One of the best ways to examine the Democratic presidential candidates is to compare them to historical figures.
Such comparisons can teach us a lot because they often expose aspects of individuals we cannot see. In addition, comparisons put modern politicians and politics into a historical context.
Examining the historical context shows us the big picture which can help us make more informed decisions. Seeing the big picture often shows us aspects of the issues and the conflicts we normally ignore. For example, the growing class warfare in America.
What Historical Figures most Resemble Today’s Democratic Candidates?
U. S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)and Eugene V. Debs
Debs started as a Democrat and rose to power as a labor leader. Labor struggles convinced Debs that capitalism was corrupt and inherently undemocratic.
Debs spent his life trying to fuse socialism and American Democracy, much as Bernie does. In contrast to Marxists, Debs believed socialism was the logical and inevitable conclusion of the American Revolution.
Hence, Debs believed he was completing the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers, rather than leading a Marxist revolution. Therefore, Debs remained firmly within the American political system, and willingly went to prison on unjust charges during World War I to show his Americanism.
Likewise, Sanders is a lifelong participant in the American political process. Just as Debs made multiple presidential runs, Bernie has served several terms as a Senator and Congressman.
In emulation of Debs, Bernie uses his political campaigns and offices as soapboxes to promote his values and ideology. Finally, Sanders refuses to compromise his beliefs much as Debs did.
Debs became a popular political figure and respected national hero for his refusal to compromise his values or beliefs. Bernie has achieved a similar status today.
Andrew Yang and Theodore Roosevelt
Oddly, dark horse democratic candidate Andrew Yang (D-New York) idolizes a Republican president Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York).
The similarities between Yang and T.R. are great. Roosevelt, was a member of the elite who became disillusioned with the status quo and frightened for the nation’s future.
In particular, income inequality and corruption disgusted Roosevelt. In addition, Roosevelt became worried about growing social problems such as poverty.
Roosevelt eventually became skeptical of American capitalism, much as Yang is today. Similarly to Yang, Teddy began proposing radical solutions to the problems of American life.
For instance, Roosevelt became an advocate of social security, workman’s compensation, and single-payer health care in 1912. Today, Yang advocates the basic income, Medicare for All, and other radical solutions.
Roosevelt was an Ivy Leaguer; and a life-long Republican, who became radicalized after witnessing poverty and injustice first hand as New York’s Police Commissioner in the 1890s. Yang is an Ivy Leaguer who became radicalized after witnessing job destruction, community devastation, technological unemployment, and income inequality first hand as head of his charity Venture for America.
Both Yang and Roosevelt came to believe American capitalism was broken and in need of a radical fix. The experience led each man to launch a radical populist challenge to his party’s political leadership.
Roosevelt launched a third-party challenge to President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) that nearly destroyed the Republican Party. Yang is shaking up the Democratic Party with a dark horse challenge to centrist candidates such as Joe Biden (D-Delaware) and traditional leftists such as Sanders.
Liz Warren and Charles Evans Hughes
Yang is not the only Democratic presidential candidate who reminds me of an early 20th Century reformer and politician. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) reminds me of Charles Evans Hughes.
Hughes was a brilliant attorney and law professor who became a famous reformer and influential politician almost by accident. Hughes became radicalized and famous through his investigations of corruption in the gas and insurance industries in New York.
Warren is a law professor who became famous for her studies of bankruptcy and poverty’s effects on average people. That led Warren to advocate reform and enter politics.
Hughes’ success as a reformer led a political giant; Theodore Roosevelt, to endorse his successful run for Governor of New York. Warren’s fame led President Barack Obama (D-Illinois) to nominate her to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Hughes became famous in the early 1900s for his fearless investigations of big business and political corruption. A century later, Warren became famous for her fearless advocacy for ordinary people and criticism of the financial industry.
Hughes had an extraordinary career he served as governor of New York State, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, U.S. Secretary of State, and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Hughes never became president. Instead, Hughes; the Republican presidential nominee in 1916, lost the election by 4,000 votes.
