The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 20, 2014

Fighting Bob vs. Silent Cal: The Conservative Tradition from La Follette to Taft and Beyond
Jeff Taylor - 04/03/09
La Follette, 1924 Chicago Daily News

From Modern Age 50:4 (Fall 2008).

Soon after becoming president in 1981, Ronald Reagan surprised the press by removing the hallowed portrait of Harry Truman from the wall of the White House Cabinet Room and replacing it with one of Calvin Coolidge. The Great Communicator’s speaking skills and personal charisma far outstripped the attributes of Silent Cal, but he shared with his presidential predecessor a reputation for being a very conservative Republican coupled with a laid-back executive style. Coolidge’s conservatism was cited by Reagan as a role model for his own administration. But the alleged line of descent from Coolidge to Reagan is doubtful in several ways.

From where did the Reagan Revolution and its contemporary conservative heirs spring? Analyses from scholars, pundits, and activists alike usually begin somewhere in the 1940s. Emphasis is placed on opposition to the bureaucratic regimentation of the New and Fair Deals and on the anti-communism that provided the grassroots backbone supporting the Cold War. For the most part, it is a post-World War II survey that assumes a philosophical jump from Edmund Burke to Robert Taft. But what happened in between? One might ask what was going on during the first four decades of the twentieth century. It would be profitable to discover how Cold War conservatism related to earlier American political movements and ideological conflicts within the Republican Party.

Conservatism did not simply spring forth from the wit of William F. Buckley Jr. or the dossiers of Joe McCarthy or the scholarly works of Russell Kirk. While Barry Goldwater was a political forerunner to Reagan in the 1960s, Reagan also had conservative predecessors as far back as 1920. If we examine their ideas, in several important ways, Calvin Coolidge was less an antecedent to Ronald Reagan than were Robert La Follette and Robert Taft. The link to Taft can be discerned with ease. The influence of the La Follette tradition on Reagan’s conservatism is more surprising.

The fact that Reagan had Coolidge’s picture on the wall instead of La Follette’s is just a sign that Reagan did not scratch below the surface of the “conservative” label attached to Coolidge. Unfortunately, Reagan was not deeply familiar with the history of ideas or movements—even his own. The McKinley-Root-Coolidge tradition was conservatism of a very different sort from the modern conservatism of Taft and Goldwater. The McKinley-Coolidge tradition was one that went back through Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to Alexander Hamilton. In contrast, the Taft-Goldwater tradition was quite Jeffersonian.

Labels can be deceiving. The conservative, standpat, reactionary, Old Guard Republicans of the 1890s and 1920s became the liberal, progressive, modern, Middle Way Republicans of the 1940s and 1970s. The labels changed—in fact they did a 180 degree turn—but the ideas stayed constant: big government and monopoly capitalism at home; empire and military bellicosity abroad. And the seat of this sort of Republicanism stayed the same: the metropolitan centers of the East Coast.

The personification of the Eastern Establishment in La Follette’s day was Elihu Root. Root was a prominent Wall Street attorney who became McKinley’s Secretary of War, TR’s Secretary of State, a Republican senator from New York, and a presidential contender in 1916. The “foxy Mr. Root” was recognized as a leading conservative by the populist Republican senator Hiram Johnson of California in the 1910s and was recognized as a conservative by historian Richard Leopold in the 1950s. These observers were using “conservative” in its pre-1936, Hamiltonian sense, not in its post-1936, Taftian sense. Root’s role as a founder and honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, and as one who pushed for the League of Nations, the World Court, and other forms of empire and entangling internationalism should make that clear.[1] ­The conservatives in La Follette’s day were not advocates of laissez-faire economics, despite what they may have said. They did not want a wall of separation between government and business. Yes, they loved capitalism. No, they did not love free enterprise. Government and business were to be partners. Regulation was eventually accepted at the federal level because it could be coopted by the biggest corporations to drive out smaller competitors and to lend them a helping hand courtesy of the taxpayers. Historian Gabriel Kolko details the institutionalization of the big business-big government alliance in The Triumph of Conservatism. He is using the c-word in its original Hobbesian and Hamiltonian sense. Calvin Coolidge practiced state capitalism, which was arguably a mild (non-dictatorial) form of fascism, not laissez-faire.[2]

