Political Realignments

August 22, 1940

A document from the CQ Researcher archives:

Report Outline
Prospective Shifts in Political Line-up
Party Splits Since the Civil War
The Democratic Party and the New Deal

Prospective Shifts in Political Line-up

Bolt of Democrats to G. O. P. Presidential Ticket

Nomination of President Roosevelt for a third term and of Secretary of Agriculture Wallace as his running-mate touched off a, quick bolt of conservative Democrats to the Republican candidates, Wendell L. Willkie and Charles L. McNary. Whether this movement will develop into a full-fledged party split or will be confined to a small group of prominent Democrats no longer influential in the party's councils is at present a matter for speculation. In any event, the President appears to welcome the shift of conservative Democrats to the Republican standard and to regard the bolts thus far announced as evidence of an impending realignment of the major parties on a liberal-conservative basis. By his insistance on the nomination of Wallace, in preference to other prospective vice presidential candidates more closely identified with the regular party organization, the President served warning that he is determined to reconstruct the Democratic party along New Deal lines.

The Democratic bolt to the Republican camp began immediately after Roosevelt's renomination, with the announcement by Senator Burke of Nebraska that he would support Willkie because “it is essential for our country to maintain the two-term limitation on the tenure of office of the President.” A bitter foe of the New Deal, Burke was defeated when he ran for renomination in the Nebraska Democratic primary in April. Many other prominent Democrats, objecting both to violation of the third-term tradition and to the economic principles of the New Deal, have subsequently declared their intention to vote the Republican ticket. Some of Willkie's Democratic supporters, notably Alfred E. Smith, John J. Raskob, James A. Reed, and Lewis W. Douglas, opposed Roosevelt's reelection and endorsed the Republican ticket in the last campaign, but many others remained loyal to their party's nominee in 1936.

Willkie has made it plain that an appeal to dissident Democrats and to independent voters will be a major feature of his campaign. At a press conference at Colorado Springs, July 29, he said: “I do not know of any reason why any Democrat who subscribed to and believed in the 1932 Democratic platform or believes in the historic principles of the Democratic party should not vote for me in preference to the President…on the basis of what he and I respectively believe and advocate.” The Republican candidate declared, August 1, that the percentage of independent voters was increasing annually, expressing a belief that in this year's election fully one-half of the voters would cross party lines. Willkie's acceptance speech, August 17, endorsed many domestic measures of the New Deal and asked the help in his campaign of every American—“Republican, Democrat, or Independent—Jew, Catholic, or Protestant—people of every color, creed and race.”

Party lines are down [he said]. Nothing eou]d make that clearer than the nomination by the Republicans of a liberal Democrat who changed his party affiliation because he found democracy in the Republican party and not in the New Deal party.

Willkie announced, July 22, that he had appointed a committee of four anti-Roosevelt Democrats to organize a national independent movement in support of his candidacy. Named to the committee were Lewis W. Douglas, former Director of the Budget, John W. Hanes, former Undersecretary of the Treasury, Alan Valentine, president of the University of Rochester, and Mrs. Roberta Campbell Lawson, president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Formation of a parallel organization, which will “concentrate on the third-term issue,” was announced by Senator Burke, July 24. “Many prominent Democrats of long standing, both in and outside of the party organization, and many voters without definite party affiliation have promised their support and cooperation in the work of such an organization and have insisted upon prompt action,” Burke said. A meeting of leaders of the “Jeffersonian Democrats,” an organization established in 1936 to oppose President Roosevelt's reelection, was called for July 25 by James A. Reed, chairman, but the meeting was subsequently postponed.

Republican Hopes of Gaining Foothold in the South

Republican strategists plan a vigorous drive in the South in the hope of capitalizing on anti-third term sentiment among Democratic voters, on the hostility of southern business and industrial interests to the New Deal program, and on the resentment of many Democratic leaders toward the northern wing of the party for its failure to support Speaker Bankhead's candidacy for the vice presidential nomination.1 Willkie has announced that he will make “an extensive southern trip,” and has said that “I think I have an excellent chance to break into the South.”

In the Republican drive to break the Democratic hold on the South, much will be made of Willkie's membership in the Democratic party prior to 1936. Willkie-for-President clubs, Jeffersonian Democratic leagues, and other organizations supporting the Republican presidential ticket have already been formed in virtually all of the southern states. Willkie has let it be known that he is studying the feasibility of forming a third party in the South, to be known as the “Democratic Unity” party, to make it possible for dissident Democrats to vote for Republican presidential electors without losing their affiliation with the Democratic party. Formation of such a party hinges on the question whether state laws permit third party adherents to vote for Republican electors. It was announced early in August that a newly-organized Jeffersonian Democratic party in South Carolina would place on the ballot a ticket consisting of the regular Democratic nominees for congressional seats and presidential electors pledged to Willkie.2

Likelihood of Democratic Appeal for Liberal Votes

Defection of prominent conservative Democrats to the Republican standard apparently will be used by the Roosevelt administration as a basis for renewed appeals for the support of liberal Republican and independent voters. President Roosevelt has left no doubt that he will continue his efforts during the campaign to reconstruct the Democratic party along liberal lines, possibly through a revival of the “purge” tactics of 1938.

