Accuracy in Media recently interviewed Garland S. Tucker III, who has written a fascinating new history book that has great relevancy today. The book, entitled The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election, looks at the people and the times of the 1920s, and finds that they were debating conservatism versus progressivism, and cutting or raising tax rates and government spending. Radio was coming in to its own, as electronic media was just starting to show its potential impact on presidential elections.
Tucker argues that 1924 marked the time in history when the two major political parties became connected to the labels Left and Right: “In retrospect, as you look back, as we look back, at the election of 1924, in some ways it really was a watershed election, and that’s where the name The High Tide of American Conservatism comes from. Since 1924 we’ve lived with the reality that the Republican Party is the party of the Right, and the Democratic Party is the party of the Left, but that wasn’t really foreordained anywhere, and, up until 1924, both parties—Republicans and Democrats—had had a very active, basically, civil war going on within their parties, between the progressive and the conservative wings.”
Tucker is president and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, a publicly traded specialty finance company located in Raleigh, North Carolina. He served a term as president of the Mid-Atlantic Securities Industry Association, and is a former member of the New York Stock Exchange. He is a graduate of Washington & Lee University, and Harvard Business School.
Below are more excerpts from the interview, and you can listen to the entire interview, or read the complete transcript here.
“…the timing was such that he happened to be President during the ’20s, when radios became very prevalent, the spread of radio stations and networks, and the country was fascinated by the new technology—but Coolidge was blessed with a very good—surprisingly good, but very good—radio voice. He was, apparently, not nearly as impressive in person, and not considered a good, rousing orator by anybody’s estimation, but over the radio, apparently, his voice carried very well, and the Republican Party raised plenty of money in 1924, and they used it for radio, which was, absolutely, a new idea at that point. Davis didn’t raise nearly as much money, and so he had to do a more traditional whistle-stop campaign.”
“Amazingly, at the end of the war [WW I], the end of Woodrow Wilson’s term, less than eight years later, the tax rate, the top tax rate was 77 percent. Going into the 1920s, with a very serious post-war recession, very sharp recession, the tax rate was at 77 percent, and the fiscal policies that Harding and Andrew Mellon—Andrew Mellon was Harding’s Secretary of the Treasury—began implementing, but which Coolidge and Andrew Mellon very much championed, and, ultimately, were the implementers, was to reduce that tax rate from 77 percent down to 24 percent. Even more impressive and impactful, over a quarter of the taxpayers who were paying taxes in the early ’20s were removed from the taxpayer rolls by the end of the ’20s—in other words, the result was an economy that took off, and the government was able to, basically, eliminate the lower income people from even having to pay income tax as they reduced the rate on the upper income levels down to 24 percent.”
“Coolidge was very popular at the end of his first full term. In 1928 he elected not to run for reelection. He could have easily been elected. Hoover was nominated and elected in ’28, and then, when the stock market crashed and the recession started, as a surprise to most people Hoover raised the income tax rates and increased government spending. And, in fact, FDR was elected in 1932 on a platform that called for reducing taxes and reducing spending. Of course, when he got in he took the exact opposite tack, and went far beyond anything that Hoover had imagined. There was a real difference in Hoover’s approach and Harding and Coolidge’s approach. Hoover was from the progressive wing of the Republican Party, and once the economy got in trouble, his solution was to raise taxes and raise spending, and more conservative historians would argue that that was the beginning of turning what would have been a just bad recession, turning it into a ten-year-long Great Depression.”
“I think there’s no question—if you look back in the 20th century, the worst recessions were 1920, and then the end of the ’20s—1929 and ’30—and 1980. They were the worst, most severe recessions that we had, and the policies that Harding, Coolidge, and Andrew Mellon implemented in the 1920s were very much like what Reagan did in the early ’80s. And what Roosevelt did—what Hoover and Roosevelt did, in the late ’20s and ’30s, are much more like what Obama—totally like what Obama’s proposing and implementing now. There’s a lot of difference—historians and economists can argue over whether it’s fair to compare—but certainly the overall economic results of the ’20s and the ’80s were a lot better than the results in the ’30s, and it appears that all the stimulus, the spending, and the increased taxes that we’re in the midst of right now certainly haven’t yet stimulated the economy, and conservatives are arguing that if you look back to the ’30s, you’d see that it just didn’t work.”
“What we see, as we look around the country, is there really are opportunities for growth, and these smaller companies are aggressively pursuing it, but they’re very hesitant to commit to adding employees because of the uncertainty, really, of two things. I think the uncertainty of what the costs are going to be in health care is the big question mark there, what’s it going to cost for your existing employees, plus any new ones you add. And then I think there’s an absolute conviction that tax rates are going to go up in the next several years, and because there’s that conviction, and nobody knows exactly how much they’re going to go up, it’s difficult to figure out.”
“I think one word that has probably changed more—and it started changing very much during the ’30s, Davis certainly commented on it, I think Coolidge did as well—is the word liberal. Davis, for instance, prided himself in being a Jeffersonian liberal. To him, and traditionally, what that meant was someone who believed in small government, maximum individual freedom, just enough government supervision to maintain order and provide national defense, but that’s it. The rest was up to the individual—maximum individual freedom. And that was really the meaning of liberal. I think it started changing when—I think progressivism is the genesis of what we now call liberalism.”
“It seems to me that [Obama] is definitely—there’s no question in my mind that he’s come straight out of the progressive wing of American thought, and my feeling is that he’s more doctrinaire than any President we’ve had. I think he’s more doctrinaire than FDR. I think FDR liked to experiment with things—he was willing to try anything, he loved shocking people, and he ventured way to the Left and did shock the American people—but I think Obama really has a very cohesive philosophy that’s well-thought-out, in his mind, and he’s certainly good at articulating, but I think it’s pretty consistent. I think it’s pure progressivism, European-type quasi-socialism, if you will. I think that’s really where he’s coming from.”