­In terms of foreign policy, Coolidge was an internationalist. This is not surprising given his dependence on the international banking firm of J.P. Morgan & Co. Coolidge was a protégé of Morgan partner Dwight Morrow. Following the lead of Morrow, Coolidge was willing to accept the League without any reservations. Welcoming Woodrow Wilson back to American soil upon the occasion of the president’s return from Versailles, Governor Coolidge told a Boston crowd, “We welcome him as the representative of a great people, as a great statesman, as one to whom we have entrusted our destinies, and one whom we are sure we will support in the future in the working out of that destiny.” President Coolidge desired to join the World Court. La Follette’s senatorial ally, Hiram Johnson, who campaigned on the slogan “America First” when running for president in 1920, challenged Coolidge for the nomination in 1924. Johnson was a true ancestor of the Taft-Goldwater movement, and echoes of his campaigns could be heard from Pat Buchanan in the 1990s.[3]

The link between La Follette-Johnson and Taft-Goldwater can be discerned when thinking of the transitional figures in the late ’30s/early ’40s when internationalists and the mainstream press were confusing people by adopting the then-popular “liberal” and “progressive” labels. Consider the fact that new “conservatives” attorney Amos Pinchot, publisher Frank Gannett, publisher Robert McCormick, businessman Robert Wood, socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and Congressman Hamilton Fish all came out of the Bull Moose-La Follette-Borah tradition of liberal Jeffersonianism within the party. They represented the Republican side of the Committee to Uphold the Constitution and the America First Committee.[4] Most supported Taft or MacArthur for president during the 1940–1952 period. Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune favored Hiram Johnson over Hoover in 1932 and Robert Taft over Eisenhower in 1952.

The La Follette liberalism of the 1910s was converted into the Taft conservatism of the 1940s. The conversion was not total and modern conservatism included other elements in addition to agrarian-based, Jeffersonian liberalism, but Robert Taft was much closer to Robert La Follette than to Elihu Root or Calvin Coolidge.[5] American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia includes both Jefferson and Hamilton, both William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. Much depends on how you define the word “conservative.” Conservatives of the twenty-first century who are closest to the Taft-Goldwater-Reagan ideal pay homage to the Jeffersonian tradition, with its commitment to political and economic decentralization, constitutional fidelity, social morality, and avoidance of foreign entanglements.[6]

Robert M. La Follette was a Republican congressman from Wisconsin from 1885 to 1891, governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, and a U.S. senator from 1906 to 1925. “Fighting Bob” La Follette was a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1908 and 1912 and a favorite-son candidate for his state in subsequent years. In 1924, La Follette ran against fellow Republican Calvin Coolidge as the Progressive Party nominee for president. He received 4.8 million popular votes (17 percent) and received 13 electoral votes from Wisconsin. He came in second, ahead of the elitist Democratic nominee, in eleven states.

Robert A. Taft was a Republican U.S. senator for Ohio from 1939 to 1953. During the last year of his life, he served as Senate Majority Leader. Bob Taft, eventually known as “Mr. Republican,” was a favorite-son candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1936, and a serious candidate in 1940, 1948, and 1952. In 1952, Taft received 2.8 million votes in the Republican primaries, which made him the top vote-getter.

There were some obvious differences between Senator La Follette and Senator Taft. At first glance, they seem an implausible pair to put together as political compatriots. In his two national bids for the Republican presidential nomination, La Follette ran against Taft’s father, President William Howard Taft. He voted against confirming the elder Taft as Chief Justice in 1921. La Follette was a preeminent “liberal” and “progressive” while Robert Taft was described as a “conservative” and “reactionary” by the press of his day. La Follette ran for president in 1924 with Socialist Party support while Taft condemned the New Deal and Fair Deal for being socialistic. La Follette was a leader of the Progressive Era and named his party after the movement that wanted to use government on behalf of the common people, while Taft rejected centralized, bureaucratic government. La Follette’s senatorial ally, Republican William Borah of Idaho, was defeated by favorite-son candidate Taft in the 1936 Ohio presidential primary.

