Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
“The immediate future of the Progressive movement is at stake. If you should fail of reelection, the Progressive movement as we have understood it, the aim of which has been to bring about a reasonable economic and social reconstruction of the country in the interest of the average man without a violent swing to the left, will, in my judgment, have gone down into a tragic grave.” Anticipating the 1936 presidential elections although they were a year away, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes wrote these words in a letter dated September 7, 1935, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933-1945). They were recounted by David Plotke in Building A Democratic Political Order (1996, p. 80). At the time Ickes wrote the letter, the nation was experiencing a long period of economic strife, the rise of radical political movements, and numerous social protests
The Great Depression of the 1930s proved to be a major political crossroads for the Democratic Party, much as the Civil War (1861-1865) was an important event for the Republican Party. A disastrous series of national elections for the Democrats through the 1920s had left the southern states and a few northern city political machines as the only reliable supporters of Democratic candidates. Through the political skills of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, a diverse voting bloc came together. Included in this bloc were organized labor, poor and lower class workers, northern city political organizations, political liberals, intellectuals, farmers, racial and ethnic minority groups, southerners, and social reformers. Through New Deal reforms, by 1936 the Democrats had become the protector of jobs for the workers, bank accounts for depositors, stock purchases for investors, and financial security for the aged and infirm. These programs, supported by this voting bloc, constituted what would become known as the Democratic Coalition. Though never formally organized into the political party, this Coalition would sustain the Democratic Party through much of the next three decades.
The impact of the Coalition’s common interest in political candidates proved remarkable. It was during the 1936 national election that this radical political realignment in the United States took shape and by 1940 it was well established. The average presence of Democrats in the Senate between 1916 and 1930 was 44 percent. Between 1932 and 1940 it rose to 67 percent. It was primarily among business groups and the professional elites that the Democrats could not establish a bond. Business support remained limited and unenthusiastic despite Roosevelt’s successful efforts in quickly resolving the March 1933 banking crisis and, as some claimed, saving capitalism.
Roosevelt and the Coalition also brought profound changes to Democratic ideals. The early nineteenth-century Democratic Party goals of a balanced federal budget and limited government greatly changed. Although Roosevelt personally favored a balanced budget, he realized the only way to fund New Deal programs was with large deficit spending. Government size and power grew to new levels.
The Republican Fall
Just when it looked as though the Republican Party was going to continue to ride an endless wave of economic prosperity that had been accompanied by a series of 1920s presidential elections, the economy suddenly took a major downward turn. The stock market crash of October 1929 was followed by three years of severe economic decline. Banks closed, homes and farms were lost to foreclosure, businesses went bankrupt, farm produce prices continued to fall, and factories cut back production and laid off workers. By 1931, 1,300 banks had failed. The Republicans and President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933), who appealed to private charity groups to assist the needy, were overwhelmed by the severity of the situation. Meanwhile, New York governor Franklin Roosevelt was aggressively establishing relief programs in that state, as well as promoting pension plans for the aged.
By the summer of 1932, 12 million people were unemployed, and the Great Depression had a firm grip on the nation. The nation’s problems were so dramatic that many began questioning the basic economic system of the United States. Many blamed big business for the Depression and scoffed at the Republican probig business ideas of increased mass production and a laissez faire economy. Laissez faire economy means minimal government regulation over business. The new mass-production industries and the dramatic downturn of the economy created a working class more prone to question the authoritarian behavior of employers, meaning that an employer made decisions and set policy without any responsibility to their employees. Labor unrest in the population increased from 1929 to 1933 as conflicts exploded between employers and workers. This discontent, however, was neither organized nor politically focused. Having enjoyed the fruits of prosperity during the 1920s, many workers felt it unnecessary to join a union. Popular protests involved consumers, tenants, laborers, and the unemployed. Unrest was prevalent in the rural areas as well. Efforts to organize agricultural workers increased.
Republicans lost voters by the thousands with their harsh treatment of the Bonus Army in 1932. The Bonus Army was a large gathering of World War I (1914-1918) veterans in Washington, DC. They were seeking early payments of promised bonus checks for their military service. Such indifference shown toward the growing hardships of U.S. citizens by the Hoover administration was leading to greater social disorder in the nation.
President Herbert Hoover’s unwillingness to take strong direct action to relieve the people’s misery opened the door for the Democratic Party in the presidential elections of November 1932. The Democratic National Convention of August 1932 nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt as their candidate for president. An organist pounded out “Happy Days Are Here Again!” as the delegates paraded around the convention floor. It would become the Democratic theme song at all later party conventions. Roosevelt handily won the primary and the national election. The national election victory was not yet the work of a Democratic Coalition. Instead, the voting was more anti-Republican than pro-Democrat. The Republicans had simply failed to keep their promise of continuing economic prosperity and to show sufficient compassion for the victims of the economic depression. Roosevelt’s victory was actually neither well funded nor well coordinated by the Democratic Party.
The New Dealers Arrive
Roosevelt and the New Dealers came from the urban progressive wing of the party. Progressivism called for using the powers of government to solve social and economic problems. Progressives believed the government should take a more aggressive role in relieving people’s hardships and overseeing business activities. Roosevelt’s first one hundred days of office, beginning on March 4, 1933, were filled with an incredible amount of social and economic legislation. The legislation that became collectively known as the New Deal included bank reform, regulation of the stock market, farm bills, public works programs, and low-interest loans for homeowners. These new pathways quickly labeled Roosevelt’s administration as the most daring in U.S. history. In their flurry of activity New Dealers sought to make everyone satisfied, and for the first six months they were fairly successful. Even most businessmen, who had historically supported Republican candidates, refrained from criticizing the Democratic president.
By 1934 the Democratic Party was becoming better organized. James Farley, manager of Roosevelt’s successful 1932 campaign, had been named head of the national party organization. Historically in U.S. politics, when a party gains greatly in a presidential election year it will lose seats in Congress the following midterm election. With the Democratic Party under Farley’s guidance, however, the 1934 elections proved dramatically different. The public gave Roosevelt and the Democrats a strong vote of confidence. This victory came as much from Roosevelt’s impressive efforts at helping the average citizen through his New Deal economic relief programs than any increased structural organization of the voters over the previously two years. The Democratic majority in Congress held to 319 seats in the House to 103 for the Republicans and 69 out of 96 seats in the Senate.
Actual success in leading the nation to an economic recovery did not come as quickly as many New Dealers had hoped. Importantly, however, the First New Deal measures of 1933 and 1934 halted the dramatic economic decline. Unemployment rates began a steady decline from 25 percent in 1933 to 14 percent in 1937. But momentum in New Deal policies was distinctly waning by late 1934. Roosevelt decided to take a different course to reinvigorate economic recovery efforts. He began looking in 1935 at building a stronger role of government in U.S economic affairs.
What became known as the Second New Deal began in early 1935 and carried strongly through to 1936. The Wagner Act, which supported labor activities, and the Social Security Act, which provided financial security for the aged and infirm, would set new standards. It was during this second push that Roosevelt began to solidify a broad-based constituency that would become known as the Democratic Coalition. The president shifted focus from trying to please everyone to focusing more on the common worker. Having passed major reform legislation the previous year, President Roosevelt had great confidence heading into the 1936 presidential campaign.