At a Hyde Park press conference, July 23, the President minimized the importance of the bolt of Senator Burke, James A. Reed, John W. Hanes, and Lewis W. Douglas to Willkie. With evident reference to Burke's defeat in the Nebraska primary election, he expressed the opinion that the Democratic party had bolted Burke, He characterized Hanes and Douglas as men whose slant of mind ran more to dollars than to humanity and stated that Reed's defection from the Democratic party in 1932 and 1936, and probably in 1928, made him well-qualified from experience.3

Revival of the 1938 purge, through open presidential intervention in Democratic primaries on behalf of congressional candidates pledged to support the New Deal, was for shadowed by President Roosevelt's statement, at a White House press conference on August 2, that he no longer considered Senator Johnson of California a liberal. A steadfast opponent of the administration's foreign policy, Johnson is seeking renomination in both the Republican and the Democratic primaries in California on August 27. His three opponents, none of whom has so far received New Deal endorsement, are likewise seeking the nomination of both parties, in the hope of winning both primaries and thus avoiding an election campaign.4 Commenting on the President's statement, August 3, Johnson said: “This is just the same old purge.” When he ran for reelection in 1934, Johnson received strong administration support.

Although Vice President Garner has remained silent since President Roosevelt's renomination at Chicago, and although efforts have reportedly been made to obtain his endorsement of Willkie, it is highly unlikely that Garner will announce his support of the Republican presidential ticket. Nor is it probable that Democratic members of Congress who opposed Roosevelt's third-term ambitions will openly repudiate the President—unless the administration should take the initiative against them. The Roosevelt-Wallace ticket has already been endorsed by Senator Wheeler of Montana, a candidate for reelection this year, by Senator Glass of Virginia, who made a last-ditch attempt to prevent Roosevelt's renomination at Chicago, and by Senator Adams of Colorado, a bitter foe of New Deal spending.

At present, a “sitdown strike” of anti-New Deal Democrats during the campaign appears to present a more serious threat to the party's chances of victory, especially in states where Republican and Democratic strength is fairly evenly divided, than an outright bolt of Democratic officeholders to the Republican camp. Senator Smith of South Carolina has indicated that he will not support Roosevelt's reelection, although “on account of the history of our state I can't vote for Willkie.” While endorsing the Democratic platform, Senator Van Nuys of Indiana declared, July 22, that “I am still opposed to a third term for anybody, and I doubt its acceptability to the American people.” Van Nuys, who like Senator Smith successfully fought administration efforts to defeat him in the 1938 primaries, said he had no thought of leaving the Democratic party, “for which I have fought for 40 years and from which they could not drive me three years ago.” He gave no indication, however, that he would campaign for the Roosevelt-Wallace ticket. In all likelihood, other anti-Roosevelt Democrats in Congress will record their opposition to the President's renomination by failing to give him active support in the campaign.

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Party Splits Since the Civil War

Bolt of Liberal Republicans in Campaign of 1872

Party splits have been a recurrent phenomenon in American politics. Abraham Lincoln owed his election in 1860 to a split in the Democratic party over the slavery issue. Splits of sizeable proportions took place in six of the 15 presidential contests between 1872, when the post-Civil War political situation became stabilized, and 1928.

Aroused by the corruption and incompetence of Grant's first administration, a number of eminent Republicans—including Charles Sumner, Carl Schurz, and Charles Francis Adams—bolted the regular Republican organization and formed the Liberal Republican party in 1872. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was nominated as its presidential candidate, on a platform which declared that Grant had used the powers of his office “for the promotion of personal ends” and had “kept corrupt and unworthy men in places of power and responsibility, to the detriment of the public interest.”

The national convention of the Democratic party later adopted the Liberal Republican platform without change and nominated Greeley as its own candidate on the first ballot. Thus it appeared that the Liberal Republicans had captured the Democratic party. Many Democrats, however, were dissatisfied both with the nominee, a veteran high protectionist, and with the platform. Their opposition found expression in a “Straight Democratic” convention, which nominated Charles O'Conor of New York. Although O'Conor refused to accept the nomination and made no campaign, he received 29,489 votes in the election. Greeley polled 44 per cent of the popular vote, but he carried only half a dozen southern and border states. He died a few days after the canvass. Grant was reelected by an overwhelming majority in the electoral college.

