, I am struck by some parallels between then and now. That year, the party dominant in Washington and in most state governments was the G.O.P. However, Democrats in those days could comfortably have accepted Newt Gingrich as their chief ideologue. (By the same token, I think T. R., reconstituted today, would support Mr. Obama. He had many of the racial prejudices of his generation, but he profoundly admired any black man who prevailed against them.)

Instead of Republican and Democrat, therefore, I’ll borrow Charles Dickens’s terms “Buff” and “Blue” to denote mutually contemptuous political opposites. The Buffs were in charge of Congress, and a Buff stalwart, William Howard Taft, was president. T. R. himself was Buff, and had chosen Taft as his successor. He now regretted this, feeling that Taft was much too comfortable with tycoons, lobbyists and pro-business lawmakers.

The Buff National Committee had long been owned by such men. There was no question — yet — of T. R. bolting and becoming an anti-conservation, anti-feminist, anti-Negro, states’-rights Blue. He ardently believed in a centralized government revolving around a forceful, moralistic presidency, with federal agencies regulating giant corporations and corrupt local governments. These beliefs had been so much a feature of his own two terms in office that he had inspired a white, middle-class insurgency that called itself the progressive movement (with a small “p”). Although most progressives were Buff, a growing number were Blue. They made up about a fifth of the electorate. Their discontents, vague but strident, varied region by region, but one cause linked them: they felt excluded from federal power, and were determined to make Washington listen to them...
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