Republicans a Minority Party
Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1933 began a prolonged period in which the Republican Party became a minority party. The progressive wing of the Republican Party largely supported New Deal programs of the Democrats, which created further problems for Republicans.
In the years following his 1932 election defeat, Hoover and Republican Party chairman Henry Fletcher continued to speak out in opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal. But as the economy steadily improved into 1936, their arguments were attracting fewer followers.
Election of 1936
With the 1936 election approaching, the Democratic Party was still not particularly well organized. The condition of the party was actually not of keen interest to Roosevelt. Few in Roosevelt’s first administration had strong ties with the Democratic Party. They were mostly independent progressive liberals. Though many voted Democrat they were not among the party leaders. They came from professional and administrative backgrounds and not from the party organization. Roosevelt’s popular support was more a combination of small formal organizations such as the city political machines and masses of voters not associated with any formal political organization but affected in major ways by New Deal legislation. These included laborers, farmers, youth, black Americans, immigrants, and intellectuals. Each faction, in a sense, represented a separate social movement. They were becoming what would be called the Democratic Coalition.
Some popular movements promoting social reform did not join the Democratic Coalition. These included Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” (EPIC) campaign, Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” movement out of Louisiana, and Francis Townsend’s Townsend Clubs. These independent movements reached their peak in membership in 1935. By 1936 the popularity of these more radical movements was declining. The public was hopeful about Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Many followers of the declining movements would ultimately settle into the Democratic Coalition.
The Democratic Party platform for 1936 contained much more of a social and economic reform orientation than in 1932. Roosevelt integrated themes of progressivism, or modern reform, democracy, or social equality, and populism, or favor toward the common person. This combination attracted a large array of people. He hammered at what he called selfish elites such as big business, accusing them of blocking the nation’s progress. When reaching out to this broad base, Roosevelt rarely mentioned the Democratic Party in his major speeches. He attempted to reach the poor, the first-or second-generation immigrants, and the working class. Many of those individuals had never voted or supported a political party in the United States before. In addition he rarely mentioned the Republican Party. Rather, he attacked Alfred Landon, his Republican opponent, and others by personal name only. In this way he appealed to the Progressives who had previously supported Republican candidates.
While Landon and the Republicans criticized Roosevelt’s deficit spending and “runaway bureaucracy,” they were hard pressed to criticize many of the more popular New Deal accomplishments. Still, the Republicans charged that unemployment was a continuing problem, Roosevelt had not balanced the federal budget, and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and other New Deal measures threatened free enterprise. Roosevelt countered that free enterprise had actually been saved by his New Deal measures, and the public was feeling more secure that the economy would not worsen any further. Roosevelt and the New Dealers tried to appeal to various special interest groups. For example, as the New Deal was entering its fourth year in the summer of 1936, farmers were receiving far more attention than they had from all other previous presidents. The New Deal provided farm price supports, loans, technical assistance, and electricity. Until the 1930s farmers still read by kerosene lamps and used wood stoves for heat and cooking.
To the southerners and northern big-city political machines who had supported the Democrats in the past, Roosevelt successfully added Catholics, Jews, black Americans, immigrants, the unemployed, intellectuals, radical and moderate labor, farmers, and liberals. Catholics believed his New Deal policies were in perfect step with the Catholic idea of social justice. Jews turned strongly to Roosevelt because of his social policies and his belief in the worth of the individual and would overwhelmingly vote Democratic for decades. Black Americans saw hope with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s public opposition to racial discrimination. Farmers and laborers saw great attention paid to their problems by the First New Deal measures. The unemployed were helped by the public works programs. And the immigrants, intellectuals, and liberals were simply in tune with progressive politics. All were impacted positively by New Deal policies. Votes came from previously Republican supporters, people who had not voted before, and youth who could vote for the first time in 1936. The Democrats gained between six and seven million voters from these sources. Some estimated that between 60 and 75 percent of Roosevelt’s support actually came from new voters.
With this newly emerging Democratic Coalition, Roosevelt dealt Republican presidential candidate Landon a crushing defeat in November 1936. Landon won only Maine and Vermont in the electoral college. It was the worst defeat in presidential elections in U.S. history. In electoral votes Roosevelt won 523 to 8. The charismatic Roosevelt also carried other Democratic candidates on his shoulders. In the resulting 75th Congress, the Democrats outnumbered Republicans 331 to 89 in the House and 76 to 16 in the Senate. It was an increase of 12 seats in the House and 7 seats in the Senate. The Democratic Party, considered nothing more than a doomed minority party in 1928, had made a stunning turnaround in just eight years.
The 1936 election represented a revolution in national politics, with the diverse groups of the Democratic Coalition expending considerable influence. The New Deal had supported vigorous government spending and the expansion of federal authority, equal opportunity, social reform, and economic security. The lower end of the social scale surged to the voting booths. They developed a deep loyalty to Roosevelt and the Democrats. Many segments of U.S. society were obviously in need of and ready for an expanded government.
Midterm Elections of 1938
The road was not always smooth in these first years of the Coalition. The midterm election of 1938 showed how the loose-knit coalition of interest groups, though destined to be long lasting, could also be vulnerable. A series of events in 1937 greatly undercut Roosevelt’s popularity. In an effort to gain support for his New Deal reforms, Roosevelt pursued a highly unpopular proposal to add seats to the U.S. Supreme Court in early 1937. That was followed by a major economic downturn, leading to increased unemployment and decreasing farm produce prices. In addition, fighting between two labor unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), following the CIO’s split from the AFL the previous year, further heightened labor unrest. The New Deal appeared to be in disarray. To make matters even worse, Roosevelt decided to personally campaign against certain conservative Democratic congressmen running for reelection. The president had become weary of conservative Democrats joining with northern Republicans to block New Deal legislation. Known as the “purge of 1938,” Roosevelt’s political involvement in local elections was very unpopular with the public.
As a result, the Republican Party made a mild comeback in the 1938 midterm elections. The southern Democrats, alarmed by deficit spending, social security, and labor reform, supported conservative Democratic and Republican candidates. The public and Congress lost much enthusiasm for Roosevelt’s programs.
This dissatisfaction was reflected in the midterm elections of 1938 in which many conservative Democrats and Republicans won seats. Republicans gained 75 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate. The number of Democratic-held seats in the House declined from 331 to 261 and the number of Senate seats from 76 to 69. The Republicans also gained 13 governorships. After eight long years, the Republicans were on the road back. During this time southern Democrats feared the New Deal would increasingly attack racial segregation traditions of the South. This would only add to the New Deal’s existing pro-labor policies that greatly bothered the South as well.
The Republican association with southern Democrats continued to gain strength through the next few years. Though they were able to bring New Deal initiatives to a practical halt, they still could not defeat Roosevelt in 1940. Germany’s defeat of France and aggressive actions by Japan in the Far East alarmed the public. As a result, they chose Roosevelt’s increasingly internationalist perspective over the Republican isolationism. In addition, increased defense spending by Roosevelt in 1940 created thousands of new jobs and greatly improved the national economy. The combination of southern Democrats and northern Republicans had successfully blocked New Deal initiatives following 1938 until foreign affairs took over from domestic issues.