Each of these objections to La Follette-Taft compatibility can be easily answered when we move beyond superficial analysis and, in the process, less-obvious similarities will be found. La Follette’s opposition to his father may not have endeared the reformer to the younger Taft on a personal level, but this says nothing about commonality of principle. Objectively, Robert Taft was closer in political philosophy to La Follette than to his own father. Even on a personal level, Taft did not hold a grudge. Senators Robert La Follette Jr. (R-WI) and Burton Wheeler (D-MT) were friends of Taft. La Follette Jr. was La Follette’s son, and Wheeler was La Follette’s 1924 running mate. According to historian James T. Patterson, La Follette Jr. and Wheeler resembled Taft “in having the courage of their convictions, in fighting [Franklin] Roosevelt’s foreign policy, and in denouncing the power of Wall Street and eastern monopolists.”[7]

Differing labels over time indicate a substantive difference only if the meaning of a label has not changed. This was not the case for La Follette and Taft. A liberal in 1920 was often a conservative in 1950, albeit with some differences in emphasis from one era to another. Senator Wheeler later recalled, “During World War II, the practice of pasting on political labels became ridiculous. . . . Some of the most conservative senators embraced FDR’s policies—and immediately were called liberals. . . . On the other hand, when lifelong progressives like myself opposed intervention [in foreign wars], as we always had previously, we were denounced for having deserted liberalism.” In 1946, Oswald Garrison Villard, La Follette fundraiser in 1924 and former owner of the Nation, wrote to a libertarian, “Undoubtedly there is something in what you say about a basic kinship between my liberal ideas and those upheld by certain honest and fearless conservatives.”[8]

La Follette was not a socialist himself, and he was anti-communist in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Communist Party USA hated the Socialist Party and denounced the “bourgeois” La Follette ’24 campaign. It should be noted, too, that not all forms of socialism are state socialism involving coercion and centralization. As for linking oneself with the Socialist Party, we should remember that no less a conservative than Russell Kirk cast a ballot for party leader Norman Thomas in 1944.[9] Fittingly enough, Thomas had been a La Follette supporter twenty years earlier.

When historians describe the Progressive Era, they are usually referring to the urban, elitist leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, respectively. The agrarian, populist leaders in the two major parties—La Follette and Bryan—lost out in the battle for political power as bureaucratic big government and acceptance of corporate monopoly triumphed over state-level reform and federal anti-trust enforcement.

Yes, the young scion of Ohio defeated the old Lion of Idaho in 1936, but the contest was more about intrastate rivalry than national politics. It should be noted that each of Taft’s subsequent, full-fledged presidential campaigns received support from Borah’s admirers. For example, Alice Roosevelt Longworth supported Taft in 1940, Oswald Garrison Villard in 1948, and Frank Gannett in 1952.

Robert La Follette and Robert Taft shared hostility toward statism, plutocracy, and imperialism. Although La Follette did not earn his fame as an exponent of literal interpretation of the Constitution, during his years in the Senate he was a strict constructionist who repeatedly challenged actions on constitutional grounds. A man whose speeches were full of facts and figures, La Follette had a literal mind. In March 1917, he opposed the Armed Ship Bill partly because it was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the constitution, which expressly vests the war power in congress—without which provision the constitution would not have been adopted.” Later in the year, he denounced conscription and a number of other wartime measures as unconstitutional. During the Treaty of Versailles debate in 1919, he wished for a Senate “that stood for its rights under the Constitution, that was willing to go back to the people of the country on the issue of whether it was abiding by the Constitution or whether the President was violating the Constitution.”[10]

According to historian Gabriel Kolko, La Follette “spoke for the small businessman and for true, unfettered competition.” An opponent of private monopoly, he usually advocated trust-busting rather than government ownership. He supported regulation of corporations but was critical of the Wilson administration’s use of regulation as a substitute for enforcement of anti-trust laws. His 1924 platform endorsed government ownership of railroads, but also recognized the danger of bureaucratic control. In the 1920s, La Follette believed that emergency measures to help farmers were justified on the basis of “the general welfare” because their plight had been created by unjust laws and administration. He was not normally a supporter of what he called “class legislation” for any group—rich, middle, or poor.[11]

Robert La Follette was an arch-enemy of trusts that stifled competition (monopoly) and an uncompromising opponent of rule by the wealthy (plutocracy). He was a staunch friend of farmers and laborers. His pioneering efforts in Wisconsin on behalf of political democracy and economic justice were emulated by liberals throughout the nation. Senator La Follette opposed the Mellon Tax Plan of the 1920s not because it cut taxes but because it raised taxes on the many to pay for tax cuts for the few.

