A century ago, Democrats were trying to keep the White House.

Photographer: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Times Have Changed Since 1916. Democrats Mostly Haven't.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Now that the Democratic convention is over, commentators have been pointing to differences between the party’s platform of today and those of four or eight years ago. But what might be more useful is to take the long view. If we go back a century, and look at the Democratic Party platform of 1916, what is striking is not so much the differences but the similarities.

In 1916, the G.O.P. nominated Charles Evans Hughes, chief justice of the Supreme Court, to face incumbent Woodrow Wilson. The nation was uneasy. Manufacturing was booming, but the U.S. was still mostly an agricultural nation, and uncertainty sparked by the Panic of 1907 had not yet subsided. The public was fearful of a potential war with Germany and skirmishing with Mexico along the southern border.

Times may have changed, but the party platforms of 1916 and 2016 show that large chunks of ideology turn out to be the same. (Note to the impatient:  I will get to the Republicans in a separate column.)

The 1916 Democratic platform was sunny and upbeat, as the incumbent’s platform always is. Nobody runs for re-election by pointing to misery and despair. And so the Democrats started out by pointing proudly to Wilson’s achievements: “We challenge comparison of our record, our keeping of pledges and our constructive legislation, with those of any party of any time.”

Then as now, the party called for regulation to battle unfairness in the economy. The platform trumpeted the passage of the Federal Reserve Act and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission. And then there was this: “We have adjusted the burdens of taxation so that swollen incomes bear their equitable share.” (The top marginal rate was 7 percent.) Only Democrats could be trusted with an era that was bringing “economic changes more varied and far-reaching than the world has ever before experienced.”

The 1916 platform had no equivalent to today’s lengthy discussions about jobs, but nevertheless tilted in the same direction. Federal workers should receive “a living wage.” The budget would be controlled by cutting “waste and duplication.” The Democrats promised child labor laws and an agency devoted to worker safety. Prison reform and better roads and bridges, were all part of the agenda.

All of these positions could fit easily into the 2016 platform.  This bit, however, sounds foreign: “We must now remove, as far as possible, every remaining element of unrest and uncertainty from the path of the business men of America, and secure for them a continued period of quiet, assured and confident prosperity.”  There is nothing similar today.

The identity politics that forms so substantial a part of the 2016 Democratic platform wasn’t big in the early 20th century.  Nevertheless, the great roiling crucible of American politics has always been race, and the Democrats found room to criticize “whoever by arousing prejudices of a racial, religious or other nature creates discord and strife among our people.” We would err, however, should we read these words through 21st-century glasses. In the public language of the era, this was a careful sop to the “solid South” so crucial to Democratic electoral success.  In the complex color politics of the day, a progressive could simultaneously oppose “stirring up race passion and prejudice” while insisting upon “white supremacy” based on “natural superiority” and refusing “to amalgamate with the negro.”

What about foreign policy? The Democrats were the free traders of the day (more or less), and trumpeted their support for the Revenue Act of 1913, which had lowered the tariff significantly in return for re-establishing the federal income tax. At that time the tariff was the federal government’s principal source of revenue. The platform accepted the necessity but maintained that the level should be set with that purpose alone in mind, rather than “in accordance with the demands of selfish interests.” What was the right figure? There the party preferred to kick the calculation over to “a non-partisan tariff commission.”

As it is today, the public was fearful of foreign entanglements. The platform thus called for the use of the military principally to defend the country. The Democrats counseled neutrality in the European conflict that would become World War I, and intervention in Mexico “only as a last recourse.” Still the party warned – in a veiled reference to Mexico – that there must be “strict accountability” for wrongs done to the persons or property of U.S. citizens abroad. But the emphasis in international affairs was on diplomacy and what we would today call multilateralism – very much in line with the Democrats of today.

The 1916 platform strongly endorsed American exceptionalism. “The supreme issue of this day in which the whole world faces the crisis of manifold change” was “the assertion and triumphant demonstration of the indivisibility and coherent strength of the nation.” Although this language certainly has echoes in the 2016 platform’s insistence that “we are stronger together,” the party today deploys this language principally not as a tool for explaining why the U.S. is special but as a means for painting their opposition as divisive.

The 1916 election was close – far closer than the Democrats had anticipated. Wilson was re-elected, but had the Republicans won California, which Wilson carried by less than one half of one percentage point, the result would have been different. As it was, the Democrats prevailed because of that solid, racist Southern bloc. 

Nowadays, we tend to ignore party platforms, except when we can score political points for our side. A hundred years ago, matters were quite different. Newspapers printed details on the front page. Did the platform make a difference? Given that the U.S. then was a nation of readers rather than viewers, there’s a good chance that the answer is yes.

  1. The 2016 Democratic platform does mention prosperity, principally as a goal of foreign policy, but also as the intended result of targeted federal programs.

  2. The Democrats did call for women’s suffrage, but do did the Republicans. A short and useful contemporaneous essay on which side took which position and why is “The Winning Policy” by Carrie Chapman Catt, published in 1916.

  3. Black voters of the day were solidly Republican. There were Southern states – Georgia provides an example – where the Republican Party very nearly was a black party.

  4. These words are actually taken from a 1908 pamphlet by William Henry Fleming, a generally progressive Georgia Democrat.

  5. The platform hinted at but did not quite call for establishment of what would come to be known as the League of Nations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net