As Americans head to the polls today, I’m sure everyone is pondering the 1924 battle between Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis. What? You’re skeptical? Well, if they aren’t, they should be. And they can start their studies by taking a gander at Garland Tucker’s new book, The High Tide of American Conservatism.
On it’s surface, Tucker’s book tells the story of an election, the presidential contest of 1924 that pit Republican Calvin Coolidge against Democrat John W. Davis.
But it’s really a tandem biography of two prominent conservatives. Such books are never easy to write, often ending up as a lopsided treatment of two main characters, with one getting all the attention and the other relegated to the margins. Not so with Tucker’s book, however, which does a fine job with both its protagonists. Its fine sense of balance clearly derives from Tucker’s obvious admiration for both men.
Tucker’s principal goal is fairly straightforward: he wants to remind us that 1924 marked the last time both major parties nominated genuine conservatives for the presidency. Throughout the book, he stresses the philosophical commonalities between Coolidge and Davis — commonalities that might surprise readers inclined to view the political universe in binary terms, with Republicans consistently on the right and Democrats always on the left. While such a view is oversimplified even in today’s political arena, it’s even more misleading when projected into the past.
Tucker is unhappy with the historiographical treatment of both Coolidge and Davis. “Modern historians have consistently and regrettably ignored or belittled them,” he contends. Coolidge has been reduced to a caricature of mindless conservatism, while Davis has been nearly forgotten. Both men deserve better. Coolidge, for his part, was a thoughtful and decent man. ”Not only did he articulate a coherent, thoughtful strand of conservatism,” Tucker writes, “but he also came — quite accurately — to be seen as an icon for those solid American values of honesty, hard work, self-reliance, and thrift.”
Davis shared many of these virtues, while adding a few more to boot. He was able, honest, charming, and smart, Tucker maintains. And he was every inch the conservative that Coolidge was. “Davis was a Democrat dedicated to small government, states’ rights, individual freedom, and free trade in the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, Cleveland, and Parker,” he observes.
The 1924 election pit these two pillars of conservatism against one another. “It is remarkable that both political parties nominated a bona fide conservative,” Tucker notes, “and, in some ways, this election was a defining moment in American presidential election history.” Indeed, it represented high tide of American conservatism, Tucker contends. (As opposed to the high tide of progressivism, which occurred in 1912 when all three major candidates for the presidency — including Bull Mooser Theodore Roosevelt — could make a plausible claim to the mantle of progressive politics).
Tucker casts the 1924 election as part of a longer drama. “Twentieth -century American political history was certainly dominated by the conflict betweent he left and the right over the proper role of government,” he writes. Tucker’s book offers a lucid, readable, and and extremely valuable portrait of two key players in this drama over the role of the state.
Even more important, however, Tucker reminds us that partisan alignments are not timeless. Democrats and Republicans have not always arrayed themselves in simple, predictable patterns along the ideological cleavage between statists and anti-statists. Such alignments have changed. And they will again.none