“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman was a monster. Governor of South Carolina from 1890-1894 and US Senator from South Carolina from 1895 until his death in 1918, in a time of overt public racism Tillman stood out. He openly boasted on the floor of the Senate of murdering blacks during Reconstruction to help whites regain political power. He offered blacks in South Carolina the choice of being helots or extermination. His racial views are repugnant not only to our eyes, but to many, perhaps most, of his white contemporaries. He achieved the disenfranchisement of blacks at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895, a disenfranchisement that would survive his death for almost a half century.
This terrible racism now obscures the main reason why Tillman had such a political hold on South Carolina for a generation and a half, and why he was a very effective legislator in the Senate. With his racism he combined a radical populism that appealed to small farmers and laboring men who held the balance of power in South Carolina. He appealed to them against the traditional rulers of South Carolina who seemingly had no answers to the economic challenges that beset the poor of South Carolina. With his radical message he became a well paid speaker on the Chautauqua Circuit, giving speeches throughout the nation in which he made little effort to conceal his racial views.
The essence and power of Tillman’s economic message was shown at the Democrat convention in 1896 at which bi-metalism, an economic theory that was complete hooey, was regarded as the economic nostrum to cure the nation’s ills. Tillman gave a brief speech:
When this convention disperses, I hope my fellow citizens will have a different opinion of the man with the pitchfork from South Carolina. I am from South Carolina, which was the home of secession. [Great hissing.] Oh, hiss if you like. There are only three things on earth which can hiss—a goose, a serpent, and a man, and the man who hisses the name of South Carolina has no knowledge whatever of its grand history. But I tell you I do not come from the South Carolina of 1860, which you charge brought about the disruption of the Democratic Party. The war there declared was for the emancipation of the black slaves. I come now from a South Carolina which demands the emancipation of the white slaves. You charge that in 1860 South Carolina brought about the disruption of the Democratic Party. I say to you now that I am willing to see the Democratic Party disrupted again to accomplish the emancipation of the white slaves. New York for twenty years or more has been the one dominant factor and dictator of the National Democratic Party. While we want to thank New York and Connecticut and New Jersey for the aid extended to us in the past, I want to say to you here that we have at last recognized in the South that we are mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, while the great states I have named have eaten up our substance. My friends say this is not a sectional issue. I say it is.
[Great scenes of disorder then ensued, and quiet was restored with difficulty. Many times the senator was interrupted, but he went on:]
I deny utterly that there is any sectional feeling over this silver issue. I have been in the East ten days, and nine-tenths of the voters in those States are for silver. The Democratic and Republican political machines, by the use of money, have stifled the sentiments of the people on this money question.
[References by the speaker to Senator Hill brought a renewal of the storm, and Senator Tillman was obliged to raise his voice to a shout as he ended:]
As Grover Cleveland stands for gold monometallism, we have repudiated him. We are diametrically opposed to his policy, and why should we write ourselves down as asses and liars? They ask us to say that he is honest. Well, in reply I say he signed a contract for bonds in secret, with one of his partners as a witness. Nobody disputes his boldness or obstinacy. He had the courage to overthrow the Constitution of the United States when he overrode the rights of the citizens of Illinois and sent federal troops into this state. You ask us to indorse his fidelity. In reply, I say he has been faithful unto death—the death of the Democratic Party. We have denounced him in South Carolina as a tool of Wall Street, and what was prophecy then is history now. Senator John Sherman’s speech in the Senate in support of the Administration’s money policy was but the certificate of a Cleveland Republican. I tell you that the Democratic Party of the United States will turn out the party in this fall’s election if it dares indorse Grover Cleveland here. I tell you you dare not go before this country after indorsing the Cleveland administration. We of the South have burned our bridges behind us so far as the Eastern Democrats are concerned. We have turned our faces to the West and they have responded. I have only a few more words to say, and I know that you will be asked to do this by time-serving politicians, the men who follow and never lead public opinion. Once again I say to you that we must refuse to indorse the Cleveland Administration or go before the country stultified. Continue reading
I haven’t discussed the Wisconsin recall vote. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my disdain for populism that I find recall elections to be complete shams, and this goes whether the affected officeholder(s) are Democrats or Republicans. Had I been blogging in 2003 I would have said the same for the recall vote that ousted Gray Davis in California. Voters know going into an election that they are voting people into office for a certain amount of time, and they have to live with the consequences of said vote. Barring glaring corruption or malfeasance, elected officials should remain in office for the duration of their terms. If recalls became regular features of the democratic process, elected leaders would never enact meaningful change lest they be booted out of office at the drop of a hat. And while as a society we have grown cynical and jaded regarding politicians, there is something to be said about stability in office. After all, we can vote the bums out every two, four, or six years depending on the office – as the voters in Indiana have done with Senator Richard Lugar, who I believe was first elected shortly after New Hampshire ratified the Constitution.