Robert Taft’s father, William Howard Taft, was a Rockefeller man who was also on friendly terms with the Mellon-Frick and du Pont corporate empires. Although he was born into a pro-Establishment family, Robert Taft became an anti-Establishment politician. James Patterson points out that unlike Hamiltonian conservatives, Taft did not possess a “yearning for a hierarchical society and an elitist politics[. . . . ] He regarded some social gradations as inevitable. But he refused to be complacent about these gradations or welcome the existence of distinct social classes[. . . . ] Like most Americans, he wished to disperse political power, not to place it in the hands of some kind of elite.” Patterson also notes that Taft “did not perceive himself as a spokesman for privilege. On the contrary, he reflected a pervasive Midwestern suspicion of idle speculators and Eastern financial interests, and he was almost as critical of monopoly as were Borah and some of the older American progressives.”[12]

In their analysis of Taft’s principles, Russell Kirk and James McClellan observe that while his Democratic opponents “endeavored to persuade the electorate that Taft was ‘a tool of big business’—or, at best, a politician indifferent to the welfare of the poor and of organized labor because insulated against privation by his affluence,” in fact Taft “had no vast resources, nor did he ever receive massive financial support, during his campaigns, from ‘Wall Street’ or any other part of the business community.” They go on to add that Taft’s “successive rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, and the Democratic occupants of the White House, were all better buoyed up by millionaire political backers, and were more strongly supported by corporate favor.”[13]

A 1944 CIO pamphlet claimed that Senator Taft supported “a systematic campaign to force America back into the ‘Robber Baron’ days when a few big business kings ran both the economy and the government of the country from a few offices in Wall Street.” Historian Patterson comments, “Those critics who wrote him off as a spokesman for privilege slighted his welfare policies, ignored his defense of the right to strike, and distorted his sincere belief that excessive taxation of business ultimately harmed all classes. They also neglected to stress his unconcealed animus against monopolists, idle speculators, the Eastern bankers.”[14]

In late 1941, historian and Hamiltonian Democrat Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote an essay about Wendell Willkie and the future of the Republican Party for the Nation. The essay exhibited Schlesinger’s warm feelings for the “internationalism” of Willkie and other pro-Establishment Republicans. Robert Taft wrote these words in response to the article: “Nor is Mr. Schlesinger correct in attributing the [anti-war] position of the majority of Republicans to their conservatism. The more conservative members of the party—the Wall Street bankers, the society group, nine-tenths of the plutocratic newspapers, and most of the party’s financial contributors—are the ones who favor intervention in Europe.”[15]

It is interesting that Taft considered the Wall Street crowd to be more conservative—in the Hamiltonian sense—than himself, which means that he considered himself to be more progressive in the La Follette sense of that word. It is also interesting that Taft freely used the word plutocratic, a term used by liberal populists such as La Follette in their criticism of monopoly capitalists who sought to capture the government. Throughout the 1940s, Taft viewed himself as more genuinely liberal than either Wendell Willkie or Harold Stassen. He suspected that Stassen was “a complete opportunist” and complained that he was “a New Dealer and an internationalist” who wrapped “himself in a mantle of liberalism” but who possessed principles that were not that different from the Old Guard he liked to criticize.[16]

In 1952, the kingmakers of the Republican Party recruited General Dwight Eisenhower to stop the presidential nomination of Senator Taft. Taft was preferred by “lower-middle-class groups” while Eisenhower was backed by “the Eastern Establishment of old Wall Street, Ivy League, semi-aristocratic Anglophiles whose real strength rested in their control of eastern financial endowments, operating from foundations, academic halls, and other tax-exempt refuges.” Taft did not approve of most of President-elect Eisenhower’s cabinet choices (e.g., Charles Wilson of General Motors for Secretary of Defense). Taft wrote in December 1952, “I don’t like the fact that we have so many big businessmen in the Cabinet.”[17]

While La Follette Republicans were generally less decentralist than Bryan Democrats in domestic policy during the period from 1900 to1925, they were more decentralist in foreign policy. Most were “Irreconcilables” who opposed joining the League of Nations with or without reservations, partly on national sovereignty grounds. Decades later, many were suspicious of the United Nations for the same reason. The “little group of willful men,” as Wilson described his Senate opponents, included anti-League champions La Follette, William Borah, Hiram Johnson, and George Norris.