The progressive liberals who orchestrated the New Deal believed that given the size and complexity of U.S. society, interest groups were a key way of gaining political strength. A big drawback was that reliance on such a network of interest groups would likely not sustain a long-term existence because of inherent competing interests between the groups. For example, there was considerable tension between the southern Democrats and the pro-black movement. This tension came to the forefront with the southern Democrat support of the Dixiecrats in 1948, the Republicans in the 1950s and early 1960s, George Wallace in 1964, and Richard M. Nixon (served 1969-1974) in 1968. More and more through the 1960s southern Democrats were leaving the Democratic Coalition. Laborers, farmers, city dwellers, youth, blacks, consumers, and others had their own needs. For this reason the leadership of the administration had to be flexible and pragmatic, or realistic. The New Dealers had to make sure no one group dominated over the others. The Democratic Coalition was also not open to formal organization. Many of the groups were populist oriented and suspicious of large organized groups. This network was counter to the Republican’s rigidity and exclusiveness. This political force, though primarily supporting Democratic candidates, was never formally integrated into the Democratic Party.
Birth of a Strong Party
The beginnings of the Democratic Party can be traced as far back as 1792. It was then that a group of influential citizens began organizing to support Thomas Jefferson (served 1801-1809) for the presidency. They opposed the Federalists Party, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams (served 1797-1801), who promoted a strong central government. Supporters of the new party feared a strong national authority would threaten individual liberties. They supported Jefferson’s vision of a peaceful agrarian, or farm-based, nation in contrast to Hamilton’s ideal of a complex industrialized nation. Though it was built on the principles of representing the common man, the party’s earlier leaders were actually all aristocrats. Besides Jefferson, they included future presidents James Madison (served 1809-1817), James Monroe (served 1817-1825), and John Quincy Adams (served 1825-1829). Jefferson, Madison, and their followers began calling themselves Republicans to show their loyalty to the country. So the Democratic Party actually started out being called the Republican Party. The modern form of the Democratic Party began to emerge following the War of 1812 as the party of Jefferson broke into factions. One faction became the Democratic-Republican Party led by future president Martin Van Buren (served 1837-1841). Their main focus remained fighting the Federalist’s efforts to create a strong centralized government. The southern plantation owners, farmers everywhere, and immigrants in the cities were the core of support of Democratic-Republicans. They also drew from groups considered outside the society’s mainstream—ethnic and religious minority groups. Many of these groups feared powerful governments and were unaccustomed to the unbridled capitalist system for which little government involvement existed. It was the common citizen versus the nation’s ruling elite.
The Democratic-Republican Party successfully promoted the candidacy of Andrew Jackson (served 1829-1837) for president in 1828. Jackson was the first actual populist, or “man of the people,” to represent the party and was called the first westerner since he was from Tennessee which was considered the western frontier at that time. Serving as the party’s leader, Jackson was the national symbol against greed and unfairness. During Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s the party switched its name from Democratic-Republicans to simply Democrats. The Democrats controlled the White House, Congress, and state offices from the mid-1830s to the Civil War. Democrats Van Buren, James K. Polk (served 1845-1849), Franklin Pierce (served 1853-1857), and James Buchanan (served 1857-1861) followed Jackson to the White House. Democrats only lost the presidential elections of 1840 and 1848 during that lengthy period.
The Party’s Demise
By the 1840s the issue of slavery began to cause major strains within the Democratic Party. Particularly divisive was the issue of slavery spreading to the western territories. The party essentially split in two. Jefferson Davis of the southern Democrats promoted the protection of slavery in all new territories. The northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, believed settlers within each territory should resolve the slavery issue. Douglas and his followers were able to successfully seek passage of the Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854. The act gave residents of those two new territories the right to decide the slavery issue within their respective territories. Rather than once and for all putting the slavery issue in western territories to rest, however, it only served to further inflame the debate.
Fighting within the party came to a head in 1860 when the northern Democrats nominated Douglas for president and the southern Democrats nominated John Breckinridge. The Democratic split brought immediate and long-term political implications. A newly formed antislavery political party calling themselves the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln their presidential candidate for the 1860 elections. With the Democrats split, Lincoln was able to win the majority of electoral college votes.
Through the next forty years, the Democrats held the White House for only eight years—two terms by Grover Cleveland (served 1885-1889, 1893-1897) toward the end of the nineteenth century. Following the Civil War the Republican Party aggressively pressed for social change in the South during the Reconstruction period of the 1870s. In reaction southerners throughout the region continued to support the Democratic Party, forming what became known as the Solid South. They would continue to support the Democratic Party through much of the twentieth century, forming a major traditional element of the Democratic Coalition.
Strongly supported by the industrial North, the Republican Party became aligned with big business. The party favored policies promoting a free market system with little government involvement. The Democrats remained more agrarian oriented. Democratic constituents largely opposed big business and high tariffs, or taxes, on imported goods.
In the 1890s another major issue would once again split the Democrats. The split was over the free-silver issue. Due to a sharp economic depression in the 1870s, a Free Silver Movement grew. The movement promoted unlimited coinage of silver. This would mean that the U.S. government would coin any silver brought in to the U.S. Mint. Supporters, including farmers and silver mine operators, wanted silver for currency as Congress had earlier eliminated it in 1873 in favor of using gold only to support the U.S. monetary system. Farmers believed they would get better prices for their crops with this proposed policy of unlimited silver coinage. In response to this pressure, Congress reintroduced the silver dollar in 1878. The movement for free silver subsided. An economic downturn beginning in 1887, however, brought the issue back to the forefront. Farmers once again demanded unlimited coinage of silver. Such an introduction of more money into circulation would cause the value of the dollar to decline and therefore the prices of crops to increase. Congress once again responded with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. The act greatly increased the rate at which the government was purchasing silver from the public. Continuing economic troubles led Congress to have a change of heart about the increasing reliance on silver, and it repealed the act in 1893. Farmers of the South and West were irate and condemned the action as the coinage of silver had kept their crop prices up. With farmers a key element of the Democratic Party, the silver issue entered party politics. William Jennings Bryan won the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination, strongly supporting free silver against the advice of President Grover Cleveland. Bryan sought to bring back to the Democratic Party the western populism of Andrew Jackson’s days. As Cleveland had warned, Bryan lost the election badly to William McKinley (served 1897-1901), and the Republicans dominated again. The Republicans passed the Gold Standard Act in 1900, once again making gold the sole standard for currency as it had been prior to 1878 and ending the free silver controversy. The United States would no longer rely on two rare metals, silver and gold, to support the value of its coins and paper money.
The New Freedom
It would take a split in the Republican Party—much as the Democratic Party had earlier split over slavery and free silver—to open the door for the Democrats’ return to the White House. By the late 1890s the party became split between progressives and conservatives. Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901-1909), leader of the progressive wing of the party, gained control when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Among the initiatives Roosevelt promoted was increased antitrust action. Roosevelt served for two terms before giving way to fellow Republican William Howard Taft (served 1909-1913). Dissatisfied with the conservative policies of Taft, Roosevelt took many Republicans with him in forming the Progressive Party in 1912 to challenge Taft’s reelection. In the 1912 presidential elections Taft ran for reelection on the Republican ticket, and Roosevelt represented a third party called the Progressive Party. This split in the Republican vote opened the door for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson promoted progressive reformism. He called it the New Freedom. Progressive reformism called for using the powers of government to solve the growing social and economic problems. The idea was counter to the prevailing ideas of limited government, especially in social and economic issues. The public had grown weary of the vast fortunes made by big business leaders such as John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie. Several big corporations controlled a good deal of the nation’s wealth. Wilson focused on using government to support individualism against the large corporate forces that manipulate the system. Seeking economic reforms, the public elected Woodrow Wilson (served 1913-1921) president. The Republican vote was split between Taft and Roosevelt.
Back in a leadership position the Democrats called for a progressive income tax (higher tax rates for those who make more money), pro-labor legislation, direct election of senators, an inheritance tax, voting rights for women, and reduction of tariffs, as well as other reforms. The progressive philosophy of the New Freedom, with its expanded role for government, created a foundation for Roosevelt’s later New Deal programs.
Though facing stiff opposition for his programs, Wilson was able to obtain legislation regulating industry and banking. Also, a constitutional amendment permitting income taxes passed. The Clayton Antitrust Act provided greater authority for antitrust action, and the Federal Trade Commission was created to oversee business activity. Corporate giants such as Standard Oil Company of New Jersey were put on notice that their activities would be under much greater government scrutiny. The Child Labor Act prohibited goods made by children from interstate commerce. The Federal Reserve System, created by the Federal Reserve Act of 1918, set up a central banking authority in the United States. The system makes loans to commercial banks and prints the nation’s paper currency.
Wilson was also the first president to speak before a major labor union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention. Though women still had no vote, a women’s bureau was established by the Democrats to encourage their participation in political developments. Congress would finally pass the women’s voting rights constitutional amendment in June 1919.
Elements of the future Democratic Coalition were coming together, but it would take Roosevelt’s more aggressive New Deal programs to complete the process of organizing the diverse support. Wilson, however, was unable to bring the black vote to the Democrats. Like Roosevelt in later years, Wilson did not want to lose the support of southern Democrats. Therefore he did not touch on civil rights issues. Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington were highly disappointed in Wilson and the Democratic Party. Wilson did reach out to the Jewish community by nominating Louis Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court in early 1916. Brandeis became the first Jew to serve on the Court.
Wilson also favored an internationalist perspective, looking for cooperative relations in contrast to the Republicans’ strong bent toward nationalism, which means a strong devotion to one’s own country above other countries. This appealed to the politically liberal internationalists who formed another, later, element of the Democratic Coalition. It was Wilson’s internationalist perspective that led to the formulation of the League of Nations following World War I. President Wilson worked hard to sell his idea of the League of Nations to stabilize world politics following the war. He believed the international body was essential to prevent future wars. The strong opposition against it within his own country, however, stunned Wilson. The unexpected harsh opposition to Wilson’s internationalist position was one factor leading to the return of the Republicans to the White House.
Return of the Republicans
By 1920 the postwar economy was booming. Due to this unparalleled prosperity, the public concern over corporate greed and control had declined. The public call for government regulation over business that the Democrats had promoted died down. People also wanted little U.S. involvement in foreign affairs after the horrible experience of World War I. The Republicans, with their pro-big business philosophy, regained the White House and rode the strong wave of economic prosperity throughout the following decade.
As the fall 1920 presidential elections approached, the Democrats began involving women more in the party. They wanted to be remembered for spearheading the drive to pass the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women voting rights. The amendment was passed by Congress in June 1919 and ratified by the states in August 1920. This support would add another voting bloc to the future Democratic Coalition.
The Republicans won the presidential elections of 1920, 1924, and 1928 with Warren Harding (served 1921-1923), Calvin Coolidge (served 1923-1929), and Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933). Harding won a landslide victory over Governor James Cox of Ohio, bringing the Republicans back into power once again. Cox had carried only some of the southern states. The electoral vote was 404 to 127. The Republicans also made great gains in both houses of Congress as well. The defeat left the Democrats in disarray for over a decade. The Republican administration brought back a strong pro-big business perspective and a laissez faire approach to government.
Despite scandals and corruption in the Harding administration, the Republicans maintained a strong following. They simply sat back and let the booming economy go its own way. The Wall Street boom and urban economic prosperity dominated public opinion. During this decade the Democrats were split between the southern and agrarian forces and the steadily rising urban immigrant element who favored the more socially progressive perspective of the Democratic Party. Because of this internal turmoil, the Democratic Party had to settle for a compromise nominee for the presidential election of 1924, John W. Davis. Once again it led to a landslide for the Republicans. It was the worst defeat in history for the Democrats.
Although the Democratic Party struggled nationally through the 1920s, some local Democratic organizations were able to successfully move forward, including party machines in Chicago and New York. A strong combination of Irish Americans and immigrants helped maintain these strongholds. Following the 1924 disastrous defeat of the Democratic presidential candidate, the New York Democratic organization began taking charge to rebuild a national organization. They sought a break from the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a racially motivated hate group whose members claimed to be Democrats. They also pushed for the end of Prohibition, a highly unpopular law in the form of a constitutional amendment that banned alcoholic beverages. Many Americans blatantly ignored Prohibition.
In 1928 the Republicans turned to Herbert Hoover, a safe choice, while the Democrats selected flamboyant New York governor Alfred Smith, a Catholic. Though still continuing the Democratic losing streak, Smith fared much better. He carried the 12 largest cities and attracted the most votes of any previous losing candidate in U.S. history. With the loss, however, many in the party came to the conclusion that the Republicans would continue to benefit from seemingly endless prosperity, and the Democrats would become a permanent minority party. The party had lost most northern governorships except one, Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in New York. Roosevelt showed he was a tough campaigner who could connect with the common person despite his aristocratic New England background.
Following the stock market crash of October 1929, public attitudes began changing once again. Massive unemployment, continued problems with the farm economy, and loss of savings by U.S. citizens brought President Herbert Hoover and the Republicans into great public disfavor. The mood of the American public had significantly shifted by 1932 from what it had been prior to the October 1929 stock market crash. The people were ready for a change, but they knew more about what they did not want than about what they needed. What was clearly needed was new leadership to help chart a new course for the nation. This could not be crafted overnight; it would take months if not years. It would delicately combine the desires of many different social groups—workers, framers, homeowners, racial and ethnic minorities, religious groups, and political progressives—together to support a common long-term goal.
A Mass Political Movement
Prior to the 1930s political involvement had been out of reach to many in the nation. Through their laissez faire policies, Republican administrations during the 1920s had encouraged the growth of large corporations that increasingly controlled the economy and society. These corporations were in turn controlled by a small group of business elites. The social base for the Republican Party was strongly linked to the Anglo-American segment of society and Protestant religious association. Adding to this white, Protestant domination, state laws and cultural traditions in the South hindered most black Americans from voting. Companies used various means, including violence, to limit labor union development and keep power away from lower-class workers, many of whom were recent immigrants. Lower and middle class urban workers and ethnic groups could find no place in the dominant political parties. The economic crisis of the early 1930s and the arrival of the New Deal brought this form of social and political domination to an end.
