The 1952 and 1956 presidential elections between Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson might stand as the last time that the American people had a choice between two capable candidates with clear and reasonable philosophies of government. During World War II, Eisenhower had been Commanding General, European Theater of Operations. Somewhat like Colin Powell following the Vietnam War, Eisenhower did not have an affiliation with a political party and both the Democrats and Republicans were ready to hand him their nomination in 1952, almost regardless of his views.
Eisenhower did not declare himself a Republican until shortly before entering the presidential race in 1952. Ike and the GOP seemed like a good fit. It may be hard to understand now, but back then, Republicans liked their candidates to be reserved, cautious, thoughtful, deliberate and amiable. That was Ike.
Democrats preferred a cerebral spark. Franklin Roosevelt inspired Americans with unorthodox policies in the New Deal. Harry Truman “gave ’em hell” while steering America back to prosperity. Adlai Stevenson had been a reformer while governor of Illinois and was ready to protect, preserve and continue the New Deal.
The 1952 election was of an era very different from today. It was two years before Brown v. Board of Education and 12 years before meaningful civil rights legislation.
For most Americans, 1952 and 1956 presented a choice between two fair and competing philosophies of government. Each in its own way reflected viewpoints that characterized the approaches of previous presidents.
Eisenhower won handily in both 1952 and 1956. As an affable paternal figure, it was more than coincidental that he received the electoral endorsement of the American people three years after the “Father Knows Best” program became a popular radio show and before it became a mainstay of American television. Ike was the battle-tested grandfather; America had a long history of electing military generals. His victories made him the last in a line of 12 former generals elected to the Presidency. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the 1956 election reflected the end of an era.
In 1948, four years before the first Eisenhower-Stevenson election, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had walked out of the Democratic convention and formed a third party, the Dixiecrats. The signature issue of the Dixiecrats was racial segregation. The party actually carried four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina). But the South came back into the Democratic party in 1952, and we had an election that essentially reflected the two prevailing lines of political thinking in the U.S. Republicans presented cautious compassion with fiscal restraint. Democrats were more fervent in their compassion and saw an activist federal government as the key to meeting people’s needs.
The Eisenhower-Stevenson races presented clear-cut choices, very capable candidates, and connection by both parties with mainstream thinking in America.
In 2010, the concern is that the third-party aberrations of 1948 and 1968 may soon become the norm. The 2010 Florida senate race pitted Tea-Party backed Republican Marco Rubio against Independent Charlie Crist (the moderate governor who left the Republican party after losing the primary to Rubio) and progressive Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek.
What is happening to the stability of our two-party system of the 1950s? Quite possibly the problem is that 1956 was the last time that America was presented with two personally stable candidates with clear agendas that were compatible with America’s mainstream.
Beginning in 1960, each election seemed to have at least one candidate with significant character flaws, serious intellectual limitations, or ideas that were too radical for America. Here’s a quick list:
- 1960: Richard Nixon
- 1964: Barry Goldwater
- 1968: Richard Nixon and George Wallace
- 1972: Richard Nixon and George Wallace
- 1976: POSSIBLE EXCEPTION – Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter
- 1980: Ronald Reagan
- 1984: Ronald Reagan
- 1988: George H.W. Bush (with Dan Quayle as V.P.)
- 1992: George H.W. Bush (with Dan Quayle as V.P.)
- 1996: POSSIBLE EXCEPTION – Bill Clinton (pre-Monica) vs. Bob Dole
- 2000: George W. Bush (with Dick Cheney as V.P.)
- 2004: George W. Bush (with Dick Cheney as V.P.)
- 2008: John McCain (with Sarah Palin as V.P.)
Many saw the presidential election of 2008 was as a mandate for resuming the progressive agendas of the New Deal and Great Society. President Obama has chosen to govern more from the middle of the road. But his desire for harmony may well have planted the seeds of intense discord. President Obama has tried to make his move to the center a reflection of bi-partisan cooperation and collaboration. But the Republicans wanted no part of that, partly because their goal number one was to see President Obama fail. The situation is exacerbated by the frustrations of difficult economic times in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. These factors coincide with the latest incarnation of a new anti-government, anti-intellectual, anti-collaboration party, the Tea Party.
What Florida 2010 represented was a somewhat lop-sided three-party system:
- Intense, fervent, rigid conservative candidate with Tea Party support (Rubio)
- Middle of the road “mushy” candidate with no solid base (Crist)
- A progressive candidate who was abandoned by many in his “home party,” the Democrats, because his chances of winning were slim.
If the lessons of history prevail, the Tea Party will come and go. But these are different times; our electorate may have more apathy and less critical thinking skills than ever before. So an intense right wing party could be with us for a long time. The “centrists” who Charlie Crist represented may actually have a strong following, but currently they have no anchor. The so-called moderate or even liberal Republicans can’t even buy a seat at the table of the Republican Party and the Democrats will probably continue their standoff between “Blue Dogs” (moderate to conservative Democrats) vs. progressives. Progressives no longer see the Democrats as their anchor party. They are looking for ways to regenerate their energy. The biggest asset Progressives have is that they have the most reasonable and cost-effective solutions to the nation’s problems.
Our electoral system, with the Electoral College, is designed to keep a two-party system intact. But we seem to currently have three very different philosophies of governing, each with a significant number of followers but no clear base within a party. We may have to go through the dysfunction and chaos of a three party system for the foreseeable future. If we move back to a two-party system such as in the 1950s, the jury is out on which of two of the current three parties will survive.
As an unabashed progressive, I would gladly trim my sails to return to the world of 1956 with a moderate liberal Democrat vs. a stable, mainstream Republican. How we would return to such a scenario is difficult to determine; definitely fodder for more discussion. In the meantime, we would do well to spend a little time reviewing what may have been the last “good election,” 1956.