La Follette told the Senate, “The little group of men who sat in secret conclave for months at Versailles were not peacemakers. They were war makers[. . . . ] They betrayed China. They locked the chains on the subject peoples of Ireland, Egypt, and India[. . . . ] I do not covet for this country a position in the world which history has shown would make us the object of endless jealousies and hatreds, involve us in perpetual war, and lead to the extinction of our domestic liberty[. . . . ] Mr. President, we cannot, without sacrificing this Republic, maintain world dominion for ourselves. And, sir, we should not pledge ourselves to maintain it for another [i.e., the British Empire].”[18] La Follette was still widely discredited by his public opposition to World War I even after it had been declared by Congress, so he kept a relatively low profile while his ideological allies took the lead in trying to stop ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Republicans such as Lodge, Root, Stimson, W. H. Taft, Hughes, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover all supported League entry, sometimes with the addition of superficial amendments to the Treaty.

Hiram Johnson expected Wilson to accept the reservations, thereby allowing Establishment politicians of both parties to claim credit for entrance into the League. He had not counted on Wilson’s stubborn—even messianic—insistence on adoption of the Treaty of Versailles as written. A combination of Wilson’s self-righteousness and the La Follette bloc’s stubborn insistence on national sovereignty and resistance to imperial entanglements killed the Treaty, thus thwarting the machinations of the GOP reservationists. The last vote Johnson cast as a senator was in the Foreign Relations Committee against the United Nations Charter in 1945. The old Irreconcilable died before casting a floor vote against joining the UN.[19]

Just as La Follette opposed American involvement in World War I, Taft opposed entry into World War II. Both senators were leading opponents of imperialistic foreign policy. In his 1996 endorsement of Bob Dole’s internationalism in opposition to Pat Buchanan’s “isolationism,” Foreign Affairs managing editor Fareed Zakaria correctly—if rudely—lumped Robert Taft in with William Borah and Gerald Nye as examples of Republican “paranoid nativism.” Zakaria thus identified Taft as part of the La Follette tradition within the GOP. Although he was consistently anti-communist, Taft recognized the imperial designs of the Truman-Dewey crowd in promoting the Cold War in the late 1940s. He also held to a Jeffersonian foreign policy that was suspicious of entangling alliances. For these reasons, Taft voted against creation of NATO. He opposed U.S. involvement in French Indochina, which earned him the distinction of being a proto-opponent of the Vietnam War.[20]

As a result of similar values, the two presidential contenders gained the support of some of the same populist-minded people. They also earned the enmity of the same opposition: the Establishment, the Vital Center, the Power Elite. In the late 1930s, Yale University trustee Robert Taft recommended that the school give liberal Senator Hiram Johnson an honorary degree. Governor Johnson had been an early booster of La Follette for the 1912 GOP nomination until he jumped ship for the Roosevelt ocean liner (eventually becoming TR’s running mate on the Bull Moose ticket). Although he was not personally close to La Follette, Johnson had an almost identical voting record during the years from 1917 to 1925. Taft was personally close to Herbert Hoover after working for him during the First World War, but he was willing to overlook Johnson’s anti-Hoover sentiment. Taft was even willing to overlook Johnson’s opposition to his father’s Supreme Court nomination. Johnson had publicly declared the elder Taft “unfit to be the Chief Justice” and privately wrote, “I think he was a traitor to his country in the League of Nations’ fight.”[21] Senator Taft joined almost all of the La Follette Republicans in voting against the nomination of Henry Stimson to be Secretary of War in July 1940. Once again, Taft proved that for him principle trumped both party loyalty and personal ties: Stimson had been Secretary of War under his father and Secretary of State under Hoover.

Like many of the “isolationist,” America-First populists within the Republican Party, the La Follette sons—Senator Robert Jr. and Governor Philip—supported General Douglas MacArthur’s presidential ambitions in 1944 and 1948. As someone who disliked George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, MacArthur was allied with Taft by the early 1950s. Ironically, Taft was both a friend of La Follette, Jr., and an ally of the man who defeated him in the 1946 primary: Joseph McCarthy. Despite obvious personal rivalries, there were ideological similarities between the La Follettes and McCarthy which serve to explain why Taft had links to both camps.

In the 1950s, historian Peter Viereck compared the Wisconsin-based populism of McCarthy and the “Radical Right” to that of La Follette and the “Old Progressives.” He saw six “potentially dangerous characteristics” that they had in common: “direct democracy, conspiracy-hunting, Anglophobia, Germanophilia, nationalistic isolationism, anti-elitist status-resentment.” Viereck disliked both streams of populism, but he correctly recognized the similiarities between the Old Progressives of the Midwest and their Taft-MacArthur-McCarthy cousins. Republican senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota—famed for his Merchants of Death investigation in the mid-1930s—had twice supported La Follette for president against Coolidge in 1924, first in the Republican primary and then as the Progressive nominee. By the early 1960s, former Senator Nye was a Goldwater Republican. Like Taft, Goldwater shared with La Follette a Jeffersonian foundation.[22]

Just as similarities of principle produced La Follette bloc-Taft bloc crossover support from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, the two groups of Republican populists drew fire from the same enemies. For two generations, liberal populists opposed Wall Street domination of their party. The same group of New York-based kingmakers were behind the men who defeated Taft for the presidential nomination—Willkie (1940), Dewey (1948), and Eisenhower (1952). Six years after Taft’s death, the New York Times reported the contents of his confidential analysis of why he lost to Eisenhower: “First, it was the power of the New York financial interest and a large number of businessmen subject to New York influence . . . Second, four-fifths of the influential newspapers in the country were opposed to me continuously and vociferously, and many turned themselves into propaganda sheets for my opponent.” The subheadline of the article was “Eisenhower’s Selection Laid to Wall Street and Press.” It was an analysis La Follette could have penned in 1912 or Johnson in 1920.[23]

La Follette the progressive, the radical, was a forerunner of the modern conservative because these terms are equivocal. In the 1910s, La Follette, Norris, Johnson, and Borah were known as “progressives,” but they did not believe in the perfectability of man or in the wisdom of a bureaucratic nanny state or in the attraction of a global empire based on force and greed. They did not depend upon J. P. Morgan or J. D. Rockefeller. They were progressive in the sense that they wanted to change the status quo. In a deeply un-conservative world where the current was going against traditional values, to be “conservative” in their day was to support the status quo of corporate monopoly and dishonest war instead of free enterprise, small farms, local power, and a virtuous republic. So perhaps the Midwestern rabble-rousers, and their East-Coast allies, needed to be reactionary radicals. There have been manifestations of this radical strain in the conservative movement ever since.[24]

Even if common descent from Jefferson is acknowledged in the cases of La Follette and Taft, some might argue that the conservative movement need not be Jeffersonian because there is an alternate conservative tradition that leans toward monarchy and aristocracy, and sometimes even toward authoritarianism. It is a conservatism of government power and material wealth, of self-aggrandizing pragmatism and elitism, threading its way from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Hamilton, Webster, Clay, and Lincoln. This was the tradition of McKinley, Root, Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt. It continued into the mid-twentieth century under the new “progressive” or “liberal” label through the instrumentality of Willkie and Dewey, Stassen and Warren. Eisenhower, Lodge Jr., and Rockefeller were its chief political champions during the 1950s and 1960s, with Richard Nixon serving as its handmaiden partly out of conviction and partly out of ambition.

Ronald Reagan never claimed to be a conservative in the older Hobbesian-Hamiltonian sense. After leaving New Deal liberalism he proudly identified himself with the Taft-Goldwater tradition of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and social morality and of popular control of government, within the confines of adherence to the republican Constitution. Such is the modern conservative mix: libertarianism, moralism, and populism, with anti-communism resting on these primary concerns. Within the Republican Party, Reagan advocated bold colors which would contrast with liberal Democrats instead of using the usual me-too pastels. In 1964, he embraced the very unrespectable Goldwater candidacy. In the closing days of a campaign obviously headed for defeat, he gave his self-penned “A Time for Choosing” televised speech to the nation.

Reagan chose a very inconvenient time—and place, when you consider that California Republicans were outnumbered by Democrats and had just lost two consecutive gubernatorial elections—to become a conservative Republican. He did so out of principle. He was squarely in the same tradition as Taft and Goldwater, which is why in 1976 he earned the support of movement conservatives associated with the earlier Taft, Goldwater, and Ashbrook campaigns (e.g., Russell Kirk, William Loeb, Phyllis Schlafly, H. R. Gross). It is also why millions of conservative populists who had voted for George Wallace switched parties for presidential voting and became known as “Reagan Democrats.”