The rise of the Democratic Coalition in the mid-1930s represented a major change in American politics. Social groups that were politically marginal in previous decades saw considerably more opportunities to become involved. The Democratic Coalition involved the rise of mass political forces largely operating outside the traditional political organizations, including both the Republican and Democratic parties. New movements and interest groups formed and sought political strength to bring about social and economic reform. Greater economic security was a major goal. Some groups immediately became highly active, such as labor. Others would become even more active later, such as black Americans did when the civil rights movement finally gained increased Democratic Party support in the late 1940s.
To confound some Democratic Party leaders, these diverse groups of the Democratic Coalition were not actually linked strongly to the party, although the party greatly benefited. Even Roosevelt was more committed to his New Deal than he was to maintaining and nurturing the Democratic Party. President Roosevelt was a shrewd political compromiser in orchestrating the diverse Coalition. He was continually willing to compromise on some issues to gain overall support for his national policies. Although most New Dealers serving Roosevelt were Democrats, they were not associated with the Democratic Party organization. Rather they came from other sources, such as universities and businesses. This even included the president’s top advisors.
The New Deal combined a renewed democratic spirit with the earlier progressive political trend, creating a major change in society. Through the Coalition a much broader range of people and groups were engaged in politics and the coordination of economic developments. The crucial years of the Democratic Coalition emergence were 1935 to 1937. It was an unprecedented mobilization of the general population responding favorably to the New Deal’s major policy changes.
The Democratic Party Organization
Although by the mid-1930s the Democratic Party was a long-standing major political party, it had little structure. It was actually more of a hodgepodge of informally linked small organizations. The national party leadership had become disorganized and weakened from the election failures of the 1920s. By 1936 the main support for Democratic candidates, including Roosevelt, came from masses of unorganized voters—the poor in the cities and countryside, farmers, youth, black Americans, ethnic minorities, labor, and the college educated. As a result, support for the Democratic Party greatly expanded but the party itself changing very little. It was the Roosevelt administration and the various motives of the Democratic Coalition, not the Democratic Party, which led to political changes in the 1930s.
The party leadership saw diverse parts of the population come together with a common political interest, at least in candidates for public office. They would, however, be supporting the same candidates for very different reasons. Of these diverse groups, only labor became a formally organized political force in a traditional sense.
Other factors also kept the Democratic Party from more definitively absorbing the Democratic Coalition. The Democratic Party political machines, which were long-lasting local political organizations with formalized leadership, mostly existed in the East and Midwest and persisted through the 1930s. They served to select local candidates and energize Democratic voters in their areas. The traditional party leaders who led big-city political machines felt more threatened by, rather than enamored of, the growing Coalition. They believed that if they opened the party leadership door to these new political interest groups, they would lose their own leadership and power, and the Democratic Party would become too democratic. Besides, the traditional Democratic power base and leadership were more politically conservative than the New Deal and many of its followers.
Ironically the Coalition would eventually weaken local party organizations by not working within the established party structure. Major policy developments through the 1930s continued to ride on Roosevelt’s charm and charisma, not on the growth and strengthening of the Democratic Party. Another factor also inhibited improvement of the party structure. The Democratic supporters had become so numerous that party workers did not feel the need to spend much effort organizing. During the 1936 election, fewer than twenty people were on the national party staff. The new political power was coming more from popular movements than the Democratic Party itself.
In some places new grassroots political organizations with deep political attachments to the Democratic Party appeared, many through networks of farmers in rural areas. But they were clearly separate from the traditional party machines and party leadership.
These new grassroots groups also developed where labor had become strong and well organized. America’s labor, long suppressed from organizing, began to emerge in association with the progressive liberals of the New Deal. The result was a major new labor movement. Substantial barriers had blocked America’s labor force prior to the Great Depression. Anti-union sentiments of the public and the Republican administrations through the 1920s were followed by the onset of the Great Depression, which cost many laborers their jobs. The support of laborers for Roosevelt began to grow when the federal government responded to dramatic strikes in 1934 by trying to seek a settlement with management. Previously the government would often send police or troops to control labor activists.
This show of support by New Dealers for the rights of laborers to seek better working conditions led the public to take the labor movement more seriously. As a result union activism began spreading to a broader spectrum of the poor and working class. With major Democratic victories in the midterm elections of 1934, laborers were encouraged to press harder for labor law reform.
Such reform was reflected in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 recognizing the rights of laborers to organize. Popular support of the New Deal shown by the 1936 presidential election results illustrated further that employers would have to deal more seriously with laborers and their unions. Some even credited labor for carrying Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Indiana for Roosevelt. Unions had worked hard recruiting voters to support the New Deal. They conducted education programs for workers and the public in general. They viewed the 1936 election as vital for the future of organized labor. In contrast, business became increasingly hostile to Roosevelt. Whereas bankers and stockbrokers contributed 24 percent of donations to Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932, they only provided 4 percent in 1936.
The perspective of the Roosevelt administration regarding labor issues was further demonstrated in late 1936 and early 1937 when Roosevelt and Michigan governor Frank Murphy refused to use force to break up sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan. This government reaction, still very uncharacteristic of government responses to strikes in those days, brought considerable public complaints to the White House. The refusal to act was interpreted as further support for labor’s right to organize and for employees taking questionable legal actions when management refuses to bargain. Then in 1937 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. that workers have a right to organize and select their leaders free of employer intimidation. The support received from Roosevelt, the favorable Court ruling upholding the NLRA, and labor’s successes in organizing for the 1936 election gave laborers a major new level of public respect.
Lack of International Pressure
As the Democratic Coalition first began emerging, the international picture was grim. By the mid-1930s the Great Depression had spread globally. Political turmoil in Europe was increasing as aggressive fascist movements gained strength. In Russia a violent communist government had become well established. Because of the disorder abroad few international pressures were being placed on the United States by other nations that were too preoccupied with their own problems. The time was ripe in the United States for political experimentation. President Roosevelt and the New Dealers knew they had a unique opportunity to try something new while not being distracted by international events.
Additionally, the controversy between Republican isolationism (opposing political or economic alliances with other nations) and Democratic internationalism (a policy of cooperation with other nations) was not forced to the forefront. Therefore Roosevelt did not have to take a strong foreign stance that could have caused the Republicans to become better organized in opposition. Foreign relations clearly became secondary to domestic developments. Roosevelt had personally believed that U.S. economic security could be improved with greater international involvement. He kept that unpopular viewpoint largely to himself, however, so as not to upset his fragile political coalition of support. He waited until the European situation had so deteriorated by the later 1930s that isolationism was no longer a feasible option for the U.S. government.
Transition to the Fair Deal
With Roosevelt naming Republicans Henry Stimson secretary of war and Frank Knox secretary of the navy, the Republican Party continued to be stymied in making political gains through the war years. A number of New Deal programs persisted beyond World War II (1939-1945). Much of the general public remained largely satisfied into the 1960s with the benefits they were receiving from social security and other programs. Many southern whites remained loyal Democrats. The lower-and working-class Americans in all regions still supported government welfare programs and maintained a strong support for Democratic Party candidates following World War II.
