Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bush v. McKinley

One interesting nugget that I got out of Josh Green's profile of Karl Rove and his legacy is the fact that Rove appeared to base his political strategy around the desire to force a "realignment" similar to the one that occurred during the era of President McKinley. Here's Rove himself, quoted in Green's article:

“Everything you know about William McKinley and Mark Hanna”—McKinley’s Rove—“is wrong,” he told Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker in early 2000. “The country was in a period of change. McKinley’s the guy who figured it out. Politics were changing. The economy was changing. We’re at the same point now: weak allegiances to parties, a rising new economy.” Rove was suggesting that the electorate in 2000, as in 1896, was ripe for realignment, and implying, somewhat immodestly, that he was the guy who had figured it out. What was missing was an obvious trigger. With the economy soaring (the stock-market collapse in the spring of 2000 was still months away) and the nation at peace, there was no reason to expect that a realignment was about to happen.

Instead, Rove’s idea was to use the levers of government to create an effect that ordinarily occurs only in the most tumultuous periods in American history. He believed he could force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies.

Of course, I immediately question historical claims by a political operative whose efforts have succeeded and then failed spectacularly in short order. Green himself neither critiques nor bolsters Rove's analysis, but I found myself wondering if some historian was reading Rove's parallels to the McKinley era and questioning them as well. Via Andrew Sullivan, I find that Daniel Larison thinks Rove is off-base:

Rove's first mistake was to believe that Mark Hanna had accomplished something truly significant. That the party of industry and corporations prevailed in the era of industrialisation is not the product of cunning strategy or conscious realignment--it is the result of the social and political changes that had taken place in the country that undermined the base of support for an agrarian populist candidate such as Bryan. Rove's errors were not merely political, but stemmed from a misreading of the very McKinley years he claims to admire and that he wishes to imitate.

A more compelling comparison between the GOP under Bush and an early twentieth century center-right party's fate might be the Conservative-Unionist government during the same period in Britain, which was thrown out in 1905 (and again in 1906) in a massive repudiation of the government. Like Rove's strategy, the Conservatives and Unionists had ridden the wave of jingo nationalism of the South African War in the Khaki Election, which preceded their political collapse by a mere five years. The parallels between the two parties, and between the elections of 1900 and 2002 and 1905-06 and 2006 are intriguing.

However Sullivan chose to quote an earlier paragraph in Larison's post that is a little jazzier:

There is something very strange about the people who have assembled themselves around the President over the past few years. Many of them seem to have an outsized sense of their own world-historical importance, and many of them are convinced that they have a superior understanding of the lessons of history, but their grasp of history never seems to escape the generic, the vague and the facile. Weak analogies drawn from a limited range of American references are the order of the day--today we are refighting WWII, tomorrow Iraq is like the pre-1787 Confederation and the day after Adhamiya is a new Selma.

The public in general should always be wary of historical analogies coming from the mouths of politicians and their propagandists. Frequently these politicians wish to bolster their campaigns by standing on the shoulders of giants (like Churchill) who, had they any say in the matter, might not welcome the dead weight.

No comments: