Crimson Banners Fly: The Rise of the American Left

For a second I thought we were going to get a La Follette - Hoover ticket of spiteful Progressives, but this is so much better. La Follette's turn here is very interesting, and is a powerful shot across the bow to Johnson.
 
Part 7: Chapter XXVII - Page 185 - 1920 DNC
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Inside View of the Democratic National Convention, July 1920 - Source: MCall

In the wake of Hiram Johnson's nomination by the party of big business and imperialist expansionism, a certain segment of the Democratic National Committee believed their best path to victory lay in picking up disaffected Progressive voters. This sect gleefully watched the slow implosion of Columbian unity, a fact made evident with La Follette's June address, and now looked to harness it to swing the election their way. Finding the right blend of character and charisma alongside an unquestioning commitment to progressivism was all it required. William Jennings Bryan managed to pull it off in 1896, and William R. Hearst accomplished much the same in his 1908 race. Seeing as public opinion of the Democratic brand appeared to be on the up-and-up, demonstrated handily by their congressional pluralities, now was as good a time as any for the liberal wing to burst forward and lock-in a presidential nominee capable of meeting the moment.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, as participants traveled miles upon miles to congregate at the event venue in Denver, the historic Colorado Springs Gazette released a political editorial recounting the pressure placed on the delegates. "The Municipal Auditorium will be playing host to the Party of Jefferson and Bryan. It is the first political convention to take place in our state, and the westernmost site for the Democrats since Kansas City in 1900. [...] John Fitzgerald has won over half of the presidential primary elections, though some have expressed doubt whether the Irishman can win the race. It is the responsibility of the delegates to settle on a candidate capable of defeating the President in November. When the roll of States is called, and each State divides its vote among the field, it must select a candidate able to bring sanity back to Washington." Its duty brilliantly highlighted above, the Democrats dug in starting June 28th, 1920.

Fitzgerald fared very well on the speaking circuit, and his strength in rallying support to the polls in the primary season placed his name high on the list of contenders. Though he flatly rejected the "unsound" basis of industrial democracy and waffled when it came to permanent nationalization of the railroads, the Massachusetts senator fostered a base of support within progressive circles, even going beyond registered Democratic voters. He also won a fair bit of support among the old party establishment, winning surprise endorsements from House Whip Woodrow Wilson and Governor Thomas Marshall. Honey Fitz may have lacked the spirited populism of Hearst and Bryan, but in the current political climate it was hardly astonishing to imagine Fitzgerald as the third Democratic president of the twentieth century. Champ Clark, often perceived by the press as the frontrunner for the nomination, ran a passive campaign boosted not by policy pledges and fancy speeches, but by the traditional Democratic machine. A majority of Kansan and Missourian delegates backed Clark above the field, and nothing would change their mind.

Democratic apparatchiks, contemporary political analysts, and electoral aficionados presumed Champ Clark possessed the greatest chance to be nominated by the 1920 Democratic Party, trusting in the competency of the states to award the crown to the man best suited to defeat the incumbent. Oklahoma delegate James Cobb was quoted predicting as much. "Clark will be our next president. This country has had enough of Columbia." And yet, especially if one was on the outside looking in, the floor of the convention did not whatsoever indicate a healthy majority for the aging politician. State delegations outside of the lower Midwest showed little enthusiasm for any of the individual candidates on the first day of the festivities. By contrast, the crowds rose to life whenever convention speakers railed against Wall Street banking clans or denounced the tide of second-wave immigrants arriving from Central and Eastern Europe. More than anything, however, the audience relished in cutting down the incumbent president.