President Harry Truman (served 1945-1953) sought to promote many New Deal ideas and keep the Coalition together. Truman identified full employment legislation, civil rights, and slum clearance as the key party issues for the late 1940s. With the transformation of American culture to an urban society through the first half of the century, jobs became a top social and economic issue following World War II. In response, the Employment Act of 1946 became a hallmark of Democratic postwar policy. The act stated that it was the government’s responsibility to maintain full employment. It also established the Council of Economic Advisors to assess employment issues. Truman’s viewpoints regarding racial discrimination brought nothing but wrath from the southern Democrats. Many began searching for other political alternatives, including independent parties or even the Republican Party. Concerns by the southerners were rising in general over what they considered an erosion of traditional American values. They often blamed northern Democrats for bringing unwanted change.
In addition, a wave of labor strikes in the auto and steel industries increased public sentiment against unions. In response, a conservative Congress passed a series of antilabor bills, including the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. That act, passed over Truman’s veto, prohibited some forms of union activity and expanded the rights of management.
Public support of Truman and the Democrats was weakening, and the Democratic Coalition was beginning to fracture. Truman’s support of labor and blacks was drawing increased criticism, especially from southerners. In fact, the midterm elections of 1946 led to a Republican-controlled Congress. As a result, Truman’s social initiatives were being blocked in congressional committees. Despite his critics, during the 1948 Democratic convention, Truman insisted that a civil rights bill be supported that would guarantee voting rights for black Americans. This position led the southern Democrats to bolt from the party and nominate their own candidates on a Dixiecrat ticket. They were even able to keep Truman off the ballots in four southern states. Truman sought to keep the Coalition alive by rallying the black and labor vote. He became the first U.S. president to campaign in Harlem.
Truman’s campaign faced another obstacle as well. Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s former secretary of agriculture in the New Deal and vice-president during the early part of World War II, formed the ultraliberal Progressive Party to run for president. The Progressive Party posed a political threat to Truman by attracting votes of Democratic Coalition members away from the Democratic Party ticket. The Democrats were badly fragmented among Progressives, southerners, and the mainstream party.
Given the disarray of the Democratic Party, predictions were that Truman had no chance of victory against Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. In a startling upset, however, Truman pulled off the victory, winning the electoral vote 303 to 189. The strength of the New Deal’s Democratic Coalition had once again prevailed. The election victory was seen as confirmation of the continuing overall support for New Deal social policies. The withdrawal of the Dixiecrats from the party during the election campaigns and the eventual withdrawal of southern Democrats as well, however, gave indications of things to come for the Coalition.
Fresh from victory, Truman pushed a legislative agenda he called the Fair Deal. The Fair Deal promoted expansion of medical insurance, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, an increase in minimum wage, and increased social security payments. As he received limited support from Congress, Truman was only able to win a minimum wage increase and a housing bill.
A Republican Interlude
With postwar prosperity continuing into the 1950s, the American middle class, including professional workers, expanded. Many of these middle-class workers were changing political party allegiance from Democrats to the more pro-business Republicans, weakening the influence of the Democratic Coalition. In addition, the southern support of the Democratic Party was further weakening due to growing fears over forced racial integration. Sweeping Supreme Court civil rights decisions and more forceful federal government actions to combat white supremacy in the South alarmed southern whites. The Republican Party embraced lower taxes for the rich, a strong anti-Communist stance, and resistance to racial desegregation. Adding to its support from the business community were the growing middle-class suburbanites and southerners dissatisfied with the antisegregation positions of Truman and the Democrats. Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, running on the Democratic ticket, lost badly to war hero and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower (served 1953-1961) in the 1952 presidential election. Eisenhower won in the electoral votes 442 to 89.
The Democrats would quickly rebound in 1954 to gain control of both the House and Senate by narrow margins. Again Stevenson won the Democratic nomination for president in 1956 only to lose to Eisenhower. The Democrats, however, retained the control of the House and Senate. Rising unemployment in the late 1950s led to substantial gains in the House and Senate for the Democrats in the 1958 midterm elections. So for much of the 1950s the Democrats retained control of Congress but had lost the White House to a moderate Republican.
The Democrats Return
In preparation for the 1960 presidential elections, major changes began occurring in U.S. politics. Two substantial defeats of Democratic old guard leader Adlai Stevenson led to a decline in the influence of party machines. They gave way to new organizations greatly influenced by young party volunteers new to the political scene. Their impact was immediate as youthful senator John F. Kennedy won the party’s nomination in a close battle. Thanks to the reemergence of the Democratic Coalition, he then defeated Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, running as the Republican presidential candidate. Up to that time, the 1960 election was the closest popular vote in a presidential election. With 68 million votes cast, Kennedy (served 1961-1963) won by less than 119,000. In electoral votes Kennedy won 300 to 223. With continued Democratic control of Congress, Kennedy attempted to inject Washington with an energy not seen since Roosevelt’s first term. Though his popularity with the public soared, he could not maneuver his bills through a Congress in which conservatives ruled from both parties. While Kennedy was successful in establishing the Peace Corps, for example, his civil rights bill went nowhere.
With an eye toward the 1964 elections Kennedy strove to once again strengthen the Democratic Coalition. He wanted to rebuild support from the South that had gradually been lost since 1948. As part of this effort, he decided to journey to Texas in November 1963. His assassination in Dallas thrust vice-president Lyndon Johnson, into the presidency. Johnson (served 1963-1969) had been an administrator of New Deal programs in Texas in the early 1930s and a strong supporter of Roosevelt in Congress in the later 1930s.
Capitalizing on new support following Kennedy’s death, Johnson pressed for a massive social agenda as part of his Great Society program. Democratic supporters, including both registered Democrats in the party as well as those composing the Democratic Coalition who were not affiliated with the party, sought a renewal of New Deal social activism within the healthy economy. The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s had led to the rebirth of this liberal idealism. Because the Great Society was to be built in a period of prosperity rather than during the Depression years of the New Deal, President Johnson believed the Great Society could reach beyond what the New Deal was able to achieve.
Key parts of the Great Society were Johnson’s war on poverty and civil rights legislation. Johnson had considerable success during 1964 and 1965 in passing many bills and establishing a number of programs. Legislative accomplishments included the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, housing laws, a funding bill for education, and the establishment of Medicare. Despite Johnson’s sweeping victory in the 1964 presidential elections over Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, a large number of southern white voters, still angry over civil rights legislation, swung toward the Republican candidate, highlighting a continued weakness in the Coalition. Nonetheless, the Democrats established winning margins of 295 seats to 140 in the House and 68 to 32 seats in the Senate.
Just as Roosevelt could not capitalize on his 1936 landslide election victory due to his unpopular efforts at reorganizing the U.S. Supreme Court, Johnson was also soon sidetracked. The ever-expanding Vietnam War (1964-1975) began attracting more and more of Johnson’s and Congress’s attention. The Great Society agenda was losing momentum by 1967. Race riots in the nation’s cities, escalating crime rates, and massive antiwar protests brought the Great Society to a premature end.
