Meaning of reform: 1908 and 2008

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Michael Kazin


To a political historian, there is no reason to assume one can learn anything useful by comparing two elections a century apart. Everything is different: the context, the issues, and, of course, the candidates. Any similarities are usually just coincidental. Compare 1828 to 1928, for example. Andrew Jackson's victory in 1828 was possible only because, for the first time, most white men had the right to vote and exercised that right. And his party, the Democrats, were the first truly mass political party. The 1828 election was thus a pivotal moment in U.S. history and, even, in the history of the world. What about 1928? Herbert Hoover's landslide win that year was mostly a sign that American voters wanted more of the same- to continue the pro-business policies of the Republican Party and to keep a Catholic, Democrat Al Smith, out of the White House. Or compare the election of 1880 to that of 1980. Both times a conservative Republican was the victor: James A. Garfield and Ronald Wilson Reagan. But to compare Garfield, an intelligent man but a mediocre politician, to Reagan is like comparing a Triple Crown winner to a horse who stumbles in first at a country fair. They belong to the same species, but the skill of the competitor and the size of the purse make all the difference. So although we all have affection for centennials, we should be wary of imputing significance to elections that took place 100 years apart.

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