Bolt of Mugwumps to Cleveland in Election of 1884

The first post-Civil War campaign in which a party split appeared to influence the result of the election was the Elaine-Cleveland contest of 1884. Blaine had been a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1876 and again in 1880 and probably would have been nominated except for charges of corruption raised against him while serving as a member of Congress. By 1884, his supporters had become the majority faction within the party and he was nominated on the first ballot.

Although there had been warnings that the Republican party would lose the support of many of its members if Blaine were given the nomination, party leaders were unprepared for the extensive bolt that followed. Independent Republican committees were formed in Boston, New York, and other cities, and the Democrats were informed that they would have the support of the elements opposed to Blaine if they made nominations acceptable to the reformers. Grover Cleveland, New York's reform governor, was the candidate favored by the independent Republicans, and the expectation of their support was an important factor in winning him the Democratic nomination.

Cleveland's election was openly advocated by the Republican dissidents, who became known as Mugwumps. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, both of whom had fought Elaine's nomination in the convention, refused to join the movement, but the bolting group, under the leadership of Schurz, gained the adherence of many other party members of almost equal prominence. The Mugwumps insisted that they were still Republicans, that they were opposed only to Blaine, and that Cleveland was “better than his party.” In New York state, Roscoe Conkling, leader of the “Stalwart” faction of the party, refused to speak for Blaine, although he did not actually join forces with the Mugwumps. The situation was complicated by the open enmity of Tammany Hall for Cleveland. Blame's hope of winning Tammany support was blasted, however, by the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” incident to which he subsequently attributed his defeat. Many Tammany votes were given to minor party candidates.

The election was close, Cleveland polling 4,874,986 votes to Blaine's 4,851,981. Cleveland had a plurality in New York of only. 1,149 votes. Undivided Republican support of Blaine would have given him New York's electoral vote and would have cost Cleveland the election.

Obliteration of Party Lines in Campaign of 1896

Party lines were obliterated in many parts of the country during the McKinley-Bryan contest of 1896. “The campaign of 1896 marked a turning point in…American politics,” one observer has pointed out, “in that it developed into a violent class contest between great wealth and the lower middle and working classes of the country. The two major parties for the time being appeared on opposite sides of a horizontal line marking the class cleavage and at the same time on either side of a line that marked off the western agriculturists and labor groups from eastern creditors and capitalists.”5

The money question was the paramount issue of the campaign. Four years earlier, many voters had bolted both major parties to support the newly-organized Populist party, which was unreservedly committed to the free and unlimited coinage of silver, and the Populist candidate, James B. Weaver, had polled more than 1,000,000 votes in the election. Populist strength threatened to destroy Republican supremacy in the Far West and challenged Democratic supremacy in the lower South. As the 1896 campaign approached, it appeared that the Populists would take their place, not only in the West but in the country at large, as the chief rivals of the Republicans.

In the months preceding the Republican national convention of 1896, 10 Republican state conventions came out openly for free silver. Soon after the convention met, a free silver plank was offered by Senator Teller of Colorado, leader of the silver wing of the party, but the plank was rejected in favor of a platform declaration for bimetallism through international agreement. Thereupon 34 delegates, including Teller, three other senators, and two representatives, withdrew from the convention, subsequently organizing the National Silver party. Among the bolters was William E. Borah, who ran for the House of Representatives in 1896 on the Silver party ticket but was defeated.

In contrast to the Republican convention, in which McKinley had been nominated on the first ballot, the Democratic convention was not dominated by any one candidate. The contest over the platform resulted in a clear-cut victory of the silverites over Cleveland and the Gold Democrats of the East. A plank was adopted demanding “the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1.” Bryan's “Cross of Gold” speech, delivered in support of the platform, marked him as a promising leader of a free silver coalition. His nomination on the fifth ballot was due in part to a belief that he was the candidate most likely to win the support of the Silver Republicans and the Populists, since he had not been closely identified with the regular Democracy. This calculation proved to be correct, for Bryan was subsequently endorsed as the presidential candidate of both the Populists and the National Silver party.

Although 178 Democratic delegates had shown their distaste for the party's platform by refusing to vote for a presidential nominee, there had been no open secession from the Democratic convention. Shortly after the convention adjourned, however, the Gold Democrats bolted and established a new organization known as the National Democratic party. At a convention in Indianapolis they nominated John M. Palmer for the presidency. The bolting Democrats were supported by President Cleveland, but a number of influential Democratic newspapers gave their support to McKinley. The latter course apparently was followed also by most of the rank-and-file Democrats opposed to Bryan and free silver, for Palmer polled only 135,000 votes in the election. McKinley polled over 7,000,000 votes and gained an overwhelming victory in the East and Middle West. Bryan obtained more than 6,500,000 votes, winning the Solid South, some of the border states, and all of the western states except Oregon and California. Although Bryan carried one more state than McKinley, he trailed the Republican candidate by nearly 100 electoral votes.

At the height of the campaign of 1896, it appeared that a permanent party alignment on a conservative-liberal basis had at last been brought about. By 1900, however, rising prices had destroyed popular interest in the money question and imperialism had succeeded free silver as the dominant issue of the day. Some of the Democrats who had bolted the party in 1896 supported Bryan in 1900, and most of those who continued to repudiate his leadership returned to the fold in 1904, when the convention turned its back upon “Bryanism” and nominated a conservative, Alton B. Parker, on a platform which omitted all reference to the money question.

Progressive Republican Revolt Against Taft—1912

The presidential campaign of 1912 witnessed the greatest party split since the Civil War. The Progressive movement, which originated in the fight of Republican insurgents against “Cannonism” in the House and against the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill and various measures of the Taft administration in the Senate, divided the Republican party and aided the election of Woodrow Wilson.

Openly opposing renomination of President Taft, the insurgents formed the National Progressive Republican League in 1911, drafted a political program and selected Senator Robert M. La Follette as their leader and prospective presidential candidate in 1912, hoping by this means to gain control of the Republican party. La Follette's candidacy was announced in June, 1911, and was supposed to have the backing of Theodore Roosevelt, who had broken with Taft and had previously announced while President that “under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.” In February, 1912, however, in response to a petition of seven Republican governors, Roosevelt announced that he would accept the Republican nomination if it were offered to him. Republican progressives thereafter swung their support to Roosevelt, but La Follette refused to withdraw from the race, and his friends expressed bitter resentment toward the former President.

Roosevelt won the Republican presidential primaries in nine states, La Follette in two states (Wisconsin and North Dakota), and Taft in only one (Massachusetts). Roosevelt supporters regarded this showing as a clear indication of the sentiment of Republican voters and confidently expected Roosevelt's nomination by the Republican convention. When the Taft supporters, who controlled the convention machinery at Chicago, “steam rollered” a sufficient number of Roosevelt delegates to give Taft the nomination, the Roosevelt delegates bolted the convention and, at a meeting held at Orchestra Hall, adopted resolutions protesting the nomination of Taft as obtained by fraud and declaring Roosevelt the rightful nominee.

After awaiting the outcome of the Democratic convention at Baltimore, the Progressives issued a call for a national convention to meet at the Coliseum in Chicago early in August.6 Delegates from 40 states attended the Bull Moose convention, which nominated Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson, then governor of California, on a “hands across the country” ticket. The platform called for equal suffrage, the initiative and referendum, popular election of senators, direct primaries, recall of judicial decisions, income taxes, limitation and publicity of campaign funds, and strict regulation of the trusts.

In the election, Wilson carried 40 states, Roosevelt carried six (California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Washington), and Taft two (Utah, Vermont). Wilson obtained 41.8 per cent of the popular vote, Roosevelt 27.4 per cent, and Taft 23.2 per cent. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, polled more than 900,000 votes or six per cent of the total.

The Republicans and the Progressives together polled a clear majority of the popular votes, but as Arthur N. Holcombe points out, “it would be a mistake…to infer that Wilson would have been defeated if either Taft or Roosevelt had stayed out of the contest. If either had withdrawn, enough of his followers would have preferred Wilson to the other to have insured the success of the Democratic ticket. What the figures do show clearly is that the Progressive leaders had not succeeded in attracting any measurable support from Democratic voters. To the extent that their object had been to divide the Democratic party and draw a portion of it into their own combination, they had largely failed. Doubtless some progressive Democrats had joined the Progressive party…The changes, however, were generally small. On the whole the partisan alignment remained intact, as far as the Democrats were concerned.”7

Roosevelt's reconciliation with the conservative element of his party in 1916 marked the collapse of the Progressive movement as a separate entity. In 1920 the Republican party was substantially reunited, and its nominee received the largest proportion of the popular vote—60.5 per cent—ever cast for a Republican presidential candidate.

Failure of La Follette Third-Party Movement in 1924

After the conventions of both major parties had nominated conservative presidential candidates in 1924, the Conference for Progressive Political Action, meeting at Cleveland, nominated Senator La Follette as its candidate on an independent ticket, and La Follette chose Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D. Mont.) as his running mate. The Conference, established two years earlier, was dominated by the railroad brotherhoods and a few other large unions. Although the Conference had originally been organized as a means of launching an independent political movement along liberal lines, it was agreed that the question of forming a permanent third party should be left until after the election.

The La Follette-Wheeler ticket was subsequently endorsed by the Socialist and Farmer-Labor parties and by the American Federation of Labor, which temporarily abandoned its traditional “nonpartisan political policy.” The platform sought to “return the control of the government to the people,” calling for destruction of the “economic and political power of private monopoly,” legislative veto of court decisions, public ownership of the railroads, and abolition of labor injunctions.

For a time it was feared that La Follette's candidacy would result in throwing the election into the House of Representatives—a consideration which probably influenced many conservative Democrats to give their votes to Coolidge. In the election, John W. Davis, the Democratic candidate, polled only 29 per cent of the popular vote, while Coolidge obtained 54 per cent. La Follette received 4,800,000 votes—about 16 per cent of the total—but he carried only his own state of Wisconsin, running second in 11 others.

La Follette's candidacy made its appeal too exclusively to the states of the Northwest and the Pacific coast to permit interpretation of the result of the election as a mandate for establishment of a new liberal party. Disillusioned by his showing, trade union leaders turned their backs on permanent party organization, holding that “American wage-earners are not prepared for and do not approve the establishment of a separate political party.”

Bolt of Southern “Hoovercrats” in 1928 Campaign

Alfred E. Smith's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928 led to pre-convention threats from the South of formation of a new anti-Catholic, anti-Tammany, bone-dry party. At the same time, Republican farm groups in the West threatened to support the Democratic ticket or join in a third-party movement if the opposition of the Coolidge administration to the McNary-Haugen farm-relief bill were endorsed by the Republicans through the nomination of Herbert Hoover. Once Hoover had been nominated, however, western farm elements fell into line behind his candidacy. Senator Norris of Nebraska was the only outstanding Republican in public life who threw his support to the Democratic candidate.

After Smith's nomination by the Democratic convention at Houston, a number of southern Democrats who had opposed his candidacy made good their threats to bolt the ticket. Among these “Hoovercrats were Senator Simmons of North Carolina, who resigned from the Democratic National Committee in protest against Smith's nomination, Senator Heflin of Alabama, Senator Blease of South Carolina, and ex-Senator Owen of Oklahoma. Anti-Smith rallies were held in many parts of the South during the campaign and the Democratic candidate was hung in effigy by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. In Georgia and South Carolina, official returns were made of “Anti-Smith” as well as of Republican votes in the election.

Notwithstanding that only a relatively small number of southern Democratic leaders bolted the party, Hoover carried four of the ten states of the Solid South, becoming the first nominee of his party since Reconstruction to break the Democratic hold on that section. Hoover carried North Carolina by a plurality of almost 62,000 votes, Florida by about 42,000, Texas by 28,000 and Virginia by about 24,000. By substantially larger pluralities, except in the case of Tennessee, he carried all of the six border states.

The Republican victory in southern states was hailed in some quarters as an indication that the South had finally abandoned its political insularity and that a realignment of party loyalties might be expected in the near future. In 1930, however, the three leading Hoovercrats of the previous presidential campaign—Blease, Heflin, and Simmons—were defeated by the voters. Blease and Simmons failed to win renomination for the Senate, and Heflin, barred from the Democratic primary in Alabama, was defeated when he ran in the election as an independent. These developments suggested that Republican success two years earlier had been brought about by special causes and that the factors which originally produced political solidarity below the Mason and Dixon line still exercised a controlling influence. That Hoover's strength in the South was due less to the conversion of southern voters to Republicanism than to dislike of the religious faith and the wet views of the Democratic nominee became clear in 1932, when Hoover was unable to carry any of the southern or border states against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Republican and Democratic Bolts in 1932 and 1936

Democratic party lines held firm during the 1932 campaign. Alfred E. Smith, James A. Reed, and other party leaders who had opposed Roosevelt's nomination at the Chicago convention gave him their support during the campaign. Renomination of Hoover by the Republicans, however, precipitated a bolt of liberal members of that party to Roosevelt. Senator Norris took the lead in organizing the National Progressive League to support the election of the Democratic nominee, and his efforts were aided by Senators La Follette of Wisconsin, Cutting of New Mexico, and Johnson of California. A Republic an for-Roosevelt League was organized by Richard Washburn Child to enlist the support of those Republican voters who disagreed with Hoover's views on such issues as prohibition repeal and unemployment relief. Since Hoover polled some 5,600,000 fewer votes in the 1932 election than he had obtained four years earlier, it may be assumed that many rank-and-file voters followed the example of the liberal Republican leaders who bolted the party.

Democratic unity proved to be short-lived. The recovery and reform measures put forward by the Roosevelt administration met with little opposition from any quarter during the “hundred days,” but Alfred E. Smith's attack on the “baloney dollar,” a few months after the Roosevelt administration came into office, marked the outbreak of a strong offensive against the administration's economic policies, the attack receiving both leadership and support from conservative Democrats. The American Liberty League, formed in 1934 to organize resistance to New Deal measures, numbered many influential Democratic leaders among its members.

In January, 1936, Smith told a Washington audience that he and his followers would “take a walk” if the Democratic party renominated Roosevelt. Governor Talmadge of Georgia issued a call to “Jeffersonian Democrats” of the South to meet at Macon to repudiate the President's leadership. During the spring, Henry Breckinridge, Assistant Secretary of War during the Wilson administration, contested the Democratic presidential primaries against Roosevelt in Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, losing to the President by large majorities in all three states.

On the eve of the Democratic convention, five prominent members of the party—Smith, Reed, Joseph E. Ely, former governor of Massachusetts, Bainbridge Colby, Secretary of State in the Wilson cabinet, and Daniel F. Cohalan, former New York state supreme court justice—sent a message to the delegates urging them to “remain faithful to Democratic ideals and traditions” by repudiating the President and nominating a “genuine Democrat.” After the convention renominated Roosevelt, all five announced their support of Alfred M. Landon, the Republican candidate. Other Democrats who bolted their party to support Landon included John W. Davis, Democratic presidential candidate in 1924, Lewis W. Douglas, former Governor William H. Murray of Oklahoma, and William C. Bruce, former Senator from Maryland. An Independent-Democrats-for-Landon organization was established to promote support for the Republican candidate, and Landon rallies were held in various cities under the sponsorship of Jeffersonian Democratic groups.

In the meantime, liberal Republican leaders who had endorsed the New Deal program rallied to the support of the President. Mayor LaGuardia of New York, Senator Norris, and Senator La Follette set up the National Progressive Conference to aid Roosevelt's campaign for reelection, and a Progressive Republican Committee for Roosevelt was organized for the same purpose. The Democratic nominee was endorsed by Senator Couzens of Michigan, Senator Norbeck of South Dakota, former Governor John G. Winant of New Hampshire, former Senator Smith W. Brookhart of Iowa, and President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University. In Minnesota, Democratic candidates for Congress withdrew in favor of a slate nominated by the Farmer-Labor party, and in return the Farmer-Laborites, headed by Governor Olson and Senator Shipstead, pledged their allegiance to Roosevelt. Senator Frazier of North Dakota bolted the Republican party to support the third-party candidacy of Rep. William C. Lemke.

The elections results made it clear that the revolt within the Democratic party against the President's leadership found little support among rank-and-file Democratic voters. Roosevelt received the largest popular vote ever polled in the United States, increasing his 1932 total by more than 4,600,000 votes, and winning the electoral vote of all states except Maine and Vermont. The popular vote for the three principal parties was: Democratic, 27,476,673: Republican, 16,679,583; Union, 882,479.

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The Democratic Party and the New Deal

Roosevelt's Early Hopes for Political Realignment

Conversion of the Democratic party into a party of liberalism, through absorption of the independent liberal vote and of the liberal elements of the Republican party, has been a consistent aim of President Roosevelt ever since he became the Democratic presidential candidate in 1932. In his speech accepting his first nomination, July 2, 1932, he said:

Here and now I invite those nominal Republicans who find that their conscience cannot be squared with the groping and the failure of their party leaders to join hands with us; here and now, in equal measure, I warn those nominal Democrats who squint at the future with their faces turned toward the past, and who feel no responsibility to the demands of the new time, that they are out of step with their party.

After he assumed office, Roosevelt gave point to these remarks by naming two progressive Republicans—Henry A. Wallace and Harold L. Ickes—to his cabinet. From the outset, members of the New Deal inner circle looked forward to the day when the conservative elements could be ousted from control of the Democratic party. In the autumn of 1933, Raymond Moley, then editor of Today and a leading member of the President's “brain trust,” predicted a breakdown of traditional party lines and the establishment of both of the old parties on a new basis. He urged liberal Republicans to join the Democratic party, leaving conservative Democrats to rally around a “reformed and reconstructed” Republican party.8

The legislative program put forward by the President during his first administration “did not reflect the point of view of the [Democratic] party's leaders,” Stanley High has pointed out. “It reflected the point of view of Franklin D. Roosevelt and of a strange circle of counselors, who, whatever else they were, were certainly not acceptable Democrats. The party leaders complained that they were called in only when it was necessary to have their signatures at the bottom of the page to make the documents legal.…The President scrupulously observed the political amenities of the party. But he persistently did violence to what had been its political and economic position.”

In spite of the fundamental cleavages within the party, and in spite of the defection of a number of individual Democratic personages, unity was largely preserved during the 1936 presidential campaign. “The old-line Democrats went along with the President and the New Deal because they bore a Democratic label The liberals went along with the Democratic party because it bore a New Deal label. Neither was particularly happy in the company of the other.…For election purposes, since they both wanted to win, they managed to get along together. The product of their union was the 1936 landslide.”9

The most remarkable fact about the Roosevelt administration [High continued] is the incompatibility of the forces that have supported it.…[In 1936] Mr. Roosevelt kept the Solid South intact and, at the same time, wooed and won the Negro voters of the North, He got his largest campaign contributions from the left-wing labor unions and other substantial sums from those southern industrial areas which are most bitterly anti-union.…The city bosses of the East have gone down the line for him with as great a show of enthusiasm as the in bossed farmers of the Middle West. In short, he has been supported by a political monstrosity which was as overpowering while it lasted as it was certain not to last, Mr. Roosevelt… undoubtedly knew that with such a following a break-up was inevitable.