End of the Democratic Coalition
Frustrated and exhausted by the turn of events, Johnson stunned the nation by deciding not to run for reelection in 1968. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in early 1968 also greatly set back Democratic hopes of renewing efforts to press social issues. In fact, the tumultuous events of 1967 and 1968 would spell the end of the long domination of U.S. politics by the Democratic Party that had begun in 1932. For 28 out of 36 years, the Democrats held the White House, and even during the eight years they did not, they still controlled Congress for much of that time.
By 1968 the fragmentation of the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War opened the door for Republican control of the White House for most of the next 24 years, from 1969 to 1993. With a national crisis fueled by violent race relations, antiwar protests, rising crime rates, and increasing taxes to support social programs, many felt that the New Deal’s promise of continuing long-term economic growth and improving the standard of living from generation to generation no longer existed.
With the Democratic Party in turmoil and split over the Vietnam War, the Republicans, behind Richard Nixon, swept into office in 1968. The Democrats had chosen Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota, a New Dealer and vice-president under Johnson, as its presidential candidate. The Democratic Coalition, however, could not be revived. Labor had been ignored by the Great Society programs, black Americans were disheartened by the slow pace of integration, youth and liberals were staunchly opposed to the Vietnam War—which many called “Johnson’s War”—and the southerners were dissatisfied with the Democratic liberal social agenda.
The Republicans maintained a firm hold on the White House for the next 25 years with the exception of the four years between 1977 and 1981. The Democratic Coalition forged by Roosevelt three decades earlier was indeed over. The disastrous 1972 elections involving Democratic candidate George McGovern marked the first time in U.S. history that the Democrats would lose the entire South. With the Democratic Party supporting civil rights, the antiwar movement, and women’s rights, southern Democrats who supported Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 went with independent presidential candidate Alabama governor George Wallace in 1968, or Republican Richard Nixon in 1972. McGovern won only one state in 1972, Massachusetts. Nixon captured 521 electoral votes to McGovern’s 17.
Between the continuing Vietnam War and the political scandal of Watergate, President Nixon ran into his own problems. Forced to resign the presidency in 1974, Nixon was replaced by his vice-president Gerald Ford (served 1974-1977). Capitalizing on the Republican’s controversies, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia led the Democrats briefly back to the White House in 1977, but the old Democratic Coalition did not play a prominent role. Carter (served 1977-1981) received little support from unions and the northern city political machines. Rather than promoting New Deal/Great Society types of programs as Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson did before him, Carter preached limited government. In a very narrow victory Carter defeated President Ford with 297 electoral votes to 240. Carter, with his southern roots, did return the South temporarily to the Democratic fold. Carter pushed for banking and airline deregulation, but his support of issues important to blue-collar workers was much less enthusiastic than his Democratic predecessors.
It was during this period of the 1970s that the political voice of the lower class and poor began weakening further. Political campaigns became increasingly expensive, leading to the rise in influence of political action committees (PACs). PACs are organizations formed by corporations, unions, and other groups whose purpose is to raise and distribute campaign funds to political candidates. These organized groups gained great power after 1971, replacing the more grassroots neighborhood and local political organizations that had been key elements of the Democratic Coalition. The American working class, a major component of the Democratic Coalition, was also losing its influence. By 1970 the growth of labor unions had come to a halt. From 1970 to 1986, even as the overall number of workers increased, the percentage of those who were labor union members dramatically dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent. By 2001 less than 14 percent of American workers belonged to unions, the lowest number in six decades. The traditional highly unionized manufacturing industries were being replaced by technology and service industries that offered low-wage, part-time jobs not represented by unions. Many manufacturing industries were relocating to foreign nations that offered cheaper labor and few unions. Unions had been the last formal link that had endured since the New Deal between working-class voters of the Democratic Coalition and the Democratic Party. Black Americans, ethnic minorities, and women replaced labor and the working class as the keys to Democratic support. The old coalition was being replaced by a much different one.
Since Carter was unable to build much popular support during his term in the White House, in 1980 the Republicans swept back in behind Governor Ronald Reagan of California. Under Reagan (served 1981-1989), the Republicans once again promoted a strong pro-business environment and cuts in social programs that provided benefits to the poor. They introduced “supply-side” economics, as well as lower taxes and higher military spending. Supply-side economics meant that businesses were given breaks to stimulate production and economic growth. When companies prospered, they believed that prosperity would “trickle down” to the workers. An economic boom did follow later in the 1980s but was accompanied by skyrocketing federal budget deficits. Riding the wave of a popular tax revolt and growing lower-and middle-class resentment of government and black Americans, Republicans also controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1987, wielding power they had not enjoyed since the 1920s. Reagan, leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, represented the ultimate end to New Deal politics of social reform. Despite Reagan’s popularity, the Democrats regained control of Congress in 1984. Democrat leadership remained in disarray through the 1980s, however, offering Senator Walter Mondale as a presidential candidate in 1984 and Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988, both of whom were soundly defeated.
In 1992 an economic downturn with rising unemployment, coupled with the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot from Texas, opened the door for Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas to lead the Democrats back to the White House. Clinton (served 1993-2001) won 370 electoral votes to 168 against Republican president George Bush (served 1989-1993). The popular vote was much closer, with Perot winning 19 percent of the vote. The Democrats once again controlled both the White House and Congress after the 1992 elections. This Democratic resurgence did not signal a return of traditional principles supported by the old Democratic Coalition. Bill Clinton brought a more conservative, business-oriented administration. Still campaigning against New Deal-era social reforms such as welfare and government regulation, however, the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in the midterm elections of 1994. The Republicans held full control of Congress for the first time in forty years. Despite the strong Republican showing in 1994, with the assistance of a strong economy, Clinton easily defeated Republican presidential challenger Senator Robert Dole in 1996, despite major personal controversies. The Republicans would once again regain the White House in the 2000 presidential election with an exceptionally narrow victory by George W. Bush (served 2001-) over Vice-President Al Gore.
Through the twentieth century, from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Party worked for the common citizen and the underdog in society, remaining a staunch supporter of civil rights. Taking a more centrist philosophy, Clinton veered from this tradition. As it had during the New Deal and Great Society, however, the Democratic Party remained the main voice for the poor and homeless, though they were the least likely groups to actually vote. Still the political trend was for the Midwest farmer, black Americans, Jews, women, factory workers, and conservationists to vote predominately for Democratic candidates. Business leaders, young professionals, and opponents of abortion and gun control sided with the Republican candidates as the nation headed into the twenty-first century.
James A. Farley (1888-1976)
Farley was born to a brick manufacturer in Grassy Point, New York, in 1888. From his early youth, he demonstrated a knack for political involvement. After earning a bookkeeper degree, he found employment with Universal Gypsum Company. While working for Universal Gypsum, Farley ran for town clerk in Stony Point, New York, in 1912. He was the first Democrat to win a Stony Point election since 1894. Over the next few years, he established a strong connection with leaders of the New York Democratic Party and became a supporter of Al Smith for governor. Farley’s own political career continued to build as he became chairman of the Rockland County Democratic Committee in 1919 and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1922. Meanwhile, his business career was also growing. In 1926 Farley left Universal Gypsum to form his own building material company. It soon merged with five other companies to form the General Building Supply Corporation with Farley as president. In 1928 Farley became secretary of the New York State Democratic Committee and helped manage Franklin Roosevelt’s successful campaign for governor. By 1930 Farley had become chairman of the party’s state committee as Roosevelt won reelection to the governor’s post.
