There ain’t any first raters this year. This ain’t any 1880 or any 1904. We haven’t any John Shermans or Theodore Roosevelts. We’ve got a lot of second raters and Warren Harding is the best of the second raters.
—Senator Frank B. Brandegee, 1920
Warren Gamaliel Harding was simple and unassuming in looks and in personality, and he brought that simplicity to the US Presidency and to the social mood of early-1920s America. He affirmed the notion held by many intellectuals at the time that democracy was, at best, government by the mediocre. He was truly the Average Man Become President—and the average American man was tired of Wilsonian idealism, of lofty notions of reform. The progressives were tired of it, too—but rather than reconcile themselves in duty to the common people, they turned openly and scornfully against them. They still wanted “progress”, but middle Americans wanted a return to normalcy. President Harding pledged to give it to them.
“Progress”, of course, was never monolithic. 1904’s Rooseveltine progressivism was of an American Cavalier spirit, never lowbrow but never too high-minded. It was, in many ways, an expression of Theodore Roosevelt’s own personality – bold, lively, robust, as aristocratic as middle-class can be. This brand of progress began and ended, more or less, with TR’s Presidency—he was no Brahmin, after all. Wilson’s brand of “progress” was rather different—more Puritanical, less practical. Those we call progressives today are the descendents of that brand. So when Harding entered office, the great contrast was not so much between him and the Republican progressivism of four elections prior, but between him and that old perfectionist Wilson. America under Wilson was the very opposite of normal: a global war against fellow Westerners and their traditions, increasing federal restrictions, Prohibition, and so on. Harding, then, was almost an apparition of America’s own discontent—and perhaps, as well, her naïveté.
Harding and the American public seem to have been about equally clueless as to what Wilson’s legacy would turn out to be. There’s little indication of mass concern amongst middle Americans that the intellectuals and their friends in finance hated their Vaisya guts. And hate they did—but Harding, like the average American, was content to settle into a certain mercantile tranquility without knowing what forces were still at work to dismantle it. He wanted to get back to the normalcy—a word Harding did not coin, but did rehabilitate—of pre-war days. As Harding said in a speech in Boston in 1920:
America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
The First World War had created enormous contradictions in the American self-image. Was America, as in Lincoln’s words, merely “an outlet for free white people everywhere”?—or were we to be concerned, as Wilson would have us believe, with the forms of government some of those people had been living under in their homelands? Were the United States to be an empire, not even in our own backyard but across the Atlantic? Were we to export our brand of “democracy” (never mind that the Founders detested democracy and favored an aristocratic republic) to the world?
We now know how the course of human events has answered those questions. The contradictions were resolved in favor of the progressives, just about every time, and their quest to level us all continues to the present day. We’re all “second raters” now. From the speech quoted earlier:
It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by military autocracy, because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another thing to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life’s acquirements…
We haven’t seen normalcy since.