Opinion: Speaker fight has echoes of long-ago political battle

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives to speak during a news conference last week.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives to speak during a news conference last week.

Associated Press

As Republicans thrashed about in Washington D. C. this month trying to pick a speaker, the national media drew comparisons to previous battles over choosing a leader of the house, the last one being in 1923.

But I think the brutal internal fight among Republicans — likely round one of an extended battle royal — resembles a much bigger political debacle that also played out a century ago: The 1924 Democratic National Convention.

In June of that year, Democrats assembled in New York City to choose a nominee to run against President Calvin Coolidge. They had reason to be optimistic. Coolidge, whom many viewed as a do-nothing bumpkin, had come to the presidency less than a year before thanks to the death of President Warren G. Harding. In the wake of his passing. Harding’s administration had been exposed as one of the most corrupt and venal in the nation’s history.

While the scandals had not touched Coolidge personally, they were nonetheless a drag on him and his party. Add to that a growing insurgency on the GOP left — yes, it had one in those days — that caused the leadership fight in 1923 and would lead to Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette of Wisconsin’s independent campaign for president later that year and the Democrats appeared to have a chance.

It would all come down to unifying around the right candidate. Alas, it was on that task that Democrats’ hopes ran onto the rocks. That’s being kind. It was more like the ship blew up, burned to the waterline and then ran onto the rocks.

Like our current era, the 1920s, especially the early part of the decade, was a time of volcanic anger and resentment in politics. Much like today, many Americans had grown deeply upset over big demographic and social changes. The result was one of the ugliest outbursts of organized bigotry in the nation’s history, the second Ku Klux Klan.

Originally a terrorist organization that sought to reassert white supremacy in the South after the Civil War, the Klan had long ago died out. But as anger over immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought unprecedented numbers of Catholics and Jewish people into the nation boiled over, the Klan revived, this time attracting members nationwide. It’s estimated that three to five million Americans, including tens of thousands in Connecticut, joined the second Klan. It was at the apex of its power as the Democrats gathered in New York that summer.

To be fair, the Klan was a political problem for Republicans too as it drew support from both parties (Klansmen tended to be Democrats in the South and Republicans in the North, Midwest and West). Even in those most un-woke of times, parties at the national level paid lip service to equality and studiously avoided open bigotry. On that score, however, the Dems had a bigger problem. One of the two leading candidates for their nomination was New York Gov. Al Smith, who embodied everything the Klan hated: A proud Irish Catholic “wet” — an opponent of Prohibition, which the KKK supported — born and raised in New York City.

A political crackup for the ages ensued. After a brutal floor fight over a resolution condemning the Klan that failed by a single vote, the party deadlocked over a nominee. A record 103 ballots over nine days followed before exhausted and disgusted delegates finally coalesced around an obscure West Virginia lawyer named John W. Davis and went home. The disaster led the era’s most popular humorist, Will Rogers, to quip, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

Davis went on to decisively lose the general election to Coolidge. The Democrats would not recover until nearly a decade later when the 1929 crash and the Great Depression rescrambled American politics.

While the current fight within the GOP is more complicated, more tied to changes in media and fundraising and less driven by immigration, race and religion (although they, especially immigration, play a significant role), the parallels with the Democrats in 1924 are strong. In both cases, you have uncompromising products of an especially ugly backlash against changes in American society on a messianic mission to “save” the nation ready to burn down their own house if they don’t get what they want.

While the fight over the speakership is over, I suspect this is just the start of a drawn-out 1924 Democratic convention scenario in which the GOP slowly exhausts and then destroys itself in internal fights.

Christopher Hoffman is a freelance journalist and former New Haven Register Capitol reporter.