In the specific case of Wisconsin, the unions have led the effort to boot Governor Scott Walker out of office. It is looking more and more like this will be a futile effort. What’s more, it looks like the DNC has rebuffed requests by the Wisconsin Democrats for help with the election next month. The local Dems asked for $500,000, and so far the DNC has sayed, “NYET!”
Leaving aside your feelings about this recall effort, is this a smart move by the DNC? Yes, there is this little election coming up in November, and the party’s fundraising hasn’t gone as spectacularly as hoped. And even though the polls have been close, it is a better than 50/50 proposition that Scott Walker holds onto his seat. It would arguably be better for the Democrats to funnel their resources where they are needed, like potentially closer than originally thought House elections in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.*
*Okay, that might be the thing of fevered fantasies, but you never know.
That being said, a Democratic victory in June would be a colossal shot in the arm for the party. Polls indicate that President Obama has a very narrow lead over Mitt Romney in Wisconsin, and this is certainly a state that Republicans could capture in November. I wouldn’t suggest that there is a direct correlation between the recall election in June and the general election in November, but it doesn’t hurt (usually) to have the incumbent governor campaigning for the presidential candidate. By bypassing this election the Democrats could be hurting Obama’s chances in the state later on in the year.
Daniel Larison on why conservatives have been critical of Michael Steele, but defended Sarah Palin:
Steele does not have the benefit of a verbose, mistake-prone counterpart to distract us [like Palin did with Biden], but even if he did the reaction to Steele would have been nothing like the response to Palin. In other words, Steele’s blunders on substance are treated as badly damaging and activists insist that they require immediate correction, while Palin’s blunders were spun as imaginatively and desperately as any politician’s answers have ever been spun. This is a bigger problem than pushing unprepared leaders into the spotlight–it is a clear preference for one kind of style, namely the combative pseudo-populist act, over whatever style Steele has at the expense of any consideration of the merits of what these leaders say. The takeaway is that Steele is being ripped apart for making statements that are not terribly different from Palin’s campaign statements on the very same issues, and somehow she is still considered a rising star by the very activists who are ripping Steele.
As the election becomes more a matter of history than immediate emotion, it is a good time for sober analysis of what went on in the 2008 election. Yuval Levin has a very good analysis in Commentary Magazine of the phenomenon that was Sarah Palin’s candidacy. In framing the controversy he makes an interesting distinction:
In American politics, the distinction between populism and elitism is further subdivided into cultural and economic populism and elitism. And for at least the last forty years, the two parties have broken down distinctly along this double axis. The Republican party has been the party of cultural populism and economic elitism, and the Democrats have been the party of cultural elitism and economic populism. Republicans tend to identify with the traditional values, unabashedly patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan, non-nuanced Joe Sixpack, even as they pursue an economic policy that aims at elite investor-driven growth. Democrats identify with the mistreated, underpaid, overworked, crushed-by-the-corporation “people against the powerful,” but tend to look down on those people’s religion, education, and way of life. Republicans tend to believe the dynamism of the market is for the best but that cultural change can be dangerously disruptive; Democrats tend to believe dynamic social change stretches the boundaries of inclusion for the better but that economic dynamism is often ruinous and unjust.
Both economic and cultural populism are politically potent, but in America, unlike in Europe, cultural populism has always been much more powerful. Americans do not resent the success of others, but they do resent arrogance, and especially intellectual arrogance.
Addressing how Palin’s candidacy turned this cultural fact into a firestorm, he says: