Thursday Bookshelf – The New Deal and the birth of the modern liberal Democratic Party

 Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR–and How America Was Changed Forever and American Experience: FDR

Being a Democrat today inevitably leads back to the New Deal and how the party structure in the United States essentially changed at that point in time. The definitive event was the 1932 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago but first some background.

The collapse the GOP would face beginning with the 1930 Congressional Elections opened the door for the New Deal and a more progressive Democratic Party. Many if not most of the nation’s leading progressives prior to the 1930s had been Republican but the GOPs isolationist and conservative economic wings for put the party which has dominated American elections since the Civil War on a path to destruction in the 1920s. The alienation of the Midwestern and Plains States progressives, from traditionally Republican territory was a critical moving part in the roaring 20s as the party became more beholden than ever to Eastern banking and economic interests. The relationship between the GOP and Wall Street led directly to the Great Depression.  From 1929 onwards the Republicans were a reactive party that was blamed for the economic collapse. It would be two generations before self identified Republicans came towards parity with self identified Democrats nationally. 

Beginning with the New Deal and culminating in the 1970s, the Republicans were a clear minority party in the United States. The battles in the Republican Party between the wing that pushed a clear policy of accepting the New Deal (me too Republicanism) and the conservative wing that was obsessed with anti-communism and rolling back the New Deal was the prime area of tension. As time went on the traditional Northeastern wing of the party that had been so conservative economically in the 1920s pushing progressive agrarian interests away from the GOP became more moderate and benefited from the Government largess (socialism as they had previously called it) created by FDR’s programs. Eventually the rural agrarian interests became less progressive and more conservative and recaptured the GOP with southern help. But that would be 50 years into the future.

Against this backdrop, the Republicans were in no shape to win the 1932 Presidential Election as incumbent Herbert Hoover was essentially a “dead man walking” entering the election season. The Democrats however were still a party that was largely dominated by southern conservative interests. As recently as 1924 the Democratic National Convention had been dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, and most of the party’s strength in national elections came from the south. The 1932 election would change all of that and move the Democrats clearly towards a posture of becoming the liberal party in the nation.

Having previously read Steve Neal’s excellent Truman and Ike I was excited to find this book in the Kindle store before my recent trip to India. Study of the nomination of FDR and the assemblage of the New Deal coalition has long been one of my hobbies though in recent years I have focused more on post World War II American politics and the Civil War era with my reading time.

The 1932 Election Cycle was the most critical in US History since 1860. The backdrop of the Great Depression overwhelmed everything, following 12 years of Republican Presidential rule. The Democrats had not gotten a majority of the popular vote nationally for President since 1892 and were a party deeply divided between an evangelical populist faction from the South and Midwest and a largely Catholic faction from the Northeast. The issue of prohibition divided the party badly on predictable lines with the South and Midwest on one side, the Northeast on the other, Protestants on one side, and Catholics on the other.

The 1920s had been a tough time for the Democrats. At the 1924  Democratic Convention as mentioned above, the Ku Klux Klan in its most powerful state had dominated the convention but could not get the 2/3 of delegates needed for nominating their preferred candidate William Gibbs McAdoo. McAdoo who was former President Wilson’s son-in-law had one of the most impressive resumes of any politician of the era and was preferred by the Klan since like his father-in-law he was a southerner by birth and a racist in practice. He also importantly supported prohibition. McAdoo had the majority of support but after over a 100 ballots, a compromise candidate John W. Davis, “the lawyer’s lawyer” was selected. Davis was conservative, and committed to racial segregation which was the established Democratic position at the time (The Republicans of the 1920s while arch-conservatives who destroyed the US economy with runaway capitalism were racially far more tolerant than the Democrats on the whole)  but was less overt in his conservatism.

The Democrats in this era could rarely expand electorally beyond the southern base of the party. The former confederate states were solidly Democratic but outside of the region, the Republicans dominated largely marrying progressives and conservatives. The most conservative and reactionary elements of the country were part of the GOP as were the most radicalized and liberal elements. But as urbanization took hold many city dwellers partly out of deference to the machine politics of the city became Democrats ultimately changing the composition of the Democrats from a regional party to a national one.

The Democrats nominated “the happy warrior” Al Smith in 1928. He was the first Catholic Presidential nominee from a major party and was the subject of horrible discrimination. Much of the outer south, including Florida went Republican that year though the Deep South states stuck with the Democrats.

With the Great Depression in full force and Herbert Hoover beatable in 1932, Smith, McAdoo, and a host of other ambitious Democrats sought the nomination of the party. The frontrunner however was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who eventually won the nomination after McAdoo threw his support to him on the 4th ballot partly to deny Smith, a rival of both men the nomination.  John Nance Garner, the conservative Texan who served as Speaker of the House also sought the nomination and eventually backed down on the 4th ballot, backing FDR and finding himself on the ticket. This came after FDR’s team was largely convinced they had blown their opportunity to win the nomination.

Conventions in those days were of course not simply the made for TV events they are now. They were deadly serious winner take all nominating events. Most delegates to the conventions were power brokers who often times had no interest in who had won primaries or who had more grassroots support.

The narrative in this book is outstanding and without giving too much away, Neal weaves together every political consideration throughout the primary season and the convention. The leading stars of the book are luminaries such as James Farley, Huey Long, John Nance Garner, Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers, Joseph  Kenned , William Randolph Hearst, Duke Ellington, and John Dos Passos.

For anyone interested in the history of the Democratic including battle over prohibition, the sectionalism and the creation of the New Deal coalition this is a must read.

American Experience: FDR

For those looking for a visual history lesson, no better series exists than PBS’ American Experience 4 Part Documentary on FDR (Now Part of “The Presidents” series), which was produced in 1994. Narrated by David McCullough, the film goes through FDR’s beginnings his private life and ultimately his Presidency. Ken Burns the best documentary filmmaker of our era has not yet produced anything specifically on the New Deal (though his Dust Bowl and The War series’ overlap the same period of time) thus this is the best video lesson on FDR, the New Deal and the shifting party paradigms available.  In a future Thursday Bookshelf we’ll look at specific works on the New Deal era itself and the growth of American liberalism.


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