Two Socialists Vie for the White House – a Century Apart

The prospect of a self-declared Socialist winning the White House — an idea always considered a non-starter– has emerged as a practical possibility in the wake of the first place finish by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. The latest Quinnipiac poll has him leading nationally with 25 % support to 17% for Joe Biden.

Not since the 1920 U.S. presidential election, held under circumstances surprisingly similar to those prevailing 100 years later, has a viable Socialist candidate challenged Democratic and Republican occupancy of the country’s highest office.


Two years after the end of the First World War and three years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a strong America First sentiment ran through the American electorate. It found expression in opposition to the U.S. joining the League of Nations, and exploited fear of domestic violence from Communists and anarchists.

Today, President Trump questions American participation in NATO and other international bodies. He is building a wall intended to prevent illegal migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, has banned entry of people from mostly Muslim countries, and has fanned fears of Islamic inspired terrorism.

In 1920, the Republican party ran Sen. Warren G. Harding in a campaign promising a “return to normalcy” after the sacrifices and shortages of the war. That theme has found an echo in Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again, and his boast that he has led a great American comeback.

In 1920, a tired and ill Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, had served two terms and hoped for a third, but Democratic Party leaders, recognizing that several strokes had rendered him incapable of governing, sought a fresh face,

In 1920, it took 44 ballots to nominate Ohio Governor James M. Cox, a newspaper owner. His vice presidential running mate was Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy. This year, the first ballot votes of delegates to the Democratic Party convention will be split among several candidates, based on their performance in the primaries.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a well-established Socialist party drew significant strength from a coalition of trade unionists, populist farmers, immigrants, and remnants of the progressive movement that had made Theodore Roosevelt a powerful influence even after his failure as a third party candidate running against Republican President Taft and Democratic challenger Wilson in 1912.

By 1920, the Socialist party had elected two members to the House of Representatives along with dozens of state legislators and more than one hundred mayors in cities across the country.

Today, the Democratic Party finds itself energized by the victories of left-leaning female candidates in the off-year elections of 2018. They have helped spark the rise of the party’s progressive wing that is credited with enabling the strong performance of Bernie Sanders.

An anti-Communist hysteria spread through the U.S. in the years immediately after the First World War. Today, President Trump has branded Sen. Sanders a Communist. Trump can be expected to intensify this line of attack by digging into the Senator’s background for evidence of Communist sympathies.

The Socialist party was strongly pacifist and had opposed U.S. entry into the war. Its presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, campaigned from prison, having been convicted of counselling opposition to the military draft, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He received 913.613 votes, or 3.4 per cent of the 26,700,000 votes cast.

Republican Warren Harding won in a landslide, carrying every state except eleven of the Democratic “Solid South.” It was the first time women voted in a presidential election. Harding ordered Debs’s release from prison in 1921.

The parallels between the elections of 1920 and 2020 are striking but both are unique to their times. They are reminders that confrontation and divisiveness do not spring up suddenly, but are rooted in what has gone before.

Ray Argyle is author of Turning Points: The Campaigns that Changed Canada.



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