I don’t think that it is correct to say that socialism was an important force in early 20th century American politics. The 1912 election was its high-water mark and here are the electoral results. Woodrow Wilson Democrat 6,298,152 votes 41.8% of the total. Theodore Roosevelt Progressive 4,119,207 votes 27%. William Taft Republican 3,486,333 VOTES 23%. Eugene Debs Socialist 900,369 votes 6%. Eugene Chefin Prohibition 207,972 votes 1.4%. Arthur Reimer Socialist Labor 29,374 votes .2%.
During the 1870 and early 1880s the American government was dominated by the Republican big business faction. There was a lot of corruption and collusion. A majority of the population got real tired of it. The Democratic party was controlled by equally corrupt big city machines in the north and conservative yellow dog Democrats in the south. These guys were in no position to offer a solution to the public’s desire for honesty, problem solving, and good government.
What to do? The Socialists offered a radical solution of overthrowing the capitalist market economy. Frankly, this just did not catch on. Instead the Progressive movement was born. The Progressives were politicians and voters from both the Democratic and Republican political parties. They included Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Robert La Follete, Louis Brandeis, and many, many more.
From about 1885 to about 1916 the Progressive movement was the most powerful force in American politics. But that doesn’t mean they were all powerful. The big-business Republicans still controlled the Senate, this is before we had direct election of senators, and corrupt machine politics still controlled many big cities.
The Progressives were not well organized. They were composed of a shifting coalition from both major parties. They campaigned for honesty, reform, and pragmatic solutions to individual problems. They were never dominate, but they got a lot done. They enforced anti-trust rules, regulated the...