Speechmakers from all over, not exclusively from the Solid South, reiterated their ire for the Johnson Administration and his "reign of chaos and disorder." It all began with an opening plenary from temporary Chair Homer S. Cummings (D-CT), a skillful orator and trial lawyer. "Hiram Johnson has committed a grave injustice by folding to the demands of the Republican Party and the Republican platform. Reactionary and provincial, that platform the very apotheosis of political expediency. Filled with premeditated slanders and vague promises, it will be searched in vain for one constructive suggestion for the reformation of the conditions which it criticizes and deplores. It is the work of men concerned more with material things than with human rights. It contains no thought, no purpose which can give impulse or thrill to those who love liberty and hope to make the world a safer and happier place for the average man. Johnson has decidedly affirmed he is satisfied with that platform." Others approached the critique from an economically populistic perspective, decrying the president's authoritarian tactics against workers. Senator Carter Glass (D-VA), for example, specifically termed the Palmer raids and FIA intrusion a violation of states' rights. None went as far as to condemn the attacks on socialist organizations nor the president's fabricated assertion that the IWW was "foreign-born," but it was clear from the opening moments of the DNC that the tired Eastern machines had far less influence than they anticipated.

Populism was the name of the game at the 1920 Denver convention. Its resurgence occurred following years of frustrating inaction by the "do-nothing" Democratic leadership in Congress and stemmed from a place of postwar resentment toward the federal government. Moreover, the populist surge was amplified by the nativist undercurrent flooding through the party rank-and-file. Their ranks doubled by radicalized military servicemen, nativists in 1920 composed a far higher percentage of the delegation and the gallery than ever before, and they certainly constituted a formidable faction. Nativism, which in essence is the fusion of white racial extremism with economic populism, rose like a tidal wave as the immigration debate once more seeped into Congress. White populists and racial supremacists within the Democrats originally gained a prominent foothold in the South some decades prior, but the shocking second-place finish of Tom Watson in 1916 and the increasing popularity of their ideology led some to imagine a grander vision. This sect despised the sitting national committee, figuring them bought-and-sold by the bankers and financial elites, and planned to do away with them entirely if granted power through the platform debate and nominating process. They won leagues of support by developing a program to transform the party into a squeaky-clean bullhorn for the people, echoing the likes of Hearst and Bryan whilst inserting their own warped ideas to the mix. Throughout the primary process, as the Fitzgerald Campaign patted itself on the back for winning successive contests, nativists and temperance proponents worked to lobby state committees to embrace their own chosen candidates for president. In summation, the battle was far from over.

Upon the conclusion of a grueling debate on the merits of dozens of platform planks (chiefly the addition of a Dry Amendment, one narrowly approved by the delegation), the nominating speeches began. Senator Watson of Georgia rose to submit his endorsee for consideration by the delegates, and whilst doing so galvanized a section of the crowd into a cheering frenzy. "My colleague," he claimed, "is the last, best hope for America as our founding fathers intended. Our nation needs saving, and Coley is the man for the job." With that, Coleman Blease, two-term senator from South Carolina and a pioneer of white supremacy in the modern era, was formally entered into the running for president. James K. Vardaman of Mississippi seconded the nomination with an address of his own, one that glorified the late Ben Tillman and applauded rail workers for standing up to the federal government. Fitzgerald then had his nomination speech delivered by New York's Al Smith, followed shortly after by Judge Alton Parker and Governor James Cox' endorsements of Champ Clark. The balloting kicked off thereafter, yet none met the required threshold for formal selection. Clark was first, then Fitzgerald, then Blease.


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These results, on the initial ballots, did not bode at all well for either Clark or Fitzgerald. Each now required a serious jolt of enthusiasm to regain their pre-convention momentum, and with Blease coming up the rear, time was of the essence. Favorite son candidates clogged up the ranks and left the first ballot a great deal more crowded than it would be on the second and third. It just so happened that such favorite sons were predominantly from the South and would invariably come to Blease's side. Nevertheless, neither of the two leading contenders fancied working together to stop the unthinkable. Clark's men looked to nibble away at his chief opponent's total now that the primaries were completely irrelevant. Fitzgerald's advocates countered that Clark's failure to secure a win on the first ballot proved his unreliability.