Following his successes in New York, which had become a place of political leadership for the party, Farley accompanied Roosevelt onto the national political stage. Along with Louis Howe, Farley laid the groundwork for Roosevelt’s successful presidential bid in 1932. As a reward for his party work Roosevelt appointed Farley to the U.S. postmaster general position in 1933. He also became chairman of the Democratic Party National Committee that year. As a New Dealer Farley diligently kept records of how each member of Congress voted on New Deal measures and rewarded them accordingly through the president. In 1936 Farley skillfully directed Roosevelt’s reelection and played a key role in forging the new Democratic Coalition. Although Farley continued as postmaster general and chairman of the Democratic Party National Committee for four more years, his relationship with the president cooled. In 1940 he disagreed with Roosevelt over the decision to seek a third term and resigned his two posts. Following his resignation Farley became chairman of the board for Coca-Cola Export Corporation where he remained until 1973.
Louis M. Howe (1871-1936)
Howe was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, but grew up in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York, where his father owned a weekly newspaper. Following his father into journalism, Howe landed a job as a correspondent’s assistant for the New York Herald in the state’s capital, Albany, in 1906. In 1911 he was introduced to the young state senator Franklin D. Roosevelt. The following year, while Roosevelt was fighting typhoid fever, he hired Howe to lead his reelection campaign. After experiencing rousing success Howe became an assistant to Roosevelt in the future president’s various appointments and elected positions through the 1910s and 1920s. In early 1932 Howe was joined by James Farley to develop much of Roosevelt’s campaign strategy to win the Democratic presidential nomination and the successful campaign for the White House later that year. Howe advised Roosevelt through the crucial first three years of the New Deal and plotted the strategy for reelection in 1936. Howe played a key role in forging the Democratic Coalition. Having suffered failing health through the first four years in the White House, Howe died in April 1936. Much credit went to Howe for the Democratic Party’s rise to its level of prominence in the 1930s.
Alfred Landon (1887-1987)
Landon was the Republican candidate to oppose President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential elections, a time in which the Democratic Coalition first made its presence felt. He grew up in Marietta, Ohio, before moving with his family at age 17 to Independence, Kansas. Landon gained his law degree from the University of Kansas but soon became a successful independent oil driller. Landon was politically a Progressive (believing in modernizing reform of the nation) and managed the 1928 campaign of Clyde Reed for governor of Kansas. Landon became state chairman of the Republican Party and assumed a moderate political position that would be more acceptable to the conservative wing. In 1932 Landon was nominated for governor of Kansas by the party and won a close election. As governor during the Great Depression, Landon gained respect for actions taken to protect farmers from losing their farms and avoid bank closures. Landon implemented New Deal programs in Kansas, including actively participating in industrial recovery actions for the oil industry. As a result, he was the only Republican governor that was reelected in the 1934 midterm elections.
Landon’s popularity continued to climb as he gained the Republican nomination for the presidential race of 1936. Landon, disillusioned over the new policies’ lack of success in his state, strongly attacked the New Deal, claiming it failed to achieve its goals of recovery and full employment. But his criticism was not well received, and he fell—the newly rising Democratic Coalition’s first victim.
Frank Murphy (1890-1949)
Murphy was born in Harbor Beach, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan with a law degree in 1914. He served in Europe during World War I as a captain with the American Expeditionary Force. Following the war he held several positions including assistant U.S. attorney and judge in Detroit. He became part of the city political machine in the Democratic Party and was elected mayor of Detroit in 1930. At that time approximately 500,000 people were unemployed. Murphy established a $14 million work relief program to ease the hardships. Murphy was reelected mayor in 1932 but resigned when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him governor-general for the Philippines in 1933. He returned to Michigan in 1936 to win the governorship. Murphy quickly established what was called the “Little New Deal” for the state. The state legislature passed workmen’s compensation, old age assistance, and greater funding support for education.
Murphy, along with Roosevelt, gained notoriety in early 1937 when he refused to send state troops to break up “sit-down strikes” in the automobile industry. This action helped solidify labor unions as a key part of the Democratic Coalition. It was, however, an unusual move to side with the strikers, and his general popularity declined for doing so. Murphy lost his reelection bid in 1938. In 1939 Murphy joined President Roosevelt’s cabinet as attorney general. The following year Roosevelt appointed Murphy to the U.S. Supreme Court where he became a key defender of civil liberties and the rights of labor unions to demonstrate and strike. Murphy served on the Court for nine years.
President Franklin Roosevelt spoke the following words in a speech during the presidential election campaign in Detroit, Michigan, on October 15, 1936. He was reviewing his record of helping the diverse groups of America during his first term of office. Roosevelt was particularly emphasizing his assistance to labor, as he was speaking in the heart of the automobile manufacturing region (Roosevelt, 1938, pp. 495-499):
I am standing at the spot in front of the City Hall to which during the four terrible years, from 1929 to 1933, thousands of unemployed men and women of Detroit came to present problems of human existence to a great Mayor, Frank Murphy … Relief and work relief through the use of Federal funds saved American humanity, and as the months went by it saved also the solvency of cities and States in every part of the Nation.
After we had stopped the immediate crisis, our next step was to restore the purchasing power of the people themselves. I need not recite you the many steps we took. You are as familiar with them as I am. In great part you are glad today, I am sure, that we took these steps.
The problem involved building up purchasing power of every kind. In restoring it there is one element often overlooked by those who dwell in great industrial cities—the building up of the prices which farmers obtain for their farm products …
In all other fields of production prices and values also rose. Miners went back to work. Eastern factories opened their closed doors.
The dollars that we spent in relief, in work relief, in CCC camps, in drought relief, in cattle and hog buying and processing, each of those dollars went to work. They were spent in the shops of the city and in the stores of the small towns and villages. They were spent again by wholesalers who bought from manufacturers and processors. They were spent again in wages to those who worked in the purchases from those who produced the raw materials back in the mines and on the farms. And once again they were spent in the stores of the cities and the shops of the small towns and villages. You know how many of these dollars have finally come to the City of Detroit in the purchase of automobiles …
It is my belief that the people of Detroit, like the people of the rest of the country, are going to ask on November 3rd that the present type of Government continue rather than the type of Government which in its heart still believes in the policy of laissez faire and the kind of individualism which up to only three and a half years ago, frankly, put dollars above human rights.
Suggested Research Topics
- What was the role of American women in the Democratic Coalition? Could there have been more significant efforts by the New Dealers to focus on gender inequalities without endangering the Coalition?
- How well did the diverse groups composing the Coalition blend together? How could a coalition of interest groups keep from disintegrating due to conflicts?
- President Franklin Roosevelt’s charm and charisma were major factors in building and maintaining the Democratic Coalition. What were the pros and cons in passing the Twenty-Second Amendment limiting presidents to two consecutive terms? What if that restriction had already existed? With Roosevelt unable to run, would Cordell Hull have been able to further cement the Coalition?