To the extent that President Reagan was faithful in following the conservative principles of Senator Taft, to that extent he was in a Republican tradition exemplified by Senator La Follette from 1900 to 1925. It was a tradition congenial to Jeffersonian thought, with roots in agrarianism, localism, libertarianism, moralism, and populism. Reagan’s two terms might have been closer to what a Taft or Goldwater presidency could have been had he hung a picture of La Follette on the wall rather than the picture of Coolidge. The former was a champion of the common people; the latter was a servant of the monied elite. Had his principles compelled a preference for La Follette’s example over that of Coolidge, Reagan might have spared the nation the entreé of the Bush dynasty in his wake and spared the GOP the continued burden of being known as the party of the rich.

Ronald Reagan’s symbolic embrace of the Wall Streetism of Coolidge should not have been a total surprise to conservative populists. When Reagan announced his 1980 candidacy in a televised broadcast, he had a picture of Dwight Eisenhower—not Robert Taft—sitting on a table behind him, and he was touting the important issue of statehood for Puerto Rico! If he had paid more attention to the deeply conservative values of La Follette and Taft, he might not have staffed his administration with Nixon retreads and Rockefeller allies while snubbing real Reaganites like Phyllis Schlafly, John Ashbrook, and Jesse Helms. He might have groomed a more genuine conservative as his successor. The difference between La Follette and Coolidge is the difference between family farmers and agribusiness conglomerates, between Peoria and Georgetown, between Main Street and Wall Street. Each time Reagan and his successors emulated Coolidge and his patrons, they moved away from popular favor and betrayed their base of Old Right traditionalists, New Right activists, and socially-conservative Reagan Democrats.

The Bush family and its circle of elite-minded and empire-oriented attendants inherited power within the Republican Party as Ronald Reagan left the scene in 1988. Throughout the 1990s, Patrick Buchanan represented an older (paleo) version of conservatism, with roots far deeper than the Reagan years. Buchanan established himself as the champion of Taft-Goldwater-Reagan conservatism, as indicated by the support he received during the decade from prominent veterans of the earlier campaigns, including Kirk, Loeb, and Schlafly. His “America First” slogan was reminiscent of both the Taft ’40 and Johnson ’20 campaigns. In his three presidential bids and various journalistic endeavors, Buchanan embodied a label-transcending American populism. This modern tendency recalled the 1940s cross-pollination of La Follette liberalism and Taft conservatism. The 2008 presidential campaign of Ron Paul, an original Reagan ’76 backer, tapped into the same phenomenon. With his Taft foreign policy and Goldwater domestic policy, Congressman Paul appealed to traditional conservatives tied to populism and morality, libertarians opposed to a burdensome welfare state, and modern liberals interested in peace and individual rights.

If, in the face of a hostile Establishment, Reagan had possessed more of the spirit of Fighting Bob and less of the acquiescence of Silent Cal, and if Reagan had been more familiar with the history of the conservative movement, he might have prevented his administration from being coopted by the very people who opposed him so vehemently in 1976—the statists, plutocrats, and imperialists who had always been anathema to the Jeffersonian tradition. Despite some notable failings and compromises, Reagan nonetheless set a standard that has inspired many sincere conservatives for the past 40 years. Even when President Reagan did not live up to the promise and rhetoric of Governor Reagan, the principles and aspirations he so eloquently set forth served as a benchmark to set the conservative movement apart from the bipartisan welfare statism and internationalism of the Truman-Rockefeller political power consensus. And, like Robert Taft, Ronald Reagan had more in common with Robert La Follette than Calvin Coolidge in his best actions and finest moments.

