June 1, 2016 – Philadelphia Inquirer
In 1917, Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, spoke to a group of workers in Canton, Ohio. When we studied this speech, the students in my American history class were surprised by the parallels to the current presidential primaries.
Debs had no patience for Republicans or Democrats, whom he saw as “the political twins of the master class.” Presidential contenders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seem to be tapping into a similar strain of antiestablishment anger.
When President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, asked Congress to declare war against Germany to “make the world safe for democracy,” Debs wondered why America’s industrial laborers should spill their blood on the battlefields of France when they enjoyed none of benefits of democracy at home.
He also had harsh words for Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican former president. Debs reminded his listeners that only a few years earlier, Roosevelt had visited Germany and been “wined and dined” by the kaiser, the same person the press now dubbed the “Beast of Berlin.” “According to accounts published in the American newspapers,” Roosevelt and the kaiser were “on the most familiar terms,” Debs said. “They were hilariously intimate with each other and slapped each other on the back.” And now, he continued, “they brand us as disloyalists and traitors.”
Like Debs, Trump and Sanders both rail about the failures of Republican and Democratic political leadership. Trump knows his appeal has little to do with his Republican Party affiliation, and Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist.
Trump has also battled with the media throughout his campaign. Sounding the same notes, Debs described “what a capacity [the press] had for lying.” We “were not born yesterday,” he said, and the workers knew enough “to believe exactly the opposite of what they read” in the newspapers.
Sanders has described “the business model of Wall Street” as “fraud” and said, “these guys drove us into the worst economic downturn in the modern history of America.” Debs blasted the “Wall Street gentry” who “have wrung their countless millions from your sweat, your agony, and your life’s blood.”
But the differences are important too. Most of those to whom Debs was speaking were poor, immigrant laborers. Debs strongly encouraged them to make common cause with their counterparts in Europe and around the world. Trump’s backers are often nativists, imagining that their problems can be solved by keeping Mexicans, Muslims, and others out of the country. Sanders, like Trump, is a vocal critic of free trade. The younger, college-educated voters who back him may not support building a wall along our southern border, but they also don’t particularly identify with the people it would be designed to keep out, or with the millions of them already living in the United States.
Fractures of the sort we are witnessing today within the Democratic and Republican Parties do not pose a major problem for the leadership. The “political twins of the master class,” as Debs described them, will survive the current election cycle, as long as “the people” remain divided. That is the lesson Debs has to offer.
Through the tumultuous century since his speech to workers at Canton, the two major parties have retained control of the political system. Far from being on the verge of collapse, they may well share power for the next hundred years.