Conservative Revolt Against the New Deal in 1937

Averted in 1936, the revolt of the conservative wing of the Democratic party against the New Deal broke out in 1937, centering around the President's proposal for reorganization of the Supreme Court. In High's opinion, Roosevelt realized long before the 1936 election “that sooner or later to guarantee the permanence of his program he would have to undertake a major job of political reshuffling. But it was not a part of his plan to hurry about it. His hand was forced, however, by the unexpected opposition on the Supreme Court issue and by the series of more or less second-rate but none-the-less symptomatic uprisings that followed in its wake,” The Court fight was politically significant “because it dramatized the President's objective, and also because it was the first issue on which a shown-down with the President was even partially successful.”

Analyzing the political situation as it stood in 1937, High said:

All the evidence indicates that the stage is set for a political realignment. I believe that the stage was set deliberately and not by chance. The President is too adept at the business of politics to be unaware of the consequences to the party of the course he has pursued.

He is convinced that the two-party system is meaningless unless there is some fundamental difference in the philosophy and the aims of the two parties. He does not believe that the Republican party will ever be anything other than the conservative party. He knows that policies of the sort incorporated in the First and Second New Deal will not be safe for long if their future is left to the mercy of a Democratic party with the pre-Roosevelt leadership and the pre-Roosevelt point of view. I am sure that he does not propose to leave them there.

In High's opinion, “Roosevelt has concluded that—however usefully they once may have served him—he no longer needs the party's conservatives. I think he believes that, in 1938, the country will indicate that it does not need them any longer either. If he is right about that, then the Democratic party will be in for an overhauling the like of which no party has ever undergone.”10

Failure of Administration Purge in 1938 Elections

In the face of an open revolt in Congress against his leadership and his program, President Roosevelt undertook an active campaign in 1938 to purge the Democratic party of its anti-New Deal elements. At the same time, he renewed his efforts to win the support of liberal-minded voters, regardless of party affiliation. In his Jackson Day speech, January 8, 1938, he deprecated unthinking adherence to party lines, recalling that “in 1904, when I cast my first vote for a President, I voted for the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, because I thought he was a better Democrat than the Democratic candidate.” Commenting on the coming election, September 2,1938, the President said: “If there is a good liberal running on the Republican ticket I would not have the slightest objection to his election. The good of the country rises above party.”

The administration employed its influence in the 1938 Democratic primaries on behalf of “100 per cent New Dealers,” and the President openly opposed the renomination of members of the Senate and the House who had refused to support his policies. In a speech at Barnesville, Georgia, August 11, he referred to the primary contest between Senator George and United States Attorney Camp as presenting a “clear cut issue between a liberal on the one side and a dyed-in-the-wool conservative on the other.” Making it clear that he regarded George as one of those who had merely given lip-service to administration objectives, he declared that “if I were able to vote in the September primaries in this state, I most assuredly would cast my vote for Lawrence Camp.”

At a press conference, August 16, the President endorsed the candidacies of Rep. Lewis for the seat of Senator Tydings of Maryland and of James H. Fay for the House seat of Rep. O'Connor of New York. Both Tydings and O'Connor, Roosevelt said, “after giving the New Deal lip-service in 1936, turned around and knifed it in Congress.” O'Connor, chairman of the House Rules Committee, was denounced as “one of the most effective obstructionists in the lower house,” who had labored constantly to “tear down New Deal strength and pickle New Deal legislation.”

The attempted purge failed. Although Fay defeated O'Connor in the Democratic primary and in the election, in which the latter ran as a Republican, al] of the five Democratic senators opposed by the administration—George, Tydings, Smith, Gillette, and Van Nuys—were renominated and re-elected. At the same time, Senators McAdoo of California and Pope of Idaho, both of whom had received the administration's endorsement, were defeated in the Democratic primaries.

Reestablishment of President's Leadership in 1939

Notwithstanding the setback in the 1933 elections, the President gave notice, in his Jackson Day speech on January 7, 1939, that the fight to reconstruct the Democratic party would be continued.

The first effect of the gains made by the Republican party in the recent elections [the President said] should be to restore to it the open allegiance of those who entered our primaries and party councils with deliberate intent to destroy our party's unity and effectiveness. The second effect of these gains should be to bring us real Democrats together and to line up with us those from other parties, those who belong to no party at all, who also preach the liberal gospel, so that, firmly allied, we may continue a common constructive service to the people of the country.

The President declared also that: “If there are nominal Democrats who as a matter of principle are convinced that our party should be a conservative party—a Democratic Tweedledum to a Republican Tweedledee—it is on the whole better that the issue be drawn within the party, that the fight be fought out, and that if the Tweedledums are defeated they join the Tweedledees.”