Blease, likely viewed as a loudmouthed bigot to the frontrunners, was not counted on as having any remote shot at winning the contest. It was impossible and unprecedented for a Southern candidate to pull through with a two-thirds majority. If Watson could only muster 305 delegates in 1916, why should they expect much else in 1920? However, Blease refined the rougher elements to Watson's philosophy and garnered a wider audience because of it. In espousing the need to protect striking (white) workers from state-led massacres, better support families of veterans on the financial level, forever outlaw the sale of alcohol, and clamp down on "criminal elements" among immigrants and African Americans (the latter being an explicit reference to the contentious 1918 race riots), he attracted attention beyond the Old South. This devious melding of Hearst-like populistic energy and Bryan-esque pseudo-class-warfare incidentally met the conditions as outlined previously by liberal committee members.

On the seventh ballot, as a weakened Fitzgerald fell to third place and the bonafide threat of an insurgent nativist nominee became evident to all involved in the process, the Southern delegates burst into song with a determined rendition of Dixie. In the next morning's paper, The New York Times relayed the confidence of the Clark Campaign, noting, "they claim to have assurances from enough states to reach a majority." Clark believed his win a foregone conclusion, despite the 16 candidates in the running, yet, "the conditions in the hall demonstrate nothing of the sort." Fitzgerald, on the other hand, recognized his wilting odds and the inescapable anti-Catholic slander hurled at his team. He opted to pull a last-minute stunt to deny Blease the nod with assistance by some of the lesser contenders and regional bigwigs. Representative John N. Garner, former Secretary of War under Hearst and an instrumental figure in Texas politics, worked to persuade his state's delegates, and those elsewhere in the South and West, to champion a compromise candidate in the form of his colleague, former Agriculture Secretary Edwin T. Meredith. Meredith was once a card-carrying member of the Populist Party, but later joined the Democrats to support Bryan. Though not a sitting representative, the Iowan ran with full support by the Iowa Democrats and a smattering of small farmers' groups. Garner and Fitzgerald hoped their dark horse candidate would break through the deadlock and capture the nomination by the ninth ballot. Meredith even attained a short endorsement letter from former President Bryan.

Meredith may have been a rogue outsider at one point, but nothing about his politics appealed to the new breed of populism overtaking the Democratic Party in 1920. He shared little in common with the nativist trend and disliked staking out unmovable positions on touchy topics like temperance and immigration. Some considered Representative John W. Davis of West Virginia a better middle-ground due to his rigid defense of literacy tests and vocal support of the pending immigration bill, but his reputation as a Wet Democrat and an old-school Jeffersonian made the attorney DOA. These poor compromise choices were insatiable to the appetite of delegates hungry for a true-blue, dry nativist. The hugely influential Southern Agricultural Workers' Union had granted its endorsement to Coley Blease by this point, as had a number of sharecropper groups based out of the American West. Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico all lined up behind him. Texas did so as well, plainly ignoring Garner's command. Nothing more could be done. With Fitzgerald having dropped out and surrendered his delegates, the scale began to tilt in favor of Blease. As the balloting procedure went on, Blease's men encountered less and less resistance among holdouts in the Bryan states. For those of whom racialism and religious bigotry was unappealing, the Blease Campaign downplayed that facet in favor of his faux-leftist economic message. In the end, it came down to either a Southern populist or an aging, corrupted, machine politician. Just like that, it was over.


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So every other party screwed the pooch in some way or another, huh? Now they'll have to raise the hideous half-dog half-human offspring.
 
Oh dear. It’s sad but very believable that in an increasingly poorer nation the Democrats merge racism and populism to create a candidate somehow worse than Johnson.

It looks like the Socialist Party is America’s last hope at this point. Question, is Upton Sinclair running for them in California for the House of Representatives? He did historically in 1920, and seems like a prime candidate to actually win ITTL.
 

dcharleos

Donor
I'm a bit skeptical that Blease would have gotten his shit together enough to be the nominee of a major party. But I think I see why you picked him.

Other than that, great update.
 
Blease makes Johnson look like a saint. Nice going Democrats🙄 I expect either Johnson will win or maybe the Socialists are able to pull off a upset victory.
 
I'm a bit skeptical that Blease would have gotten his shit together enough to be the nominee of a major party. But I think I see why you picked him.

Other than that, great update.

