Karl Rove, in his new propaganda tract disguised as a stocking stuffer ("The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters"), gives Republicans a model for winning a durable national majority: William McKinley, the stolid Ohioan who in 1896 repulsed the threat of Populism and secured for the Republican Party a control over national politics broken only by the New Deal.
McKinley reached into the nation’s deepest pockets and, with the proceeds, won the immigrant vote and prevailed. McKinley also compiled the worst racial record of any Republican president who had yet held office. This story Karl Rove blithely ignores. He peddles truthiness, the 1896 edition.
Rove paints McKinley as a racial moderate, with his principal evidence, beyond vague claims of personal rectitude, a meeting McKinley held with African-Americans at a church in Savannah, Georgia, in March 1896. The gathering was a first not because McKinley was notably enlightened, but because he campaigned aggressively enough for the nomination that he took such meetings at all. And African-Americans allowed the vote still proved loyal Republicans all the way until the New Deal, however little the party did for them.
Rayford Logan, a pioneering historian at Howard University, wrote in 1954 that “McKinley’s callous disregard for the protection of the constitutional rights of Negroes has been almost entirely overlooked.” In Karl Rove’s book, it still is. Like its 1892 predecessor, the Republican platform in 1896 expressed hope for a “free and unrestricted ballot” – but departed in making no plans for how to secure it. Rove never mentions the contrast.
The Democratic Congress in 1894 overturned the sections of the Enforcement Act of 1870 proscribing poll taxes and literacy tests for voters in federal elections. Only a few aging New Englanders, none of whom wanted McKinley as nominee, fought seriously against the bill. In office, McKinley never lifted a finger to replace it. When Louisiana introduced into its state constitution a “grandfather clause” that exempted whites, so gross a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment that the Supreme Court even in 1915 struck down a companion law in Oklahoma, the McKinley administration did nothing.
McKinley deliberately starved "black-and-tan" (that is, racially mixed) state Republican parties that cooperated against Bourbon Democrats, even when such cooperation offered the only route to electoral success. After a brutal riot overthrew a biracial Populist-Republican alliance in Wilmington, North Carolina, McKinley stood by. Nor, if Rove wants to credit the Major with the Republican administrations that followed, was their record much better. After Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 African-American soldiers following a shooting in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, the strongest protest in Congress came from Sen. Joseph Foraker of Ohio – whose vanity and ambition as a rival to McKinley render him a villain to Karl Rove.
Republicans no longer needed black votes, and so turned away from black lives. As Republican elites had learned since the Radical years in the late 1860s, supporting their African-American co-partisans in the South risked disrupting corporate control, questioning the inviolability of labor contracts and threatening the reliable flow of Southern cotton to Northern mills. New realities reinforced one another. With a national majority entirely from the North, Republicans had no need for Southern votes. And national corporations now dominated the party, squeezing out the remnants of its free-labor commitments.
This is the essential paradox in the System of ’96, and the critical point where class meets race. Bourbon Democrats, anxious to protect themselves from an incipient alliance of poor white farmers and African-Americans, built Jim Crow. But Northern Republicans dared not disturb a system that denied them an entire region. As Rove emphasizes, McKinley spoke the language of national unity. “The bitterness and resentment of the war belong to the past, and its glories are the common heritage of us all,” he told veterans assembled at the Chickamauga Battlefield in September 1895. Yet the rhetoric of reconciliation rested on the exclusion and erasure of meaningful alternatives. Helping blacks risked hurting Northern capital, and that risk the party of McKinley would not take.
Unlike the other great turning points in American electoral history, little landmark legislation followed the 1896 contest. The new alignment forestalled a welfare state, and ensured pliant courts that would defend corporate personhood and enjoin labor with crushing injunctions. This is why, to Rove’s dismay, historians and political scientists rightly dwell more on the failure of Populism than on the triumph of William McKinley. And when social reform finally came with the New Deal, the Democrats’ national majority rested on the Solid South bequeathed to them in 1896. At Southerners’ behest, social policy stratified between generous programs for middle-class whites and underfunded ones, generally doled out by states, for the poor, black and white. Thus does the election of 1896 still matter.
Republicans in 1896 wanted and won immigrants’ votes. That is core of Karl Rove’s parable. At least one intended recipient gets the message. “People that have read it,” Donald Trump tweeted last week, “tell me that @KarlRove book is terrible (and boring).” But the party had retreated from its finest commitments. When putatively responsible Republicans look to a usable past, they ought to know just how much the party of McKinley had forsaken the party of Lincoln.