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Notes:

  1. Richard W. Leopold, Elihu Root and the Conservative Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954); Hiram W. Johnson, The Diary Letters of Hiram Johnson, 1917–1945 (New York: Garland, 1983), 3:6–22–19, 5:2–15–30.
  2. Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900–1916 (New York: Free Press, 1977); R. Jeffrey Lustig, Corporate Liberalism: The Origins of Modern American Political Theory, 1890–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Antony C. Sutton, Wall Street and FDR (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975).
  3. Donald R. McCoy, Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 107.
  4. Amos R.E. Pinchot, History of the Progressive Party, 1912–1916 (New York: New York University Press, 1958); Bill Kauffman, America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1995).
  5. For scholarly studies detailing how the senatorial allies of La Follette responded to the FDR administration, see: Otis L. Graham Jr., An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967); James T. Patterson, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933–1939 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967); Ronald A. Mulder, The Insurgent Progressives in the United States Senate and the New Deal, 1933–1939 (New York: Garland, 1979); Ronald L. Feinman, Twilight of Progressivism: The Western Republican Senators and the New Deal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981); Wayne S. Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).
  6. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson, eds. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006); Robert M. La Follette, La Follette’s Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 146–48, 160; Belle Case La Follette and Fola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 1:426.
  7. James T. Patterson, Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), 232, 253.
  8. Burton K. Wheeler, Yankee from the West (New York: Octagon Books, 1977), 389; Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Free Life Editions, 1978), 116.
  9. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 71.
  10. Robert M. La Follette, The Political Philosophy of Robert M. La Follette as Revealed in His Speeches and Writings (Madison: La Follette, 1920), 208; Robert S. Maxwell, ed., La Follette (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 69.
  11. Kolko, Triumph, 213; Carl R. Burgchardt, Robert M. La Follette Sr.: The Voice of Conscience (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 212–13; Fred Greenbaum, Robert Marion La Follette (Boston: Twayne, 1975), 219; La Follette and La Follette, Robert, 2:1156.
  12. Patterson, Mr. Republican, 331, 158; Kenneth Crawford, “Taft the Presidential Candidate,” The American Mercury, June 1948, 647–53.
  13. Russell Kirk and James McClellan, The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (New York: Fleet Press, 1967), 112–13.
  14. Patterson, Mr. Republican, 275, 330.
  15. Robert A. Taft, “The Future of the Republican Party,” The Nation, December 13, 1941, 611–12.
  16. Patterson, Mr. Republican, 377; “Taft Hits Stassen on ‘Liberal’ Issue,” New York Times, April 22, 1948, 14.
  17. Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 1244; Patterson, Mr. Republican, 583.
  18. La Follette, Political, 251, 263.
  19. Johnson, Diary, 3:6–22–19, 7–24–19, 11–8-19, 1:70; Richard Coke Lower, A Bloc of One: The Political Career of Hiram W. Johnson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 334–35.
  20. Fareed Zakaria, “The Vision Thing,” New York Times (August 21, 1996), A17; Radosh, Prophets, 192–93; Justus D. Doenecke, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979); Murray Rothbard, “The Foreign Policy of the Old Right,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 (1978): 85–96; Michael W. Miles, The Odyssey of the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 80–120, 164, 196, 208.
  21. Johnson, Diary, 3:7–2-21.
  22. Peter Viereck, The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956); Wayne S. Cole, Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 222–23; Gerald P. Nye, “Interventionist Madness,” The American Mercury (Fall 1966), 26–29; Lee Edwards, Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1997), 9–10, 53; Barry M. Goldwater, “Barry Goldwater Talks About ‘Liberals’ and ‘Liberalism,’” U.S. News & World Report (July 8, 1963), 44–45.
  23. La Follette, La Follette’s; Johnson, Diary, 3:2–6-20, 2–22–20, 4–2-20, 4:1–6-24, 6–9-24, 7–10–24, 1–13–25, 4–14–26, 2–25–28, 3–17–28; Usher Burdick, “The Republican Party and the City of Philadelphia,” Congressional Record (June 19, 1940), 8641; William Langer, “Proposed Investigation of Republican National Convention of 1940,” Congressional Record (January 17, 1944), 287; Robert Griffith, “Old Progressives and the Cold War,” Journal of American History 66 (September 1979), 347; Phyllis Schlafly, A Choice, Not an Echo (Alton, Ill.: Pere Marquette Press, 1964); “Taft’s Appraisal of ’52 Loss Bared,” New York Times (November 25, 1959), 1, 14.
  24. Thomas Fleming, “From Bryan to Buchanan,” Chronicles (March 1996), 8–11; Samuel Francis, Revolution from the Middle (Raleigh, N.C.: Middle American Press, 1997); Bill Kauffman, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006).
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