That's fair, I understand your skepticism. Although considering the extent to which nativism and white populism have flourished in the Democratic Party since the Hearst presidency, it was my conclusion that someone in that camp would end up snatching the nomination. TTL's Blease, and his ilk, gained a great deal of influence over the years not only for successfully exploiting rising nativist tendencies in the country, but for steering class consciousness into their own horribly racist ideology - this is something I've also hinted at earlier in the timeline. Blease in OTL managed something similar by appealing to farmers and textile workers in the run-up to his gubernatorial race, so I'm imagining he would have easily taken advantage of the growth of the labor movement in the South and West and quintupled the political results at the convention. The power vacuum left by Bryan (incidentally the harbinger of populism in the Democratic Party) was, in my view anyway, doomed to be filled by a Blease rather than a Fitzgerald.
 

dcharleos

Donor
That's fair, I understand your skepticism. Although considering the extent to which nativism and white populism have flourished in the Democratic Party since the Hearst presidency, it was my conclusion that someone in that camp would end up snatching the nomination. TTL's Blease, and his ilk, gained a great deal of influence over the years not only for successfully exploiting rising nativist tendencies in the country, but for steering class consciousness into their own horribly racist ideology - this is something I've also hinted at earlier in the timeline. Blease in OTL managed something similar by appealing to farmers and textile workers in the run-up to his gubernatorial race, so I'm imagining he would have easily taken advantage of the growth of the labor movement in the South and West and quintupled the political results at the convention. The power vacuum left by Bryan (incidentally the harbinger of populism in the Democratic Party) was, in my view anyway, doomed to be filled by a Blease rather than a Fitzgerald.

That's what I meant when I said that I thought I understood where you were coming from. Just talking about Blease as a person--he was just kind of a marginally competent guy--but recent history has shown that at least one charismatic, marginally competent figure won the nomination of a major party. So why not, really?
 
That's what I meant when I said that I thought I understood where you were coming from. Just talking about Blease as a person--he was just kind of a marginally competent guy--but recent history has shown that at least one charismatic, marginally competent figure won the nomination of a major party. So why not, really?
Part of the illusion of power is the perceived indispensability of those that come into it.

Most heroes are just average people with good PR and broad buy-in, as far as I can tell. Some people are remarkable, but that's not actually needed to gain power. Hell, it might make it harder.

A truly indispensable man just looks like competition, and competition doesn't get the nod, it gets the boot before it gets too big to sideline.
 
Yeah, after all he was a bit of a dark horse as Pyro's written it, and he could just have the support of some players who are fine with him but rivals with each other. If he manages to gain the presidency, then I can see his administration being full of figures that can't stand each other, and him being a failure of a unifier. It certainly seems plausible enough in-universe, as labor relations continue to decline, working-class radicalism grows, and a great swathe of the disaffected could be vulnerable to race demagoguery - but from a Doylist perspective, I'd imagine that the story is better served by having the race demagoguery fail miserably, perhaps due to Blease's own mediocrity, and as socialism continues to see downballot success, its cachet grows with a widening swathe of society. But I don't have access to Pyro's notes so we'll just have to see ;)
 
I'd imagine that the story is better served by having the race demagoguery fail miserably, perhaps due to Blease's own mediocrity, and as socialism continues to see downballot success, its cachet grows with a widening swathe of society. But I don't have access to Pyro's notes so we'll just have to see

Hmm, interesting.

I'm of a somewhat different opinion. I don't think it's quite on theme for the racist demagoguery to "fail". If anything, it seems like the right (in the sense of being non-socialists) in this story suffers from their own success. Everything that escalates their problems is ultimately of their own making: they want a war, they get a war and the people hate it, if they want to crack down on dissidents, they get a free hand, and the people hate it.
Maybe I'm a pessimist, but this election seems like it's going to be a nail-biter, which will come down to electoral college/congressional shenanigans rather than the vote count.

Socialists tend to lose power even if they win the election. The inverse is true of fascists.

I don't really know what I expect to happen though. There's thematic weight to every outcome.
 
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