In a message to the Pittsburgh convention of the Young Democrats of America, August 10, 1939, Roosevelt returned to his theme. He asserted that “Republican and Democratic reactionaries want to undo what we have accomplished in these last few years and return to the unrestricted individualism of the previous century.”

The Democratic party will fail if it goes conservative next year [the President added], or if it is led by people who can offer naught but fine phrases. … The Democratic party will not survive as an effective force in the nation if the voters nave to choose between a Republican Tweedledum and a Democratic Tweedledummer. If we nominate conservative candidates, or lip-service candidates, on a straddlebug platform, I personally, for my own self-respect and because of my long service to, and belief in, liberal democracy, will find it impossible to have any active part in such an unfortunate suicide of the old Democratic party.

Subsequent events made it unnecessary for the President to carry out his implied threat to bolt the Democratic party if it should come under conservative domination in 1940. Outbreak of the European war, which made strong executive leadership necessary in the field of foreign affairs, served to reestablish the prestige of the President within the party and thus to set the stage for his renomination for a third term.

Obstacles to Reconstruction of Democratic Party

President Roosevelt's attempt to convert the Democratic party permanently to liberalism faces obstacles which similarly minded political leaders have found insuperable in the past. In the American political system, parties are groups representing combinations of sectional interests. Successful political realignment cannot be brought about except by subordinating sectional interests to national issues which cut across sectional lines. Commenting on Woodrow Wilson's efforts, after his election in 1912, to induce voters in the Northeast and the West to break away from the Republican party, Arthur N. Holcombe observes:

Citizens do not change their party merely out of regard for a particular leader. They distinguish between the leader and the party. The former may be a man in whom they delight to trust. The latter is not merely a body of men. In national politics it is above all a combination of sectional interests, and partisan realignments do not come about unless something happens to cause the dominant interests in an influential section of the country to desire a different combination from that to which they have been accustomed. Changes in the sectional combinations which constitute the major parties are not easily brought about and cannot be brought about at all by indiscriminate, even though skillful, appeals to all sections alike. There must be a direct clash of sectional interests to produce a realignment of parties in American politics, and such a contest Wilson had studiously avoided. A grateful people gave him a splendid tribute of devotion, but the claims of his party were resolutely ignored by all who were not originally Democrats.11

It is true that the Democratic party is essentially a national party, whereas the Republican party, because of its traditional stand on the Negro question, has always been a sectional party. It is likewise true, however, that the South, the basis of the Democratic party's support, is dominated by the very elements most strongly opposed to the party's conversion to liberalism. Except in the event of a change in the traditional southern attitude toward economic issues, permanent control of the Democratic party by its liberal wing would lead to the ultimate breakup of the Solid South, thus reducing the party's strength in national elections.

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[1] The vote in the convention for the leading vice presidential candidates was: Wallace, 628; Bankhead, 329; Paul V. McNutt, 67. Of the 16 southern and border states, only two—Arkansas and Oklahoma—cast solid votes for Wallace, while six—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—voted solidly for Bankhead.

[2] Under South Carolina election laws, persons who vote in the Democratic primary are required to support the nominees of their party in the general election, except in the case of candidates for national office. Since, however, names of presidential electors appear on the same ballots as nominees for congressional seats, and since the law requires all persons to vote a straight ticket the voter has hitherto been compelled to choose between the complete Democratic slate and the complete Republican slate of candidates.

[3] Reed said, however, that he had campaigned for Alfred E. Smith in 1828 and for Roosevelt in 1932. He made public a letter from Roosevelt thanking him for his aid in the 1932 campaign. “I separated from Mr. Roosevelt when he repudiated the principles of the platform of 1932 upon which he was elected.”

[4] Former Rep. O'Connor, defeated in the 1938 purge, has announced that he will enter both the Republican and the Democratic primaries in New York this year in an effort to regain his seat in the House.

[5] Harold R. Bruce, American Parties and. Politics (1927), pp. 98–99.

[6] The Progressives had believed Champ Clark would be nominated by he Democrats and that this would lead to a bolt by the Bryan faction. It was felt that if Bryan could be induced to support Roosevelt, the latter would have Better than an even chance of winning the election. This hope was frustrated by the nomination of Wilson, with Bryan's support.

[7] The Political Parties of Today (1924), pp. 275–276.

[8] Today, November 11, 1933, p. 13, and April 14, 1934, p. 12.

[9] Stanley High, Roosevelt—And Then? (1937), p. 247, p. 251, and pp. 257–258.

[10] High, op. cit., pp. 267–271 and p. 274.

[11] Holcombe, op. cit., p. 296.

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Document APA Citation
Putney, B. (1940). Political realignments. Editorial research reports 1940 (Vol. II). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1940082200
Document ID: cqresrre1940082200
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1940082200
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