Warren could follow in Hughes’ footsteps by moving onto the cabinet or the U.S. Supreme Court if she does not reach the White House.
Tulsi Gabbard and Major General Smedley Butler
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) reminds me of another critic of American imperialism and interventionism Marine Corps Major General Smedley D. Butler.
Butler became disillusioned with war and the military because of his experiences in small wars in Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua. After retiring from the Marines in 1931, Butler became an outspoken opponent of American militarism.
Butler ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1932 and wrote an influential anti-war tome called War is a Racket. During the 1930s, Butler made many speeches against American imperialism and emerged as an influential critic of fascism.
Gabbard turned against imperialism during two tours of duty in the Middle East with the Hawaii National Guard. Gabbard is a major in the National Guard and one of the first female combat veterans to serve in Congress.
Similarly to Butler, Gabbard has become a national figure through her outspoken opposition to imperialism and interventionism. Butler was an influential man but his political career went nowhere.
As with Butler, Gabbard’s outspoken anti-war stance has made her a folk hero. Only history will tell if hating war can lead to votes.
Pete Buttigieg and Walter Mondale
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Indiana) reminds me of Vice President Walter F. Mondale (D-Minnesota).
In common with Buttigieg, Mondale was a boring and wishy-washy moralist from the Midwest. Mondale was one of the least colorful presidential candidates in our history.
Today, Buttigieg attracts votes because he is the least offensive and most noncontroversial candidate. The only sort-of-controversial thing about Buttigieg is that he is gay.
However, Buttigieg is probably the most boring gay man in America. Yet, certain voters prefer Buttigieg because he is quiet and inoffensive, as with Mondale.
Mondale’s inoffensive morality proved fatal at the ballot box. In 1984, Mondale lost 49 of the 50 states to the colorful and controversial President Ronald Reagan (R-California. In fact, Mondale only won 13 Electoral College Votes and 40.6% of the popular vote.
Michael Bloomberg and William Randolph Hearst
Hearst transformed American journalism by using his family fortune to build America’s largest newspaper chain. Hearst succeeded by bringing the yellow journalism of British newspaper barons; such as Lord Northcilffe, to America. The “Hearst press” dominated American politics and popular opinion for a generation.
Hearst leveraged new technology; including wire services, magazines, and photography, to build a media empire. Likewise, Bloomberg leveraged the internet to build a business media empire.
After building his media empire, Hearst sought to build a political career by serving in Congress. Hearst also made unsuccessful runs for Mayor of New York City and Governor of New York State. Hearst ultimately withdrew from politics, but for a time he was arguably the most powerful man in the Democratic Party.
Hearst failed but his influence was vast and destructive. Bloomberg could shape popular opinion but fail to win office, much as Hearst did. Today, Hearst is best remembered as the inspiration for Orson Welles’ classic movie melodramaCitizen Kane. Ironically, Citizen Kane is reportedly the favorite film of Bloomberg’s arch enemy President Donald J. Trump (R-New York).
The Mystery of Joe Biden
Strangely, I cannot find a precedent for the most prominent Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (D-Delaware).
Biden is unprecedented because of his age, political longevity, and his strange behavior on the campaign trail. For instance, the Irish American Biden called Irish people stupid in public, Irish Central reports. I cannot remember a presidential candidate who made so made gaffs in public.
Notably, Biden first ran for president 21 years ago in 1988 and 20 years later in 2008. I had to go back to the early 19th century to U.S. Senator Henry Clay (W-Kentucky) to find a presidential candidate who ran so far apart. Specifically, Clay ran for President in 1824, 1832, 1840, and 1844.
Then and Now
The number of parallels I draw between the Democratic candidates and early 1900s figures is no coincidence.
The early 1900s was a time of great technological disruptions, vast wealth, and high income inequality reminiscent of our own era. Hence, both eras will produce similar figures. In particular, reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt and Liz Warren and tycoons such as Hearst and Bloomberg.
Only time will tell if future generations will remember today’s reformers; such as Yang and Warren, as we remember Teddy. Or if future Americans will forget them as we have Charles Evans Hughes and Smedley Butler.